Age of Aquarius

The Danube is the second longest river in Europe (after the Volga) at 2827 km. We have had the pleasure (mostly) of riding 60 km of it in Austria, 150 km in Slovakia, 280 km in Hungary, 140 km in Croatia, 380 km in Serbia, and 450 km in Romania. During that time the local name of the river has changed from Donau, then to Dunaj, then to Duna, then to Dunav, and finally to Dunarea. We have also passed through five European capitals (Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest, Belgrade, and Bucharest).

Pedalling along can be hypnotizing and recently, since the traffic has been light, I find myself daydreaming about the towns that whiz by. Each of them is like a carbon copy of the last in rural Romania but I feel that the number of people in any given town which venture even 10 km in either direction is small. This lead to me wondering about how these locals view the mighty river to the south. Here the river is wide and lazy, very lake-like in its still appearance. There isn’t any indication of the many faces we have seen of this waterway since the start of our journey.

The first of many crossings leaving Vienna.

Leaving Vienna, with our first of 14 crossings of the river so far, and through much of Slovakia the river has artificial banks and is monotonously straight. In Slovakia a huge reservoir is formed downstream of Bratislava before a hydroelectric dam which meets 8% of the country’s power needs. At other times, like in Budapest, the river is the focal point with beautiful buildings and bridges pressed together and Buda hill overlooking the whole scene. At still other points, the river is integral to heavy industry like the steel mills (currently shut-down) in Smederevo or the huge smelting operation in Dunaujvaros. Finally, the Danube gorge. Its sheer cliffs plunge straight down into the water and serve as an intimidating international border as the river winds its way toward two more hydroelectric dams. The gorge may have been even more impressive before the installation of the dams since the reservoir caused a 35 m rise in the river height nearby.

Budapest with the Chain Bridge and Cathedral.

But in small-town Romania the face of the river is as regular and unobtrusive as the endless fields which border it. I started to wonder if the local people ever gave the Danube a second thought or knew what lay beyond the sunset. However, when I realized the enormity of my own ignorance I was knocked off of my high horse. We have seen just half of the river and only from one bank at a time. We neither started at its origin in the Black Forest, nor will we continue to the delta where it empties into the Black Sea. There is always more to see and always more to learn.

Shamelessly stolen picture of the Danube delta we will never reach.

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Romania or Saskatchewan?

If I were to imagine what the Saskatchewan might have been like 100 years ago I think it would be similar to a lot of the countryside Greg and I have biked through in the last week. Entering Romania has been a bit like stepping back in time – though we are currently in Bucharest where this is not the case. This city is very lively and reminds me quite a bit of Paris (it is sometimes nicknamed “Little Paris”) but with a visible socialist past. i.e.: the ever present concrete apartment blocks.

Socialist era – block apartment buildings

Greg and I arrived in Romania having just spent two absolutely amazing biking days  through Serbia so at the beginning we were a little underwhelmed by the bad traffic heading into Drobeta Turnu-Severin. The city itself turned out to be quite beautiful though and we enjoyed a lovely hotel at a good price (thanks to Greg’s negotiating!) and a surprise water tower visit at night time which was a delight.

View from the top of the water tower in Drobeta Turnu-Severin

From there on things got a bit less pretty shall we say. We spent the next few days riding in strong winds (and full on rain on day 2) through towns that seemed almost deserted at first. At one point we went to stop for some food and a local said to us “not a good idea” and shook his head… Not very comforting to us. Things slowly got a bit better and during the weekend we were met by many children standing in the middle of the road waiting for high fives and lots of hellos from the locals. Greg and I found this funny because apparently most people thought we were Spanish. We got a huge amount of Holas, quite a few hellos, the occasional opa! and one Vive la France which was particularly amusing. We still felt a bit uneasy in the places we free camped but we survived. Hopefully as we start free camping more often (likely in Bulgaria and Turkey) I will get less uneasy about it.

So the reason I say Romania reminds me of Saskatchewan is mainly because it has been incredibly flat but also because what we have traveled through has been mainly rural and there is a lot of farming. There are about as many horse drawn wagons as there are cars on the roads. At one point we saw a cart full of a huge amount of hay with two young men sitting on top of the hay.

Typical Romanian Traffic and Scenery

The wagon was being pulled by two small donkeys but the best part was that one of the guys on top was full out having a conversation on his cell phone at the same time. A bit of a contrast in technology:) Unfortunately I didn’t capture it on camera.

One of my favourite moments of the travel through Romania (though Greg will not agree and  I hope he laughs about it later) was when he got a flat tire just outside of one of the towns where we had planned on having lunch. We stopped to fix it and a few minutes passed before an old man came to “help” and make sure Greg was fixing the tire properly. He was quite pushy and the result of him helping was that our new tire got ripped and pinched in several places. Luckily we had one more spare which we took out just as a group of 6 Romanian cyclist we had met the day before rode by.

How many people does it take to change a flat tire!

Now we have 9 people stopped at the side of the road all trying to help fix the tire and insist on patching the other once which after 2 patches is determined to be completely useless. Greg of course knew this before but couldn’t communicate it to them as they were so insistent on being helpful! In the end the crowd abated as the other bike crew still had 140km to go in the day. Either way, as someone watching from the sidelines it was pretty entertaining.

We finally made it to Bucharest having taken a bus from Giurgiu as we were quite ready for a break. I was pretty nervous about putting our bikes in the bus but turns out they were completely fine thanks to ok pavement and a short ride. We were dropped of somewhere on the side of the road and Greg and I looked at each and laughed as we realized we had absolutely no idea where we were or how to get to our couch surfers since we hadn’t written it down. Thanks to the trusty GPS though we found the nearest MacDonalds and took advantage of their free WiFi!

We are staying with Adrian (Adi) and Alina and their two children Justin and Edwin. They are really easy going and it has been great to be able to relax, use their computer which actually works without Greg or I wanting to throw it across the room (we have had some frustrations with our tablet..) and sleep in. We have also enjoyed some homemade palinka (plum brandy), shared two great meals with them and had a chance to do some bike cleaning/maintenance.

Today we visited the Palatial Parliament which boast to be the 2nd largest building in the world and the heaviest building ever built. It is pretty impressive and very huge.

The biggest traffic circle in the center of town with the Parliment in the background. It is still about a 20 minute walk away which shows how big the building really is..

Tomorrow we are off to Ruse in Bulgaria and we are looking forward to starting fresh in a new country.

Romania

Facts:

Romania has the seventh largest population of the European Union with over 19 million inhabitants. It is bordered by the Danube in the south which empties into the Black Sea on the eastern border. Romania also has an independent currency, the Romanian leu. The capital is Bucharest (population 2 million) and the country has existed in its present form since 1918 when it united with Transylvania.

Route

Mostly Eurovelo 6 as described in the Bikeline guide. We chose to stay on the 56A outside of Drobeta-Turnu Severin to avoid some unpaved road. It was quiet and well-paved; our best shortcut yet. The route then stays on sometimes very poorly paved roads too far north of the river to see it very often. We crossed into Bulgaria at Giurgiu instead of riding the entire river route. From Giurgiu we took a bus (with our bikes) to Bucharest but we cycled back to Giurgiu for our border crossing on the E70. It is a separated highway with a large shoulder once you are a few kilometers out of the city so the somewhat heavy traffic wasn’t a problem.

Impressions:

We started and ended Romania in cities (Drobeta-Turnu Severin and Bucharest) but the area in between was mostly yellow fields and the same town repeated ad nauseum. This is the first country where children would run onto the road in large groups and ask for high-fives. Usually the people were friendly but sometimes it felt like we were being jeered by them. Food is also difficult on this route. While Romanians eat very well (we had some excellent food in Bucharest), it seems largely unavailable in the small towns. Most of the towns have one or two mini-markets but they carry only a few pre-packaged foods and few towns have restaurants. However, good tailwinds helped us fly through the countryside and DTS is a truly beautiful smaller city while Bucharest is as beautiful as its nickname “Little Paris” would suggest.