Wednesday 30 July 2014

Roaming Across Romania

Rural Romania can make you feel disconcerted, even upset. It's a combination of all the poverty, the poor sanitation and lack of clean drinking water, and the sight of the elderly sometimes engaged in heartbreakingly difficult physical work.

An elderly woman struggles home with water collected from a well.

Take the latter first. As we rode through southern Romania today we passed two handcarts laden with odds and sods. One was being pushed by an elderly woman. She had manoeuvred the cart so that the right hand wheel had become bogged down in the mud on the side of the road.

I wanted to get off the bike and help her, but no sooner had the thought come to mind than she heaved the cart in the opposite direction and freed it. 

We swept by feeling guilty. What on earth was a woman of her age doing pushing a cart like that on her own? What kind of world lets this happen?

And isn't membership of the EU meant to bring benefits to the citizens of the member nations?

A shepherd looks after his goats. It's a simple life and may seem idyllic. But EU membership has made it easier for outsiders to buy up farmland and prices have skyrocketed. 

Then there are the toilets, which we rate as worse than the worst we encountered in rural SE Asia. Judy encountered one today that was so bad she wouldn't use it and ducked outside. As she was braving the loo, I was drinking coffee and deciphering a Romanian newspaper which carried a story about the country's high rates of hepatitis - caused by unsanitary conditions. Judy returned to the table grim faced - "no running water", she announced and went off to the bike to get our water to wash her hands.

A woman draws water from a well in a region where the water table is known to be contaminated. Efforts are said to be underway to try to improve living conditions, but the results are not obvious.

This evening she's been hunting around on the internet and has discovered that the area we have been riding through has some of the highest hep rates in the country. Part of the reason is that many toilets are simply a shallow hole in the ground and the water table becomes contaminated. People still draw their drinking water from the many wells that dot the roadside.

Decay on the outskirts of Corabia, southern Romania. Under communist rule, efforts were made to develop the town as an industrial centre but now many of the factories have closed and people have moved away to look for work.

As for poverty - the signs are everywhere. Houses are falling down and whole factories abandoned. Yesterday we cycled into a village that was like something out of the Middle Ages. A group of mostly women were sitting and standing in front of a dilapidated building. They barely moved, as if frozen in time. A horse and cart were stopped on a dirt side road. The tones were monochrome - a combination of peeling paint, dirt, dust and a grey sky. We didn't stop.

But for all this grimness there is an upside. Riding the tandem here is fantastic. Many of the roads are quiet, if bumpy, and the people are wonderfully friendly. It's taken us a couple of days to figure that out, but we have come to the conclusion the locals are often shy. They will ignore us until Judy initiates a wave or a cheery "salut" or "ciao". The response is immediate. Weathered faces crinkle into beaming smiles and their greetings and best wishes follow us down the road long after we have passed them.

We cycled into a truck stop and asked if they sold coffee. The man in the centre soon produced some and we settled down for a lengthy discussion that took in the merits of EU membership, corruption in Government, a comparison of average earnings in Romania and New Zealand and the statement that "Romanians, we love our country". We never learned his name or that of his friend. They wouldn't let us pay for the coffee.

Last night we stayed at a campground in a cabin - yes, the only toilet and shower were terrible and we had to ask that the water be turned on. It was a party night - in a thunderstorm, a teenager was having his 18th birthday celebration in the campground "restaurant" - a huge, garage like space with beer and wine fridges and room for table tennis. We went to sleep to the sounds of traditional Romani music - lilting with an upbeat tempo that made us smile at the sheer joy it evoked.

Notes from the Road

Despite all we had heard, Romania's dogs are not causing us any problems. There are certainly lots of them roaming around but the vast majority have shown no interest in our limbs. We now carry a dog "Dazer" which emits a high pitched tone. We've tried it a couple of times on dogs that looked a bit threatening and it does seem to work - good insurance for the nervous but given our experience so far, it's probably not necessary.

Horse and cart - a common sight in southern Romania.

Finding accommodation in southern Romania can be tricky. We have followed the main EV6 route since crossing the Iron Gate at Sip and have passed through Calafat and now Corabia. It's required a little planning to ensure we end each day with somewhere to stay (click on EV6 - Places to Stay at top of this page). Our best source of information has been the 1: 100000 maps of the Donau Radweg published by Huber. Campgrounds are practically non existent, but accommodation is considerably cheaper than in western Europe. Free camping is another alternative for those prepared to forego a shower.

We stayed at a campground with cabins at Zaval, Romania. This is the morning after a night of violent thunderstorms and traditional Romani music.

Be careful about drinking water. Either buy bottled or filter/sterilise it - just because a local says it's safe to drink doesn't mean you will escape a stomach upset.

There is a risk of waterborne diseases in the Danube River area, Romania.

Buying food is easy. Lots of coffee shops/bars and bakeries. Some small supermarkets.

The main EV6 route has been sealed all the way so far. Most of it has little traffic, but at times the road is narrow and bumpy or potholed. Delightful cycling.


Current Location: Corabia, Romania
Distance this trip (from Munich, Germany): 2,175 km
Longest day this trip: 104 km
Worst loo: Bar at Ostroveni, Romania
Road kill count: lost track of the dogs bowled in Romania
Come on Romania: It's time to switch from wine corks to screw caps. Not everyone carries a corkscrew.

Where's the fire? Cigarette in mouth, this man had his horse clip clopping at a fine pace.

Friday 25 July 2014

Senses Assailed

We feel on the verge of sensory overload. The past few days as we have ridden the tandem from Belgrade, Serbia, along the Danube and into Romania have been the most rewarding of the trip.

The cycling, sights, people, stories we have heard, friendly waves - they've all added up to something special.

Judy the Stoker tucks into a local speciality in Serbia - kacamak, which is a doughy goo a bit like polenta, accompanied by grilled cheese. Hmmmmm...

In no particular order, here's a random rundown of a few of them.

Two German cyclists met on the top of a Serbian hill. "What were the dogs like in Romania," asked Judy the Stoker.

"No problem," one of them answered. "We heard all the stories about being attacked, but just whack your panniers loudly and they stop chasing"

Next day we meet a Belgian couple on a 1,300 cc motorcycle.  "What were the dogs like in Romania," asked Judy the Stoker.

"Terrible," he said and goes on to explain how they rode through a tunnel where a pack of wild dogs lived. "Twenty chasing from behind, five in front. One got my leg, we wobbled but I was wearing my leather trousers so wasn't injured. But terrifying."

As a precaution we bought a version of a dog Dazer (see photo for details) before we left Belgrade. Haven't had a chance to test it in anger.

In need of a dog Dazer? After so many stories from fellow travellers about dangerous dogs in Romania, we went in search of a Dazer in Belgrade, Serbia. We found a similar device which emits a high pitched tone, unpleasant to dogs but inaudible to humans. The shop is known as Snijpar, at Prizrenska 13, near Hotel Moskva.

Scenery through the Iron Gates must be among the best on the entire EV6 from Nantes, in France.  The river narrows to 150 metres at one point and for a couple of days we have rejoiced in blue sparkling water. Hills remind us this is a bike ride, though nothing over 10 per cent gradient and all rideable. Had to stop once on a downhill to allow the tandem's brakes to cool down.

The ruins of Cetatii Tricole, a former Habsburg castle, which was partially submerged  when the Djerdap 1 dam was built on the Danube to generate hydro electric power.

Weather hot - mid 30s with sudden thunderstorms, particularly in the late afternoons.

Memorable moments include riding into a sleepy village and having a large dog bark rather too enthusiastically at us. We asked its owner - an elderly man - if there was a cafe where we might buy coffee. He indicated no, paused for a moment then waved us into the shade of a verandah. A woman we later discovered was his daughter-in-law emerged from the house and there was a brief discussion. Before we knew it we were drinking lemon juice and coffee and eating chocolate cake and learning that the man's sister had migrated to New Zealand and lived in Wellington.

Judy used a stick to nudge this turtle away from the road and out of harm's way.

Another memorable moment - man proudly shows us a campground cabin which we are considering renting for the night. He yanks the window open so enthusiastically it comes away from the wall and he almost drops it on his foot. We took the room. There was netting over the window so no mozzies, which was all we cared about.

This monument to the Dacian king Decebalus (reign from 87 AD to 106 AD) is on the Romanian side of the Danube. It was made in the early years of this century and paid for by a Romanian industrialist.

We rode into Romania at Sip yesterday, across the Danube which creates a natural border.

On the final stretch of the Serbian side we could see what looked like a brand new freeway across the Danube and were grateful we were missing all the heavy traffic.

Romania is one of the newer members of the EU (2007) and while it is making economic gains the gulf between west and east Europe becomes a chasm here. Although we were prepared for it, we were still surprised by the empty, falling down industrial buildings on the outskirts of Drobeta - Turnu Severin.

Two prostitutes were looking for business among the long haul truckies, one of the women stood so far out into the road we came close to hitting her as we barrelled past.

Mangy dogs rambled about but we didn't discern a marked personality change between them and their cuzzie bros a kilometre away across the river.

The Danube at its narrowest point in the Iron Gates - 150 metres.

Once in the town, things looked better but it took time late in the day to find somewhere to stay. Have ended up in a small 3 star hotel which we have taken for two nights. Celebrated the border crossing with a meal in the hotel's outdoor restaurant with beer and wine and collapsed into bed. Judy managed to find the Tour de France on the TV and watched stage 18.


Distance: about 2/3 of the way from Munich, Germany to Constanta (on the Black Sea), Romania.
Punctures this trip: 1
Distance Cycled This Trip: 1,923 km
Distance to Constanta: approx 875 km
Current Location: Drobeta - Turnu Severin, Romania

A stop to snack on roadside blackberries. The tunnel behind is 371 metres long and unlit. However, it does have a footpath (cyclists' escape route).

Quotable Quotes
We have spent more than a week with kiwi friends in Belgrade and Sarajevo, and they came up with some quotes worth sharing. 
S talking about the number of unnatural blondes in Belgrade. "They must sell hydrogen peroxide in industrial quantities here."

S poses a question: "What is the difference between erotic and exotic?"
Answer: "Erotic is with a feather, exotic is with the whole chook."

Thursday 24 July 2014

The Iron Gates

Fear can strike us cyclists out of the blue. One moment the tandem is moving steadily forward, there is a cool rush of air, the scenery is enchanting and all is well with the world.

 The next, blind panic strikes.

Today the latter happened. We were riding along the Danube in Serbia, in an area known as the Iron Gates.

Emerging from one of the shorter tunnels. Most of them have a narrow footpath which can be walked or even cycled.

It's where the river - Europe's second longest - gets squeezed as it cuts its way through the Carpathian Mountains. Instead of flat land, dykes and swamps, the river speeds up as mountains close in on either side. The road, instead of the flat and sometimes featureless route we have become used to, begins to twist and climb and drop, and there are tunnels - we passed through 15 (we think) today. 

One of them was 256 metres long and there was a bend in the middle. We entered wearing our hi-viz. tops and with our red rear light blinking enthusiastically. Up front, I wore a feeble head lamp attached to my helmet. 

Serbian EV6 sign with a message: the white on red reads,"We should never be afraid to try something new. Amateurs built the Ark. Professionals built the Titanic."

Long before we could see the light at the end of the unlit tunnel we had lost the light from behind. It was pitch dark, and the beam from the headlamp was soaked up by the black tarmac and the rock of the tunnel walls. It was impossible to see.

The further we went, the more we wobbled. We wobbled because we couldn't tell which way was up, nor where the road went. If you can imagine falling through a black void, you get the picture.

This little owl was on the edge of the road, perhaps having been hit by a car. It refused to budge so in the end we left it where it was and hoped it would be ok.

Our only hope lay in the white centre line. As we wobbled, we saw brief flashes of it lit up by the glow of the headlamp. I swung the bike out to the centreline, aware that riding the white line on a bicycle in the middle of a pitch black tunnel was not particularly smart. But that white line gave us a sense of orientation - suddenly we knew which way was up.

It wasn't the time to relax. A gradual roar - the rush of air - could be heard from an approaching vehicle, but the bend in tunnel prevented us from knowing whether it was behind us or in front. 

Golubac Castle comes into view. Built in the 13th century by the Hungarians, it is regarded as the best preserved castle in Serbia.

We waited with the panic rising as the noise grew louder, and we moved right hoping like hell we wouldn't crash into the kerb, or even the tunnel wall. The vehicle was behind, so we squeezed further. At the same time we sensed there was a kerb somewhere in the darkness and we both reached out with our right legs, bouncing along it with a pannier absorbing some of the shock. Without a word, we leapt from the bike and threw ourselves against the tunnel wall. 

One moment we were finding our way out of Belgrade, a few hours later we were riding along a dyke with a path all to ourselves.

The car whistled past - unaware of the sense of terror it induced - and we walked the rest of the way until the light of day gradually crept into the tunnel.

The moral of the story - for this section of the EuroVelo 6, bring a powerful headlamp and nerves of steel.

Footnote: this was the only tunnel which had railings along a narrow footpath - so narrow we couldn't get the bike along it. Later tunnels had footpaths minus the railings and we were able to walk the bike through in complete safety.

Golubac Castle: fought over many times down the centuries.


New Members of  the 18,000 km Tandem Club : Judy the Stoker, Mike the Captain.
Distance this Trip: 1,841 km
Current Location: Donji Milanovac, Serbia.
Best Coffee east of Budapest (so far): restaurant at Lepenski Vir Archaeological Site.

Coffee at Lepenski Vir has to be a contender for Best since Budapest. Typically Serbian, it was strong but also hot and big enough to satisfy cyclists on a rainy morning.

Notes from the Road

It's been seriously hot since arriving back in Belgrade on Saturday the 19th. Two days of 35 degrees and we cycled but melted. On Sunday the 20th we found an easy way out and North of Belgrade, near Pancevo, where we got our first puncture of the trip. 65 kms to a cycling guest house right on the Danube. 

Then on and over the ferry to Ram to a "doggy" campground at a Serbian Danube sort-of resort area. Just got our tent up and listened to a major thunderstorm all night with rain on and off. It cleared, so off we went and oh, so stunning!

Lepenski Vir Archaeological Site. The remains of this Stone Age site were discovered during preliminary work on a Danube dam construction project in the 1960s. Rather than drown the site when the river level rose, it was shifted up the hillside and reassembled under the protection of a glass and steel shelter.

Finally in the Danube Gorge from Golubac East. Found the prettiest camp just West of Dobra on the water (only 2 couples there until later on) and took a wee cabin.  Looking over to the hills of Romania and so close. Today, very dramatic. Gorge narrowed, 15 tunnels, an amazing archaeological site, Lepenski Vir (inside a massive glass building just as a huge torrential downpour happened;  it looked like Milford Sound!) then on in sun to the prettiest village and to a devine room, 5 days old, 3rd story up, with windows overlooking the Danube and Romania. At Donji Milanovac.

This sandstone sculpture known as Danubius was just one of the finds at Lepenski Vir. It dates back to 6,300-5,900 BCE.

Tomorrow we pass the narrowest point of the Danube and may cross to Romania at the Iron Gates of Sip. We are loving this trip. People tough, friendly, big hearted but don't cross them and the learning is unbelievably interesting. Cycling is good. SE Asia was a great teacher for hot, humid and hills. The tandem2 mood is fantastic.

Saturday 19 July 2014

Belgrade Street Art


La Santa de Belgrade - a firearm protrudes from a sleeve.

Expressions of Love

The City that Ate Greenery - high rise teeth make a statement about the environment.


The town centre is surrounded by hills, making it vulnerable to the snipers who looked down on it during the siege that lasted the best part of four years in the 90s.

Town centre - within range.

Reverse Shot - looking down from the hills.

Home handyman dries paint rollers.

Uncollected mail

Washing day

Door handle


Side street 

Roses on the hillside

Friday 18 July 2014

Sarajevo Siege

We are taking time out from cycling to spend a few days in Sarajevo with New Zealand friends who are on holiday.

Sarajevo Under Siege

"It's a great book," said the young woman in the Insider information office in Sarajevo, Bosnia. 

She explained that the book I had mentioned - titled "The Cellist of Sarajevo" - captured perfectly what life must have been like during the siege of the city during the early 1990s.

As the woman was speaking, her offsider was on his Ipad pulling up a photo of a man playing a cello in a bombed out building.

Cellist Vedran Smajlovic plays in the bomb damaged National Library in 1992.

"That's the cellist there. The picture was taken in the library and city hall building," he said. "It's been rebuilt."

He gave me directions and I set off - another satisfied visitor engaged in some "post conflict tourism".

The rebuilt National Library and City Hall, which reopened its doors today.

A plaque at the entrance to the building sums up events this way.

Such tourism is impossible to avoid in Sarajevo. There is a museum, a gallery showing photos and films, and monuments and sculptures remembering the dead. Red blobs of paint known as a "Sarajevo Rose", mark the footpaths where four or more people died in attacks during the three year siege.

A "Sarajevo Rose" - painted on the footpath to show where four or more people died at any one time during the siege.

And all that's before we even start talking about the what happened in Sarajevo in 1914 when, as any history student knows, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated - the incident that triggered WW1.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand on the visit to Sarajevo that ended in his assassination.

To take in these sights is fascinating - the history is so recent and the events are so well documented.

It's also slightly uncomfortable.

What are we? Voyeurs taking an unhealthy interest in the terrible tragedies that have befallen so many? It's estimated 10,000 people were killed during the siege and five times as many were injured.

The Holiday Inn has been given a coat of fresh paint but not visible in this picture are the bullet scars that remain on the facade on the left hand side.

We visited the History Museum, out past the Holiday Inn where many of the journalists covering the siege were based. The hotel has been repaired, although high on one facade bullet and shrapnel damage remains. The museum too, had signs of damage - so much so we thought it had been abandoned until we glimpsed figures moving inside. It contains photos and exhibits that show how residents of the besieged city survived - with food aid and improvisation.

War weary. At first we thought the History Museum had gone out of business.

In the central city, a gallery has an excellent display of war photos and runs a couple of short films - one complete with special effects and a sound track that includes rock music. The effect just reinforces the feeling that somehow this is war as entertainment and that we are like the drivers who slow down to peer at road accidents. 

Despite my discomfort, it is fascinating and no doubt a revenue earner for a city that needs every convertible mark it can earn. 

And if there is anything else positive that can be taken from it all, perhaps it's this. The woman guiding us around the gallery is asked how the different factions in the city get along now, two decades on. She says that unlike other parts of Bosnia, Sarajevo has always had a mix of religions - Muslims, Orthodox and Catholic. They lived side-by-side in the past and they are doing it again today.

The Cellist

"The Cellist of Sarajevo" is a book with controversy of its own. A best seller by Canadian author Steven Galloway, it uses the real life story of musician Vedran Smajlovic as it's starting point. During the siege of Sarajevo, Smajlovic took to the streets of rubble to play his cello as an act of protest, despite the obvious danger to himself.

Smajlovic claims Galloway stole his name and identity for the book and that as a result he has had to live with constant, unwanted publicity. The two men have met once, in Northern Ireland where Smajlovic now lives. The meeting was strained, but according to someone who was there, Smajlovic did manage at the end to shake Galloway's hand.

Sunday 13 July 2014

Vukovar - Symbol of Destruction

The inscriptions on many of the headstones are the same, just two simple words  - Hrvatski Branitelj - Croat Defender. The words have a ring of defiance about them that sums up these dead fighters perfectly. 

Croat Defender - Died at the age of 21.

They were the men who for 87 days in 1991 held off the Serb forces who laid siege to the town of Vukovar, in eastern Croatia. 

More than two decades on, it's not hard to find the scars of war.

Hopelessly outnumbered and without the equipment or reinforcements they needed, the Croats were eventually overrun and Vukovar was left in ruins. It became a symbol of destruction and the pointlessness of war.
Vukovar - scene from the window of our apartment, a bombed out building next door.

Today much of Vukovar has been rebuilt. The city centre has open air restaurants, pedestrian walkways and a new shopping mall.

The finishing touches to a new mall in Vukovar.

But look just a little further and it's still possible to find bomb damaged buildings and bullet and shrapnel scarred walls.

For us cyclists, the Croatian Memorial Cemetery of Homeland War Victims lies on the Eurovelo 6 route a few kilometres out of town.
Eternal flame to remember those who died in the siege.

Morning Drinkies

As we rode out of Vukovar, we stopped to take photos of the town's old water tower, preserved in its battle scarred state since the siege in 1991.

The old water tower at the edge of the Danube is being preserved as a reminder of the war.

It had begun to rain. An old man wandered out of his garden to ask if we needed anything. Minutes later he returned with a bottle under one arm and a shot glass. He insisted we share a drink. It was rakija, a brandy home made from fermented fruit. 

Judy got away with a few sips from the glass, and the old man was delighted when she pointed to the walnut tree we were sheltering under and identified its nuts as the source of the drink.

He gestured to me to scull mine. He swigged from the bottle and spat out something that looked like coffee beans. He poured me a second drink, then a third. 

It was 10.30 in the morning. We had ridden two kilometres. At this rate we were going nowhere. 

Early morning shots on the road out of Vukovar.

It was time to go. With no common language it was difficult to say no, but we managed to extricate ourselves without offending him. The rain had stopped.

Cheers -  Ċ½ivjeli!

Late that afternoon we found a place to stay with a couple in the village of Ilok, just inside the Croatian border with Serbia. We had been there 10 minutes when they invited us to join them for a drink in the shade of a vine. First came a couple of beers, then out came the rakija. This time we were allowed to sip. The hospitality of these people is wonderful.

His name is Mihal and with his wife Anka they run a guesthouse in Ilok.

The Perfect Coffee

To be honest, coffee is more our kind of drink. Like many cyclists, we find that a coffee break after the first part of the morning's ride is one of the best parts of the day.

So we are on a mission - to find the best coffee east of Budapest. 

The search begins.

The judging criteria includes but is not limited to: taste, strength, temperature, aftertaste, extras (like tiny biscuits), size of the cup, ambience of the surroundings and warmth of the welcome by the cafe staff. And we are keeping in mind that New Zealand's cafe culture is as good as anywhere.

Sugar or sweetener?

Comprehensive, huh? We have had lots of good coffee since living the Hungarian capital but there are no real standout contenders - with one exception. 

We have been joined by kiwi friends here in Belgrade and they have just made coffee on the stove of our rented apartment. It ticks most of the boxes, so now this post is finished an investigation will begin into how it was made.

The Beast Bites Back

Occasionally, just occasionally, I question whether the tandem is too much for me to handle. It happened the other day as we found accommodation in an apartment in Vukovar. We hadn't ridden far but for some reason it had been a tiring day. The apartment owner was leading us in through a heavy door to a spot where we could leave the bike secured.

I was straddling the laden tandem and walking it forward when I decided to get off quickly by lifting my left leg up and forward over the crossbar, instead of behind me. Somehow I stumbled and overbalanced. The bike fell and threw me against the wall with such force I could feel my brain rattling around inside my skull. Fortunately, my right shoulder took the impact, not my head.

For a moment I was pinned against the wall until the apartment owner and then Judy pulled the Beast of Bridgwater off me. Seething with frustration and tired, I launched a kick at the bike - only stopping myself at the last moment. 

"Bad bike", said our host and laughed.

I wasn't laughing. The bike, loaded with all our gear, plus food and water, probably weighs between 60 and 65 kgs. I felt very lucky I hadn't injured myself apart from some minor bruising.

The bike weighs about 60 or 65 kgs and is top heavy.

But it raises the question, when is a tandem too heavy? And what can you do about it? 

We have heard of people touring on single bikes with less than 10 kgs of gear. But with two people and their personal effects, plus camping gear, sleeping stuff, a few tools, first aid and medicines, a water filter for further east and even the weight of this tablet - it all adds up.

In the short term, the best approach is to be more careful, but maybe it's getting to the point where we need to re-evaluate whether we have stuffed too much into our panniers.

Crossing a bridge over the Sava River into Belgrade.

Current Location: Belgrade, Serbia
Total distance: 17,819 km
This Trip: 1,644 km

Quotable Quotes
Judy the Stoker: "I must shave my legs. As we cycle I can feel the wind through the hairs."

We spent a memorable night in Novi Sad on the eve of the annual Exit Festival. Here a crowd gathers for a warm up event. The noise made sleep in our hostel bedroom impossible so we gave up and joined the crowd.

Judy with the receptionist/organiser at our hostel in Novi Sad. We made a terrible mistake and for a little while tried to insist we had paid our night's accommodation. We apologised, and the receptionist - whose name translates to Snow White despite her jet black hair - was very forgiving. Thank you Snow White, we had fun chatting to you and meeting your daughter.

The rear tyre gets some extra air. We seem to be losing pressure and there may be a very slow leak.

Hanging out on the streets of Belgrade, Serbia. We have been joined by kiwi friends and plan to take a few days off cycling.