A Generous World: Serbia and Bulgaria

Cycling through Serbia with Laura

I left Belgrade with Laura, spending the day fighting through busy traffic, oppressive heat and increasingly undulating terrain. The Danube cycle path, which I had been following since its source in the Black Forest in southern Germany, had become more a series of directions along busy roads, rather than any discernable or pleasurable cycle path. But it was with a heavy heart that I left the Danube valley behind in the Serbian town of Smedavero, heading southwards towards Bulgaria. I caught one final glimpse of the great river shimmering a deep shade of blue in the afternoon sunshine. I will not see the same body of water again until I reach the Black Sea, where it will flow through the Bospherous towards the Mediterrainian.

The old fortress in Beglade, Serbia, felt a long way from western Europe

I have been so incredibly touched by the incredible generosity of the Serbians I’ve met. Every time we stopped, it seemed, someone would come and talk to us, with varying proficiency in English (though usually much better than my Serbian!), smile, and laugh. We were often given gifts of melons, coffee, cold water, beer and rakai (a spirit made from fruit, often plums). While snoozing in a park one afternoon, hiding from the powerful heat of the day, I was awoken by a man with grey, stringy hair, smiling and offering us cold apple juice, fruit amd, slightly bizzarely, reams of paper to lie on. ‘In Serbia’, he told us, ‘money is problem. Paper, no problem!’ . A few minutes later he insisted that we followed him into his office, where he said he was ‘master of the building’, and cooked us a lunch on a small hob and we drank beer with him until the sun sank low in the sky.

It’s the kind of generosity I may have expected much later in my journey, but something I hadn’t anticipated so apparently close to home, still in Europe.

Serbia begins to feel like the wild west!

After passing through the southern city of Nis, the terrain became wilder and more mountainous. A narrow road lead us through a steep, rocky gorge, through 13 dark tunnels and increasing lengthy tunnels, taking us all the way to the Bulgarian border.

We’ve been enjoying a couple of much needed rest days in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, before we head eastwards towards Turkey tomorrow. The weather has cooled in the last few days; a trend which I hope will continue across Turkey!

Multiple toilet options at the Bulgarian border with Serbia

Feeling Far From Home: Serbia

Six wheels to India: Laura, Brad and myself, cycling through Osijek, Croatia

We crossed the border into Serbia and I suddenly felt so much further away from home. The first market town we stopped in for some lunch was a hive of activity, and came as something of a shock after the sleepy towns of Croatia. People roamed the streets mostly on bicycles or on foot, busily visiting market stalls and small shops. Gone, it seems, is the over-dependence on the large supermarkets on the edge of town on which I have predominantly subsisted since Germany. There were beggars in the streets, more noticeable than at any other point during my journey. A man lay, apparently unconscious, in the street, and nobody seemed to mind. The local men would often stare and grin at me and begin to speak English, before giving me a parting pat on the back. The traffic on the roads seems prolifically horn-happy, and the weather is punishingly hot.

Riding into the capital, Belgrade, with the ruins of the great fortress on the sun-bleached hilltop overlooking the Danube, the place all felt more North African, or perhaps near Middle East, than Eastern Europe. The city centre is a little more ‘European’, perhaps cosmopolitan, but I certainly feel further away from home than in any other country so far; a theme which I expect only to continue as I continue to head east.

Brad is riding eastwards towards Romania, while Laura and I head southwards through Serbia towards Bulgaria, expecting to meet again in Istanbul. The weather is expected to continue to heat up, so I think a few dips in the river will be in order over the coming days!

Pictures! France to Austria

I thought it was about time I uploaded some photographs from the journey so far, so here they are!

A shady spot away from the incessant heat in France

One of the many WW1 cemeteries I passed in France

Sunflowers, Vincent!

Soaking up the culture in Strasbourg

Following the Kunzig valley into the Black Forest

Following the Danube cycle path through Germany

A brief pause in Germany

Cooking with a pale body by the Danube

The Danube winds through Austria

A mighty fine looking chap on a bike

A taste of home (almost) – bangers and mash!

The Bike Kitchen in Vienna

Into the East: Slovakia, Hungary and Croatia

Crossing into Croatia

The Danube cycle route, which had been well surfaced and brilliantly signposted since it began in southern Germany, almost completely disappeared not long after Vienna. I got completely lost as the rain clouds descended in Bratislava, not long after crossing the border into Slovakia. The route, when I stumbled across it again, turned into deep, rutted, gravel roads the next day, and I was slightly glad to get into Hungary in the afternoon, where occasional signs returned and I found myself mainly riding on quiet but well surfaced roads, though I struggled to get my head around the local currency, Forints, not being sure whether the 10,000 Forints I had in my pocket could buy me a cup of coffee or a country residence.

All things are catered for in Bratislava

The shimmering Danube in Bratislava, Slovakia

I rode for Budapest on Monday, where the cycle route all but disappeared, so I found myself dodging traffic along busy roads, by which I earned a couple of cold beers that evening. The next day I met up with Laura, who I had met cycling in Germany. We rode together southwards along the Danube towards Croatia. Before crossing the border, we met up with Brad, an Aussie who Laura had agreed to ride with, who was also heading eastwards towards India. The three of us crossed the Croatian border after lunchtime today, and I showed my passport for the first time since purchasing my ferry ticket in Dover!

Esztergom, Hungary

We have had fantastic hospitality from Ante, a local of the town of Osijek (who has kindly let me use his computer), and we sat down to dinner with him and his family this evening. There is even a nice cosy spot on the floor for me to rest my weary head this evening!

Our stay in Croatia will be brief, as we leave for Serbia tomorrow, continuing along the banks of the Danube towards Belgrade!

Black Forest, Blue River: Germany & Austria

I passed over the Rhine on an overcast morning and into Germany. I was almost instantly struck by two features that were to define my journey through Germany: the overwhelming quality of the cycle network, and the friendliness and openness of the people. No sooner would I stop, my brow furrowed, looking confused at my map (I was probably even holding it upside down), than someone would stop and ask (quickly reverting to often flawless English upon my further evident confusion) if I needed directions. Fantastic!

I followed the stunningly beautiful Kunzig valley cycle path deep into the heart of the Black Forest. Early the next day, having creaked and groaned my way up the final forested hills, I found my route steadily meandering downhill into an ever widening valley. To my right was a small trickle of brown water, no larger than a small drainage ditch, which would ultimately become the mighty river Danube (or Donau, as it’s called locally), the second largest river in Europe!

The Danube cycle path begins a few miles further down the valley in the town of Donaueschingen. I met three German cyclists in the town who, like me, where looking for the start of the cycle path. We eventually found it, and I rode with them for the next two or three days. It was a joy to have company on my ride, after too many lonely days across the north of France, where touring cyclists, and English speakers, were a rare occurrence. Stephan, Christian, and Martin, it was a pleasure to ride with you all.

The river widened vastly over the coming days, and the dirty brown trickle high in the hills of the Black Forest was soon a distant memory. Since Donaueschingen the volume of other cyclists on the route had been steadily increasing. I soon found myself riding with Darren (an Aussie who’s slightly erratic round-the-world ride has seen him cycling through New Zealand, and a fair part of Europe – visit his blog here) and Laura, who is cycling from Ireland to India, and a true modern day Dervla Murphy! I enjoyed their company and was sad to see them skip out part of the route by getting a train to Vienna to meet some friends, after only a couple of days.

On Monday I reached Passau, the city of three rivers; the last city in Germany on my route, and the point at which the blue Danube is joined by the rivers Inn and Ilz. The water, which had been clear and blue, and a great utility for cooking and bathing for me over the pervious days, had become more of a cloudy chalky white. The river meandered its way through increasingly high-sided forested valleys, where it formed the boundary between Germany and Austria.

I crossed the Danube on a small ferry with an increasing host of other cyclists from all over Europe, and into Austria – country number four on my route.

The route through Austria has probably been the most stunning of my journey so far! The well surfaced asphalt cycle path hugs the riverbank for many miles as the river meanders majestically through the Austrian hills, thickly forested and littered with beautiful little villages and tempting little cafes (I only succumbed to temptation once, and swiftly ate my way through the best part of a day’s budget!)

I rolled into Vienna on Thursday afternoon and met my CouchSurfing host Martin (not the one I rode with in Germany) at Vienna’s Bike Kitchen, a not-for-profit cooperative where people can use tools and borrow the expertise of some of the more experienced, to fix and maintain their bicycles, and a truly fantastic institution! One recent example of their combined creativity was a stationary bicycle which could be used to power a washing machine! Pure genius!

I’m enjoying a day of rest today in Vienna, and will push on into Slovakia tomorrow, as I enter Eastern Europe!