Barcelona not Black Sea

It was an easy decision. We were hanging out in our gracious host’s, Carmen, abode in Deva, Romania. We had caught the train here from Craiova, our second city in Romania, where we had woken up to find the city covered in snow, and we hadn’t been on our bikes since. We had spent 4 days with Carmen in Deva and also visited her family in nearby Alba Iulia during the national unity holiday, and now it was time to continue on but we weren’t sure where. Each day was getting colder and further into the negatives and we were still a long way from the Black Sea. At some point James said ‘I’ve got family in Barcelona’ and I said ‘done, let’s do it’.

We decided we would take the 9 hour train ride to the capital, București, spend a couple days there and then fly to Barcelona.

Now we’ve been in Barcelona for a few days visiting with James’ family, a nice couple with 4 cute kids, living the expat life just outside Barcelona in Esplugues. Both James and I had been in Barcelona around 2009 and we’d both been to Sagrada Família but as it is always under construction, with a completion date of 2026, we went to check out the progress in the last 4 years. Sagrada Família is truly amazing. It has such a unique style of architecture that combines a love of nature with exercises in ruled geometry. It is the most beautiful man made structure I’ve ever seen.

Rain, rain and gypsy women

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Today was the wettest day of our trip by a long friggin’ shot. I was counting my blessings that we’d only had two days of shit weather in over 3 weeks of November riding, but all things have to even out eventually, and today they overcompensated. Having crossed from Serbia into Romania yesterday and having spent the night in a small border town, today we cycled 110 km in rain, wind, sleet, and briefly snow from Drobeta-Turnu Severin to Craiova. This is day 1 of hopefully 3 on our way to the capital of Romania, Bucharest.

Having developed the habit of devouring a Snickers bar (or two) for extra energy, we stopped in a small village at an equally small convenience store. In the store were two customers, who as far as I could tell, were gypsy women. They both had their hair tied back in handkerchiefs and long patterned shirts covering up colourful stockings. The younger of the two asked us if we were German or Italian and, of course, I responded that we were Canadian. The younger spoke Italian and translated for the older woman who I guess was speaking Romanian. She described the older woman as nonna, or grandmother, although she pointed out not her grandmother.

The nonna, who may have been beautiful 50 years ago but today was all warts and hairs and warts with hairs, invited us over to her house for food and to rest. I declined saying we were going to Craiova and it was still a few more hours of cycling away. Maybe I should have declined more politely because she left the store abruptly.

The younger warned us about highway bandits, or at least I think that’s what she was saying. She kept making a chopping motion against my shoulder and then holding her hands together as if they were cuffed. She then went on to say she had 3 sons who were born in Italy – where the rest were born I don’t know, but she said one of them was named Leonardo after Leo from Titanic.

We left the store, gobbled down a Snickers each, and hopped back on our bikes. We waved goodbye to the two women as we passed them. Less than five minutes later, James, who was ahead of me, stopped on his bike. When I caught up, I found he had a flat tire. A long rusty nail had gone through his rear tube and put two holes in it. Now was this just a coincidence or a curse? Maybe I really should have declined her invitation more politely.

Route update: Black Sea or bust

Instead of ferrying to Italy and cycling up to Venice, we are going to keep going in the direction of the Danube towards the Black Sea. We are going to head into Romania and it should take us about a week to get to Bucharest, and, from there, a couple days to reach the Black Sea.

Following the Danube from source to sink!

Bad Blood

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When we arrived in Osijek, Croatia, we went to the central square of the city. There we ran into a group of cyclists in red outfits — about 20 guys and one girl. We circled around the square, checking each other out before we stopped to chat. They said they had cycled from Zagreb and were going to Vukovar which is another 30 km away. They asked us to take a photo with them and then gave us one of their custom flags so we could find them on Facebook.

We soon found that all the hotels in the city were booked up and why they were going to Vukovar. Twenty three years ago to the day, the city of Vukovar fell after being under siege for three months, and every year tens of thousands of Croats from all over Croatia come to take part in a procession and had thusly filled all the hotels in Vukovar and neighbouring cities. We went to three hotels and each one said there won’t be anything in the city. Our best bet was to find a small village and stay in a private room. We did this.

I did a little bit of reading on the Battle of Vukovar, and it consisted of 2000 Croats defending their city against the much larger and much better equipped Yugoslav army. The city was a strategic position to hold for the Yugoslav army in the Croatian war for independence. Croatia wanted to leave Yugoslavia but Serbia wanted to stay unified and particularly keep the areas of Croatia with ethnic Serb majorities in Yugoslavia. After the city fell, there were massacres, torture and executions.

The next day we stubbornly made it to Belgrade. It was 120 km with strong headwinds; about 8 hours on our bikes including James and I losing each other for about an hour after getting separated on the highway.

Our adorably quirky gracious host at the hostel recommended us a traditional restaurant nearby. It wasn’t particularly noteworthy except that when our waiter asked us where we had been and we mentioned Vukovar, and while James took the diplomatic approach of saying the history was compicated, our waiter said it wasn’t complicated at all and that he was there during the war. He then went on to describe to us the motivations of the ethnic Serbs in Croatia and why they wanted to remain in Yugoslavia.

The waiter told us that during the time of the Second World War hundreds of thousands of Serbs were killed by the Croats and this was the reason they didn’t feel safe with the possibility of an independent Croatia and leaving Yugoslavia. I looked up what he said and it’s true. Croatia had their equivalent of the Nazi party during WWII and had a plan to ethnically cleanse Croatia of Serbs by expulsion, murder, and religious conversion. Hundreds of thousands of Serbs were killed — men, women, and children — often with a knife, or sent to concentration camps.

I don’t know even really know the difference between a Serb and a Croat except the religious difference of Eastern Orthodox versus Roman Catholic. I’m sure the history goes back a lot farther than the 1940s but this is what I was able to glean from a few hours reading Wikipedia.

Since the Croatian war of independence happened while I was quite young I don’t recall it but I do recall the war in Bosnia since it occurred during my later years in high school. For me, it was a problem that was occurring in a far away country so I didn’t relate to it so well. While I haven’t been to Bosnia yet, I’m glad I’ve been in Serbia and met some people here. If there is more conflict here, I will be able to relate to it better and have a more personal connection to it.

It feels strange to be in a city that my country, Canada, has bombed during my lifetime.

This is what traveling is all about

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Only half an hour ago James and I were scoping out hay bales as potential places to sleep. Now we’re sipping lemon Radlers on the porch of our riverside cabin while our gracious host is going to the store to grab us some groceries.

We left Kalocsa this morning and cycled for about 4 hours to cross the Hungarian Serbian border and then another half hour or so to cross the Serbian Croatian border. That’s three countries in an hour – a personal record. Only a couple kilometers from the border is a small one street village called Batina. The only reason we decided to come here was that I saw it on another itinerary and it added another country to the trip. Yes lame I know.

Anyways we arrive into Batina just as the sun is disappearing and find the only accommodation there. It’s a house that looks like the basement is used for a guest house. We rang the bell 3 times but no answer.

Back up the road I had seen a convenience store so I thought maybe the owner might speak English. Well she didn’t. However after we explained that the only accommodation was closed she got on the blower and called up someone. As a show of good faith we bought some snacks.

After about ten minutes a woman came in the store and introduced herself to us. No English but she did speak Deutsch. Seriously another win for a speaking a bit of German. We took our snacks in her car and we followed her ravenously on our bikes for about 3 km out of town to a riverside cabin.

She showed us around the cabin and when I asked if there was a restaurant nearby she said no but offered to grab us groceries. I asked for Brot, Käse, and Wurst. There was some confusion about how many sausages to buy. She offered twenty but that seemed like too many so I suggested half a kilo which she said was too much, so anyways just a general confusion.

So right now we’re chilling on the patio hoping she also brought back some beer.

Ok no beer but she has a bottle of billige Palinka Schnaps. So now the fireplace is blazing, the schnapps is burning, and the stereo is blasting Balkan beat hip hop. Amazing!

PS fuck Austria. No begging for musli here.

Croatia dishes curious looks and warm hospitality like Austria dishes out sad frowns

James McKerricher

Big day. 120 km across half of Hungary.

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Today was our longest day by far. Our second longest was only 80 km and today we covered 120 km crossing half of Hungary from Budapest to a small village called Kalocsa in the South.

Budapest is one of the most beautiful European cities I’ve been to. It’s beautiful without being boring (hint Vienna). The architecture is all very bad ass, from the parliament to the everyday buildings lining the streets. Lots of tiles, lots of columns, lots of gargoyles. Bad ass.

The first day in Pest we checked into our apartment and then hit the public baths. In the center of this beautifully ornate turn of the century building are three open air pools. The center one is for laps which isn’t so exciting but the other two are giant hot tubs. The water steamed into the open air and collected into a fog over the pool until a gust blew it away. Inside the building were more tubs and saunas. The saunas weren’t as amazing as the Stadtbad Neukölln but still quite good.

The second day we rocked down to the south part of Buda called Budafok (read Buda fuck nowhere) to see this collection of soviet statues displayed in a park called Memento Park. It was fun for taking photos but no real info was provided. They did have a trailer with a small movie theatre playing this old training video for soviet spies. It was pretty hilarious especially the part about inconspicuously taking photos with your giant purse camera.

We rocked back to Pest at warp 6 thanks to a giant long downhill and then had an epic time cruising through rush hour Budapest traffic. Splitting lanes, racing taxis, near misses with pedestrians and busses. It was super fun.

Today was a long one but now we’re relaxing with a pint and a burger. Thank you Hungary for widespread WiFi. Also speaking German has been more useful in Hungary than it ever was in Berlin. They get lots of German tourists here so it’s their go to foreign language.

Bringing a touch of class to Bratislava

Yesterday James and I really dove into Bratislava culture. In a smaller square, off the main square, a dozen stalls were setup and selling Bratislava wine. This type of wine is apparently a traditional local specialty made from currants, and all the stalls had little thimblefuls for sampling. After a few samples, we decided to really class things up and get publicly wrecked on currant wine in the square. I bought a bottle for 5€, asked the woman selling it to open it for us, found a spot at one of the red plastic bar tables that they had setup in the square, and poured two plastic cups full. The stuff was really really delicious and as strong as normal wine. It looks like red Kool-aid and goes down just as easily.

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Then we got a second bottle from another vendor. At some point James went back to her with the new bottle and our previous empty to ask if they were both the same alcohol content. Seems they are both 13.5%. By this point we were proper smashed, and we could tell the vendor was talking about us so we waved and got a laugh and a thumbs up in return.

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After this we wandered back to the hostel, and I got my first lesson in the Slovak language from the hostel bartender.

Si krásna žena, môžem si ťa odfotiť?