Friday, October 3, 2008

Romanian Danube to the Black Sea

Dervent Monastery: The door was open; should've stayed.

Cursed cobblestones

First sight of the Black Sea and the Cazino

The pink line

September 20 - October 1, 2008

Just as I was taking my last gulp of familiar Serbian air before committing myself to the Romanian border checkpoint on September 20, two young Swiss women I had met in Smederevo four days before, Rebecca and Angelica, cycled up behind me. They waited for me while my Canadian passport underwent the usual thorough scrutiny, then we cycled into Romania together. Their company made the transition to this much-maligned country easier. Unfortunately, we parted in the first town, Drobeta-Turnu Severin, because although I had cycled less than 30 km, my left knee was stiff and sore from the fall three days before; the long and steep hills of the Danube Gorge over the previous two days had probably made it worse. I tried not to mind too much that I couldn't continue with them, but in fact I had been hoping for the company of other cyclists for the 800 km trek across Romania. I had weighed the risks of cycling alone against my strength and experience as a cyclist, the good condition of my bike, and my careful calculation of the distances between towns with accommodations, which looked just doable within the shortening daylight, all going well. But I couldn't do the distances with my knee in that condition, and I didn't want to be stranded if I tried and failed. "I sure as hell wouldn't want to camp in Romania" had worn a groove in my brain. So I cooled my heels and iced my knee at the Hotel Continental in Drobeta-Turnu Severin for two days, enjoying a room with a Danubian view, learning some key Romanian phrases, and writing about Serbia. The hotel claimed to be a "four star hotel with three star prices" (my single room was 170 new Romanian lei, about $75 CAD a night) but I soon realized I was back in the developing world: the light in the bathroom didn't work and neither did the bedside lamp; there didn't seem to be hot water when I wanted to shower, and the power went out as I sat down to use the computer. These problems were beyond the scope of the desk staff to solve, but I knew what to do from years spent in similar settings: grope, shiver, and shrug.

I set out for the next town, Hinova, two days later. It was less than 20 km down the road, but the cycling guide warned it was the last town with accommodation before Calafat, 120 km away, and I wanted to have a warm-up day, and situate myself as close to Calafat as possible. In fact, Hinova's one motel was not in operation, and I had to cycle all the way back to the edge of Turnu Severin, where I checked into a motel. The next day's ride was 137 km as a result; the day after, to Corabia, 147. Long days but in good weather. In both Calafat and Corabia I felt affection for the towns' rustic run-down nature and found the peeling post-office and the non-flushing toilet almost humourous. My view was coloured by my first days' cycling success and newness to Romania. Anyone familiar with the classic culture shock wave will recognize the "honeymoon" phase, and knows it's downhill from there. My initial response reminds me of a time in China when Susan and I, with some visiting friends, got locked inside our sixth floor apartment again, due to a malfunctioning lock. As we struggled in vain to open the door, a woman from Canada who had been in China just three days was laughing, merry, "ha ha, only in China, ha ha ha." She provided a perfect example of someone in the honeymoon phase, where everything new is wonderful. I, on the other hand, somewhere way down in the trough, fumed in frustration and rage.

Perhaps I wouldn't have plummeted quite so fast to my Romanian trough had the weather not deteriorated. Three days of rain followed with the cruel addition of a consistent headwind and bumpy roads. The distances required between towns were smaller--32, 56, and 78 km--but the days were just as tiring as my pace slowed and the uncomfortable hours mounted. The villages I passed lost their quaintness; they were mired in mud and the grey days sucked the colour out of them and the sodden fields. The general disrepair was dispiriting. In Zimnicea, many of the buildings are still skeletal after the 1977 earthquake. I reached the nadir in the city of Giurgiu. The first hotel I approached spooked me with its empty industrial location and I hoped I wouldn't have to stay there. A bright and friendly woman thankfully emerged on the front steps, put her warm hand on my arm and redirected me to the Motel Prietenia. There I was checked in by a woman who was so cold in her manner that I got the impossible impression that she hated me. (A great irony is that "prietenia" means "friendship". The motel was probably named after the "Friendship Bridge" between Giurgiu and Ruse in Bulgaria, which in another irony, for years no one was able to use.) Ensconced in my room, I decided, as I stared unhappily across the train tracks at the ugly stained concrete apartment blocks with soggy laundry hanging limp from windows, not a tree in sight, that Giurgiu qualified as a "shithole."

The next day my outlook improved with smooth roads, weak fall sunshine, and a corresponding increase in my pace. Gone were the dawdling days of riverside picnics and dropping in on castles and cafes; I was in a daily race to get to my next hotel room: Calafat, Corabia, Turnu Magurele, Zimnicea, Giurgiu, Oltenitsa, Calarasi . . . and finally, Constantsa on the Black Sea.

The ride to Constantsa was going to be the longest yet at around 150 km, and the morning I was going to do it I woke up feeling just not ready. I was worried about my knee; also, for the first time in almost 6000 kilometres, I had sore sit bones. These two physical problems had sapped the joy from cycling, but I was also worried about the untrueness of my rear wheel. By the time I opened my eyes on the day, I had decided that the wheel was wandering a centimeter away from true with every rotation, and that I should take it to the bike shop I had seen on my way into Calarasi the day before. When I got the bike out to look at it, I realized my anxiety about the ride had inflated the degree of the wheel's untrueness; it was noticeable but only a couple of millimetres. And besides, all the spokes were tight; closer inspection revealed that the rim was damaged. I'm pretty sure it happened on the day of heaviest rain, when the roads in some places were half muddy lakes. In spite of my frequent self-reminders to be careful of the cracks and potholes lurking under the water's surface, I fell into a deep hole at speed, which shook the bike and me with a tremendous jarring rattle. I think the rim was hit by the pavement on the way in or out of the hole. This kind of damage can only be remedied by wheel replacement and my wheel size is unlikely to be found in this part of the world. The problem shrank back to its real size (small) and I went out to spend my rest day exploring Calarasi on foot. It was a warm fall day and it was restorative to look in shops and meet people at a walking pace.

The next day I was on the road just after first light (7:40), exulting in the promise of the sunny morning. Get up early enough, and anything seems possible. I caught the ferry across the Danube to the edge of Silistra in Bulgaria, and made my first climb of the day, over cobblestones, to a ride with a view of vineyards sloping to the river. Just after ten I arrived at Dervent Monastery, with its garden and view of the plain. The man sweeping up around the entrance asked me if I were alone--my answer, yes, entitled me to sleep there. I was so fresh and keen to go that I declined, a decision I regretted within a couple of hours. The ride was the best yet of my journey since the Danube Gorge, with its rolling hills and views, and the warm (but not hot) day with a tailwind. But. because of the ferry ride and the cobblestones, I was already behind schedule when I got to the monastery, and I should have known better than to think I could catch up. The result was a ride spoiled by the need to push it all the way to Constanta with barely time to eat or rest, and also no time to properly visit the archaelogical site at Adamclisi. Every town with a cobbled street got my curses but the curses didn't help my speed. The tailwind did, though, and I was very fortunate to have it as I flew the last 50 km into the city at about 25 to 30 kph, a good pace. I reached Constanta at 6:00 with less than an hour to spare before dark, much later than I am comfortable arriving without a place arranged to stay.

I was so preoccupied with my visual search for a hotel-- any hotel--that I was surprised when I saw in front of me a shining mass of blue-green wind-dancing water: oh yeah (palm struck forehead), the Black Sea! My goal! I took a moment to look and revel and snap a couple of photos. My seaside hotel was just around the corner; when I walked into my room I was taken off-guard by sudden sobs. My impartial observer-self asked, "What was that?" and answered itself, "Exhaustion," since my other self was unable to answer.

On the bad days, I started to question my goal-oriented tenacity. And what kind of adventurer was I, seeking respite in hotel rooms every afternoon, escaping into Animal Planet and Seinfeld and CSI on TV? Not in the ranks of Colin Angus and Julie Wafaei (check out their amazing trip just completed, from Scotland to Syria, much of it along the same route as mine: And what kind of person cycles across Romania, anyway? The kind that doesn't mind people saying "better you than me." So what do I get out of it?

There's the achievement of an athletic feat. There's the pink line on my map reaching from Amsterdam and the North Sea through France, Switzerland and all the way down the Danube to the Black Sea; there's boasting rights. But none of these would induce me to do the last couple of weeks again. There are more complicated benefits to edgy travelling.

There are the quirky human encounters. My favourite one of the last week was the greeting team in one muddy town I pumped through. It was a group of older adults this time, standing chatting on the right side of the road: women in head kerchiefs, skirts, aprons, and rubber boots; men in their round brown fur hats, ear flaps up. They saw me round the bend, their faces creased in smiles, and their mouths opened in unison to produce this multilingual chorus: "Ciao-Guten Morgen-Bonjour-Hallo-Salut!" And as their voices rang in the air, a man across the road called out, "Hola!"--the cymbalic finale. This scene still makes me laugh, as it did then, putting a smile on my face for some distance down the road.

And the context for these encounters can never be forgotten. It is as if I have sprayed my map of Europe with Lemon Pledge (pick any spray cleaner you know), taken a sponge like the woman in the TV ad, and wiped away the dust from where I've been. Once revealed by hard travel and its attendant intensity of feeling (elation chasing desperation) the place also evokes understanding and compassion, love even. I feel (for a time) a better version of myself for it.

Constantsa, Romania, 6233 km

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