Spent the last few days riding in tight formation behind Clem and Jelena (Saj’s bike, and twit-twoo she’s pretty fine, like literally fine as in thin – skinny racing tyres and streamlined alu body; Clem and Arthur’s steel frames and fatty (Schwalbe Marathon +, if ya wanna know) tyres certainly lookin’ a lil clunky in comparison). Whizzed through fruit trees of all varieties; apricot, apple, peach. Yum! As we were nearing Vienna, Fisherman Saj spotted a guy hauling a big ole pike out the water. He was laughing, obviously had had a few steins of beer in the yacht klub, because this lucky catch had been his first cast of the day he said. Ooh! Saj’s eyes light up – maybe we should have a go too! But hush hush, the guy motioned, no fishing allowed here… Joel being keen too, I gave my nod of approval for half an hour’s fishing in the rain. The light was fading, and the rain relentless, but hey-ho. They cast and cast but nothing bit, and in the end conceded; we’d better get a shimmy on it’s getting late, but that’s ok; lights on; we’ll be in Vienna before we know it, it can’t be, what, 10k? Maybe 12? On we rode, slightly disconcerted at the lack of city lights downstream, peddling hard, still in slick formation – although I was tiring and finding it hard to keep the pace. We turned away from the river and rode through forest, getting a little sketchy with only my feeble headtorch to guide me. Joel’s was powerful so he rode first, then Saj, then me. We crossed the river and hoped that the city lights lay beyond the next meander. The rain didn’t let up, and we wound our way through the forest by the water’s edge. That’s 12km done and no sign of a capital city through the darkness – oh dear. We zoom across the bridge of a tributary, the wood’s slippery and dark and you gotta concentrate hard! Next thing I know, Saj’s back wheel goes skidding out behind him and horizontal, he skids across to the left of the bridge, and for a millisecond he and I thought he was going straight under the railing! Shaken, we agreed to slow down a touch. There was talk of stopping and pitching the tents, but I wanted to push on so we could relax the next day. We passed through a small town and thought we’d hit the outskirts, but soon came out the other side. Finally we rounded a corner onto the raised path by the river, and could see the glow of the city in the distance. We picked up the pace again and did our bestest to avoid all the sluggies and froggies out enjoying the wetness, but alas, a few got squished. Sorry guys! Looking left into the wood, there was just enough light to make out a herd of deer in a clearing. We were all really getting hungry now, and I was feeling seriously weak. We knew we still had the hard task of locating the campsite once we arrived, so decided we should find some fast food, fast, first. After this dramatic journey, the lights and graffitied bridges were extremely surreal when we finally arrived; it felt like some strange computer game. We wolfed down a falafel (from a little Israeli shop, where the woman tried to charge us €8 for a pot of houmous and a bag of crisps! Tsk!) and stood soaking and shivering, staring incredulously at Vienna’s party people, glammed up for a Friday night on the town. A kind young gent, noticed our bemusement, and came to our rescue; finding the campsite on the internet on his phone. Back over graffiti bridge and cross the island, the campsite is nestled into the armpit of a motorway junction. Fairly simple instructions, but could we find it?! Joel by which point was getting pretty annoyed, probably not helped by mine and Saj’s delusional silliness! Eventually someone pointed us, yes, directly under the motorway, and lo-and-behold – the campsite – closed! Not to worry, the security guard didn’t blink as we rolled past him and through the pedestrian gate. Oh well, at least it’s pretty spacious… Oh hold on, this is the camping car section, keep going… Yep here we go, the tents are all rammed into a tiny corner at the end; so close we feel like we’re at a festival. Only difference being the booming music is replaced by booming traffic noise. Not that I noticed, of course, once Aggy was up and I was showered, I was out.like.a.light…
150km in the rain- Phew!
The next day was bright and sunny, and we enjoyed riding around the city unladen, having left our bags in the tents. We had planned to go to see the city and get cracking again in the afternoon, but we had far too much fun and needed the break, so decided to stay another night. We saw some Klimt, and Egon Shild at the Leopold Museum, but unfortunately got in far too late to check out the photography expo downstairs. Argh- you just never have enough time on a cycle tour! Too much bloomin’ cycling to get done! Met a girl with Ozora wristbands on, working in the museum cafe, and got excited about being so close now, and a week off riding! -Wow!
Looking at the map, we realised we still had a good 400km -ish to go, to the festival (in Hungary, a couple of hundred kms south of Budapest), Saj had made plans to meet his friend who’d been away for a year travelling, and so he decided to take the train. Joel and I were a little lost, we’d been having such a good time with Sadrra, it felt a little odd to be splitting ways before the festival; we wanted to arrive together. It’d be a hard slog to ride, so after much umming and ahhing, and will we be cheating?-ing, we agreed to get the train with Sadrra to the town nearby, and ride the last bit.
What a challenge the train ride was too! Easy enough from Vienna, swanky Austrian trains. Then suddenly it stops and we’re plonked on the platform of another world. Run out of languages to speak, and faced with a currency we can’t quite grasp, we struggle to buy tickets and then befriend a boy, Zoltan, on a bench, who I extract some Hungarian from; to put together a little phrase book, in exchange for popping candy and gingerbread cakes. He’s going to the same place so we mime to him that we’ll follow him. He’s seemingly very happy with the arrangement. After a while learning the basics, Zoltan wanders off to ask someone a question in the ticket booth. He comes zooming back, motioning to us that we should be elsewhere. 5 minutes! Go! We leap into action and the boys (sorry to say I’m useless at this) lug the bikes down the stairs, under the line and up onto the correct platform (Elevator? No chance! Saj says; this is eastern Europe now!). We caught the train, thankfully, and in an hour or so were dumped on another platform, the officials very grumpy and short-tempered with us and our laden bikes. They shoved us onto the next train, where the biciclettas had to stand on their hind wheels to be jammed on, and bungee’ed in place. All a-fluster, we moved into the compartment and took our place. The conductor and some other men at the front were laughing and joking by the bikes. We realised a few days later that this is when our camera disappeared. After the next change, some bungees went missing, must have been dropped. Saj had to use some string to tie his bags on the back of Jelena; making getting going a bit more of a hassle.
The next time we got off the train, it was fully dark, and there was one chap at the station, who we attempted to glean directions from. Was it our weariness, or did everyone seem a bit unhappy, even angry? This guy, however, turned out to be very helpful, unlike his counterparts at previous stations; and wouldn’t let his lack of English get in the way of helping us. He did something that has since happened so many times, I can’t count; he pulled out his phone and called his English-speaking daughter, who spoke to Joel and translated the directions to Ozora, less than 15km away – oh thank you!
We locked Clem, Arthur and Jelena in some trees and spent a relaxing week in the company of friends from home, and plenty of new ones too; laughing, talking, eating, drinking and dancing in the sunshine. Ahhh, just what the doctor ordered!
It was with a hint of a tint of sadness that we departed a week later, knowing that this display of western hedonism, or even just leisure-time, would seem other-worldly a few weeks down the line… (she types, from an Iranian hotel room – traffic thundering past, women clutching their black chadors (lit. tents) round them, up the street a 7km² bazaar!)
Ooh but it was nice to get the wind in our hair again! We left the festival and headed for the Danube, sad to have missed Budapest and her spas just upstream.
So, hello Eastern Europe! What have you got to offer? -we wondered. Just as we found the river, so too did a storm find us. We cut short our lunch, and popped our heads into the canoe club, a great place for finding similarly minded souls. We motioned to the sky and asked if we could pitch our tent in their field. They said yes, but it was all quite hectic with people coming and going and noone really knew the answer, then the boss returns from his work-out, shirt off and pretty beefily-built; by this time the skies have cleared slightly and we’re considering keeping going. He draws us a map and we’re on our way. We find a run down old campsite; full of tall trees and fire-spots, pretty empty for high-season, so we pitch up and make a fire, on which we cook breaded salmon and potatoes from the local spar. Homely comfort food, for this barren place.
The next morning it took us hours to get on the right track, after following the river downstream led us to a dead end at a power plant. People today are more helpful and smiley, and one man gave us his map of the area, when he saw the scale of the one we were working from. Eventually, after what felt like hours of riding along unsignposted dirt-tracks to nowhere, we found the bridge across to the other side (which we found that yes, luckily we could cross on bikes, contrary to a popular misconception) and at long last: Eurovelo 6! Hallelujah! Relieved to be back on the bike path, we sit back and admire the scenery, little goatys and big mosquitoes (lurking in the forest where I went for a wee) -oh yes, and a particularly spectacular house with a tree growing through it’s roof.
Soon enough we came to the Serbian border, which we crossed excitedly – Joel asking, definitely more than once, “Which country are we in again?”. We took advantage of our strong-ish pound, and soaked up the Serbo-atmosphere over a pizza; so cheap! Later a sign pointed us down a tiny little rocky lane to a camping spot supposedly 500m away, we followed it all the way to the end, bumpity-bump and no formal campground appeared, I asked a group of jolly chaps enjoying a meal of mostly meat and a drink or two in their garden and they pointed us in the direction of the red cross camp. Hmm, we’ve just come back on ourselves — we rode back round on the road to where the lane began and tried again. The sign definitely had a picture of a tent pointing this way! We pitched up by a canal, not far from the road, and Joely set about catching some fish with his new rod. Free camping is actively encouraged by the locals, so we weren’t too worried about being seen. The moon was waxing and beautifully bright.
We arrived in a small town the next morning, where we bought a new camera. Poor Joely got quite upset at being in the town, running the many errands we had to run; so we found a little shady park and ate some food (normally the cure to any of either of our woes) and he had a little sleep while I played with the new camera. All refreshed, as predicted, we set off for Novi Sad, and a beautiful ride it was too. Lots of folk selling juicy piles of fruit by the side of the road, mmmm, those peaches! Sluuuurp!
We rode hard and just when we thought we could no longer take the heat, so materialises an olympic swimming pool and in we jump! Joel’s like a fish; gets all sad when there’s no water about. Used to compete for Thornbury. I’m a bit scared of water and only like to have a quick dip to cool off, much happier on the earth. Anyway, the pool catered to both of our needs, and the happy chappies running the show there refused to let us pay: “This is Serbia” they chimed. And don’t we just know it!
We arrived late to Novi Sad, which turned out to be a big city. We found an hotel, pretty cheap and luxurious. Only a year old! So we enjoyed some home comforts. And then a buffet breakfast, with a watermelon carved like a rose. There was only one other table occupied so I asked the sweet waiter if they did that every day no matter how many guests. Of course, he said. Beautiful, but how wasteful, I thought; all that time and energy. Joel ensured me that they wouldn’t waste the melon and would use it the next day. I trust his chef-y knowledge.
Next stop, a Serbian beauty salon. They’re not hard to come by and the girlies were all very sweet and professional. One asked my Facebook ID so I can help her with her English, she might come to England some day. I told them their waxing was much less painful than the Brits’ – they were, of course, delighted.
The next day we made it to the outskirts of Belgrade, to a campsite. We’d met a Slovakian father and son, riding to Istanbul, clocking 200km a day on rickety racers, and old panniers. They took our photo. We asked the man at the campsite if they’d arrived, which they had, but turned away through lack of funds; it was a particularly pricey one. We washed all of our clothes by hand the next morning, and I had a chat to my grandma on skype. We ordered a coffee and it came Turkish-style with the grinds in the bottom. Oh-so-exciting, feeling the culture changing gradually.
A couple of days later, alongside the Danube, we rode through the spectacular Iron Gates, where the river cuts through the cliffs at it’s narrowest part. We found a lovely campsite a few kms after, with little cabins for rent; for not much more than a tent, and had a lovely evening admiring the view, me doing my yoga practice on the shore, Joel enjoying his book. We met a sweet father and daughter, the latter of whom spoke flawless English, and later bade us goodbye according to local custom; throwing water after us as we departed, for luck.
Later, at Kladovo, after some dramatic riding around and up the cliffs, where the river marks the Romanian border, we stopped in a park and considered pitching Agnes there. I was just about to shoot off to check out the hotel options, when a guy rocked up, fresh out of the water after a swim. His name was Jasmin, he said. He spoke good English, and told us a little about himself. He was a lawyer, and knew of some unsavoury activities that happened occasionally in the park, he said. Why don’t you let me drive you to a motel of my friend and if you don’t like it you come back and stay here. Joel was tired, so I volunteered to go with Jasmin in his car, to assess the situation. I felt safe with him. He told me about his swimming, he loves to swim in the ocean; once he swam 100km off the coast of Crete, where his sister lives. He finds it like meditation, he says. He’s a very calm and softly spoken sort. We arrive at the guest house, and there’s noone about initially. It’s an out-dated eerily empty place, and when the guy comes he’s in his 60’s i’d say. He’s wearing an old vest that shows a big scar over his heart and he carries a child, perhaps a 2 year old. The hotel, although creepy, is fine and I accept. Jasmin drives me back to Joel, telling me how amazing he thinks I am, a woman, for undertaking such an adventure. His incredulousness makes me wonder if my picture of highly manicured, polished Serbian women might be an accurate one. We get back to Joel and agree to meet Jasmin later for dinner. J and I head to the hotel to have a rest; once I finally remembered how to get there!
Jasmin picked us up, dressed in crisp white shirt and trousers, and took us to eat some fish. We shared a bottle of wine and had fascinating chat about communism and Tito. Jasmin was greatly in favour, telling us that Tito was a great, great man. An interesting contrast to another guy, perhaps less well-off, who we’d met a few days prior, who felt very bitterly about the whole affair. We were entertained by an old musician on the next table, that Jasmin knew, who, having left his accordion at home, happily mimed playing it, singing the tune. He drank too much, though and soon became an annoyance to the others; impressed as he was by this English girl. He gave me a book of stories from the mountains of Montenegro, just that day given to him by his friend, the author and signed. This would have been fascinating for me, were it not written in Serbian. He wouldn’t take no for an answer, and I didn’t want to be rude, so I graciously accepted. Later I left it in the hotel, hoping it might find a delighted new owner.
Jasmin was very kind, and showed us true Serbian hospitality, wouldn’t let us pay a dime, two nights running! Very courteous man, we hope to meet him again sometime.
We rode one more day to get into Bulgaria, and then took a couple of trains to get to Istanbul. This move was necessary, if a little sad, because our Iranian visa runs out in a month, and we want to see Turkey beforehand.
Getting the modern-day Orient express was a reet palaver; our previous train delayed, we rushed onto it without enough cash to pay for ticket, bike and sleeping car reservation, as did our French cabin-mates, who were travelling on Interrail and hadn’t expected to pay more for the sleeper (there was nothing else available, the non-sleeper cars stopped at the border), and plenty of other tourists didn’t have enough of the correct currency to get their visas, there was no ATM to get Turkish lira, so you had to have sterling, dollars or euros. We all mucked in and helped each other with whatever currencies we did have, it was great; real camaraderie!
Felt pretty special, though, arriving in Turkey – last week of Ramadan – the moon and star flag and beyond it the waning crescent moon.
From the station in Bulgaria, I’d sent out a last minute email request to a few hosts on warmshowers.org in Istanbul. I gave my phone number, and in the morning, before our arrival; lo and behold, we had a reply; Emre was willing to host us. He’d be home from work at 6 and we could meet him there.