Danube: Fântânele – Ruse

We didn’t really get the hang of Southern Romania. Lodgings so far apart and village shops so poorly stocked that we mostly lived on spready cheese sandwiches and tinned puréed beans.

Though we found some outstandingly kind and generous Romanians. In Ziminicea, after half an hour’s cycling I realised I’d ridden off with the room key from last night’s stay. Wrestled with what to do. One hour round trip, or find the post office and post it back. At the counter in the PO, the lady is helping wrap the key, when a young woman walks and says “Oh, I know the people from the Pension in Fantanele really well, I will take it!”

In Corabia, Andrea, a teenage boy with outstanding English, approached and said: “This is gonna sound weird, but is there anything I can do for you?” Well funnily enough there’s this Pension we’ve been trying to book and they don’t respond to text or email and we’re too scared to call because we know they won’t speak English. “No problem, I’ll call”. He tried the three numbers we had. One wrong number, one disconnected, one no response.

This was a pretty big blow because this Pension at Ion Corvin is the only one in that region, and now we knew, thanks to Andrea, that we couldn’t rely on it. We were missing a stepping stone to reach the Black Sea.

But Ruse! Known as Little Vienna. A glorious pedestrian town square, surrounded by cafés​ and restaurants. Lovely room in a gorgeous, friendly hostel. Just what we needed. We quickly decided to stay an extra day, get some rest and take a Bulgarian train to Varna. Not exactly en route but it allows us to cycle on to later bookings on the Romanian Black Sea coast, and reach the Danube Delta at Tulcea.

Feared Bulgarian train would have wooden benches, nightmare to load bikes, etc, but nothing of the sort. Bikes loaded fine. Smiling guard: “OK no problem”. Comfy carriage to ourselves, will be in Varna by 10am.

Danube: Bechet – Fântânele

I’ve been struggling to write something about Mike Hall’s funeral and celebration yesterday. Marion’s photos seem better than anything I could say. We’ll miss Mike so much. I hope yesterday’s events help begin the healing for Pat, Anna and Russell.

Our #rideformike yesterday was a tough one. My dearest Caroline only signed up for a holiday, but got an adventure/challenge instead. 120km fully laden in 80 degrees and headwind. Together with poor eating opportunities, she is done in. Also, one of our accommodation plans for Friday night fell through. We completed today’s shorter leg into Bulgaria, but the time has come to take a couple of days off the bikes, and fill in the gap with a train. Easier said​ than done, but I think we may have a cunning plan.

Danube: Port Cetate – Bechet

Today was the day for meeting other touring cyclists. In 11 previous days, we’d only encountered one couple, French, with baby in trailer, who were on their way home from a climbing trip in Bulgaria and Greece.

Today, we met Roland and Jana, from Norway, on a honeymoon tour from Budapest to Bucharest. They stayed in the same hotel as us in Bechet (not so much of a surprise as there is only one) and we ate dinner together and compared cycling notes.

On the road, we met Karlis from Latvia, cycling home from the Bulgarian Black Sea coast on an ordinary street bike. A “get on a bike and ride” kind of cyclist, he made all our OCD about equipment seem ridiculous. He was thrilled to be wild camping next to the Danube and waking up to the sound of the bullfrog chorus.

Besides the cyclists, we chatted with a young long-distance lorry driver, who had been visiting grandparents in Nedeia. He explained that only old people live in this part of Romania now. With the arrival of mechanised agriculture, young people moved to the cities, and old people sold their land to Italian and French agribusiness. Now the old people sit on their benches by the roadside, and the arrival of a couple of cyclists seems to make their day.

In Carna, we enjoyed passing the Non Stop Disco Club Bar, where three people quietly dozed in silence.

Strava: here

Danube: Hinova – Port Cetate

The hangover from last night’s shenanigans hung on for a couple of hours, aided by a headwind that shouldn’t have been there. The route took us West, further from our destination, following the meandering Danube.

At Tiganasi we turned East, picked up a pristine road and the promised tailwind, and the world seemed a better place. Every 10km or so, we passed through a different wild west town. Nothing much open. In Izvoarele, a funeral procession, with brass band celebrating the life of the poor old fellow whose face poked out from the back of a hatchback. In Gruia, chased out of town by vaguely intimidating youths, we picnic’d on the outskirts, on a kind of marble dais outside a Roma mansion with loud gypsy dance music playing through an outdoor speaker. Friendly Vrata, where we were high-fived and cheered by almost everyone; mostly in Italian. “Ciao” and “Com esta”.

Unlike last night we were booked into accommodation, at Port Cetate Cultural complex, a former grain port, made obsolete in 1945 when communist Romania was ordered to send its crop to Moscow instead of Vienna. Restored from 1997 by a satirical writer (think Private Eye) as a culture centre with restaurant and accommodation. Food nice, wine from the estate delicious, showers to die for. What a change from last night!

Strava: here

Danube: Donji Milanovac – Hinova (Romania)

The Ethno Complex at Kapetan Misin Breg was a brilliant place to stay. Styled as a traditional Serbian village and set on top of a hill with fantastic views over the Danube and the village of Donji Milanovac. We were met on arrival by the boss, Surjan, who asked if we wanted dinner and were we vegetarian (I hadn’t requested special meals). Within a few minutes we were presented with an enormous vegetarian feast of local produce (more than we could eat) along with honey Rakija. Breakfast was equally lavish. Everyone there was so nice to us; we loved it.

On the road today, we completed the set of 19 tunnels through the Iron Gates, and the valley scenery got even more spectacular. We climbed one long hill, labelled 10% but nothing like. Before long we were crossing the border into Romania, and hit the shocking traffic of the E70 motorway.

Accommodation options in Romania are very limited. It’s forced us to plan for some longer than comfortable days, longer than Caroline’s 100km stipulation. Today was only 95km but Pension San & Gino, which we were hoping to get into, hadn’t responded to multiple emails, so we approached with fingers crossed. The worst happened. They were full. Asked if there was anywhere else, the suggestion was Calafat, about 120km away. Ridiculous. We decided he just didn’t like us. Few options, but we pressed on to a location where a guesthouse was marked on OpenStreetMap. It was a small marina, but the buildings were fenced off and seemed abandoned. A man was there and I asked if we could get a room, and at first I thought he said yes. Then he played with his dog a while and disappeared into a house. Then emerged with his wife who spoke a little English. “No rooms”. We turned the pitiful looks to maximum. “Do you have a friend with a room?” Romanian husband & wife conversation. She looked pitying but he looked to be taking a hard line. Eventually she said “we make phone call”. Long wait. Long, long wait. Finally: “We have called Pension San & Gino, he is my husband’s friend, they will give you a room”. Back to Pension S&G. All smiles. They find us a room.

Danube: Stara Palanka – Donji Milanovac

“OK, Google, cut me some cake”

At Golubac, the Danube valley, which has been broad and flat since Budapest, closes into a narrow, steep-sided ravine enclosed by rocky crags. These are the Iron Gates.

Golubac also has the most spontaneously helpful tourist information service on the planet. We sat on a park bench for a picnic, and a tourist info person materialised next to us, offered services, asked to see The Book so she would know how Golubac is presented. We thanked her and carried on with lunch. Five minutes later a different young woman appeared, with armloads of gifts, bookmarks and fridge magnets, and a questionnaire to complete about our experience of Golubac and its people.

Next Lepenski Vir, a Mesolithic archeological site, very interesting, but the abiding memory will not be the 8000 year old human settlement, but the amazing caterpillar activity. Thousands of tiny caterpillars were each hanging by a silk thread from trees on the walkway to the site. I don’t know if they were just trying to reach the ground, or deliberately trying to attach to passing humans, in order to populate new territory, but if the latter, they were doing a very good job. I spent the 15 minute film show at Lepenski Vir picking the creatures off myself, and we certainly brought a few here to Misin Breg. Of which more tomorrow.

Danube: Belgrade – Stara Palanka

I was flattening a decent headwind, and looked over my shoulder to check Caroline was still on my wheel. Evidently I wobbled a tiny bit as I heard a yelp of surprise. Followed by: “Norm wouldn’t do that. Norm is steady“. So, Normand Howison, this is to let you know, you are the Gold Standard of cycling partners. Am I hurt? No… no really, not a bit… sniff.

To be fair, this followed a difficult and slightly fractious session. Running the gauntlet of Belgrade traffic, dicing with death on the Pancevo Bridge, and plodding as the official path crossed grassy fields, where diggers twice dumped loads of earth right across the path in front of us.

Things looked up. The road got quieter and faster, and eventually we were flying along the final KMs towards the ferry port at Stara Palanka. Not before a final grassy section though, alongside a tributary with Cuckoo, Egrets and Herons all displaying. Lovely spot after the coaches left. Leaving on the first ferry in the morning.

Danube: Surduk – Belgrade

The dreamy atmosphere of Pension Dunavsko Gnezdo soon gave way to blue clouds of diesel smoke as we pedalled through the Belgrade suburbs alongside buses and trucks. Not a pleasant section. But shortly before reaching the Sava Bridge we turned onto a quiet road, through an upmarket area, and drank lemonade at a nice cafe overlooking the Danube.

We planned a half-day ride so we’d have a little time to see Belgrade. Went the Nikola Tesla museum, a Serb who pioneered AC electrical systems, and, in the slightly inflated Serbian version, also invented the Internet and no doubt electric vehicles too. Quick sightseeing walk via Parliament and Republic Square to Kalemegdan, a fortress and public park, and a nice place to look out over Danube and Sava.

We planned to check out two different veggie restaurants, but as we walked towards the first, a featureless building, a pony-tailed man leaned out of a window and shouted in English: “Are you vegetarians looking for a vegetarian restaurant?”. We must have V tattooed on our foreheads.

Danube: Backa Palanka – Surduk

Serbians are a very friendly lot, and today we had two good chats with octogenarians in French. The first told me he had served in the army in Paris for four years. The second had studied in Belgium for two years in the 1960s and spoke delightfully clear French that I had no difficulty understanding. But when I responded in best schoolboy French, he gave me that same blank look I once got from a French mechanic whom I told “I have a prawn in my tyre”. (Crevette / crevaison… easy mistake don’t you think?)

Cycling day had the usual mix of rough back roads, stressful whizzy highways and occasional super-smooth cycle paths.
Disappointed to pass quickly through Novi Sad, Serbia’s second city, but at least we stopped for lunch there, looking across the Danube to the fort at Petrovaradin. The bridge here has been destroyed numerous times in wars, right up to 1999, when the allies bombed it (and Novi Sad) in reprisal for Kosovan conflict.

After Petrovaradin, a 5.6% climb for 4km, the stiffest of the trip. Of course, I only know the gradient from Strava, naturally it was sign-posted 8%.

We are staying in a rustic cabin at the bottom of Aleksandar and Dragana’s lovely garden in Surduk. Dragana cooked us risotto. A rare break from booking.com, I found this place via Serbian-only web site and a YouTube video. Check it out, Pension Dunavsko Gnezdo!

Danube: Osijek – Backa Palanka (Serbia)

Stayed at Rooms Lišnić in Osijek, run by people who couldn’t have been nicer. Sensing that all the staff looked similar, I asked Ivan if it is a family business. “Yes, you saw my brother last night, and my father gave you breakfast”. Right on cue another elderly gent walked in through the gate. “And here is my 90 year old grandfather who started the business”.

Onward, to Vukovar, where I presented myself at Hotel Lav for a TCR03 / CP3 stamp in my brevet card, but the checkpoint volunteers had left 22 months ago, so I had to self-validate with a photograph!

Croatian Highways agency seem to have bought a job lot of 8% gradient signs, so the flattish road high above the Danube was interspersed with steep dips into and out of every village along the way. Always 8%.

And finally, across the river and into Serbia. Ivan Lišnić seemed a bit scornful when I told him our next stop was Backa Palanka in Serbia. There has been peace for twenty years but enmities are not forgotten. Still, we found more delightful people here. Woman running the Dunav Čarda restaurant: “Here is menu but you can’t read it. So. You want meat or you want fish? Fish with bones or no bones? With bones is better because river fish. I tell you what people eat here. A lot!” We had the traditional thick fish stew/soup flavoured with tons of paprika, together with noodles and lots of nice bread. 4 large beers. Total price £8.