Thoughts and tales from the saddle - on my own in Europe.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Day 196 - Timisoara - North-West Romania

Romania has surprised me, I have to admit. I was given a lot of 'advice' from various people, as has often been the case throughout this trip, before I arrived. It ranged from a modest 'It's quite a culture shock' to a number of people who didn't say anything, just sucked their teeth, shook their heads and looked grave when the 'R' word was mentioned.

If I'm honest, I didn't know what to expect, but that is, of course, the reason I'm here doing what I'm doing and not just taking other people's word for it - because I wanted to find out. And what I've found is a beautiful country. The Carpathian Mountains, who's foothills I cycled through two days ago, are stunning. The countryside all around here has a very natural, pure quality to it, unlike any other countryside I've cycled through.

The poverty I was told to expect is evident, as it has been since Turkey, but it's different here. There's not the desperate air to it that I witnessed in Bulgaria and Serbia. There's a certain pride and dignity in Romania that is both endearing and inspiring.

I mention Serbia but realise that you, dear reader, would not know that I spent three days there, on my way up. It's much like Bulgaria but they have bigger houses.

Spiritual (and meaningless) observations aside, here's a few highlights since my last posting:

I reached the Danube and followed it for a few days. Serbia, as I mentioned, was reminiscent of Bulgaria - dirty hotels, shabby towns and a general feeling of neglect. Cheap, though. I got rained on in Serbia too, the first time properly since the West coast of France, if your memory stretches back that far. A 65 mile day two days ago took me most of the way through this part of Romania. I will be in Hungary in the next two days, meeting up with a friend who is planning to catch a train while I cycle. We plan to relax in Budapest for a few days before I turn my sights on the route home - likely to look something like this: Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Austria, Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium, Netherlands, arriving back in the UK before Winter really sets in.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Puncture Repair

Following a day that contained two punctures, I head into town to find new inner tubes, patches and glue. In a small shopping centre is a shop that mainly sells sports clothing, but there are a few bikes as well. I go in and ask the guy if he has any tubes or patches. Well, I don't, I ask him if he speaks English or French. He doesn't, so I produce one of my poorly inner tubes from my rucsac and, through the medium of pointing and a variety of facial expressions, get the message across. He takes out his mobile phone, calls someone, speaks for a minute, hangs up and beckons me out of the shop, which he locks behind us.

He leads me downstairs and as we step out of the shopping centre another man pulls up on a bike, carrying a new inner tube in one hand. They talk for a minute then I'm handed the tube. That's great, thanks, I say, but I want two really. And some patches and glue. 'Ok,' the new guy says to me, 'five minutes' and motions for me to sit at a table outside a cafe. I do, but ask 'Five minutes what?' He's already gone inside the cafe though, returning a second later, sitting down opposite me and laying out a large betting coupon. 'Where are you from?' he asks me. 'England,' I reply. 'Yes but which town?' 'Southampton'. He scans the paper in front of him. 'Ok - Southampton - Watford,' he states, looking at me expectantly. I get it. 'Err...2-1, to Southampton,' I guess. He eagerly inks some boxes. 'Cardiff - Plymouth.' '2-0 Cardiff.' 'Stoke City - Hull.' 'Nil-Nil.'

We continue like that for about ten fixtures, and I mainly just make up scores because I have no idea whether Stoke are any better than Hull, or vice versa, but he seems happy. After he's submitted his form he leads me on a five minute walk through town to his little bike shop. New tubes are produced, as are a number of patches and a tube of glue. He also insists on patching the holes in the tube I have in my bag, and does a very good job of it. His top tip - hammer the edges of the patch lightly once the glue had adhered.

Once finished, he gestures towards an old cassette player and says, 'Now, music!' 'Aerosmit' (sic) play out and he smiles at me, seeking approval, while playing a riff on his air guitar. 'You like guitar music?' I offer, not really wanted to enthuse about Aeromit, puncture repaired or not. 'Yeah,' he says, 'Tonight in the Rock Club, here in town.' 'You're playing?' 'No, watching, good band, two Irishmen and two Bulgarians. 10pm.' 'Ok,' I say, 'I might see you down there.'

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Day 185 - Sofia - West Bulgaria

I'd cycled for nine days straight from the Greek coast to here, so felt like a rest.

My one night, two day, stop in Turkey was quite a shock coming from quiet, unassuming Greece - Turkey was alive! People everywhere, on tractors, horse and carts, cars, bikes...waving at me, saying 'Hello', shouting at each other. Edirne, the town I stayed in, was the true embodiment of the word 'bustling'. I walked the crowded streets, photographed the huge and impressive Mosques, ate kebabs with the locals, talked to random strangers who approached me and started conversations in the street, got confused with the new money that I hadn't looked up the exchange rate for and, for the first time in about four months, felt cold. The weather was finally turning!

Entering Bulgaria the following day was as equal a shock. My first experience was of peace - a quiet road lead me along a valley, gently up and down some slight hills, mountains in the distance, fertile countryside all around. Then I started passing some small towns and got my first sight of the people - whole families piled onto horse and carts, people picking through rubbish piles, old men picking fruit and berries from trees. The first town I stayed in had three hotels, all contained within the same building, a tall, shabby towerblock. They each took up two floors of the building and had a reception each in the small lobby. I paid with the third different currency in three days, Bulgarian lira, changing it from Turkish and having even less of a clue as to its relative value. I drank a beer in one of the two cafes in town, then ate a pizza (there is pizza everywhere here - they love it!). Surprisingly, the other establishment in the small row was an internet cafe, so I went online and did some currency conversion. That night I paid: Eight GBP for the hotel room (supposedly 3 star, but more like 2), 40p for a pint of beer and about one pound twenty for a beer and a pizza.

My diagonal ride across the country over the last week had a few notable 'highlights': Quiet roads and peaceful riding but a constant headwind that was really draining. A couple of really nice towns, my favourite being Plovdiv, 'cos I thnk the name sounds funny. Two cochroach infested hotel rooms in smaller towns. The second one had a restaurant attached which was the only place in town to eat. I ate there, accompanied by more cockroaches on the curtains next to me. A stretch of country road about 5 miles long that was lined with large, flourishing marijuana plants. I stopped to investigate and they were indeed 'the real deal'. Arriving in Sofia along a big, very, very busy road.

Sofia seems to live under different rules than the rest of the country - my hotel, one of only a few I could find in the centre, is the same price as the posh room I rented in Nice and not half as nice. I met a couple of dudes in a bar last night who took me on a mini tour of Sofia's thriving ex-pat scene. I watched the England football match surrounded by drunk English people in a smoky pub. They pointed out all of the mafia run bars and clubs to me ('The ones with the Masseratis and Porsches outside? Yeah, mafia. Don't go in there.'). I drank too much Guinness for my cycle-weary body to handle. One day I might learn.

Friday, September 07, 2007

The Turkish-Bulgarian Border

A line of lorries begins two miles before the border control. They sit tucked in on the right of the road, I cruise past in the left hand lane. I scan the number plates - Turkish, Turkish, Bulgarian, Turkish, German, Dutch, German, Turkish...a car passes me with a number plate I vaguely recognise - big letters. It's British. The second one I've seen in three months. The drivers of the lorries are milling about, eating fruit from the roadside stalls, sipping tea, chatting to the guys who wander up and down the line with armfuls of beads and trinkets. Some wave at me, most just watch me ride past.

Turkish passport control has a line of cars leading to it which I join. A policeman who is supervising things approaches me and holds out his hand. I shake it. 'Where are you from?' he asks me. I tell him. I also answer his other questions - yes, I get tired sometimes. Yes, it's heavy. No, I'm not a professional cyclist. When it's my turn at the passport booth he goes in and explains to his friend what I've just told him. 'Where are you going?' his friend asks, whilst matching my face with the photo in my passport. I point forwards and declare 'Bulgaria!' like a man about to try and conquer a country. They both laugh and wave me on.

There's a line of about 40 cars for the customs bit, but I just roll down the outside and slip into the queue two before the gate. An official, in the process of emptying someone's boot, sees me and waves me through. 'Thanks mate' I wave as I pass.

A cluster of duty-free shops are ahead, fronted by a large, full carpark. I weave my way through without stopping and approach a huge marble-effect archway across the road, embossed with large letters - TURKEY. I pass underneath and am faced with 30 yards of road before another archway, this one more simple, a plastic banner declaring 'BULGARIA'. I freewheel the 30 yards and think to myself 'I'm not actually in any country right now'. I say it out loud to myself and laugh.

Beyond the Bulgaria banner is another booth preceeded by a dip in the road that is lined with metal grids and is, I notice, wet. The two guys in the booth see me and smile. I know what's coming and smile too - as I enter the dip they turn on the disenfectant sprays. I fake disgust. They laugh. I drop my passport. One of the guys runs over and picks it up for me. I proceed to Bulgarian passport control, beyond which I can see a long, straight, empty road skirting the side of a shallow valley, hills in the distance. 'Where are you going?' this guy asks me. 'England' I reply.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Greek-Turkish Border

Passport Control Guy: "Vısa, ten sterling."
Percy: "I don`t have any sterling."
PCG: (Shrugs, holds my passport out to me and points left, towards Greece.)
I smile, not in an attempt to smooth my way but because I was expectıng something like this.
P: "I`ve got some euros, if you..."
PCG: "No!" He interrupts me, shouting, "Sterling. It says it here!"
He shows me the visa sticker and it does indeed say "10 GBP".
P: "Well I don`t have sterling. I`ve got euros," I say agaın but he`s not listenıng to me, he`s throwing his hands in the air in an exasperated fashion, shouting ın Turkish, gesturıng towards me, then glaring at me. "Blimey," I mutter under my breath, "chill out." I go to my bike and return with my wallet. He`s sitting in his chair, still glaring. I decide to exercise my international diplomacy skills which, in this case, consist of shouting back at him.
PCG: "No euros, only sterlıng," he says agaın.
P: (shouting, nearly) "Why would I have any sterling? I`ve not come from England. I don`t even live in England (which is kınd of true). I haven`t even been in England for over a year (which obvıously isn`t true but firstly, how would he know and secondly, it feels like I haven`t). I`ve got euros."

I produce a fan of euro notes from my wallet. Seeing the colour of my money seems to have an effect. He grumbles somethıng then disappears into a back office, speaks on a phone and returns a minute later. "16 euros," he mutters. Thankfully I have 16 exactly. I dread to think what having to produce change would have done to him. The problem, it transpires, is not that they can`t take euros, it was just that he didn`t want to have to work out what 10 GBP was in euros. He had to phone someone to tell him.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Day 176 - Soufli - North East Greece

A momentous day today, sort of. For the first time in nearly six months, 176 days on the road, my compass points North. I've been heading East for what seems like a lifetime, ever since Decision Beach, but now, finally, I go North towards cooler, wetter weather, towards Eastern and Central Europe, then down into 'the flat countries'. I am also, for the first time, heading towards home, in a roundabout kind of way. A strange feeling, but not an unpleasant one.

I will enter Turkey briefly in the next couple of days, then straight up into Bulgaria. Entering Turkey will complete two big things which have been at the back of my mind for quite a while - a complete crossing of mainland Greece, from sea to border (in an August heatwave!) and, perhaps not quite as accurately but nonetheless noteworthy, a crossing of Europe, the whole continent, from the Atlantic in Portugal to Turkey, the beginning of Asia. I think Asia officially starts halfway through Istanbul, on the Eastern shore of the Bosphorus strait, but I'm not going all the way down there just for that.

My plan now is to cycle until around the end of October/beginning November. Hopefully I will get to most of the Central and Eastern countries in that time, as well as returning to the UK solely on my two wheels. It's unlikely I will get to Scandanavia before then and, to be honest, I don't really fancy that after November. Frostbite anyone?

More immediate news from the last week includes: A prolonged stomach upset which seems to have been quelled by cleaning the green mould out of my water bottles (I know - brains), a broken camera hastily replaced from the (small) selection on offer in the town I happened to be in, concern over my rapidly-running-out-of-space Moleskin journal (I could get some sort of replacement, which I will have to soon, but not Moleskin and it's just not the same!), lots of people asking if I'm German (to which I reply 'Nein' and leave them with a 'Danke' just to amuse myself, but probably not them), a man with a pushchair full of junk (sorry - 'quality merchandise') flicking open a four inch knife in my face and asking if I wanted to pay three euros for it (No, but do you have any clean pants?), getting a bit fed up with Greek summer food (meat and chips is ok for a few days, but all the time? Soon, I'll turn into a souvlaki).