Sore Arse Chronicles #8: Black Sea Coast, Turkey, and Home!

So, it’s been a while since my previous blog, and the majority of the days actually weren’t spent on the bike. So, I’m going to do away with the daily write up format, which was getting a bit dull anyway, and focus on a few chronological points of interest from my final weeks on the road.

 

My Transylvanian Nightmare

My last blog covered my cycling in Transylvania, but before I left the region I headed up into the Carpathian Mountains on foot for the day- and it all went horribly wrong.

I won’t go into detail- you’ll have to ask me personally sometime if you want to hear the whole sorry story!- but, basically, I made a pig’s ear of my journey down a mountain, and ended up stuck in a dried up stream. I found myself stranded between two dry waterfalls too tall to pass, between valley walls too steep too escape. I had no food, no warm clothes, no functioning phone- and it was already just about dark. I yelled for help but no one came. So, resigned to my fate, I curled myself into a ball and spent a cold night up at 1,400m above sea level.

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The route down the mountain, little more than a ledge on the cliff in places

When daylight returned after a miserable night, I resumed my yelling. A couple of Romanian climbers heard me and fought there way through the forest from the trail to help. As it happened, it turned out I was able to climb out of the valley unaided, and my situation wasn’t quite as dire as I’d thought, but I was still unbelievably grateful.

So, with my tail between my legs, off I went. It was a pretty damn unpleasant experience and I can only hope I’ll not be so reckless- or feckless- on mountains in the future. But, as one of the climbers said to me, at least I’ve now got an interesting story to tell for the rest of my life!

 

The Black Sea Coast: Ronania

After two long months inland, I finally made it to the Black Sea at the city of Constanta. The fact I had just taken a train for 200km rather than cycling rather ruined the sense of achievement of completing my European coast-to-coast, but hey, I cycled most of the way. I’m happy to give my ego a little rub regardless. 

Aside from that, it was just nice to arrive at the coast after two months inland. What is it about the sea that makes us all like being next to it, anyway? It’s just a big blue vat of brine, and yet its presence is always good for the soul somehow.

After being blighted with annoying dogs ever since I arrived in Romania, I had came to conclusion that they were all bark and no bite- but no. On my penultimate day in the country, one of the little buggers bit me on the heel as I was innocently cycling past. It wasn’t particularly painful and it’s teeth scratched my skin rather than pierced it, but it wasn’t very nice regardless. I was in a mood with the species as a whole for an hour until I came across three adorable puppies frolicking in a garden together, and thus my love of dogs was restored.

That afternoon, I realised I had punctured my front tyre. That was my first puncture since the day I left London about 70 days earlier. Within a few minutes, I realised my rear tyre was punctured too. London buses etc etc. Still, I ought to appreciate having gone so long without any flats.

 

The Black Sea Coast: Bulgaria

Next, I travelled down the east coast of Bulgaria for a few days. My first night in the country was spent camped on the edge of a windswept cliff above the sea. It was undoubtedly the most special place I’d camped on the trip up til then- it was deserted, with a fantastic view of the night sky and the spectacular sunrise that followed.

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Sunrise on the Bulgarian coast

I spent a couple of nights in a town just outside the major port city Varna, before continuing my journey south. The route from there to the city of Burgas was one of the toughest days of cycling of the whole trip. There were lots of kilometres to cover, and the road was constantly undulating- one hill went from sea level to 450m, and over the whole distance there was 1,600m of climbing.

The route took me inland, so it gave me a chance to see a more authentic version of Bulgaria away from the tourist resorts on the coast. The countryside was more arid than any I’d seen in previous countries, while the towns and villages lacked the rustic charm of their counterparts over the border in Romania.

As in Romania, there were more horses and carts, roadside prostitutes, crumbling roads and occasionally dangerous driving. I came across the aftermath of a collision near Varna, and it wasn’t that surprising. There were a couple of worryingly close passes by lorries, and more drivers driving straight at me to overtake someone. Fortunately, when I headed inland to tackle the hills and make a slight shortcut, I was able to escape the traffic for a few pleasant hours.

Arriving in Burgas felt a bit like the end of the road. I decided a while ago that I would take a bus rather than cycling on to Istanbul, since all the roads annoyingly veer inland into the hills rather than following the coast. I also didn’t fancy spending several more days battling with heavy traffic, and the bus was too tempting an option to turn down.

 

Why You Should Visit Cappadocia

From Bulgaria, a couple of buses took me straight to Cappadocia in central Turkey, where I spent a happy week exploring both on two wheels and two feet. It is one of the most spectacular place I’ve ever visited, and yet I sometimes feel people aren’t that familiar with it, that it doesn’t get the attention it deserves. So here are a few reasons why you should consider visiting someday!

The valleys have been inhabited for millenia, and there are thousands of caves carved into the rock. Most of them are available to be explored; get lucky and you might find one with ancient Christian murals painted on the walls.

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Most of us see a giant rock tumbling down a mountainside as a hazard. Not the ancient Cappadocians- they saw an opportunity for a new home!

There’s a big volcano nearby.

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Cappadocia is right in the centre of Turkey, one of the best countries in the world to visit. A few hours of travel in any direction will take you to some other amazing place.

There are some spectacular, steep walled valleys- some looked a bit like miniature Grand Canyons.

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It’s excellent value. Accommodation, restaurants and tours all cost a fraction of what you’d expect to pay in Western Europe.

It’s not quite a desert, but the landscape certainly has that look about it.

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Every morning the hot air balloons swarm about in the sky. They’re pretty affordable, but watching them all from below costs nothing at all!

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If you’re immature, you’ll enjoy Love Valley.

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That Time I Fell Off My Bike

I spent a couple of days on the bike in and around Cappadocia- my final two days of cycling on the trip. The sun was relentless and the road was constantly undulating, but overall it was a brilliant experience. It gave me a chance to see some amazing scenery, visit little towns and villages well off the tourist trail, and camp for a night in the middle of nowhere.

Less positively, after 40-odd days and over 4,000km, the moment I’d always feared finally occurred: I feel off my bike.

To be honest, it was entirely my own fault. As I went down a big hill with amazing views stretching far into the distance, I decided I ought to capture the experience on my camera. So I started videoing, until I learnt that controlling a bike downhill around a corner with only one hand is actually quite difficult.

I drifted wide into a big pile of rocks, travelling at perhaps 25- 30kph, at which point I bade farewell to the bike, vaulted over the handlebars, and soared through the air like a lanky exocet missile. I landed on another pile of rocks, thoroughly cutting and bruising myself all down the right side of my body. And yet, despite my stupidity, both myself and the bike were otherwise undamaged. So I dusted myself off and went on my way.

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The road I fell on. Perhaps you can appreciate how the scenery distracted me!

Istanbul

And so to Istanbul, the end of the road. And hey, look, I already wrote a brief blog about Istanbul two years ago, so if you’re interested just go and read that*. My opinion that it is a contender for the the mantle of World’s Greatest City remains unchanged- it’s a special place.

* Except I just checked and all the photos have gone, rendering it essentially useless. Bit of advice to the world: never use fucking WordPress…

 

Final Thoughts

Well, that’s just about it. I’m not going to conclude with some pretentious paragraph- oh, you know what, that actually sounds like fun, so let’s give it a go:

“After three gruelling months of courage and determination, sweat, blood and tears, I rolled into Istanbul to a hero’s welcome. Locals gazed with adoring eyes as I cruised down the avenues, showering me with flowers as though I were a victorious Ottoman general returning from the battlefield.”

“As I stood at the water’s edge and surveyed the gleaming Bosphorus, a solitary tear rolled down my cheek. It tasted of pure victory. I considered everything I had achieved. Europe behind me lay vanquished, no match for me and my trusty companion Darren the Bicycle. I had stormed through countries as though they weren’t there. Germany? Pah! Serbia? Why, I could’ve cycled that with my little finger!”

“A young boy, pure admiration gleaming in his bright eyes, ventured forward. ‘Oh heroic Englishman!’ he gushed, ‘whatever next for you? How much more can you achieve?’

“Smiling, I patted the child on the head, and spoke from the heart. ‘Young man’, I proclaimed, pointing upwards, ‘the sky’s the limit.’ And, with that, I raised my hand in triumphant salute, and rode off into the sunset, never to return.”

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Sore Arse Chronicles #7: Serbia, Iron Gates Gorge, and Transylvania

Day 50, August 1st, Budapest to Subotica, 62km

I’m sat on a stationary train, waiting to leave Budapest for a trip to southern Hungary. Today is surely the hottest day of the trip so far. It’s absolutely sweltering, even more so than the previous days, and I’m so glad I don’t have to battle the traffic out of the city in the midday heat. Of course, I’m headed south, and it’s only going to get hotter. The temperature today is about 36°C, but it’s predicted to hit 40°C when I’m in Belgrade at the weekend.

—–

First thoughts on Serbia: after the surprisingly affluent Slovakia and Hungary, this country feels like the true start of Eastern Europe. Within minutes of crossing the notorious border, its tall barbed wire fence the legacy of the 2015 Balkan migrant influx, things began to look and feel different. Everything looks a bit more shabby and old fashioned. The quality of the roads is worse, and there are some real bangers on them- I wasn’t aware there were still Yugo cars in use! The Cyrillic alphabet* makes an appearance, and I’ve already spotted a few mosques.

*It never occurred to me until today that the term ‘alphabet’ is simply the Greek letters Alpha and Beta put together. A truly mind-blowing realisation.

While Subotica seemed a nice city and there were some cheap hotels to stay in, I decided it would be a good opportunity to try wild camping for the first time. So I cycled for a few kilometres on the road out of town as darkness crept in, eventually veering off down a dirt road between farm fields looking for somewhere to settle down.

It was more difficult than I’d anticipated, as there were still people out farming despite the late hour, but I eventually found a suitable patch of grass partially obscured by shrubs. I didn’t bother with a tent, instead lying beneath the starry sky in a mosquito net with a cacophony of chirping insects to lull me off to sleep. It wasn’t the best night’s sleep I’ll ever have, but it was a mini adventure and I’m glad I did it!

Day 51, August 2nd, Subotica to Novi Sad, 95km

Today was not a very enjoyable day on the bike. The sun was blazing, the temperatures were higher than any I’ve experienced in years, and the road was just a straight line with occasional kinks, stretching on and on through tedious countryside. I had to drink litre after litre of water, and a sore throat I’ve picked up seems to be the harbinger of something more serious. If it deteriorates further I may need to postpone my next travel days- cycling in 40°C heat while ill doesn’t seem like the smartest of ideas…

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Typical Serbian scenery

I’d must confess, the least enjoyable part of this cycling trip has been, erm, the cycling. To be fair, I love the feeling I’m crossing the continent under my own steam, and I’ve loved the way it enables me to visit places I probably never would otherwise. And there have been some wonderful days in the saddle, too. But too often it just feels like a long hard slog, and I find myself counting down the kilometres until I reach my destination. I reckon the cycling aspect isn’t something I’ll truly appreciate until I look back on what I’ve done in years to come, especially with my trusty rose-tinted glasses on.

Day 52, August 3rd, Novi Sad

Move along, people, nothing to see here: it was an uneventful day spent largely indoors hiding from the sun. The highlight was probably going to the shop to buy medicine for the ailment I’ve picked up. Novi Sad is the second biggest city in Serbia, yet it’s surprisingly lacking in things to do and see… I will have No-vi Sadness about leaving. Ho, Ho! That was a real diamond pun!

Day 53, August 4th, Novi Sad to Belgrade, 104km (3002km overall) 

Since I’ve been feeling a bit ill in recent days, I considered skipping this section on the train, in case the sky-high temperatures made things a whole lot worse. In the end, I chose to try and cycle the route as planned, and I’m quite glad I did so. The route was more interesting than previous days, taking me through some small towns and villages close to the river. While I didn’t see abject poverty, these places were quite clearly poor and underdeveloped. The economic gulf between Hungary and Serbia has felt larger than the one crossing the former Iron Curtain border out of Austria.

A universal sign of a developing country is the sight of stray dogs scurrying around on the streets. I met one friendly little fella when I stopped for a drink, his frantically wagging tail cheering me up. Later, though, I came across another a road dog- but this one lay dead, it’s luck inevitably having run out. Further along the road, a lifeless fox had met a similar demise.

When you’re cycling, you have so much more time to notice not just all the roadkill- every dead hedgehog is a dagger in my heart- but also the regular sight of roadside monuments and floral tributes to dead motorists (almost all young men, incidentally). A few more weeks of this and the grim reaper might start haunting my dreams…

 

Day 54, August 5th, Belgrade

Of the four capital cities on the Danube, poor Belgrade has drawn the short straw in terms of appearance. After the grandeur of Budapest, Vienna, and even Bratislava, Belgrade seems rather ugly. Lots of decades old concrete buildings, crumbling walls and pavements, graffiti scrawled everywhere… To say it could do with a lick of paint would be an understatement.

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What it lacks in appearance, however, it makes up for in character. I’m quite happy to be in a “proper” city, not another tourist trap like the settlements upstream. Belgrade has a great reputation for nightlife in particular, with the city’s two rivers, the Sava and Danube, lined with floating bars and nightclubs.

Me and two friends actually visited one of these establishments back in 2010, as wee 20 year olds on a interrailing trip through Europe. One of my intoxicated chums was alleged to have damaged the bathroom window in his merriment before fleeing, so the burly, shaven-headed bouncers rounded up the other two of us, and threatened us with an admittedly creative assortment of assault techniques unless we persuaded him to return. An hour later, the impasse came to an end and we were released, forbidden to return. Ah, memories…

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An exhibition outside the Parliament building, right next to another one castigating Albanians

 

Days 55, 56 and 57 – I was in suspended animation for three days, and don’t remember anything. Sorry.

 

Day 58, August 9th, Belgrade

So, today is my sixth day in Belgrade, and my last full one, for I have decided I will leave tomorrow. I had not intended to stay here for so long, but the persistently sky-high temperatures made me reevaluate my plans. I decided the sensible thing to do would be to take a few days off until it cooled down.

Well, that masterplan has become a bit of a failure. The temperature is still up in the high thirties every day, and I’ve become too impatient to wait for the cooler temperatures predicted to arrive later in the week. So, for the next two days I’ll be cycling in the same scorching heat that I was trying to avoid…

——

It’s 8:11pm, and I’m at the Partizan Stadium in Belgrade to watch a football match. The game is barely ten minutes old, but it’s already 1-1 between Partizan and the visitors, Vozdovac. I actually got in for free. I asked the steward on the gates where I could buy a ticket, and he just grinned and waved me on in.

The atmosphere inside isn’t exactly electric. It’s a 35,000 seater stadium, and I’d estimate it’s about 10% full. Partizan are said to be the best supported team in Serbia, too! Most of the ground is very quiet, but the Partizan ultras behind one end are making a constant racket regardless of what’s going on in the game. When Partizan won a penalty, it took me ages to notice because there was no crowd reaction. No ‘oohs’ or ‘ahhs’, minimal celebrating or applause, just incessant chanting and drum banging. It’s actually getting a bit monotonous…

—–

Full time. The visitors Vozdovac surprisingly won 3-1. As far as I was concerned, the game itself was far less memorable than what the Partizan ultras did when the opponents took the lead. On the fence at the bottom of the stand, a row of flares perhaps 50m long suddenly ignited, and within a minute the whole stadium was engulfed in thick white smoke. The game was stopped for a couple of minutes until the clouds had dispersed, and then play resumed again. No one else seemed to bat an eyelid or prevent the flares being lit. It was all very strange!

 

Day 59, August 10th, Belgrade to Moldova Veche, 152km

It’s half one, and the first part of my ambitious schedule for today is over. I am in the town of Bela Crkva- vowels are in short supply here- on the border to Romania, which I shall cross shortly. I set off early so I could make some progress before the temperatures were lower, covering 105km to get here, but I still have a lot further to go- it’s shaping up to be by far my longest day so far. The route thus far has been thoroughly unremarkable, but mercifully flat.

I set off again a few hours later and soon arrived in country number nine, Romania. The customs inspector on the border asked if I was carrying any cigarettes, alcohol or guns, and when I replied “no” his incredulous reaction made me check whether I’d misheard the question. Good job he didn’t mention drugs- the pressure probably would have led me to own up about all the cocaine stashed inside my inner tubes…

I had to climb and descend a big hill to get back to the Danube, and by the time I had found a shop to stock up on food and drink it was getting dark, and I had to rush to find a decent wild camping spot. I thought I’d found the perfect place, a huge sandy expanse away from the main road, but I’d gotten set up I realised the downside. From the sand emerged multitudes of these creepy, scorpion-like bugs, that swarmed across all of my stuff. I took refuge inside my tent, but the little bastards just found their way in through a tear in the side.

Then, the grotesque critters started biting me, and I realised I was going to need a new sleeping arrangement lest the bugs crawl across and nibble my face all night. There was a big pipe that, in my desperation, I tried to lie along, but that was never going to work. In the end I laid out my mat on the sand and hid beneath my tattered bug net, and thankfully it did the trick. But I had a rubbish night’s sleep, partly because I was too scared to emerge for a much needed wee in case my foe seized the opportunity to invade. God, for a big man I am quite a pansy!

Incidentally, in the morning I awoke to find the hordes had all vanished, save for one dumby left inside my bag. It was like their existence had just been some horrible nightmare, but I’m quite sure it really happened.

 

Day 60, August 11th, Moldova Veche to Drobeta Turnu Severin, 141km

After my rubbish night’s sleep, I set off for another long day with much yawning and eye droopage. It soon became clear I was going to have to battle not just high temperatures but an annoying headwind, but at least this time the scenery was stunning. It was to be my final day following the Danube, and on this long stretch forming the border between Serbia and Romania it is at its most scenic.

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The river cuts its way through the tail end of the Carpathians Mountains, forming a gorge- known as the Iron Gates- with huge hills towering above on both sides. The river itself becomes a bit strange, too, in some places ballooning into huge, lake sized expanses, while in others narrowing to the width it had been way upstream in Germany. The views were quite reminiscent of the Alpine landscapes of Switzerland. Happily, the road clings to the water’s edge almost the whole way through the gorge.

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I tried to appreciate the scenery, but it was another tough day, and I couldn’t spare much time for resting. There were a couple of big hills, and the first one I had the misfortune to tackle during the hottest part of the day. Again, it was a race to consume liquid as quickly as my body sweated itself dry, but in this rural area just finding shops was difficult enough.

After a rather scary final 20km along a very busy road, I finally reached the city of Drobeta Turnu Severin. I headed to Lidl to stock up for another wild camp, and as I was packing my stuff away I bumped into a Taiwanese man, doing the same route as me but in reverse- Istanbul to London! Despite the purported popularity of the Euro Velo 6 route, I hadn’t come across any cycle tourers on the road for ages, and it was interesting to finally meet one of my bicycle brethren.

Day 61, August 12th, Drobeta Turnu Severin to Craiova, 107km (and to Sibiu by train)

It’s late afternoon, and I’m on a train heading northwards towards Transylvania in the heart of Romania. I finished the final part of the gruelling 400km trip across Serbia into southern Romania earlier, and I’m very glad to be able to sit back, relax, and enjoy the views of the looming Carpathians Mountains out of the windows.

The route today couldn’t have been much more straightforward- I left my camp, jumped straight on the road, and followed the same one all the way to my destination. Unfortunately, that road was probably the busiest I’ve had to cycle along on the trip thus far. There was a little margin on the outside which I could stick to, so it wasn’t particularly unsafe, but it’s just not very pleasant to have cars and lorries speeding past every few seconds for hours on end.

I got a better sense of the real Romania today. I’ve been to the country before, but my time was spent in the capital a day other more tourist friendly areas. It’s certainly been been pretty eye opening- stray dogs chasing me down the street, children begging, quite a few horse drawn carts, plastic bottles lining the road where they apparently been flung out of car windows.

Unfortunately, that was about all the interest I could take from the ride. Perhaps because I was always on the same road and there were few milestones to aim for, it seemed to drag on forever. I pedalled and pedalled and pedalled beneath the unrelenting sun, counting down the kilometres until I reached the end, drinking litres of water yet always needing even more. The road dipped up and down, and yesterday’s headwind made an unwelcome return.

Now, I feel utterly exhausted. My thighs are aching. I haven’t had a shower in three days so I’m covered in 72 hours worth of dirt and sweat, and probably have the odour to match. I’m unshaven and my hair is dishevelled, but then I suppose that’s always the case really. And for the first time, the blog series title is truly accurate: my arse really is rather sore!

Day 62, August 13th, Sibiu

A rest day, though it hasn’t been long enough to rehabilitate my aching legs. Sibiu is a nice little city, but it seems so inauthentic compared to the “real” Romania outside. Most of its historic buildings have been restored in recent years, and it has attracted legions of domestic tourists. The city feels like an island of relative prosperity surrounded by rural areas with which it has little in common.

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Sibiu, with the Carpathian Mountains in the distance

Day 63, August 14th, Sibiu to Sighisoara, 106km

After the blazing heat of recent weeks, temperatures were mercifully around ten degrees lower for my first day of cycling in Transylvania. It felt strange to be a bit cold at times, to cycle up a hill without losing half my body weight in sweat…

The route today was a really nice one. The undulating roads directed me through some pleasant countryside, full of farms and rolling green hills. There were a couple of Transylvania’s famous castles along the way, but most eye opening were the small villages dotted along the road. Passing through these little rural communities was like going back in a time warp.

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One of many little villages along the road

Once again, there were plenty of horse-drawn carts, with whole families sat on the back carrying their crops. Wizened old men sat outside watching the world go by, while tiny elderly women in headscarves tended their gardens. The buildings were all painted in different colours, but some of them were crumbling away badly. Perhaps the strangest sight was one bloke slicing away at his field with a scythe!

Once again, rural Romanian dogs are proving quite a nuisance. It usually goes like this: I’m cycling nonchalantly along a road when a dog in the distance, presumably taking its turn on sentry duty, starts barking manically. Then a bunch of them come sprinting out into the road, swarming around the bike, yapping like crazy, and chasing me for maybe 100m or so. Sometimes it’s amusing, usually it’s annoying, but when the packs are big enough it can be a bit frightening. I’ve seen enough dead dogs on the roads lately, though, to know that their tactics are more likely to bring harm to themselves than me.

Sighisoara itself is a really nice little town. Pretty small, but still a bit more time to see the sights would have been nice. The way the old town is perched up on a hilltop overlooking the rest of the city and the countryside is really cool. I can’t think of too many towns I’ve been to with such an impressive setting.

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Sighisoara’s hilltop old town

Day 64, August 15th, Sighisoara to Brasov, 130km

Another long day on the bike, and one that followed much the same pattern as yesterday: riding along undulating roads through pleasant countryside past rustic villages and ancient castles. There were a couple of other noteworthy things I spotted today: scantily clad women- prostitutes, presumably- stood along the side of the highway near Sighisoara, and later, a young kid in the fields marshalling a pack of about a hundred sheep. Life is very different out here…

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Rupea Castle, not one of Transylvania’s better preserved fortifications 

After crossing a big hill two thirds of the way through, the land flattened out and the vague silhouettes of the Carpathian Mountains appeared on the horizon, shrouded in haze. I pedalled southwards and gradually they grew larger, until I reached the historic city of Brasov at their feevt. This place was founded around 800 years ago by German settlers, which seems odd because the current German border is almost 1,000km from here.

And that is all for now. Only two and a half countries to go!

Sore Arse Chronicles #6: Slovakia and Hungary

Day 39, July 21st, Vienna to Bratislava, 60km

There can’t be many other pairs of capital cities in the world that are located as close together as Vienna and Bratislava. It’s quite odd being able to cycle in just a few hours from one major city to another. It was a particularly quick day because much of the route was along a totally straight path. There was little in the way of scenery, no vehicular traffic and few other cyclists, meaning it was about as mentally stimulating as riding an exercise bike…

Bratislava lies just a few kilometres from the Austrian border, and back in the days when it was just another city in the Austro-Hungarian empire, a majority of the citizens were German speakers. There’s little evidence of that today, though, besides the fancy old buildings in the historic centre.

There have been a few subtle changes I’ve noticed since crossing the border. Prices suddenly got a lot cheaper, which I’ve been looking forward to for weeks! There is less ethnic diversity on the streets. Women dress in more skimpy clothes! There are more beggars and drunks. Outside of the well preserved city centre, everything feels a bit shabbier, a bit more rough around the edges. Of course, it’s hardly the vast contrast that must have existed while Slovakia was still a communist country.

I quite like Bratislava. With the exception of the annoying stag party groups it’s not especially packed with tourists. In the evening I went for a walk through the city, and I’m fast learning that this is the best time of day to appreciate a place. Some cities seem to have so much more character and atmosphere under the cover of darkness. Things that would seem mundane in the daylight take on a slight aura: the sounds of shoes clip-clopping on the cobbles, the relative silence of the backstreets, floodlit statues and monuments standing out against the night sky.

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Bratislava’s most interesting monument, the UFO bridge

Day 40, July 22nd, Bratislava

Today I did a walking tour and learned some cool stuff about Slovakia and its capital!

– As in other formerly communist countries, many older people are nostalgic for the way things used to be before democracy. A lot of them found the transition to capitalism difficult.

– Farm nationalisation during the Communist era drove thousands to leave the countryside and settle in Bratislava. Many of these migrants were housed in a hastily constructed area of the city across the river, which contains rows and rows of concrete tower blocks. Today, a quarter of the city’s population lives there.

– New buildings like these were often built with extremely thin walls, so neighbours could snoop on each other- and denounce them to the authorities if they were watching foreign TV.

– Czechoslovakia did not split due to a refendum. Polls suggested there was no appetite for division, but that’s what they got because of a political dispute between the Czech and Slovak leaders.

– The Czech and Slovak languages are very similar and easily mutually intelligible.

– One of the main differences between the two countries is in religion. While Czech Republic is one of the world’s most atheist nations, Slovakia remains piously Catholic.

– Ice hockey is more popular than football in Slovakia.

– The EU has tried to redistribute migrants that arrived since 2015 using a quota system. Slovakia has steadfastly refused to accept a single one of its allocated migrants. As in the rest of Europe, right-wing sentiment is on the rise…

– Hungary is Slovakia’s most disliked neighbour, as they were under the control of its royal family for centuries

Day 41, July 23rd, Bratislava to Gyor, 91km

After less than two days in Slovakia, today I departed for country number seven of the journey, Hungary. Having only previously used Euros and Swiss Francs, which have an almost identical value, I now have to get used to a strange new currency, the Hungarian Forint. More challenging still is the language- Hungarian words look like they were constructed during a very drunken game of scrabble.

The cycle route was surprisingly good, and most of the route was on a separate path running adjacent to the road. However, the cycling was pretty dull. Hungary is quite a featureless place, and the towns and villages I passed through were somewhat unremarkable. The highlights of my day, as is quite often the case, were the even rest stops. It’s lovely to have a little picnic and a beer under the shade of a tree, to read a book or do a crossword and appreciate the quiet. These may be the happiest moments I remember when I look back on this trip.

Day 42, July 24th, Gyor to Esztergom, 87km

I’ve been reasonably lucky with the weather so far on this journey, but that came to an end today. The clouds just couldn’t make their damn minds up, and it rained on five separate occasions. Fortunately, I actually managed to get through the day without too much of a soaking, by sheltering in any random place I could find: farm buildings, supermarkets, factories, and the like.

For the first day in a while I found myself riding on roads most of the way- looks like I’ll have to curtail my aforementioned mid journey beer stops. The quality of the road surface is alarmingly inconsistent: one stretch might be as smooth as a baby’s behind, yet the next could be covered with potholes, steep ridges and uneven drain covers, crumbling away to stones by the edge.

Most of the traffic gave me a wide berth, but one idiotic bus driver overtook me with what felt like five centimetres of clearance. It would only take a tiny lapse of judgement on his part, or me having to jink slightly to avoid a pothole, and I’d be dead. I just hope I don’t have to encounter such reckless drivers regularly- I subscribe to the law of averages, and I know sooner or later a close pass will bring doom.

And on that cheery note I shall end my ramblings for today!

Day 43, July 25th, Esztergom to Budapest, 73km

As the clouds had rained themselves bare overnight, I had a quick look around Esztergom before I left in the morning. The city is known as the “Rome of Hungary”, but I think the marketing people might have been getting a bit carried away with that nickname. The gigantic basilica atop the hill was well worth a visit, though. According to Wikipedia it’s still Hungary’s tallest building. I doubt there are many countries where a religious building is still the largest.

Insteadnof following the Eurovelo 6 route into Budapest, I took a more direct path on a quiet, sinuous road through the forested hills. After two weeks of almost constantly flat cycling, it made a nice change, and the hour of battling uphill was probably worth it for the long, rapid downhill that followed. I hit a new top speed of 65kph!

I visited Budapest already seven years ago, but I forgot quite how spectacular it was. I think it could be the most beautiful city of the journey so far, with its huge, grandiose buildings and wonderful location on the river banks. Of all the Danube settlements I’ve cycled through, Budapest is the first where the river flows right through the heart of the city, where it feels like an integral part of what makes the place special. I suppose that’s because it was once the boundary between to separate cities, Buda and Pest.

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Why must cities always go with lion statues? The whole animal kingdom to choose from and it’s always the same pick…

Day 44, July 26th, Budapest

It rained a lot this afternoon. Normally, I would consider myself to be a total rainophobe, and the wet stuff is simply an annoyance. But on this occasion, I was grateful for it, because it created one of the most impressive visual spectacles I’ve ever seen.

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The storm clouds roll in…

I had a walk up a hill rising above the west bank of the Danube, and noticed a pack of fierce, swirling clouds swooping in from the countryside. The wind picked up, the sky grew ever darker, and then the inevitable rainstorm set in. An hour later, with the rain subsiding but still falling, the sun poked through the clouds. From my spot at the Fisherman’s Bastion viewpoint, I had the perfect view of a huge rainbow forming a complete arch across the city, bridging the Danube.

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… And the sun makes a brief return

Day 45, July 27th, Budapest

I’m writing this from atop the biggest hill in Budapest, even taller than the one I visited yesterday. I’ve been here before, but my memory totally failed to do the view justice. It’s absolutely stunning!

I can see my future from this vantage point (wait, hear me out). To the north west, where I travelled from two days ago, the horizon is covered with a spread of hills. But to the east and particularly the south, it’s as flat as a pancake. Pannonian cake flat, you might say, for I believe that is the name of the plains that stretch down from here into Croatia and Serbia.

I decided in recent days that I was going to skip the section between Budapest and Novi Sad by taking a train, but I was earlier informed that this wasn’t an option. Informed in an unfriendly manner, I must add- Eastern Europe apparently hasn’t subscribed to the “Service with a smile” and “The customer is always right” mantras.

Anyway, as I was leaving, a Dutch guy waiting in the queue came and offered some advice. He had overhead my difficulties, and suggested I take a domestic train to the border, and then go by bus from there. I decided to take him on the first part, so on Tuesday I will take a train to a town in the south of the country, thus saving myself a day or two of riding through a fairly dull part of the world. I’ll end up cycling away from the Danube for a day and a half, but I’m sure it’ll manage without me.

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The view from the hilltop Citadella

Day 46, July 28th, Budapest

Last night, my dad arrived in Budapest all the way from the UK. Together we’re off to see the Hungarian GP this weekend!

After an early start and a long trip out the to the Hungaroring circuit, we walked all around the venue and were able to get a view of pretty much every corner, except turns two and three. Each area had its own appeal. The pit straight let us see the cars at their quickest, the final corner was a good spot for watching the drivers accelerate out onto the straight, while the long twisty part at the back side of the circuit was a good spot to see high speed cornering.

The best viewing spot was probably right at the far end of the circuit, overlooking turns four to eight. It gave a good mix of speed, acceleration, heavy braking and fast cornering, and that’s probably where we’ll watch the action from tomorrow.

It was quite notable how muted the sound of the current, hybrid power F1 engines are compared to their predecessors. The F2 cars were so much louder and thus arguably more of a thrill to witness, while the sound created by the pair of two seater F1 cars, presumably dating from the early 2000s and thus equipped with V10s, was just exhilarating

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A rare smattering of clouds above the racetrack.

Day 47, July 29th, Budapest

Day 2 at the Hungarian GP. We watched qualifying and a bunch of support races and it was another enjoyable day.

There are so many nationalities present in the stands at the Hungarian GP. It’s wonderful how so many people from far and wide are coming to the event, and I really enjoyed just making a mental tally of the countries represented. If my memory serves me right, the nationalities I noticed through flags, car registrations plates and languages spoken were as follows… Ahem:

UK, France, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Malta, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Greece, Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Romania, Bulgaria, Brazil, Mexico, USA, Australia, China, India, and… Zimbabwe.

And no doubt there were plenty of other spectators from even more countries that weren’t advertising their nationality, too.

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Alonso fans were few and far between. How times have changed

The two dominant foreign nationalities seemed to be the Dutch and Finns, apparently there to support Max Verstappen and Kimi Raikkonen respectively. There was a pub next to the train station, all decked out in Finnish flags and blaring the Eurodance. We overheard one of them chanting: “I am blue, I am white, I am Finnish dynamite!”

We watched most of the day’s action from up at the chicane again, but it wasn’t a particularly exciting day at that part of the track. Barely a single car went off there all weekend! Qualifying was shaping up nicely, but the grid in the end wasn’t as mixed as we’d hoped, the cars lining up in team order.

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One of the Force India’s rounding Turn 10

Day 48, July 30th, Budapest

Race day at the Hungaroring! After the usual trek to the circuit, we arrived in time for the support races, watching GP3 and F2 from the general admission spot up on the hill overlooking the pit straight. It might have been a good spot to watch the race from, but it filled up so early in the morning there was barely a patch of grass left to claim!..

As the day went on the anticipation for the Grand Prix built up. And yet… The stands were often eerily quiet. The sporting events I’m most familiar with, football matches in England, are full of chanting, applause, booing, jeering, passion, emotion, vitriol, and a buzz of chatter amplified by the four sides of the stadium. At an F1 race, at least at the two I have experienced, there is little of this. It’s an annual event rather than a weekly ritual. Everyone is unfamiliar with those around them, with a mix of nationalities and allegiances. When there were no cars on track, the sudden silence felt strangely deafening!

The beginning of the race, of course, was a lot of fun. To see the cars stream up the hill and then fly through the chicane in formation was a thrill, and it was an unusual experience to see the field spread out lap after lap. Unfortunately, it became a bit of a procession. There was hardly an overtaking move in the whole race, and certainly none where we were watching.

Into the second half of the race things spiced up a bit as the front four cars all bunched up together, but it became clear there probably wasn’t going to be any change of position- except the one Mercedes engineered amongst their drivers, of course…

Towards the end we moved towards the final corner, in order to try and get on the track to see the podium at the end. They kept us waiting, but finally the gates swung open and the crowds poured onto the track.

For me, this was the highlight of the weekend. To be part of this big mass of excited fans dashing towards the podium, on the same tarmac that the cars had been tearing around barely ten minutes earlier, was just amazing. I collected a nice little souvenir- a piece of discarded tyre rubber from one of the cars- and got a great look at the cars up close as they were being weighed in the pits only a few metres away.

On the track, looking up at the drivers on the podium, I finally felt a sense of a football style atmosphere. There were thousands of us crammed into a small space, with flags flying, flares being burnt, airhorns blaring, and fans chanting. It only lasted a few minutes before the drivers departed and we were ushered towards the exits, but it was great fun while it lasted!

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Adoration of Ferrari + adoration of Raikkonen = an awful lot of fans dressed in red

And that was my experience of the Hungarian Grand Prix! Only the second race I’ve ever attended, but it was different in so many ways to the event I visited in China. Next time I’d like to visit somewhere different for the variety, but I could certainly recommend the race to anyone looking for a fun weekend at relatively affordable prices in a wonderful city.

Day 49, July 31st, Budapest

Today was quite a lazy day largely spent indoors, resting after the weekend and hiding away from the sun. But in the evening I did get out and saw a bit of the city at night, including the huge synagogue (Budapest used to have a huge Jewish population) and basilica, one of the famous “ruin bars”, and the wonderful night view across the river.

I also got talking to a Hungarian person properly for the first time! Here are a few of the things I learnt:

– If Hungary hadn’t lost the First World War, its territory would likely be twice as big today. There are still large areas of Romania populated mainly by Hungarians.

– The country remains quite intolerant and racist, with anti Jewish attitudes still commonplace.

– Teachers are poorly paid, and therefore the standard of education remains low.

– A lot of Hungarian university students end up studying abroad.

– Hungarian people can be quite passionate and argumentative.

– The Hungarian language is one of the most difficult to learn in the world.

– Hungary has been invaded or occupied so many times over the centuries: by the Mongols, the Turks, the Austrians, the Germans, the Soviets… And I’m probably missing a few!

And with that, I should wrap things up and hit publish. Next stop, Serbia!

Sore Arse Chronicles #5: Germany and Austria

Day 27, July 9th, Konstanz to Lindau, 69km

My first full day of riding in Germany has been one that promised a lot but turned out to be pretty crap. I had envisaged a leisurely ride along the shore of Lake Constance, sunlight twinkling on the gentle azure waters with a majestic Alpine vista stretching across the horizon.
What I got instead was gloomy overcast weather obscuring the views, drizzle that gradually intensified into a downpour, a cycle route that barely touched the shore, and droves of other cyclists and pedestrians clogging the few nice parts. There were some stretches on busy roads, and for the second day in a row I added a few miles to my journey by going off in completely the wrong direction. By the time I reached Lindau, apparently a really nice little city, I couldn’t really be arsed to see it.

 

So now, I’m on a train for a second time- in one sense I’m cheating and should really be cycling this route, but the city I’m heading to is actually slightly further from my final destination than the one I left from!

——–

8:09pm – Well, I’ve had a quick look around Ulm, and I got my first glimpse of the Danube. Wow, I thought, this little river I see here stretches all the way to Moldova and Ukraine. It will swell ever wider until it measure miles across, and yet here it is, maybe 60m from one side to the other. I reckon I could almost throw a stone from shore to shore- I should try that tomorrow!..

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A wonky house in Ulm. Einstein was born in this city, y’know

Day 28, July 10th, Ulm to Neuburg, 130km

Well, today was pretty disastrous. Somehow or other, I managed to lose one of the panniers- the large bags strapped to the side of the bike- during the course of the afternoon. This is somewhat mystifying, since they are clipped on quite tightly, and it’s hard to see how such a big, heavy item could just fall from the bike without me noticing. And I now find myself totally without any camping gear. All the stuff I’d amassed before leaving on this journey, the tent, sleeping bag, fly net, pannier covers, backpack, water containers, etc… Looks like I’ll need to replace it all.

It had been a long but fairly unremarkable day riding through the countryside, and while at times I’d been cheerful enough and in a good rhythm, after 100km I was looking forward to getting off the bike. The most exciting moments were probably two brief thunderstorms in the mid afternoon, but the rest of the journey largely passed without incident.

I remember a ridiculously bumpy dirt section near the end of the route… Could that have knocked it off?.. On the off road sections I tend to have both earphones in, so I probably wouldn’t have heard it, and with all the bumps perhaps I have been oblivious to the feeling of something falling off. The other theory I have is that it was stolen, but it just seems unlikely. When I arrived at the campsite I went to the bathroom for five minutes, and it’s not implausible that someone might have opportunistically grabbed it. But… in a quiet part of a small city like Neuburg, how many thieves are on the prowl? Would anyone take that risk for a random bag? And why not take the whole bike instead?

God knows what tomorrow and the coming days have in store. One moment I’m feeling glad I’m not geting too overwhelmed by this situation, and I’m learning to deal with adversity, but the next I’m regretting doing this trip. Certainly, this type of life is stressful and complicated, and that’s not even considering the physical challenge of the cycling itself. So much can go wrong, and the combination of a lost bag and a smashed phone in recent days has been pretty tough to take.

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The one good thing I’ll remember Neuburg for is this lovely view!

Day 29, July 11th, Neuburg, 25km

Well… I got my pannier back. Let me tell you the story…

My late appeal for couchsurfing hosts in Neuburg the previous night had mercifully put me in touch with a couple of locals, and one of them, Camilla, offered to come and meet me. She had brought her car, so she drove me back to a town where I thought the bag might have fallen from the bike. From there I cycled back to town the same route I’d taken he previous day, but there was nothing to be found…

I met Camilla back at her place and she tried a few more options to see if it could be located. Nothing worked, and I had sank into a self pitying despondency, slumped on the settee wondering why so many things had to go wrong. Her final idea was to put up a message on a Facebook page used by locals. By this stage I had pretty much accepted it was gone and wasn’t expecting anything.

And yet, a few minutes later Camilla excitedly announced she’d received a message from someone at the local tourist information centre, who’d been handed a bag. We went along right away, and sure enough it was mine. It was an emotional moment, akin to the scene in Home Alone when the mother is reunited with Kevin. I clasped it to my bosom and solemnly promised that never again would it leave my side.

The pannier had lain there for 24 hours, and someone had apparently helped themselves to the backpack that was inside, so unfortunately I can’t see it as a total triumph of humanity. But I’m extremely grateful to Camilla and the guy who brought it to the town- between them they saved me an awful lot of trouble and money.

Day 30, July 12th, Neuburg to Regensburg, 116km

I write this from my tent in a campsite just outside Regensburg, listening to the bloke in the tent next to mine snoring. It’s only my second night in a tent on this trip, which is pretty surprising. This thing is a bit too small for me to get comfortable in. But hey, I should be grateful just to have it after the events of the last couple of days!

After the smashed phones and lost bags of the previous days, it wasn’t too surprising when something else went wrong. This time the bike itself was in trouble, so I took it to a local bike shop to seek help. The language barrier made things difficult. I gestured to the back wheel, rotated my hands in circles, and tried to mimick the noise of the problem: gadump, gadump, gadump. The mechanic took a look at the tyre and said a few words. It’s amazing how badly I remember the three years of German I learnt at school, but I certainly retained enough of a vocabulary to register the word “kaputt”.

15 minutes later and €50 worse off, I set off with my new rear tyre on the long road to Regensburg. For a few hours it was pretty good. I passed through some nice towns and cities, including Ingolstadt of Audi fame, took an accidental detour past a vineyard, pedalled through villages full of whitewashed houses, and saw the cliffs that line the river around the town of Kelheim.

Day 31, July 13th, Regensburg to Deggendorf, 108km

There are some days on the bike where I’m having a lovely old time, and then are others where I’m just not in the right frame of mind. Today was definitely one from the latter category.

Really, there wasn’t that much reason to be in a bad mood. The sub was shining, the scenery was pleasant, it was for the most part a traffic free route, there were no big hills, and it was a rare trouble-free day I’d had in a while. And yet I just didn’t enjoy it very much at all. I pedalled on and on, counting down the kilometres to each new town, looking forward to the end of the day almost as soon as it began.

Lots of minor things bothered me unduly. Getting lost trying to get out of Regensburg was a bad start. Some ambiguous signage left me grumbling. Brief gravel tracks felt like an unbearable ordeal. Difficulty locating a supermarket left me feeling the world was against me. I suppose we all have those days where we get up on the wrong side of bed, so I hope that tomorrow will be a better day.

Day 32, July 14th, Deggendorf to Passau, 58km (2006km overall)

Not much to report here. I arrived in Passau and finished relatively early at 3pm, after passing a big flood gate and locks complex. Apparently there was a canal there connecting the Danube to the Main and the Rhine. A ship entering the Danube at the mouth in Romania can thus sail all the way through Europe to Rotterdam, which is a cool thought.

For the next two nights I’ll be couchsurfing in a student house with a few locals. It’s a place with a lot of character, very dirty and untidy, with walls covered with posters, jokes and pictures, including some of the former occupants. The disorder would drive me crazy for I had to live there permanently, but for a couple of nights it’ll do fine. Besides, anywhere is preferable to my tiny tent!

Day 33, July 15th, Passau

Today was a rest day and I was very grateful for it! I had a walk through the city, and discovered quite how beautiful it is! It’s not really a famous name, but for me it’s as nice a historic town as any I’ve seen previously in Europe, particularly due to the relatively small number of visitors.

I love how the old town is squashed in between the two rivers on a little peninsula- I always appreciate a city with a good geography! One of the rivers carries clear water while the other is a murky brown, creating a brief section before the waters merge where the channel is divided down the middle into two colours.

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Day 34, July 16th, Passau to Linz, 115km

This was really quite a straightforward day. I left Passau in the morning, went down to the river, and cycled right alongside it for the next 100km on traffic free routes through some lovely scenery right into Austria! The river valley became very steep sided, flanked on both sides by forested hillsides, which made a nice change from the Bavarian flatlands.

But generally there isn’t that much to differentiate Bavaria and Austria. The language didn’t change, the towns look much the same with similarly pretty colourful panted buildings, and the onion domed Catholic churches remain a frequent sight.

Linz itself seemed pretty nice. Wikivoyage described it as an industrial town and thus not one of Austria’s prettiest, but even an ugly Austrian town would be a jewel in the crown in the UK! I didn’t spend much time there because I had to camp a few miles down the road, but as I was passing through I came across a march commemorating the anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, full of Bosnians. Apparently, the second largest ethnic group after Austrians in the city are Bosnians, as many fled there after the war in the 1990s.

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Day 35, July 17th, Linz to Melk, 111km

I had a bad night’s sleep last night, in my shitty tent with its shitty deflating air mat, and I put me in a unpleasant mood for the rest of the day. Sometimes I overcame it and cheered up, enjoying more pleasant scenery and easy riding, but for much of the day I just wasn’t feeling in the mood for cycling. I do appreciate the ease of cycling in Austria with its flat roads and separate cycle paths, but it can become a bit dull sometimes.

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I’ve passed plenty of castles overlooking the river, but this one has to be the most picturesque so far

Day 36, July 18th, Melk to Vienna, 112km

Today I cycled 112km, yet it felt like so much more. The whole day was a battle against a persistent headwind unlike any I’ve experienced on the journey so far. Perhaps it was relatively tame in the overall scheme of things, and it certainly wasn’t the tail end or a hurricane or anything. But it certainly seemed to slow me down and probably added an hour or two to my time.

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Bridges across the Danube have to be loooong

The scenery was nice as usual, with another long section through a steep-sided valley. This Austrian section of the Danube is definitely more beautiful than the bit that preceded it in Germany, and probably much of the later stages too. Besides the rural views, I found it interesting to see the industrial side of the river, with lots of factories, shipping containers, cranes, and industrial port facilities along the shore, as well as the long narrow container boats carrying freight up and down the waterway.

Also notable were all the nudey sunbathers- mainly middle aged men, not that I was paying much attention- strewn along the river on the final stretch leading up to Vienna. I assumed that kind of a behaviour was more a German thing, but it would appear the Austrians share more than just a language with their northern neighbours. First they gave us Hitler, now this- what next?

Overall, though, it was quite a nice day. Not particularly different to the previous day’s cycling, and yet I felt quite a bit better. I wish I understood why my mood fluctuates like that!..

Day 37 and 38, July 19th- 20th, Vienna, 57km

Wow, so I cycled 57km in two days in Vienna- so much for time off the bike! It has been so much more enjoyable without the bags and without any need to hurry, though. I really enjoyed cruising along the bike lanes gazing at all the lovely sights, and particularly a bit of late night riding. Everything is more fun in the dark, that’s a fact.

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Vienna’s a really nice city, and another place I’ve visited that I reckon would be a great place to live. When I like a city, I often struggle to find the words to describe why, at least without resorting to the usual clichés. So I’ll just blurt out a few vague ideas and you can paint your own picture: Lively streets. Very bike friendly streets. Fancy architecture. Canals and rivers. Youthful, Berlin-like area daubed with a kaleidoscope of graffiti. Vibrant bar scene (damn, still stumbled into a cliché). Relaxed feel despite its size. Trams trundling along. Street musicians. Outdoors drinking. People lounging on the grass. How’s that for top notch travel writing?

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Off to Bratislava tomorrow. My time in the German linguosphere (if that’s not a word it should be) is almost at an end, after several weeks in three countries. It’ll be weird to suddenly find myself in the Slavic world, with all the cultural and linguistic difficulties that will entail. I know it’s been almost three decades since the Iron Curtain fell, but I’m definitely expecting things to be a bit more complicated…

Sore Arsed Chronicles #3: Burgundy, Jura Mountains, Romandy

Day 9, Paris, 3:39pm – I’m sat on a train rolling slowly out of Paris’ Bercy station, on an insufferably hot, muggy day. Of course, I should be cycling my way out of the city, but I made a few big changes to my plans in the last couple of days.

While France is a beautiful country, the prospect of a long detour southwards to meet the Loire just didn’t inspire me with as much excitement as it did when I planned the route. So, the next leg of the journey will be pretty different to how I’d envisaged it. I’m taking a train south east to Dijon, thus skipping about a week of cycling through central France, and instead put those days towards a sojourn east into Switzerland.

I’d already planned to go, but instead of a couple of days in the relatively flat north east, now I will be passing through the hills of eastern France into the centre of the country, to thread my way between lakes and through valleys, and with enough rest days planned to allow me to get up into the mountains and see the beautiful scenery.

In theory, it sounds much more interesting. Time will tell how it goes, but I’m more excited about a week or two in a spectacular landscape than I was about plodding through France. I do, though, have a few days left in this country, and I hope to enjoy them.

Day 10, Dijon, June 22nd, 5:58pm – I’m sat here on the edge of a fountain here in the centre of Dijon. It’s another hot, sunny day, and I’d dearly love to strip off, hop in and go for a little splish splash, but I still have a bit of dignity left and I’m determined to hang onto it.

Today has been another day off, and I’ve had a nice old time ambling about through this beautiful city, following the little trail of owls imprinted on the floor leading tourists around the places of interest. It’s probably the sort of place you’d picture when you think of the archetypal French city: cobblestones, gothic churches, restaurants and cafes spilling out onto the streets, that sort of stuff.

For my two nights in the city I’m staying with another amazingly hospitable local couple- and their exploits on a bike make mine look rather more humble. One of them once cycled between Alaska and Patagonia- even pushing his bike through the otherwise impassable jungle of Panama that links North and South America- and then together they spent two years cycling across Africa. Mind-boggling stuff.

Staying with locals is a great way to experience the reality of the places I visit- besides the obvious budgetary reasons, it’s a big part of the appeal of websites like Couchsurfing and Warm Showers. That’s how I found myself sat in a surburban garden with ten-or-so middle aged French people, few of whom spoke any English, drinking sangria and eating… erm, miscellaneous French foods.

(Incidentally, while I’m on the subject of French cuisine… Having spent much of the last week in French households, I can confirm that at least one part of the “cheese eating surrender monkeys” stereotype is dead on.)

Anyway, I couldn’t offer much to the conversation, merely blurting out my schoolboy French when the opportunity arose: le foot, bon anniversaire, nord, champignons, and other such uselessness. Though when I stood up to leave I did understand the usual height based natterings in a new language: “grande”, “deux metres”, and “le basket”.

Yesterday, as it happened, was France’s Fete De La Musique, a music extravaganza held annually on the summer solstice. I walked through the old town in the evening, coming across all sorts of music on every corner: from choirs to metal, salsa to punk, bongo troops, techno DJs, and rock bands. My favourite by far was the huge percussion ensemble marching their way through town, playing the most infectiously uplifting Brazilian samba beats imaginable. I now know what I need to do to enrich this journey: find more live music!

Day 11 – June 23rd, Dijon to Pontarlier, 136km

What I expected to be a leisurely 50km, flat ride along to a nearby town quickly escalated into something much more ambitious. I left Dijon at about midday, but made such good progress along the straight, flat roads out of town that I realised my day would be over after a couple of hours if I stuck to the original plan. I was feeling refreshed after a few days of little or no riding, so I decided to push on to do two days of cycling in one.

The problem with this masterplan was that not only would I have to cycle further than I’d travelled on a bike in my life, much of the second half of the route would take me uphill into the Jura Mountains that lie along the French border. The wide plains and sprawling farmland of the Burgundy region gradually gave way to forested hillsides as I sped along, only stopping to buy food and drinks.

There was one morale-sapping hill in particular that went on and on for a few miles, that made me just want to give up and go home. In the 30°C afternoon heat, it wasn’t much fun at all. Some people seem to choose their cycle routes based on how hilly they will be, even professing to love the struggle of getting to the top, but in my opinion these people are abnormal, freaks of nature if you will. I, on the other hand, have a well functioning brain that does the natural thing, flooding me with unhappy chemicals the whole way up and whining: wah, wah, stop, you idiot, this is horrible!

Fortunately, my willpower was strong enough to ignore its advice on this occasion, and after eight hours of almost incessant pedalling through some beautiful countryside I made it to the town of Pontarlier, to be met once again with a nice meal, tasty local beer, and a comfortable bed.

Day 12, June 24th, Pontarlier to Yverdon via Neuchatel, 104km

For the second day on the bounce I cycled a lot further than anticipated. I left Pontarlier under cloudy skies that gradually brightened as the day went on, crossing my first land border of the trip into Switzerland after about an hour. I’d like to make a quip about a British person leaving the EU again here, but I’m drawing blanks- sorry.

So, accompanied by the tinkling of cow bells, I headed downhill to the city of Neuchatel by the eponymous lake, getting up to about 60kmph at times. Normally, I love riding downhill more than almost anything else, but thus far I have felt irritatingly ambivalent about downhills. Every time the road plunges, my brain unhelpfully reminds me: yeah, yeah, enjoy it, but you’ll have to cycle back up another hill when you get to the bottom, chump. Damn my gloomy farsightedness.

Thankfully, the Swiss are apparently quite good at tunneling, so what would once have been an arduous journey across mountain passes didn’t take all that long, and I soon found myself in lovely Neuchatel, perched between the hills and the blue expanse of Switzerland’s largest self contained lake. It would be clichéd to say it was the sort of view that made the journey across the mountains worthwhile, but hey, I think I can be allowed a grandiose statement once in a while.

In the end, I pressed on to the south side of the lake, where I stayed for the night for the night, en route to Lausanne and Lake Geneva. It’s quite a detour, but hopefully a worthy one!

Day 13 – June 25th, Yverdon to Lausanne, 38km – Quite a short, largely unremarkable day on the bike. I travelled from one French speaking lakeside city to another, crossing through more lovely Swiss farmland as the Alps loomed ever larger on the horizon. Eventually, the road dropped down rather steeply into Lausanne. The city is built on the side of a big hill, which leads all the way down to the huge Lake Geneva, with the French Alps visible across the water.

This is actually my second time in Lausanne- I visited with my school 15 years ago, a trip that perhaps a few of my readers may have joined me on. I’m getting a real nostalgia attack remembering all the cool places we visited. The guy I’m staying with in Lausanne told me he’d just been to a water park that day, and upon describing it I realised it was the same one we’d visited on the school trip all those years ago!

Ah, memories…

Day 14 – June 26th, Lausanne to Montreux and back, 56km

2:18pm – I’m sat here on a pontoon jutting out into Lake Geneva- or Lac Leman, as the locals call it- near the small town of Montreux. I could get all poetic about the landscape, but I guess when I put this up I’ll just pop a picture below to save myself the trouble.

I’m tempted to go for a swim, but a large ship just bombed past, and the risk of the most ironic of all deaths- being mowed down by a boat in a landlocked country- is an indignity I’m not sure I want to risk. So for now I just shall sit here and relax.

My journey to this eastern fringe of the lake is a detour in totally the wrong direction, and I will later have to double back along the shore to Lausanne and return northwards to central Switzerland. Normally I prefer not to retrace my steps like that, but so scenic is the lakeside road that I’m quite happy with my decision to head this way. This place must be up there with the most scenic spots in Europe.

Day 15 – June 27th, Lausanne to Bern, 116km

A tough day of riding. Who could have predicted roads in Switzerland would be so undulating? And it’s not as though my background as a student and enthusiast of geography could have given me that foresight…

So, I battled on through the Swiss countryside, stopping occasionally to appreciate the quaint little farms and villages, full of ancient-looking buildings with huge, steep sloped roofs. Enlivening the journey was the sighting of an autonomous lawn mower, a village full of huge painted frogs hanging above the streets, and a couple of military jets that were buzzing overhead for a while.

As I was riding northwards, nearing the centre of the country, the signs quite abruptly changed from French to German, meaning I had crossed Switzerland’s otherwise invisible linguistic boundary. I’ll miss all that soothing French vocabulary I’ve become accustomed to in the past fortnight, and I’m already bracing myself for weeks of attack in Switzerland, Germany and Austria by the auditory chainsaw that is Deutsch.

I arrived in Bern, the oft overlooked Swiss capital, to discover a surprisingly rapid river flowing through the centre. I was even more perplexed to realise that there were lots of people in there, zooming downstream with the current. Had there been some dreadful accident, I wondered? A capsized boat, or a collapsed bridge?

But no, these people were drifting down with the glacial meltwater for sheer pleasure, and within an hour of arriving I was doing the same, floating down for a mile or so in just a few minutes. Quite a surreal experience in the heart of a capital city, especially one in a country as supposedly staid as Switzerland!

Day 16 – June 28th, Bern, 956km overall

Today is simply a rest day for my weary thighs, so I’ve just been wandering around Bern. It’s a nice little city, so sedate and charming that it’s hard to comprehend it’s actually a capital city.

There’s not much else to report from this lazy day, and it looks like it’s about to start tipping it down, so without further ado I’m going to hit send and get back before the heavens open! See you next time- and if you made it this far, well, I’m both pleased and surprised.

——

Oh, and since a couple of people asked for a picture of my bike, here he is in all his glory, the two-wheeled beauty turning heads across Europe, an emerald stallion turning his bicycle brethren green with envy. That’s Darren for you.

Sore Arse Chronicles #2: London to Paris

Well, I’m in Paris. Feels like an achievement in itself getting here from London, but of course it’s only a fraction of the way to my final destination, so I won’t be popping the champagne corks just yet. It’s actually been quite a challenging first week, more so than I’d anticipated. 

While physically I think I’m up to this whole trip, it’s proving to be a real mental challenge that I didn’t quite anticipate. First of all, to my surprise I actually feel a bit homesick- not something I’ve ever really experienced in all my years of travelling. Maybe it’s because, unlike other places I’ve been to, I’m often packing up and leaving for my next destination after one night, rather than three or four as I might usually. 

Besides that, all the planning of places to stay and directions to follow is already becoming tiring. There’s also the loneliness factor, the stress that comes with being out my own in foreign countries, knowing that if anything goes wrong I can’t just call family or friends for help. And the whole scale of the journey is becoming clear. I feel like I’ve been away an age already, but I’ve only completed a fraction of the trip in time and distance. 

On the flip side, I know how beneficial this whole experience could prove to be should I get through it all without giving up or going crazy. It’s going to require a lot of patience, persistence and self reliance, and I will have to step outside my comfort zone and learn to deal better with difficulties than I currently am able to. 

Fortunately, there have been good times to. I’ve already visited two of the world’s greatest cities, met some wonderful people, passed through pretty countryside and small rural villages- and I have the satisfaction of knowing that the most interesting parts of the route are still ahead of me.

So, here are a few things which happened in week one, starting with a first day that was unforgettable for all the wrong reasons… 

Day 3, June 15th, London to Brighton, 110km (207km overall) 

After a couple of days exploring London, Thursday was my first day of the journey proper, heading from the capital down to Brighton on the south coast. I’m not going to sugar coat it: it was a disastrous day, one that even in my worst expectations I did not foresee! I wouldn’t say I’ve been taking this whole trip lightly, or that I’ve not done enough planning, but my experience today would suggest things are going to be more difficult than I’d anticipated. 

After two punctures, failed attempts at fixing them despite the help of passers-by, a trip to the bike shop to buy equipment in the back of a friendly stranger’s van, twenty minutes of pushing the bike through a forest after getting hopelessly lost, a route that passed through Gatwick Airport, and numerous morale sapping hill climbs, I made it to Brighton. 

At this point, what I wanted to do was throw my bike in a skip and never ride again. But what I had to do instead was set an early alarm for a 20km ride to Newhaven for my ferry ride to France… 

Day 4, Brighton to Newhaven,  20km & Dieppe to Forges, 60km

The ride along the coast out of Brighton was a really nice route between the chalk cliffs and the pebbly beaches, but sadly I was in to much of a hurry to appreciate it. I didn’t really have time to see much of Brighton, either. Shame, because it looked like a nice city. 

After the ferry arrived in Dieppe on the Normandy coast, I wasted no time setting off southwards. Immediately, it became clear that the French half of the London to Paris route was going to be easier than the British one. The route was much more clearly signposted, and the roads were far more suitable for cyclists. Most of the first part of the route was on the Avenue Verte, a long, flat traffic free cycle route cutting through the countryside. It wasn’t particularly exciting, but it was quick and unstressful compared to the English roads.

On my first night on the continent I stayed with more hosts from the cycling hospitality website Warm Showers, as I had done in Brighton and have done again since. I was a stranger to them, yet they were happy to give me a room to stay in, and shared loads of local food and drinks with me, including fruit and vegetables they’d grown themselves in their garden. The French really do know how to live!

Day 5, June 17th, Forges to Gisors – 76km

10:10pm – I’m writing this lying on the grass in a campsite- the first time I’ve been camping in years- the shore of a big lake just a few metres away. The sun has set but it’s still pretty light. It’s really quiet, except for the distant hum of a road, an annoying kid whining away in the tent nearby, and a few of the animals in and around the lake are blabbering away. Seriously, geese, you need to find a better sound. 

Today’s riding was more of a challenge than yesterday, but the route was more picturesque. The first couple of hours were great, riding in the sunshine on quiet country lanes through the rolling hills. The temperatures were reaching 32°C, apparently, and I could certainly feel it on the long inclines. 

I ended up getting quite lost on the second half of the route, which was annoying. I look forward to the days of following rivers or coasts, and all I’ll need to do to stay on the right track is keep the big blue thing within sight. After a few hours wiggling through the countryside I found my way to the campsite and had an early finish. 

And that’s about all I have to say, except oh-my-god a hedgehog just walked past. What a thrilling way to end the day. 

Day 6, June 18th, Gisors to St Germain, 86km – Another slightly unremarkable day. Once again I managed to totally lose the proper trail, and wasted loads of time trying to improvise a new route. I ended up spending much of the day on the roads, but fortunately it didn’t feel particularly dangerous, the drivers are quite respectful. I eventually got to my destination and spent another nice evening with a local family. I’m so grateful for all the help I’ve been getting from people. 

I’m realising quite quickly that my focus on racking up the miles every day is rather preventing me from properly appreciating the places I am visiting, and I’m starting to seriously consider something that barely even crossed my mind before I left: that I might take a train to skip certain sections of the route, starting in a few days from Paris. 

The obvious drawback is that it would stop me from doing the whole journey under my own power as planned, which to some extent would take away the sense of achievement, and that would obviously be a shame. And yet, I feel I could enjoy this thing a lot more if I can take my time a bit, stop to relax and enjoy the scenery a bit more often, and avoid spending too many hours toiling away in the summer heat. It’s personal pride versus pragmatism, and I’m still totally undecided. 

Decisions, decisions… 


Day 7, June 19th, St Germain to Paris, 49 km

6pm – I’m sat here in the shade of a tree by the banks of the River Seine in Paris. I’m dying for a whizz, but I have my bike and all my belongings with me, and I’m thoroughly, perhaps delusionally paranoid that I’ll come back from a quick trip to the loo to find that all my stuff has been pinched. These are the complications you don’t really consider when planning a solo cycling trip! 

I won’t bother describing Paris much, I think everyone knows how beautiful it is. It felt nice arriving, seeing all the sights, and realising how far I’d travelled to get there. And it was surreal to travel down the Champs Elysees by bike- those cobblestones are a nightmare for cyclists! 

Every day I’ve cycled so far has been mostly sunny and warm, but the further south I go the hotter it is getting. (Honestly, who could have predicted that?). Here in Paris this week, there’s a heatwave pushing temperatures into the mid thirties. It’s a good job I didn’t have so far to travel today, but god knows how I’m going to cope when I have to battle through 40°C days in Central Europe in a few weeks’ time. 

I’ve racked up exactly 499km over the past week, and I think it’s time to give my titular sore arse a much needed rest for a day or two. I guess Paris is a good place for a break- there are a couple of nice things to see in the city, so they say. 

Update 11:35pm – Holy moly, there was an attempted terrorist attack on the Champs Elysees only a few hours after I was on there…