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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Person, Place, or Thing

Total km biked: 1207 km

Cycle touring is like climbing or backcountry skiing in a lot of ways because you always stop to talk to other people and ask questions about routes.

Yesterday we had our most enjoyable day yet and it was entirely due to the company we kept. At Golubac fortress we met Stuart and Anita, a married couple from Brighton, England. It turns out we have been in the same places at the same times since we started (though they began much earlier from their home). We ended up cycling with them through many of the 21 tunnels that cut through the awe-inspiring Iron Gate (i.e. the Danube Gorge).

Anita and Stuart wait patiently for some induced rockfall before continuing to Donji Milanovic.

When we reached our destination town we decided to camp together but to grab a pint first. We talked about the people we had both met along the way but in different places including the frenchman on a folding bicycle. We had met Jean in Smederevo a few days after Stuart and Anita met him in Belgrade.

Jean in Smederevo.

Of course this conversation was taking place on the patio since the weather has been unbeatable. As we finished our beers, a solitary figure rolled into town and up to the bar. The frenchman on the folding bike added himself to the fray and now we are five.

We easily found a place to camp in the gathering dusk and cooked and swam (for our first time) in the river. We also had a fire and, partly due to the boldness that comes with camping in a group, slept peacefully until the sun crept over the mountains across the water.

Morning on the Danube.

A perfect day that led into another. Lindsay and I are now alone in Romania but it has become very apparent that stopping to chat with other travellers can be a pleasant 5-minute interlude or 24 hours of entertainment.

The Iron Gate. More than 100 km of cliffs on the Serbian (right) and Romanian (left) sides of the Danube.

Burek Sir Molim?

September 17, 2012 (this blog was written a few days ago)
total km biked: 1050
Countries:5

Burek Sir Molim: In other words can I please have an absolutely delicious cheese filled pastry with excessive amounts of grease that will make my stomach feel too full but will be completely worth it!

Greg eating a Sir and a meso (meat) burek. mmm so delicious!

Today was a big day because we passed the 1000 km milestone! Although it didn’t really seem that exciting at the moment due to a strong head wind we were dealing with, in restrospect I am pretty excited and proud of having made it this far. Also, it would seem that our muscles are finally starting to get used to the regular riding and after a rest day yesterday, we were much less sore than we had been before arriving in Belgrade.

The 1000 km mark! Yahoo

A quick recap of where we have been for the past week. We left you last in Osijek Croatia. Since then we have been to the following cities/towns.

Vukovar, Croatia – this town was particularly interesting because of the obvious effect the Croation war has had on it. There are bullet holes in most of the buildings and the main water tower still stands as a memorial for the war – it has several large chunks taken out by what can only be assumed to be large weaponry. We ended up staying in a park in the city (by recommendation) after realizing the one hotel in town was full because of a conference. We even got some great tasting water from a well in the church in the park – all because of the advice a friendly bike store guy gave us!
*One plus of biking is that most other bikers are very willing to help you out.

Novi Sad, Serbia – We didn’t really explore the city much while here but stayed with some real characters Barbara and Rajko through couch surfing. They were full of interesting stories, knowledge about Serbia and general friendliness! They brought us to a breakfast place for “the best Burek in town” which I totally believe after the long line and delicious food. Burek is a regional specialty in the Balkans and is soo good. It’s basically a fluffier and greasier version of baklava and apple pie? It can be filled with apple, cheese, meet, potatoes etc.

Belgrade, Serbia – We didn’t have any success with finding couch sufing hosts so we ended up getting a hostel room for two nights. Turns out we were double booked so we got moved to this random lady’s home where she seemed to have one room she rented out. It was dark and smelled of smoke but a that point we were happy we didn’t have to find somewhere else for our second night in the city. Belgrade was pretty interesting as a city though we didn’t really do that much. We spent a long time trying to find someone to fix my camera which we did in the end! The city itself seems to never sleep and there are always people in the streets eating street meat, in cafes and bars etc. Had we not been so tired when we arrived, we probaby would have appreciated it more but as it was we enjoyed our short time there.

Smederevo, Serbia -We decided to move on to Smederevo because we were accepted by a couch surfer there and ended up staying for two nights because we felt so relaxed and really enjoyed getting to know Darko our host. He does industrial design and has some really innovative and inspiring ideas. We tried to make a “Canadian” meal for Darko and his brother Marko. I was a bit disappointing because we really didn’t come up with anything too original (twice baked potatoes, pork kabobs and apple pie)! Any ideas of good meals to show of Canadian cuisine? For future meals, let us know what you think!

Darko and Greg enjoying a beer after a walk to the top of the hill overlooking Smederevo

So that brings us to today. We are staying in a really beautiful place called silver lake near Veliko Gradiste. It is essentially a Serbian Penticton with a recreation resort area for fishing swimming etc. The resort area is where all the hotels are so we are staying in a lovely private room with a balcony for $20. The accomodation is getting cheaper as we head futher east which is nice. We haven’t done much camping yet but that will come in Romania.

Our plan going forward is to try and take roughly every 5th day off. We realized after 6 days straight that we were feeling really exhausted and weren’t able to enjoy the places we were stopping as much as we would like. In general I feel like so far I have a love hate relationship with this whole bike touring way of life. Travelling slowly like this allows you to see so much more than you would any other way and I feel like I have gotten a good sense of the people and country history so far in each place. On the other hand, I feel like I am tired all the time and can’t really catch up. My knees have been bothering me a bit and my body feels angry at me. It has been a challenge to try and balance breaks, eating regularly and speed to make sure we are staying happy and still enjoying ourselves.

Serbia Apple Pie!

Serbia

Facts:

The Republic of Serbia is a landlocked nation that bridges Central Europe and the Balkans. There are over 7 million Serbians in a state that has only been an independent republic since 2006. The capital and largest city is Belgrade, in which over 1.5 million people make their home. The currency is the Serbian dinar. The official language is Serbian but there are many dialects. Serbo-Croatian is the only European language which is still actively used in two different alphabets.

Route

Eurovelo 6 as described by the Bikeline guide using the option to cross into Romania at the Iron Gate Dam instead of the ferry in Ram. There is very heavy traffic near Novi Sad but it is mostly avoided when entering Belgrade. Leaving Belgrade is stressful with traffic on the left and trams on the right. The rest is relatively quiet roads with the pleasant ups and downs of the Danube river gorge and it’s 27 tunnels of varying length (not exceeding 300 m). The road quality is good for the most part.

Impressions:

Navigating our way to Novi Sad by following the signs that say “Но̏вӣ Са̑д” was a bit of a mind bender. Serbia is the first country we have visited which uses the Cyrillic alphabet and we have learned to sound out words which use the most common letters. We can’t “read” any words but we can find some things; for example a bakery. In our alphabet a bakery is a “pekara”. In the Cyrillic alphabet it is “пекара”. The usual approach is to slowly sound out the word letter by letter, say the whole word again, and then see if it is a word we know and, more importantly, see if it is a word that will lead to more burek.

The people of Serbia, as with the people in the other countries and at home, are generally helpful. Our couchsurfing hosts (a couple in Novi Sad and a guy in Smederevo) both were eager to talk about Serbia and the turbulent history of the nation while also cooking for us and doing laundry. However, when talking about the recent past and the stagnation of the economy, everyone seems to channel their inner pessimist.

Finally, as one travels down the Danube the towns (disregarding Belgrade) seem to get more prosperous and have a resort feel (see Silver Lake). This greater prosperity coupled with finer weather and better scenery meant we left Serbia on a high note though I think it is unlikely that I will have the chance to return.