Hurrah, hurrah, we have a working tandem and have also just reached a major milestone in our trip: while not yet at the mouth of the Danube, we have ridden all the way from the Atlantic Ocean to the Black Sea and are enjoying a few days of relaxation at a beachside campsite just north of Constanta. For the stats junkies, the speedo reads just over 8400 kms (over 5000 miles).
After Keith rebuilt the tandem, we finally left Budapest late in the day on 11 August. We didn’t particularly want to retrace the same route that we’d taken from Budapest to Novi Sad almost 3 weeks earlier, so headed out along a main road to try to put some fast kilometres in and make up some of our lost time. This approach was certainly good for fast pedalling, but not particularly pleasant traffic-wise so the next day we headed onto quieter roads, which retraced some of our previous route until we took a turn through a nature reserve where we stopped briefly at a water management museum showing how Danube flood defences had developed.
Even when retracing our old route, familiar places offered new surprises for us: lunching in Baja we noticed some women in traditional Hungarian costume who told us we should stay for their dance performance in the town square that afternoon. We did, and were treated to a fine display of synchronised cushion-waving followed by some equally well-executed ‘dancing slowly whilst balancing a flask of wine on your head’. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
However, time was pressing, so we cycled as speedily as a loaded tandem can manage across the flat flood-plains of Hungary and entered Serbia at Backi Breg, avoiding the longer, hillier route through Croatia that we’d taken the first time. My impression of Serbian villages was greatly improved this time round as the first few did not seem as litter-strewn as the one’s we’d encountered previously, and best of all offered excellent roadside water facilities. These were much appreciated as the weather was becoming almost unendurably hot, and slipping on a cold, wet t-shirt was delicious when the thermometer hit high 30’s (0C). These water fountains were large hexagonal structures set back from the road and offering six lovely clean sinks, each equipped with motion-sensor operated tap. Perfect for filling bottles and washing smelly tops, but sadly they only lasted for the first few villages, after which we were back to our usual strategy of filling bottles at petrol-station toilets or asking in bars….or as a last resort buying bottled water. Keith tolerates the heat pretty well, but I wilted and was becoming quite grumpy until I remembered the fine white Egyptian cotton shawl my mum had given me a few years ago which was buried in the bottom of my pannier. Draped over my head and shoulders and wetted regularly at water stops it gave just enough protection from the fierce, relentless sun to allow us to pedal throughout the day. The terrain remained beautifully flat so we made good progress back to Novi Sad and at last we passed the point where our frame had broken and were heading through new territory towards Belgrade.
We’d been camping wild for a number of nights by this point so were, to be frank, in need of a wash, so it was big grins all round when we stumbled upon a beach resort on the banks of the Danube that had a series of pipes gushing fresh, cold water upwards in a fountain-like arc, for swimmers to rinse river water off with. We washed our hair and soaped our bodies and clothes, and, afterwards, whilst watching some piglets being loaded into a rowing boat (as you do), struck up conversation with the retired captain of a Danube barge who was currently taking his grand-daughter swimming at the beach. Despite our still-dripping wet clothes he invited us back to his home for a cup of coffee, which we gratefully accepted as Serbian coffee is delicious. We met his daughter, who spoke good English, and enjoyed chatting to them and looking at family photos. We had intended to leave after the coffee, but they insisted we stay for lunch too. So, after several unsuccessful attempts to persuade them it was far too generous and absolutely unnecessary, we gave in, said a heartfelt ‘hvala vam’ and tucked into a delicious plateful of meat patties, peas in a superb buttery sauce, bread and a tomato & onion salad. They were a wonderfully kind family, and as we left the mother pressed a large jar of home-made plum jam into our hands, despite our protestations that it wouldn’t fit in our panniers and that they’d been generous enough already.
After lunch we made our way to Belgrade and dropped down through tiny cobbled streets, glimpsing the city laid out in front of us. It was then a pleasant ride through a riverside park to the city centre. Unfortunately, once in the centre, the traffic, heat and noise combined with long, steep hills rather coloured my opinion of the place. We did a quick, and for my part rather grudging, spin round the main sights, stopped for a beer and a (admittedly delicious) pliaskovice (an enormous and very tasty Serbian burger) and then headed uphill again (of course) to arrive at the only campsite in Belgrade at about 8pm…to be told we couldn’t camp there. So, off we went up more hills in more traffic, but at least not so hot by then, until we were finally far enough out of the city to find a suitable place to camp wild. I have to admit this did not endear me to Belgrade and I won’t be rushing back there….but perhaps I am being unfair to the place.
The next day was for me similarly disappointing: busy roads, large lorries, long climbs and, as always, the mind-frying, inescapable, scorching sun. At last though the hills flattened out and we were back by the Danube. The jewel of the Serbian stretch of the Danube is the Iron Gates and Djerdap National Park. The river narrows dramatically through high white cliffs and at over 80m deep is the deepest river in the world. The road climbed high along the cliff edge, through tunnels and under outcroppings, with dramatic views down to the river below.
We’d had a choice of riding on the Romanian or Serbian side and feel our choice of staying in Serbia was the right one as the views were outstanding and, importantly for me at least, we were on the shaded side of the gorge. Even so, the hills were hot, hard work, but the descents and the scenery were well worth it.
This beautiful environment has been recognised as a nice place to live for millennia. In the 1960s evidence of a 9,000 year old settlement was discovered at Lepinski Vir. Strange, trapezoid huts, altars, burial grounds and unique sculptures were uncovered down at the river edge. The original archaeological site was flooded when the Iron Gates dam and hydroelectric station was built, but there’s now an interactive museum showing film footage of the initial archaeological dig, numerous artefacts and sculptures, a reconstructed hut, and ‘virtual village’ tours.
The Iron Gates barrage was where we left Serbia and crossed into Romania. Our first few Romanian kilometres were on a rather unpleasant busy road, but took us to a large town that to our delight had a Lidl, so we immediately stocked up on muesli and a few other essentials before heading off into the countryside. I have to say, I think I’ve enjoyed Romania the most of all the countries we’ve been in so far. It immediately had a different architectural feel to the other countries we’ve passed through, and the music from car stereos had an eastern, almost Indian, feel to it. People seemed very pleased to see us and we felt a bit like royalty as we rolled through villages and towns being waved & smiled at, tooted cheerily by car and truck drivers, and hi-fived by children. But what has really made Romania stand out is its intriguingly diverse range of lifestyles.
Many families still rely on a horse (or donkey) and cart for transport and appear to scratch a simple living from the land, for instance by herding goats and sheep, gathering dead sunflower stalks (for purposes unknown), scything wild grass from what appeared to be common pasture land and building their homes from bricks made by hand from mud and straw. We were sometimes woken by carts trundling past our tent at 3am, as presumably it is easier to work in the cool of the night rather than the blistering heat of the day. We saw all sorts of people, both in horse-drawn carts and in cars, collecting their drinking water in well-used plastic containers from roadside taps or wells, and washing clothes and carpets at communal waterpoints. But then in contrast with this peasant lifestyle, we saw a surprising number of people driving modern western-standard cars. Of course, there are plenty of elderly Dacia 1310’s trundling around, but what we hadn’t expected, particularly in the rural villages, were the new BMWs, Audis, Toyotas, Mercedes, Renaults etc that you would see on any western European road. Unlike other ex-communist countries we’ve visited, the lorries in Romania are generally not old soviet-style beasts, but almost exclusively modern-looking, and the bus-service between villages and towns is provided by air-conditioned Mercedes minibuses. We would ride through several kilometres of small scrubby fields seeing crops being harvested manually and loaded into donkey carts, then suddenly came across huge hectares being farmed with the most gigantic John Deere tractors that would be a luxury only the largest UK farms could afford. What kind of professions do people have here who can afford S-class Mercedes and Porsche Cayennes? How come some farmers have EU funding and shiny new equipment whilst others are scratching in the dust? At one point we had wondered if the horse’n’carters even had a cash economy or simply lived directly off the land, but then I saw a horse and cart park up next to Penny Market (an Lidl/Aldi type supermarket but which seemed quite upmarket after miles of small, poorly stocked village shops) and the family went in to do their shopping.
We’ve met a number of young professional Romanians with good English skills and quizzed them unashamedly on their experience of life in Romania and the impact of the change from communism to capitalism. We got some surprising, and some not so surprising, answers.
The surprising bit was the pride with which Ceaucescu’s era was spoken of. Although the people we spoke were only aged from 25 to perhaps mid-30’s, and would have been very young when the regime ended in ’89, they were proud of his legacy. The fact that under Ceaucescu Romania had cleared its debts (from near bankruptcy in ’77 to a positive balance and lending to other countries in ’87) and was a major exporter (almost 90% of their produce was exported) was very important to them. They felt that health and social care had been better under his regime too, with state-run trips for children to experience the sea or the mountains, healthier diets in schools and state-promoted exercise regimes.
They also helped us understand the wide differences in lifestyles that we’ve seen. As the country moved from communism to capitalism, some people were lucky enough (and savvy enough) to take advantage of being in the right place at the right time, for instance the manager of a state-run collective farm, or hotel, or some other service, would be in a good position to buy that facility from the state at a very good price as the state wanted to sell and move away from communism. Other brave and enterprising people who had not been in such an advantageous position left Romania, often illegally, immediately after the revolution and sought asylum in places like Italy, Germany and the UK. After much hardship and difficulty, they would eventually find work and, on the wages they could make in western Europe were able to return to Romania and buy land and property. Property values rose rapidly with some investments doubling in a month, and so it seems that the transition period immediately after communism was very good for a number of people, and certainly has helped us understand the presence of donkey carts and John Deere tractors in adjacent fields, the western-standard cars, and the relatively high prices in the hotels and beach resorts around Constanta. Nonetheless, the cost of living is a big problem for many people and apparently most families will have at least one member working abroad and sending money home, and the local Romanian salaries for jobs like doctors and teachers remain bewilderingly low compared to house prices – a surgeon might earn €200 a month, €150 for a teacher but the rent for a 1-bedroom flat in an average town is €400 a month?! Allusions were made to the (ahem) ‘creative ways’ in which people may supplement their incomes but perhaps this blog is not the right forum for those musings…
Whatever the ethical arguments may be for different political and economic systems, rather selfishly, I’ve enjoyed cycling alongside the horse and carts far more than the cars and lorries, and wonder what the future holds for the poorest farmers’ way of life as car-ownership and foreign trade (with the associated distribution of goods in large lorries) increases. It’s been quite unnerving in larger villages seeing speeding executive cars and huge juggernauts weaving between clip-clopping carts. And I much prefer the semi-wild diversity of the small farm/common-land with its piecemeal mix of crops, meadow and shrubland to the vast uniformity of hectare after hectare of monoculture crop in fields you can’t see the beginning or end of.
We’ve enjoyed and embraced the simple life of wild camping for far longer than we ever have before – 17 days non-stop from Budapest to Constanta. We camp behind fields of sweetcorn or sunflowers and bid the goatherds ‘Buna Ziwa’ as they lead their charges from pasture to pasture. We’ve bathed in cool, clean rivers, dried ourselves and our clothes in the sunshine, bought juicy nectarines and tomatoes from roadside stalls, queued with the locals at waterpoints and fallen in love with every skinny, stray dog or cat that’s gazed at us (and our supper) with entreating eyes…but on the other hand, now we’ve reached Constanta we’re also enjoying being able to shower whenever we like, charge our netbook and access the internet….so perhaps modernisation isn’t an entirely bad thing.