BELGRADE TO SILISTRA
I’m in Silistra, the last Bulgarian town before I cross the border into Romania tomorrow morning. The roads to get here have been busy, the terrain hilly and the weather bleak. Particularly yesterday as I cycled from Svishtov to Ruse. Although it was only 100km in total it was easily one of the toughest days so far – full of hills that looked like they would would never end. By this stage of the trip my body has had enough, so to even get up and get started each day is a massive mental challenge, but to approach hill after hill and know you have no option but to cycle up them is pure torture. “Character Building” I keep telling myself, although Im not sure it’s helping. By now I can’t even take comfort in the fact that ‘at least it’s going to make my legs bigger’ because, well, I’ve been doing it for two months now and my legs definitely aren’t any bigger. I’m genuinely worried that when I get back people will see me and immediately write me off as a fraud: “There’s no way you cycled across Europe with those things!”
The other thing I’m having an issue with at the moment is dogs. Now I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with dogs at the best of times, mostly because I hate them. Come to think of it it’s more of just a hate relationship, really, but I’ve never actually feared dogs until now. Every time I stop to have a drink, or check my map, as if on cue a dog will appear at the nearest fence and absolutely lose its mind at my presence by making some kind of repetitive angry sound come out of its mouth. That’s if I’m lucky. Because at least a few times a day now they are not behind fences and they chase me, sometimes in packs, trying their best to bite my legs off, or at least push me into approaching traffic. They are genuinely wild around here. They roam the streets without anyone looking after them, and only the bones of ill-fated cyclists as sustenance. It’s for this reason that I stole a butter knife from an old couple at a home stay in Serbia (I didn’t have the heart to steal a decent knife) – I know that stealing is bad, but I left them my sleeping mat as compensation, so they got a good deal – A butter knife might not sound like much in the way of self-defence, but I keep it strapped to the front of the bike and I’ve done a few practice drills. I’m sure if I strike in the right place it’ll be effective. I’m mostly joking here, but at the same time I’m not sure. At least I hope it doesn’t come to that because I actually like dogs sometimes (when they shut up and act like cats), and the amount of dead dogs on the roads in and around every town here is sad, not to mention off-putting.
I woke up on Thursday to find that my good old mate Maurizio had ditched me in Belgrade. Apparently he’d found out there was a ferry crossing down the line that only went a couple of times a day, so he wanted to leave early to make sure he made it in time. I hadn’t done any planning ahead because I was relying on him, as he’d relied on me up until Belgrade, so you can imagine how excited I was to find this out when it was too late for me to make it in time. Cheers, Maurizio. As a result I had a slow day cycling through mud and across grass to get me within distance of the ferry for the next day. After I did cross the ferry the next morning I was suddenly hit by a strong headwind and spent the day feeling like one of the many plough-towing tractors I kept seeing in the fields alongside. I eventually arrived at a guesthouse nestled within the forrest in a town called Vinici just before dark. It was a beautiful little place and the hosts, who spoke no english, brought me rakija, coffee, a little cake and beer as a welcome. They then brought over a neighbour to act as translator and demand payment straight away, which I thought was a little distrusting. But, then again, I did steal one of their knives so they read me well.
My last day in Serbia took me to Negotin, which is across the bridge from Romania, and about 18km from the Bulgarian border. I had intended to cross the border and get to Vidin that night, but I’d had some bad information about how far this actually was. I was in the hills above Negotin and a German guy pulled his car over to talk to me. I told him I was headed to Vidin and he said it was just 10 or 15km past Negotin, which would have been well within range. Then, when I got into Negotin, I stopped at a sign which told me the Bulgarian border was still 18km away. Knowing that Vidin was well past the border I instantly realised I’d have to change my plans for the day. As if reading my mind (or maybe just my confused facial expression) a local couple approached me and told me they had a friend who owned a guest house for cyclists (that’s literally what it was called) which was ridiculously cheap (800 dinas, or about 6 euros), and they also happened to be the nicest people in Serbia. I went to dinner with them and we had a few beers while they told me all about the complicated political and social situation in Serbia, then they insisted on paying for it all because I was a “guest of Serbia”. I was blown away by the whole experience, and it’s one of the nicest examples of local hospitality I’ve ever experienced. Certainly a positive way to end my travels in the former Yugoslavian territories.
The next day I did cross the border, after being hurried through by an army lady with a gun who didn’t appreciate me taking selfies on the road, and headed to Vidin. It was easily the coldest day of the trip so far, and to top it off Vidin was one of the most intimidating places I’ve been. I know that gloomy weather never makes a great impression of a new town, but the streets were dirty and dark, many of the buildings completely abandoned, and the people seemed to take more of an interest in me than usual -as in they wouldn’t stop staring even after I’d caught them staring, a sure sign of craziness in any culture. It was a strange experience and I was actually a little worried to venture too far around the city that night, which is generally not something I have an issue with. Thankfully, since then the Bulgarian people I’ve met have actually been very nice. They wave to me as I go past in little villages and, although we cant communicate much, they mostly seem willing to try.
I realised that the weather at this end of the trip might become a factor, which it has, but what I failed to take in to account was the shortening of the days as the seasons changed. In the early stages of the ride I could go until 8 or 9pm without having to worry about the dark, but now as soon as 5pm hits I start to freak out a little and make sure I have myself a place to stay, something that is also more urgent because of the fact it’s far too cold to rely on my backup plan of wild camping. These factors combined have added a lot of pressure because I can’t now rely on the fact that I can suffer a few delays and still manage to pump out 120 kilometres in a day. As a result I did a little bit of cheating a few days ago. I was in Vidin, western Bulgaria, and realised that there was nowhere I could stay that was within 120km. The forecast was for rain and a high of 8 degrees, and the day before I’d heard that there was snow spotted on the surrounding hills. I’m pretty carefree most of the time, but I wasn’t risking getting stranded in that, so I caught a train to the next town. I would have stayed and tried the next day, but at this stage I also have a few time constraints – if I want a job to go back to that is. So I apologise for this! But I’m on track to do 4,000km and the website states that the Eurovelo 6 is 3,600km total, so it’s still more than I’d bargained on.
At this stage of the trip I feel like I can look back on things with a little bit of perspective, and I’d like to take this opportunity to apologise to France. I was a harsh critic of France’s roads, signage and even some of the scenery. But, now, having some basis for comparison, I can confidently say that I’d cycle back and forth across France a few times before I’d attempt to cycle anywhere east of Budapest again. The route I’m following (Eurovelo 6) is supposedly the ‘Danube cycle trail’. Well I see the Danube when I leave a particular town each day, then I see it again when I arrive at the next town each night. In between I generally see potholes, empty fields, run-down villages and, well, dogs, but I forget that there’s even a river there. Of course the route now is not along purpose built cycleways either, so I have to deal with heavy, and aggressive, traffic throughout the day. It’s a sad reality, but at this point it really has become just a case of going through the motions to try and get to the end.
Speaking of which: I am now (hopefully) only two days away from Constanta, my final destination! It’s strange to think that after two months this journey is nearly over, and that in a few days I wont need to put padded shorts on when I get up. But it’s also going to be a huge sense of satisfaction and relief when I finally get there. The forecast is looking good for the next few days, so lets see what the Black Sea has to offer!