Sunday, September 28, 2008

Good Questions

Christine asks, and I answer:

- do you phone ahead for accomodation or just show up?
In Romania, I ride into my destination town as early as possible in the day (around 2-3), with fear that I won't and hope that I will find a decent hotel, or any hotel. My cycling map tells me if there are going to be accommodations but sometimes the one hotel in town has packed it in (I left Turnu-Severin for Hinova and had to ride all the way back to within 5 km of my starting point, for this reason). In the best scenario the hotels are on the street I ride in on. Otherwise, I target a friendly looking cafe or shop and just start asking. I phone ahead when I'm going into a big city (Budapest, Beograd), but since the quality varies so widely in Romania, I like to see what I'm getting before I agree to stay in a place. I have not encountered any tourist information offices yet in Romania. I think it's safe to say that the tourist industry is not likely to take off soon in the Romanian Danube River Valley.

-how has your health been?
Travel has been excellent for my health; being happy is good for the immune system. The only exception to that is my left knee, which has been "paining" me since my fall in the rain over a week ago. I took a couple days out and I've been icing every day. I've had to do two long days since then (140-150 km) because of scarcity of accommodation, but where possible I've shortened the days a bit.

-any flat tires?
Two, one of them this morning. A huge piece of glass punctured right through the Mr. Tuffy liner.

-what are you using for a guide book?
The Bikeline series guide for the Danube route. After I get to the Black Sea, I'll use the best map I can find to get to Istanbul. If I decide to keep cycling.

-are you getting tired of wearing the same clothes?
Not at all, actually, as long as they're clean! The only new thing I crave is a WIFI device, like a PDA with WIFI. Internet is a lifeline, and WIFI is more common than an actual computer.

Romanian Snapshots

The Calafat, Romania, Post Office, in need of TLC. How about some EU cash?

Wouldn't I like a ride?

King of the Castle

flat, flat, flat

Today's road to Oltenitsa: typically flat, but untypically smooth

Words of disuasion, August 2008
"They're not like us. It's like the middle ages." H, Switzerland
"It's not like here [Austria]." J, Australia/Germany

It's been a gruelling road (~580 km) between Drobeta-Turnu Severin and here, Oltenitsa, with ups and downs that need some processing and reflection. Until I write about that, here are some "snapshots" from my last week of cycling.

Border crossing
"The purpose of your journey?" My mouth is open, to answer, but words aren't coming out. With a smile, "You're cycling to the Black Sea. Have a good trip."

Too vigilant
A guard outside the ATM, wearing a jacket emblazoned with the words VIGILENT SECURITY, leans in and peers over Angelica's shoulder as she tries to get her first Romanian cash.

Iron Gates Museum, Drobeta-Turnu Severin
Exhaustive collection on three floors and many rooms, representing a long and impressive history stretching back 42,000 years (oldest human remains in Europe were found in Romania): dusty, faded displays with parts missing. As I approach each room, a different woman rises from her seat behind the door to turn on the light.

Morning highway sounds
Clip clop, clip clop, clip clop.

Danube Valley landscape
Mountains far off now; the gold September fields stretch wide on both sides.

The gift
A horse-drawn cart behind me on the road: clip clop, clip clop. Then, ca-lop, ca-lop, ca-lop. Gaining! Attack from behind? I pull over. The man holds the reins with one hand, reaches out with the other--two apples for me from the pile in the cart. The woman grins, points into the cart--wouldn't I rather ride with them? They drive off, but as they are only doing about 15 kph, I soon pass, call out again, "Multsumesc! (thank you!)" My most handy Romanian word.

King of the Castle
High on a massive stack of corn husks, women in skirts ride, legs splayed. From behind, the horse's legs just visible, kicking back in rhythm.

Funeral procession
Mourners fill the road. Many old women in dark skirts, aprons, and head kerchiefs. The coffin rides on the tractor. A brass section-two horns and drum-brings up the rear.

Goats on road
A teen girl strolls behind her goats, no hurry. Goat aroma sharpens the air. One takes a huge pee.

Dogs in ditch
Some look like they're just resting, others have the grisly appearance of road kill. I've never seen this much canine carnage.

Water well
In the town of Calafat, a woman draws water from a roadside well.

Main Street
The road I'm travelling is one long main street for small town after small town. Children are enthusiastic: "Bonjour, madame!" "Salut!" In another town, "Hola!" In another, "Ciao!" and "Ciao bella!" (this boy wins points for charm). In some towns English is the choice: "Hello, how are you?" If I get to go first, I say "Bunai dimineatsa! (good morning!)" The old ladies watching life on Main Street smile with surprise and an echoing "dimineatsa!" is my reward.

Oltenitsa, Romania, 6002 km

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Serbian Danube

Cosmic Sausages, England, at Novi Sad International Street Performers Festival

View of Sava/Danube confluence from Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade

Various incarnations of Belgrade

Stop for a moment: poem memorializing the 1941 bombing of the National Library of Serbia

Belgrade house

Drama at the parliament

Ernst van Damme

Bratislav and Ljiljana

Dressed for rain, approaching the Danube Gorge

Golubac Castle

The Danube Gorge. narrowest point

Decebalus Rex, Dacian king carved into the Romanian side of the Danube Gorge

"GOOD BYE. You are leaving Serbia. Don't cry because it's over-smile because it happened :)"
(on Eurovelo 6 bicycle route sign at the Iron Gates Dam border crossing to Romania, September 20, 2008)

As far as cycling goes, my last three days in Serbia were the best-scenic riding along the edge of the Danube Gorge, looking across at MDR (Most Dreaded Romania) on the other side. It looked pretty much the same as the Serbian side, a road blasted into the vertical rock, occasional houses gathered at the river's edge. The other three days I spent cycling the Danube route between cities in Serbia isn't a part of the trip I can recommend. Perhaps it was the mostly wet and cold weather that tainted my view, but sunshine wouldn't have made the air less foul (from burning garbage and belching trucks, cars, buses and tractors) or removed the plastic bottles piled along the road edges around the cities of Novi Sad, Beograd, Smederovo and Pozarevac. Amongst the filth, the river continued to host fascinating sites of antiquity. Scattered all along my route were Stone Age and Roman excavations, but wet and cold, I lacked the will to take sidetrips to find them. Easier to find and enjoy even in the rain were the massive remains of the fortress of Kalemegdan in Beograd, perched on its rock across from my floating hostel, and the medieval walls of Smederovo's fortress, situated directly on the Danube's bank and atmospheric in the gloom of a grey dusk. In the Danube Gorge, I enjoyed cycling through the gates of Golubac Castle, shrouded in morning mist. And I even managed to enjoy several hours at an umbrella'd cafe table on the broad walls of Petrovaradin Fortress across the river from Novi Sad, while the hot days were still on us. All these monuments have been important through history as fortifications since Roman times, ruined and rebuilt in turn by Hungarians, Turks, Serbs. Today the Petrovaradin Fortress is the site of the annual EXIT Festival, said to be the best music festival in Europe. Fantastic site, overlooking the shining Danube.

Some days I felt that for the scenic view of some places I passed, it would be better to study the tourist brochures or watch a PBS documentary at home. But Serbia will be a highlight of my journey and will hold a place in my heart nonetheless, and this has everything to do, as usual, with people I met. I want to introduce three people in particular.

Miki was standing on the edge of Liberty Square looking out for tourists who might like to stay at his new hostel, when I hove into view, walking down the "fussganger" (pedestrian) zone and turning my head from left to right looking for the tourist information office. He asked if he could help me, and was I looking for accommodation? His hostel's name was Sova. I said maybe, after I found the tourist information. I continued down the street looking for the tourist info in the direction he had indicated. Three minutes later a beautiful blonde lady, his wife Sanja, asked if she could help me, and did I need accommodation? The teamwork proved irresistible and I followed her up the stairs to the second story apartments they had renovated: high ceilings, freshly painted walls and old woodwork, gleaming parquet floors, tall windows with leafy trees outside softening the sun and dappling the rooms. Pavarotti singing Verdi on the stereo. Comfortable chairs in the living room which also contained the computer for the free internet access. I moved in. Two days stretched to three, three to four. Miki was almost always around, and he and the other guests made an instant, temporary family. Coming "home" to the hostel after a night out at the International Street Performers' Festival (five wonderful evenings of seven stages of free folk, jazz, percussion, fado and more on Liberty Square and the fussganger zones around it) I sank into a chair and Miki brought a large cold beer; we laughed a lot, talked about history, travel, Serbian language. By the end of the day he would be exhausted from the effort of speaking English (one of several languages he speaks) and when the English words failed to come, he'd make another coffee, light up another cigarette and battle on. I asked him about the NATO attacks in 1999 when all the bridges between Novi Sad and Petrovaradin were destroyed in nightly bombing raids. "Terrible, terrible. The sirens, whaaah, then the bombs. Every night at 6:00." Did he take his family (daughter then 6, twin sons 8) to a bomb shelter, I asked. No, they stayed at home--a bomb could land there, could land here. And history-he waved his hand dismissively. Whose history. When I eventually did leave for Beograd, into a pissing rain, his farewell was warm and heartfelt. I struggled to express in words what a special place he's made of the hostel. "Well, nobody's perfect," he said. Then with a glint in his eye, "I'm nobody."

Every night Miki's mobile would ring. He'd glance at the number on the display, then raise the phone, a smile lighting his face. "It's Ernst," he'd say to me and Oek, a young Dutch man who'd been staying at the hostel when Ernst was there. "He came for a couple of days and stayed for eight", Miki had said to me a few times, as my own stay stretched from day to day. Into the phone, "Hallo, my friend."

Ernst left his home in Amsterdam on April 7 to walk to Tibet. He's walking for Justice, Dignity, and Humanity, and will meet the Dalai Lama when he reaches Dharamsala, planned for July 2009. I caught up with him in Belgrade, on a ship on the Danube, where for 1100 dinara (about $20 CAD) you could get a little cabin like the one I had in mind for my basic cruise to the Black Sea. The ship was hellishly noisy with wedding parties dancing on the deck above until 11 pm, followed by other parties on the river until around 4, followed by the frenzied barking of the stray dogs in the kennel adjacent to finish off the night. But it was worth staying there to hook up with Ernst. We didn't meet right away because he was out partying with people he'd just met, but on the day we were both planning to leave we got together for an early coffee, which turned into breakfast, which turned into another coffee . . . by noon we had barely grazed all there was to discuss, and besides, it was pouring again. I moved back into my room, and we headed off to the city centre together on foot and spent the afternoon exploring the Bohemian Quarter and the area around the government buildings. In front of the Parliament we saw dramatic security men in action. Two of them straddled each rear passenger door of a black limousine; a VIP got in, and the two of them ran to the car behind, jumped in and slammed the doors. The two cars sped off. No one else was paying attention to this drama. Our sightseeing done, we retreated to the warm top floor of Mamut bookstore, where we got facing computer terminals so we could work and chat at the same time. Ernst showed me his blog (, where you can see a photo of Miki and Sanja (dag 148). Our day ended at 11:30 after dinner back on our boat. It was hard to believe we'd met for the first time that morning, but some meetings on a long trip are like that.

Two days later, I had covered the mostly unpleasant ground between Beograd and Veliko Gradiste. It had been wet and cold, 10 degrees according to the weather website Ernst pulled up on his PDA. I was having trouble adjusting to the 25 degree drop in temperature, and was still wearing capri tights, to be finally exchanged for long fleece-lined ones the next day. The cycling had finally become peaceful, clean and idyllic at the end of this second day as I got closer to the Gorge. I had come 100 kilometres, more than usual, and I was hoping to find a place to stay soon as I had a slow leak in my rear tube which was now giving an audible hiss when I pumped. The rain started up again, a slow but dense rain that soaks. There was a shallow, narrow ditch that I should have crossed on the perpendicular but couldn't because at that moment a car came by-I tried a parallel maneuvre that would have worked had the little ditch not been full of water. Landed on my hands and knees on the road with the weight of my bike on top. Surely I must have suddenly disappeared from the car's side or rear view mirror in a mysterious fashion, but the car didn't stop. I was shaken and nauseous as I got myself upright again. I heard a whimper float in the air around my head and told my inner child to scram. This was a time for a grown-up to be in charge. And what had Ernst said, when things are not going well, sit down, have a coffee, and some solution will appear. Two minutes down the road, I saw a hand-painted sign, "sobe/apartmani" (rooms/apartments) and turned down the driveway. Five minutes later, I was sitting in the kitchen of Ljiljana and Bratislav with their two friends, a thick Turkish coffee in front of me. Two large bottles of sljivovica (Serbian alcohol) were produced and my bleeding fingers doused. Bratislav called for a cigarette and the guest produced one. Then he carefully cut off 5 mm sections of tobacco and laid them on each wound, then with great care not to let the little mounds of tobacco tumble off, bound my fingers with gauze. The whole procedure was repeated for my left knee, which I discovered was also bleeding under my tights. The next morning my wounds were clean, so I can recommend this treatment.

I wasn't sure, during my Serbian alternative medical treatment, if I could in fact have a room. We didn't have a common language, and Ljiljana had looked perturbed that I didn't speak German. However, she warmed up to me and led me around the corner of the house with a big gesture to follow. As we approached an annex to the house where the room was, she looked back at me with a wicked grin, then said with a perfect North American accent, "C'mon boys!" and we both laughed. "Serbische cartoon," she explained, and this was how we communicated the rest of the evening and the next morning--in a telegraphic mix of gestures, and German, English and Serbian words. Initially I understood I was to eat dinner at a restaurant, but soon I had a a date first for hot homemade caramel milk and cookies, and then for dinner in the kitchen, and for a large "fruhstuck" (breakfast) the next day. Our conversation never flagged. We didn't cover as much ground as Ernst and I did with our common language of English, but with the album of family photos taken in August at Bratislav's 80th birthday, we had lots to talk about. There were also tears. She wanted to tell me about the terror of the bombs. She lives in Beograd except during the summer season when she is here in Veliko Gradiste (or more correctly the tourist recreation area of Silver Lake). But in 1999 she was in Beograd and produced the same terrifying wailing sound that Miki had described of the siren announcing the beginning of the nightly bombing. She pointed up, "bomb, bomb," and gripped her crotch to show how she peed her pants. She showed me the array of medications she takes for her nerves. Born in 1931, the same year as my father, she also lived through the bombings and explosions in Beograd of the Second World War. Today with her four children grown and with families of their own, and one great grandson, not to mention her "lav," Bratislav, she has a lot to lose to the terrors of today. Al Qaeda beheadings in Kosovo, planes flying into buildings in New York--these brought tears as well. (Miki uses black humour to cope. Ernst told me how Miki took him out to "work" one day, to recruit guests at the square. "Do you know how to tell the difference between European or American tourists and Serb tourists?" Ernst admitted he didn't. "European and American tourists look like this"--he moved his head from left to right, then back again, probably in a perfect imitation of me on my first day in Novi Sad. "Serbian tourists look like this"--he moved his head from left to right, then did a skyward sweep with his eyes. Looking out for bombs.)

Tears gave way to laughter and affection again for my third warm leave-taking in a week. Ljiljana stood two steps above me, grasped my head and kissed the top of it three times. "Serbski custom?" I asked. "For my kinder (children)," she said. And she waved until I cycled out of sight.

Drobeta-Turnu Severin, Romania, 5435 km

Friday, September 12, 2008

Budapest to Croatia

Paprika and garlic for sale

Paprika field

Waiting for the ferry at Mohacs

Mohacs colour

War damage, Vukovar

Breakfast on the terrasse, Hotel Dunav, Ilok

The week I spent travelling from Budapest south through Hungary and Croatia brought experiences that were especially delighting because of the low expectations I had laid on the whole journey henceforth due to the rumbling doubts about Romania. I had already learned about the positive power of negative expectations, and no story illustrates it quite as well as what happened at the post office near the Budapest hostel. One morning Trish and I were there, waiting as directed at one of the wickets, but no one came to the window. After some time, an old lady behind us moved to another wicket where a blonde woman was sitting behind the window, watching us wait at the other wicket. The old lady bought a stamp for her letter, and Trish and I lined up behind her. Trish handed over her postcards. One bundle for Canada, which the woman stamped and threw in a bin. Then another bundle for European destinations. The woman was annoyed to get another set, and when Trish couldn’t come up with exact change she slammed the wicket shut and went off in a clear demonstration of a huff to find some. Then threw it through across the counter. I steeled myself for my turn. My mailing was surely going to be more complicated, a pile of books and maps, and I didn’t even have an envelope yet. The envelope boomeranged at me and I was dismissed until I had addressed it. Back at the counter, huge sighs when the large number of stamps required were troublesome to glue on the lumpy packet. I waited for the customs sticker usually required for parcels. She eventually looked up and I asked if I needed to fill out a customs declaration. She snarled at me, if I wanted to register it . . . I said, no, no, thank you, and backed out into the street. ˝It’s only 8:30 and she’s already having a bad day,“ Trish said.

The next day I had a postcard to mail and on the way to the post office prepared myself for more customer abuse, telling myself not to take it personally. When I approached the wicket and handed over my card, the postie beamed at me, looked at the destination, said, ˝Canada!˝ meaning, now that’s special! And I fell in love with him on the spot. So much for not taking it personally. His response made my day in a way that it might not had I expected cheerful customer service.

And my expectations of the road ahead of Budapest? Low, low, low. All the doubtful looks and comments had psyched me out. Leaving Budapest, oasis of culture, music, cafes, and thermal baths, was especially hard. I postponed my departure one day, and left much later than intended the next: there was one more internet session at the so-convenient and cheap place with the QWERTY (English) keyboards, and the math tutor who ran it wanted to show me a web page about ˝noobs˝; then I found hostel buddies Judy and Andy in the hostel courtyard and had coffee with them . . . it was hard to get away. I didn’t want to leave this little community of friends that was already forming and holding me there like the gentle-strong strands of a cobweb.

So I pushed off into the mid-day heat, braced for the worst—and it was. It took me an hour to figure out how to get past the East Railway station, where massive construction was underway. The traffic was constant, an ugly rumbling mass of destructive power. My coping strategy was surreal stoicism and patience, detachment; but unbidden, these time-worn words played at the edges of my mind, ˝Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away, now it seems as though they’re here to stay . . .˝ For three hours.

Silly melodrama. By late afternoon I was in the shade of a riverside fish restaurant, digging in to a most tender ¨heck˝(hake?) and gulping glasses of soda water with lemon. Another hour down a quiet country road I found that the camping I expected in Rackeve no longer existed, and I was only too happy to check in to the roadside ¨panzio˝(pension) nearby. It had huge windows that I opened fully and I could almost have been sleeping outside, enjoying the river air and sounds of insects and birds.

Having finished with the traffic of Budapest’s outskirts, the next main challenge in my first five days travel south through Hungary and into Croatia was extreme heat. Temperatures were approaching 40 degrees, and a steady, strong, south (head) wind blew on me like a hairdryer on the “hot” setting. It took me a couple of days to figure out how much more I needed to drink (several litres) to avoid the pounding dehydration headaches that came knocking by 11 a.m. Each day felt like a serious test. I stayed stoic and tried to focus on the sights and sounds of the road. There was the dyke road soundscape, shirring giant poplars and the rustling of dessicated corn plants. The paprika (pepper) fields dotted the landscape red. Strings of paprika and garlic were strung and hung for sale at driveways. Occasionally a flock of sheep would pour up and over the dyke road, a sheep dog rounding them up in style, the shepherd following behind.

The best pleasure of all, though, I have to say, was the end of the ride, a cold shower or bath, and the chance to spread horizontal, preferably on a bed in an air-conditioned room. I camped twice and was tormented by mosquitoes in addition to the heat, so it’s no tragedy to me that the camping symbol appears less often on my map now. I love this recurring miracle: that one moment I can be homeless, and the next, not. One moment standing on the road, the next sitting in a garden with complimentary cold beers and snacks, laid out for our unannounced arrival by a hostess with the biggest smile I encountered in Hungary, or anywhere (Babolna, with Trish). One moment thinking, I will melt if I have to go further, the next spread on a bed with the air-con remote control in hand; knocks on the door every half hour heralding the arrival of 1) a bowl of ice cream and bottle of iced water; 2) three heated sausage rolls; 3) a plate of grapes; and 4) a plate of homemade pudding squares (Bilje, Croatia). One moment standing at the edge of the manicured grounds of a three-star riverside hotel, the Danube shining, seductive (“last night wasn’t expensive, I would pay 200 kuna for a room here”; at the front desk, “300 kuna ($65 CAD)? I’ll take it”), the next in possession of a room with a view (Ilok, Croatia).

I was apprehensive about leaving Hungary, where I had learned enough vocabulary to survive: etterem (restaurant), elelmiszer (grocery), kavehaz (café/bar), panzio (pension); and my use of “koszonom” (thank you) often brought a smile after a round of sign language communication. (I didn’t get a good grasp of the Magyar greeting: It’s “szia” and is used like “hello” but also in parting. People always said “hallo” to me. The other day as I got off a ferry the dockhand said “hallo,” meaning “goodbye” and I said “hallo” in return. It seemed churlish not to, and maybe it’s become a standard Hungarian leavetaking).

My apprehension mounted at the border. A good looking, tall, young, and very unsmiling Hungarian official scrutinized every stamp in my passport, lingering on the one from Frankfurt on May 30. The heat already had me perspiring out of every pore, even the backs of my hands and forearms, and a few more drops jumped out of my skin. Canadians can spend 90 days out of 180 in the Schengen Area, which includes most EU countries of which Hungary is one. It was now September 7. The twelve days I spent in Switzerland didn’t count towards my 90 allowable days and by my own calculations I had until September 9, two days hence, to get out. However, until now no country had marked my entry or exit, not even non-EU, non-Schengen Switzerland, so it would be my word alone to support my case. Minutes ticked by, and finally he took out his stamp: ka-lick! My passport was handed back and I returned it to my bag, trying not to let my hands shake as he watched me do so. In my blind relief I almost pedaled straight through the Croatian checkpoint, where I collected another stamp: Hrvatska.

In spite of the formality, and in spite of the sudden blank after the border on my GPS map (the map software doesn’t include eastern Europe), I was suddenly happy that first day wheeling along in Croatia. The Danube route is signposted: Ruta Dunav signs appeared at regular enough intervals. The route started to head more east, which meant the south wind helped instead of hindered, adding 5-10 kph to my rolling speed. Best of all, I started to experience something I had missed in Hungary: A light tap on the horn of a small car, three greeting honks from a container truck, a chorus of “zdravo!” from a gang of about eight 12-year-old boys on bikes: I was welcomed as I rolled along. It was surprisingly cheering to be acknowledged. I reflected on the relative infrequency of Hungarian smiles and the probable relationship with their oppressive history. I had visited the Battle of Mohacs memorial that morning. In an hour and a half on August 29, 1526, the Turks disastrously defeated the Hungarians: 18,000 soldiers died out of an army of 25,000 (the Turks outnumbered them more than three times). Hungarian self-determination ended for the next several centuries—the Turks ruled for a couple hundred years, then were ousted by the Austrian Habsburgs who ruled Hungary until the 19th century. More recently the Soviet and Communist regimes didn’t give much reason to smile either.

That night I was safe under a roof in my “soba” (room) in Bilje, well fed and watching old Croatian (maybe Serbian) movies on TV, when a great storm thundered in, flashing the sky and pouring rain. The next day the heat dropped and the air was clear, giving me beautiful fieldscapes to enjoy for my ride to Serbia. I also passed through Osijek and Vukovar, both of them with buildings still pockmarked from the war in the 1990s. Vukovar especially was sobering, as along the road houses were alternately bullet-pocked and faded, restored to pristine condition in all shades of red, orange and yellow, or caved in with trees growing inside the remaining brick walls. In every village I passed through, at least one house was having its façade re-plastered and painted. What a long rebuilding and restoration process. Yet people seem resilient, judging by their continued friendliness along the road. A man on a large blue tractor pulling a trailer pulled over and got out to talk to me. I had just stopped to have my picnic under Jesus nailed to a cross. He said, “Sprechen sie Deutsche?” I said with regret, “No.” Then added, “Nein, Englische.” He gestured at the vines and said “Essen!” “Essen!” I said. Eat. Perhaps I did speak German after all. He was inviting me to enjoy his grapes, for as I understood the gesturing conversation we had, they were his vines. They were sweet, delicious.

And on to Serbia: next post.

Novi Sad, Serbia, 5000 km

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Why do it?

"If you really don't want to go, don't go. But if you're not sure, go."
Harald, world traveller, on making travel decisions

In my last post, I described my trepidation at continuing on the Danube Bike Route to the Black Sea, and relayed the cautionary words of three well-meaning people. They specifically referred to travel through Romania, most damningly described as a "shithole" (John, Australia/Germany, who cycled there 20 years ago and worked in Transylvania last year). Concerns have also been expressed about the effect of my blonde hair, petty theft, and drunk driving. And the latest worry is, "Don't they kidnap people for their kidneys there?" I wrote that I had weighed these cautions, but I didn't say against what. Here's my attempt to redress the balance.

First, the following description of the Danube's route fires my imagination:

". . . wheeling round the ultimate headland of the Bakony Forest and heading due south for the first time on its journey, it strings itself through Budapest like a thread through a bead and drops across the map of Europe plumb for a hundred and eighty miles, cutting Hungary clean in half. Then, reinforced by the Drava, it turns east again, invades Yugoslavia, swallows up the Sava under the battlements of Belgrade, and sweeps on imperturbably to storm the Iron Gates" (Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time of Gifts, 1977).

The Danube is also the thematic link across countries for so much of the history that I've learned in the last two months. I want to see it through to its logical end, the Black Sea and Turkey. (Early on in my journey, a Sunday rider in France asked me, "c'est quoi le thème de votre voyage?" I had a vague answer at the time, "to see what I see, be open." The focus has sharpened.) I didn't want to give up on completing this route because of other people's fears. I wouldn't have cycled across Canada, lived in Japan or Vietnam or China, and I wouldn't have got married if I had let other people's fears guide me. I wouldn't trade one of these experiences from my life's store. And here are some facts to inspire fear: last year in my Vancouver neighbourhood there was a shooting in a cafe and a woman was swarmed by a gang of girls in an unprovoked attack. My neighbour's houses have been broken into. A young Korean student was randomly attacked in Stanley Park and left severely handicapped for life. In West Vancouver in January 2002 I was abducted at knifepoint in a carjacking. Parts of Vancouver could even be described as a "shithole": Hastings Street either side of Main, for example. Most tourists still take away good memories.

It's possible that I'm perverse and that other people's doubts just serve as a red flag to the bull. But I'm actually a cautious person and I haven't disregarded what I've been told. I investigated other ways of getting to the Black Sea. The train didn't interest me as I would miss too much on the river itself. For awhile I was excited about the idea of floating downstream, and I had in mind passage on a plain old ship with sleeping cabins for which I would be willing to pay as much as $1000 CAD. Why not go in style, I thought. Well, I found out I'm out of touch with what it takes to go "in style": $4000 USD for seven days in the lowliest kind of cabin. The price was a blow, but then the image arose of me tottering on and off the ship with old people to be toured around the Iron Gates. The idea of the Captain's Ball was even more distressing. You can't show up for that in quick-dry travel pants. My bicycle started to glow in my imagination, dusty Saviour. I was flooded with grateful recognition: the bicycle is the way for me. I have the time to do this, and if it is less comfortable than a vacation should be, so be it. It may ultimately be more rewarding. It may be one of the worst memories of my life. Only in doing it will the outcome be known. I am more likely to regret what I don't do than what I do. At the very least, if I succeed, I will be able to put my pink line across unknown (to me) countries of central and Eastern Europe: Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, and Most Dreaded Romania.

Novi Sad, Serbia, 5000 km

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Dunaj/Duna: Slovakia and Hungary to Budapest

East of Vienna

Tata, Hungary

Feeling small at Esztergom Basilica

"Triumphant entry", Budapest

Synagogue, Dohanyi Street, Budapest

Parliament Buildings in Pest from the Citadel

Mosaic cupola ceiling in Szechenyi Baths, Budapest

My route to date in pink: Amsterdam-Belgium-France-Swiss Jura & Rhine-Germany-Austria-Hungary to Budapest

My departure from Vienna was more enjoyable than my entry had been a few days earlier. There were two reasons for this. First, I had a more correct understanding of Vienna's location in relation to the Danube. A few things have changed since Johann Strauss composed "Blue Danube: the city fathers had a canal built to manage the Danube's flood waters and as a result Vienna's centre is bordered by a skinny ribbon of water instead of the more inspiring river granddaddy. The second and more important reason is that I now had Trish with me, and a more determined navigator I could not have found. I admit that in the following days I was happy to follow where she led, since she had read and reread the guidebook from cover to cover, she had the map, and she speaks German. My supplementary role was GPS consultant, and this suited me fine. We still missed a turnoff and put in a few extra kilometres, but this was due to absorption in conversation on our way along the Prater, former royal hunting grounds and now Vienna's vast city park.

There was a distinctly different atmosphere east of Vienna, even before we crossed the Austrian-Slovakian border later the same day. The grafitti that covered the bridge underpasses set a tone of desolation that we didn't leave behind with the city. The long path along the dyke had the feeling of a no-man's land, and I was glad of the strong tailwind that powered us along this stretch. The one town of size on our first day was Hainburg. It was once the main eastern outpost of the Roman Empire, and has impressive 13th century gates. One, the Vienna Gate, was paid for partly with the ransom money for the English King Richard the Lion-hearted back in 1193 when he'd been kept in the Durnstein Castle upstream. We stood in the dank shadows of the narrow "Blutgasschen", Blood Alley, where the desperate Hainburgers tried to escape the scimitars of the Turks (advancing on Vienna) on July 12, 1683, but were trapped by a door that wouldn't open. Only 100 people escaped. 8432 died or were taken prisoner. We felt a bit trapped too, but only by the stairs--we had to find another way into the town centre. But once we did, we found a subdued altstadt, faded and peeling or unpainted. This state was more the rule than the exception this side of Vienna. Towns seemed a bit run down, tired; the roads more likely to have potholes and broken pavement. Even the fields were less tidy. The combination of wood smoke and summer heat betrayed a poverty I hadn't encountered since travels in tropical third world countries. The season conspired as well to add to my unease: we rode past vast fields of sunflowers, now with huge blackened, drooping heads. Bratislava had a stately and well maintained Baroque centre befitting the Slovakian capital (and former centre of the Hungarian empire for 200 years until the Turks won the Battle of Mohacs in 1526), but just a few minutes walk brought us to the violence of broken windows and pavements, grafitti, and sad weedy parks with waterless fountains. Other touring cyclists having mostly disappeared from the scene, I was really glad to have Trish along as I made the transition from the Donauradweg, the Austrian portion of which started to look suspiciously Disneyesque in retrospect. Discussing the large numbers of older cyclists on rented bikes I had met, Trish, always a straight talker, said, "because it's so tame! Younger people are doing more adventurous things." I was a teensy bit deflated, but she's absolutely right, as straight talkers often are. The journey henceforth promises more adventure.

We spent two days in Bratislava enjoying the hospitality of friends of Trish and getting a brief introduction to the Slovak language and life; then "a-ahoj!" we pedalled off to Hungary. I remember some petulancy on my part with the paucity of umbrella'd cafes and the small grocery choices in the towns we passed through, but the lowlights have faded as they ought, and the highlights remain.

One of these is the sense of entering a vast stage for big history. The Magyars (Hungarians) first claimed the Hungarian lands for themselves in the 10th century, but before them the Celts, Romans, Huns, Lombards, Avars and Slavs fought it out for dominion. The Magyars were almost entirely wiped out by the Turks during their 200-year occupation, but after the Habsburgs turned them back (1686), Serbs, Dalmatians, Slovakians, Croatians and Swabians (Germans) were brought in to repopulate the decimated areas.

Some highlights on this historical stage were the towns of royal residences, such as Tata and Visegrad. One early morning we rode right around the Old Lake in Tata, where the castle looked back at itself in the lake. This was owned by one family, the Esterhazys, from 1727 to 1945. The same day we approached the magnificent basilica of Esztergom, rising on its pillars on a cliff ahead of us and visible while we were still many kilometres off and struggling through dusty rutted roads towards it. In Visegrad we rode under the castle high above the Duna (Danube) on a treed hill. And then we were in the "Danube Bend," and taking ferries back and forth between Szentendre Sziget (Island), and the mainland. The island was a calm and lovely rural refuge. It is known for its strawberries, but like our Canadian Gulf islands, many Hungarian writers and artists have congregated there and in the town of Szentendre.

And thence to Budapest. This we could classify as a "triumphant entry" (borrowed words). Part of the reason for our triumph is the same as the reason for my difficulty finding Vienna. Unlike Vienna, Budapest straddles both banks of the Danube in magnificent style. Hence, it was easy to find. We entered on the Buda side, so we passed under the castle without being able to see it; but instead the glorious parliament buildings, doubly lit by direct and reflected sunlight came into view on the Pest side.

We ensconced ourselves in a comfortable and central youth hostel in Pest, and here I am, ten days later, finding it hard to leave. For one thing, this is a city of sights around every corner. The architecture is grand and gracious, the kind that makes you want to walk around with your head tilted upward a lot of the time. There are cafes and teahouses everywhere, ensuring frequent breaks to cool off, reflect and read Hungarian poetry. (If you're depressed, you know you've got fellow travellers amongst Hungarian poets: "The heart freezes if it doesn't love;/But when it does, it gets burnt/Both are bad. Which malady is better?/Only God knows." Sándor Petöfi, 1846.). And there are baths. We had enjoyed the pleasures of a thermal bath and swimming pools at campsites on our way (Lipót, Tata and Esztergom), but those were backyard affairs compared to the Gellert and Szechenyi Baths, only two of many bath houses in Budapest. These had been built and renovated in their own fashion by the Romans and the Turks after them; extensive mosaics are one legacy. We strolled from bath to bath, trying different temperatures, and also sunbathing at the edge of the outdoor pools, with the occasional dip or body surf in the wave pool (likely not a feature of either the Roman or Turkish baths).

Also, of course, there are the major sights, some of which I've managed to see. Our hostel is on the edge of the Jewish Quarter, so visiting the great synagogue nearby was imperative: it's the biggest in Europe. We heard some moving personal stories by the guide about the horrors and heroism of the war years; there is a holocaust memorial adjacent. A plain plaque honours the names of non-Jews who hid or protected Jews, headed by Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish ambassador. Many of these were taken to the edge of the Danube, shot and thrown in. They were ordered to leave their shoes behind. "Shoes on the Danube" is an unlabelled sculpture on the promenade: a long line of shoes permanently looking as if their owners just stepped out of them. We also stumbled on a photographic exhibit in the dank and dripping underground bunker in the citadel, mostly of the horrors of 1944 and directly after: dead soldiers, blood, gore, heaps of skeletal corpses from the Jewish ghetto, many of them children. How could anyone forget.

I wrote much of this post sitting on a bench with a direct view of the pillared and domed Buda castle on the opposite bank (I visited the Hungarian National Gallery inside several days ago). I was sad to see Trish off at the station yesterday, and it's time for me to move on myself.

The next stage of the journey promises adventure. I'll spare you the need to read between the lines. It means life is about to get rougher; I can expect lower lows but also, I hope, higher highs. I've had to weigh what I've heard--"it's like the middle ages there," "I sure as hell wouldn't want to camp in Romania," and "Romania is a shithole." I overheard a man on Citadel Hill telling someone on his cellphone, alone in the crowd of tourists, "I don't have a dream right now, I have a decision!" His bearing was like that of the Liberty statue holding her palm frond aloft above us, exhilarated. I don't know what his momentous decision was, but mine is to continue east on the Danube route, heading for the Black Sea. My ultimate goal is Turkey. I feel scared of my own courage again, but I'm ready for the adventure, within reason.

Still in Budapest, 4503 km