My coffee break

A red-headed cardinal beetle

My brain is frazzled. A morning of looking at budgets and worrying about how the Data Centre can be properly funded does nothing for one’s mental state. But one of the advantages of working from home today is that instead of drinking coffee at eleven, I can bring the dogs for a stroll across the fields to clear my head.  Expectations are low for it is cloudy and cool, and my mind is elsewhere. But just outside, feasting on dandelion heads, are three delightful goldfinches that fly off, charming as they go.

Good. The cattle are in another field so I won’t be disturbed. A clump of bramble and nettles at the far side of the field is my focus of attention. A quick scan and 7-spot ladybirds are there as usual standing proud like brooches of the undergrowth.  I wonder, is it their bright red warning colour that allows them to be so audacious?

I pause to get my eye in. I spy a small yellow dot on a bramble. The geometric shaped dots reveal that it is a 14-spot ladybird. I reach down for a photograph, knock against a leaf, and it scurries off before it can be photographed for posterity. No matter, I have recorded them here before. I loiter at my bush and quickly find another, then another. I see that 14-spots are here too in good numbers, but unlike the 7-spots, they remain secluded among the leaves and the thorns.

And there, standing alert, trying to blend in with the leaves is a green shieldbug. I move to take a photograph but it too sensed movement and disappeared. I did, however, manage to get the better of another one nearby. Closer to the ground, basking on a dock leaf were two of the curiously shaped dock shieldbugs. I move in closer with my camera, but they were having none of it; darting off surprisingly quickly. Then after careful scrutiny of the brambles, I spied a different shieldbug in the depths of the bush; it was a beautiful bronze shieldbug. Seeing three species of shieldbug together wasn’t bad going, I thought to myself.

The nettle weevil

The clump of nettles a couple of metres away is full of tiny active life forms. There are masses of miniscule bugs, they may have recently hatched for they look like miniature versions of the common nettle bug that I see here each summer, but these are only a fraction of the size. Actually, other than knowing that they are tiny, I haven’t clue what they are but that doesn’t detract one bit from my enjoyment of finding them.  But what is cool are the numerous nettle weevils sitting on the leaves; oddly shaped with their long snout and antennae, and a very distinctive bluish-grey sheen to their body. The closer I look at the nettles, the more the nettle reveals tiny creature of all sorts going about the business, unseen. It truly is an ecosystem in miniature. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I see a stunning red-headed cardinal beetle crawling through the grass. They are beautiful creatures and it is the first one I have seen this year.

I dally for a bit longer at the bramble bush and focus my attention on the flying insects. There are hoverflies, dung flies, solitary bees and a myriad of other types of flying insect of all shapes and sizes.  The longer I watch, the greater variety I see. The weather is cool so many are perched, finding what little warmth they can get from the sky.  Briefly the sun shines and almost immediately a male orange-tip flies past. Remarkable how quickly it responds to a small increase in temperature.

As I watch, a black fly with orange at the base of its wings lands right in front of me. I know this one, for it is distinctive; it is a noon fly. Noon? Makes me check the time. Feck! It is past 12 O’Clock! I have been lost in the wonders of my nettle and bramble patch for over an hour now. I must get back to work. I am sure my boss won’t mind me spending some time like this, but I will have to log the hour as CPD.

Counting our common birds

The Barrow at Milford

Early mornings never agree with me. But twice each spring I find myself at first light walking around the beautiful village of Milford on the River Barrow to survey breeding birds as part of the Countryside Bird Survey, a national monitoring programme that tracks population changes in our commoner widespread species. With my binoculars around my neck and clipboard in my hand, I feel a great sense of self-righteousness out collecting valuable long-term data while dreary eyed motorists speed past on their daily commute.

The survey involves walking exactly the same two 1km routes (or transects) twice during the breeding season, counting all the birds seen along the route and noting their behaviour. I know this area and its birdlife well for I have surveyed here now for 22 years. The first 1km transect takes me along the old Kilkenny to Carlow road, and the second 1km route begins along the Barrow and then through Milford village.  I find it extraordinary that year on year I can generally predict where I will see different species along the route. Linnets and goldfinches sing from the rough ground at Milford Cross, a moorhen is a permanent feature of the wet alder woodland, blackcaps along the riverside willows, and then towards the end of the village a noisy group of house sparrows and starlings either on the roof of a bungalow or hidden in a nearby bush. And in the distance a calling pheasant or two; there is always a pheasant or two.

But what makes this survey interesting is the subtle difference that occur from year to year. When I began walking this route back in 1997 I would have heard no more that a couple of singing blackcaps, and these I would have noted with great pleasure for a singing blackcap is one of my favourite species. But blackcaps are now much more common and this morning I counted nine singing males. Scanning the wet woodland to tick off the regular moorhen, I was thrilled that what I saw swimming among the alders was not a moorhen but a beautiful male teal; I think this is the first time in the 22 years that I have recorded a teal during the survey. One of the pleasures of this survey is that you never know what you will find.

The beautiful village of Milford

In contrast, in the early years a singing yellowhammer used to brighten up the telegraph wires running across a cereal field but, sadly, I haven’t seen or heard one here now for years. And even with the common species, each visit is different. This morning there seemed to be blackbirds everywhere, yet I heard only two singing robins. The ubiquitous wren; I counted 18 singing this morning. I wondered how did this compare to the same time last year? I found it strange that I didn’t see a single hooded crow or magpie this morning; they must be busy incubating eggs. And even though I know dunnock are a common species I only came across one, and that wasn’t even singing but skulking in the undergrowth.

I am always a little disappointed when I don’t glimpse a dipper or grey wagtail along the short stretch of the Barrow  close to the weir. But I know what matters isn’t the number of species that I see as I do my walk, rather ensuring that I am as consistent as possible in how I do the survey from year to year.

Any perception of change that I get from walking the transect from visit to visit is impossible to make sense of; it could be just the result of some local changes to land management or might even be influenced by factors such as weather condition, or indeed, how alert and perceptive I was on any given morning. But each year more than 400 surveyors participate in the Countryside Bird Survey, pooling their finding from across the country. When these finding are analysed it allows Birdwatch Ireland to separate out what are long term trends from short term local anomalies, and present hard evidence of how our common countryside bird populations are changing.

And the national trends confirm some of what I was seeing along my transect; the population of blackcap (and goldfinch) have shown what Birdwatch Ireland describes as ‘remarkable increases’ since 1998. And the biggest losers over that period were greenfinch, swift and stock dove. Interestingly, any changes seen in the population of yellowhammer were not statistically significant. That surprises me. And I see that pheasant were recorded in 80% of all the transects surveyed; a fact that does not surprise me one iota.

A solitary existence

The Ashy Mining Bee (Andrena cineraria)

I took the dogs for their usual Sunday walk across the fields; I use the term ‘walk’ loosely for it is more an adventure than a walk. A route of no more than 1km long can sometimes take two hours to cover for all the nature distractions along the way. The two dogs are old now so their pace matches mine, but it wasn’t always thus.

The far side of Greg’s field marks the boundary between the townlands of Bramblestown and Neigham. It’s an overgrown treeline on a large earthen bank with a stream flowing along one side.  It stands out for being such a wonderfully rich boundary compared to the other tightly trimmed hedgerows of which Bramblestown has many.  Spring has certainly arrived; a couple of chiffchaffs in full song with their ‘chiff-chaff, chiff-chaff’ tune (phonetics are important for in the German speaking world it is ‘zilp-zalp’ and the Dutch ‘tjift-jaf’), and the ‘chakk, chakk’ of a scolding blackcap from a willow, before it too bursts forth into its delightfully rich and energetic song. And from the wings of this natural stage a quiet nasal ‘tweeb’ belies the handsome bullfinch. Willow warblers are a bit late this year as their song has not yet graced Bramblestown. But their arrival is imminent.

A solitary bee nest in the bank

Along the earthen bank, between the primroses, are hundreds of small holes; evidence of the nesting activity of the mining bees, a group of Ireland’s solitary bees. Unlike their honey bee relations solitary bees nest individually rather than in colonies. It is hardly solitary, however, for there is such great activity crammed into a relatively small area; their living arrangements are more suburbia than tower block but definitely not splendid isolation.  Solitary bees are notoriously difficult to identify, but fortunately most of the bees I saw were the most easily distinguishable species, the Ashy Mining Bee, with its conspicuous grey hairs.

It’s not always a solitary existence

Hundreds were busily flying onto the earthen banks, excavating holes in the friable earth for nests, then depositing stores of pollen for their larvae to eat and survive on before emerging next spring, to start the whole cycle over again. They fly in spring to coincide with flowering fruit trees, of which they are one of the most important pollinators. For these creatures to survive and flourish they need to have suitable nesting habitat and adequate food resources within a relatively small area. They can forage up to 600m from the nest if they have to, but generally would forage much less if food sources are plentiful.   Knowing this, it makes me happy that we planted a few wild cherry and apple trees a number of years back, no more than about 300m from their nests as the bee flies. At the time, unbeknownst to me, I was building a relationship with these bees; I provide food for them in the form of blossoms in spring, and they reciprocate by providing me a bounty of apples and cherries in autumn. Mind you, with the cherries, it is those blasted birds the benefit more than I!

Waiting for woodcock

I am volunteering to survey some woodland sites this year for the Breeding Woodcock Survey being undertaken by James O’Neill, a student in University College Cork. I visited a nice mixed woodland at Kilfane, just before dark. I arrived a bit later than I had planned. At the woodland entrance three blackbirds were calling agitatedly, seemly unhappy in each other’s company, and a great tit gave a brief song before the woodland quietened down for the night. I walked for about a kilometre to a small woodland clearing that provided a view of a portion of the sky.

Waiting for woodcock

A grey squirrel scurried away and the still silhouette of three woodpigeons looked down on me from the branches of a tree 30 or forty feet above. There I waited, straining my ears at every sound that might indicate that woodcock were nearby. A dog barked in the distance and the sound of the nearby stream flowing over rocks was all that could be heard; almost complete silence with not even the movement of branches in the still cool evening.

Straining my neck looking skyward over the tree canopy waiting for a roding woodcock to come into sight, the only movement I detected were a few bats flying close by my head, probably inspecting this strange interloper. Staring at the sky, up at the big dipper, with the moving aircraft like shooting stars across the night sky. Forty-five minutes standing, listening and looking in vain for woodcock as darkness descended was time well spent. I will just have to come back another evening.

Day 30 – A journey’s end

I awoke with a feeling of having the hard work done. Sure, it’s only a short hop of about 90km to the journey’s end. And so the day continued, me feeling I had the job done, yet I still needed to get to the Black Sea. And rather than my anticipated glorious victorious final stage, with a glass of champagne raised in salute as the winners of the Tour de France do, lethargy set it. Each kilometre was a slog, not helped by having these distance markers at each kilometre taunting me for such slow progress. The rolling hills were picturesque and I stopped to take photographs, but even this felt like a distraction from the real work at hand, an excuse for not putting the head down and getting the job done.

It was a long hot day on a road that got busier with each mile closer to Constanta. Then about 20km from the end, onto a busy dual carriageway that went on and on. At one stage it was quite dangerous as there was no hard shoulder and after a couple of trucks passied me way too closely, I cycled along a grassy track for a couple of kilometres, further slowing progress. Quite a bit of the heavy traffic was lost when I got to the motorway junction, then it was busy local traffic heading into Constanta for another 15km or so. I was delighted to reach a big colourful boat at the side of the road with Constanta blazoned across the side, but this was only to trick you into thinking you were nearly there- you were still only at the outskirts.

Finally, on arriving at the centre of Constanta all access roads to the beach were blocked off, and there were police everywhere directing traffic. I never heard so many policemen blowing whistles at traffic to such little effect. Constanta was in the throes of a huge beach festival; there were stages and inflatable banners everywhere. The beach was also a good 100ft or so below me, with no apparent way to reach it with a bike. Rather than battling my way through the festival and festival goers, I headed north to get to the beachfront further on, or so I thought. But I was first forced to make a couple of detours to get an encore from the policemen’s whistle ensemble, before finally getting out of the chaos. A couple of kilometres further on I took a right turn towards the beach. I was met with a long flight of broken steps, then a sort dusty track through waste ground, had to lug myself and the bike over a low wall, and only then could I make a break for the sea. Lathered in sweat, covered in dust, and with a big red sunburned face, I pushed my bike through bronzed and glistening bodies to finally, finally dip my feet in the waters of the Black Sea. Such was my victorious conquest of the Danube!

It was with a great sense of achievement, and relief, that the journey ended. It was a wonderful experience to get familiar with the flow and landscape of one of Europe’s mighty rivers. To get some sense of how the river is the artery for commerce, and how it has influenced history and culture. I really only got a fleeting glimpse of some of its wildlife; getting a better impression of that would take far more time. And of course, the whole trip was a personal journey, not only testing my physical endurance, but challenging me to tell a story so that I could share some of my experiences with family and friends. Social media gets alot of bad press, but having facebook and twitter as a channel of communication was wonderfully comforting, in a way I didn’t anticipate.

After a journey of 3,290km ‘Down The Danube in 30 Days’ has a nice ring to it.

Day 29- A change of plan

I didn’t give a huge amount of thought to booking my return journey, but this was to be my last day’s cycling. It was kind of a daft thing to do, allowing 29 days cycling- why not the round 30? This morning, planning my day, I estimated that I am about 225km from what was to be my journey’s end. I would probably cover 120km or 130km today, coming up short by about 100km. Well that would never do as that would leave unfinished business. The only thing for it was to reschedule my homeward journey, and to head off happily on my penultimate day’s cycling.

Today’s cycle was in two parts. The first 60km was continuing along the interminable kilometres of the Danube Road. I would break for lunch before a ferry trip across the river to the southern shore.

They sky darkened in the morning and I could see lighting in the distance. I kept cycling until the first few raindrops fell, then took shelter. I got to explore the insides of a Romanian bus shelter and all its exotic life forms for an hour or so, until the shower passed. Cycling the rain-soaked roads for the next half an hour was a special treat I hadn’t anticipated.

The Danube Cycleway crosses onto the southern side of the river south of Calarasi, taking you right up to the Bulgarian border. It would be the last of about six ferry crossings I made. It was a floating platform with half a dozen trucks, being pushed by a tug. Off to the right a urban landscape of dilapidated appartment blocks, and off to the left an exposed sand bank, with a fisherman casting his net from a small boat in the shallow water.

As I watched two large white birds flew towards the sandbank; big broad wings and a large body, for all the world like one of the early boatplanes; wings high with a large undercarriage- absolutely fantastic! two pelicans, two immature Dalmation Pelicans just standing there! What an unexpected treat. I thought these were only to be seen in the Danube Delta. There was also about 20 Spoonbills on the sandbank.

Only 100km to Constanta!

Once across the river the landscape changes. This corner of Romania wedged in between the river and the Bulgarian border is wine country. Extensive area of well tended vineyards on the slopes overlooking the river. It only occurred to me when I saw these large vineyards that I had passed areas over the last day or two where vines grew, but they all appeared poorly maintained. Not so here. I also passed the first visitor facility where you could taste and purchase wine.

Once away from the river valley, it was across broad rolling countryside, really quite beautiful with its patchwork quilt of pastel colours; yellows, browns and greens. The rolling hills did, however, take it out of my legs, so it was hard won kilometers for the latter part of the day. But passing the 100km to Constanta milestone did put a spring in my step, figuratively speaking.

Day 28-A wonderful wife

Today was going to be a long stage, lunch stop in Giurgiu after 90km and bed for the night in Oltenita at around 150km. With temperatures to hit the low 30s,I made sure to lather myself in sun block. The early part of the day took me across the floodplain of two rivers that are tributaries of the Danube, wide flat expanses of grassland, which was the first significant change to the landscape in days. These grasslands are grazed by sheep and goats, and in places cattle. The kind of grazing practised here is extensive, with shepherds accompanying their roaming animals. Extensive grazing of this kind usually brings great benefits to nature – it is called High Nature Value farming- and you can understand how it is a way of life that is dying out. Seeing the shepherds with only a straw hat, staff and bottle of water, out all day in the baking sun, makes you appreciate how tough a life this is, and is a way of life that you would have to be born into. Mind you, what a Romanian shepherd makes of a pale, lycra- clad man killing himself cycling across the open countryside in the baking heat for no good reason, I suppose I’ll never know.

There was an exposed sand bank along the road with maybe 100 or so nest holes. Bee-eaters were flying around,stiff-winged, showing off their green and yellow plumage. And in the middle of them, flashes of electric blue from about half a dozen Rollers, birds about the size of Jackdaws. Absolutely beautiful birds that were nesting in the sandbank too. Not much wildlife to distract me these last few days, so this was a delightful find.

I took numerous breaks during the day to drink and get into the shade for a while. At one small bar where I was having a bottle of beer, a man in his forties sat down beside me. Not having a single word of a common language was not going to stop him finding out what I was doing in the vicinity. With plenty of loud talk from him and sign language from me, I was able to tell him I was from Ireland and that I flew to Stuttgart. And that I was cycling down the Danube- making downhill gestures with my hand. He began to get the gist of it and you could see he was kind of impressed. Then we got to the countries I cycled through, him repeating the names to make sure he understood; Germania- da, Austria – da, Slovacia – da, Ungaria – da, Croaţia -da, Serbia- da, România – da. Now he was dead impressed! When I showed him I had done all this in 27 days, he shook his head in disbelief. Then, as if to make some kind of sense of it all to himself, he pointed to his wedding ring, shaking his head saying ‘Nu’?. I peeled back my cycling glove to expose my wedding ring, nodding my head ‘Da’. He had heard enough. He shook my hand, said something to me and left. He may have said ‘you lucky man, you have a wonderful wife’. However I suspect his words were directed at his own wife and they may not have been entirely words of fulsome praise.

The afternoon’s cycle was a 70km slog in the heat taking me through one village after another. I found the going difficult in the heat, and the body is definitely getting tired. Was delighted to reach my accommodation for the night. Had a beer with a German businessman who was also staying there; it was nice to chat with someone, or so I thought!. He was involved in the textile industry and was in Romania for three weeks. Well, all he did was give out about everything, and how shit Romania was- the people, the hotels, the service… He was not a fan of Angela Merkel for letting in all those refugees, and players of Turkish descent shouldn’t play for the German Football team. And on it went… I ended up with a pain in the arse- not from 3,000km of cycling but from listening to him moan on for an hour. Now he is a man, I thought, who should learn the guitar, let his hair grow, and head off with his frying pan for a few months.

Day 27 – Counting the miles

I must be losing perspective but only 100km today seems like just a stroll. The journey at this stage is really just about counting the miles to cover the ground, stage-posting between meals and places to stay, cutting across the south Romanian landscape.
Passing through two villages early in the day, Seaca and Navodari, the number of large ostentatious houses (by Romania standards) along the road was remarkable. House after house, three storeys with balconies and ornate railings. But many were only half finished, and the other looked like they were only half lived in. On checking later, apparently these were homes of Roma gypsies who had made it big, as a way of showing off their wealth. I can understand the statement made by building a big house to live in, but to only half build a house I couldn’t understand. They must have a different attitude to money as we do.

The towns along the route all have a similar character. The outer approaches have grim derelict and decaying industrial buildings, I presume from the communist era, then long straight roads leading to the centre. But the centres are busy with people shopping, carrying small bags of groceries and vegetables. It is noticeable there is none of the blatant consumerism you see at home. The town centres have a nice casual air to them. And usually they have a leafy well maintained park with a children’s playground, and groups of three or four men around tables playing Rummi – a tile-based game combining elements of the card game rummy and mahjong.

On the road, at one stage I heard the distinctive ke-ke-ke-ke of a Red-footed Falcon calling from a tree. It was answered by another a short distance away. I stopped and watched them, I couldn’t be sure what they were doing. Then I noticed there were more around; at one stage there were nine or ten calling and flying around the trees by the side of the road. They are a lovely falcons, and great to see them so close.

A convoy of cyclists passed me going the opposite direction flying the Canadian flag, obviously having just started the Danube Cycleway from the other end. I saluted them and they returned the salute, but had no interest in stopping for a chat, they were powering ahead. They were bright, clean and enthusiastic, and you could tell they had fresh legs. Ah, yes. I remember those days!

It got me thinking about travel and the pros and cons of group travel versus solo travel. One of the things I like about travelling alone is that it forces you out of your shell to engage with others at every opportunity. There is also a curiosity about others. There was no such need for the Canadians to stop for they had their own company. Which is fine, it is the other way to do it. While my trip is a personal one, with one of the objectives being to see how well I’d hold up to the physical challenge of covering the distance, I have been writing this blog to share some of my adventures with family and friends. Their feedback and response to the blog is a nice way to keep in touch with the family.

I was thinking about travel and the education it provides if you have a curiosity about the environment around you, and I would encourage everyone to do some travel. Towards the end of today’s leg, I came up to a cyclist laden down with a fair amount of baggage, frying pan attached to the paniers and a guitar case on his back. He was well tanned, with very long black matted hair; obviously had been on the road a fair bit. We got talking. He was a young Spaniard, 21 years of age.

As we cycled he told me he had been cycling for the last three months having started in Spain. He was heading to Greece, or perhaps Poland, he wasn’t quite sure. He was free-camping, pitching up for the night in some secluded spot in the countryside. Being all in favour of solo travel, I asked him why he was travelling. He didn’t know, he said. I tried to get some sense of what motivated him, but couldn’t. He didn’t seem to have much curiosity, indeed I was surprised how little awareness he had of his surroundings. When he needed to plan a direction of travel, he would ring his brother back home in Spain to ask him what was the best way to go. I was surprised with my own response and attitude, but I got increasingly frustrated with him and his aimless travel. What was the point of travelling without some aim or purpose, hiding away from humanity each evening?

Surprise with my own conservativism coming to the surface, I couldn’t help but think it would be far better if he cut his hair and got a job, rather than wandering aimlessly around Europe with his frying pan and guitar.

Day 26 – Thirteen, unlucky for some

Like floodwater that breaks the river banks, the Danube Cycleway spits you out onto the floodplain of Romania without any signs or waymarks to guide you. You are on your own, passing from one village to another, on an elevated ridge well set back from the Danube. It is so different to the rest of the route where you had the sense of being on a mission; on a path with a purpose.

Having covered the 96km to the next village offering accommodation, I now appreciate why it is in such short supply. The route follows through villages that are based entirely on agriculture and there is no industry that I could see. All the traffic is local, there is little if any through traffic. The Romanians could teach the Irish a thing or two about ribbon development, for one village merges into the next, with houses lining the road for miles. And everywhere, people sitting in the shade of a fruit tree alone just watching the world go by, or chatting with their neighbours. I suspect at this time of the year the life of the community is an act, played out on the street.

The landscape through which I travelled was unremarkable, miles upon miles of land planted with sunflowers, wheat and corn. I could see little else in the fields, yet this is the heart of melon growing country, and trailer loads of watermelons were being carted around. Melons were being sold from stalls and the back of cars all along the road. Some of the larger stalls also sold potatoes and tomatoes.

It was meagre picking in terms of wildlife, but it was lovely to see so many White Stork nests on the electricity poles in the villages. In places, every second or third pole had a nest with chicks; usually two or three chicks but some had five. And judging from the noise, each nest also harboured a colony of House Sparrows. In the fields Crested Larks have replaced the Skylark, and the Corn Bunting’s little rattly song can be heard. Every now and again Red-footed Falcons fly past, and I saw my first Hoopoe of the trip.

Today was a long day covering 150km. Arriving in Corabia I was deighted to see a ‘Hotel’ sign on a large, freshly painted building. I pulled in and two in their late twenties were sitting in the yard having a cigarette; there was nothing unusual about that for just about everyone smokes here. I asked could I have a room for the night, resulting in the woman jumping to her feet with joy. ‘Yes, of course, do you like our town’? We moved into a small, bare reception area, and I filled out the necessary paperwork. While doing this there seemed to be a discussion about numbers- I assumed it was them deciding on which room to give me. The fellow took a key and hurried upstairs. The woman said the rate was 75 lei, was that alright? Yes, I said, handing her a 100 lei note. This stumped her entirely for she had no money, a strange response for someone in the hotel business. Calling her companion who came scurrying back down the stairs, he was sent off on his bike for change.

I unpacked, by which time the fellow arrived back with change. He insisted on carrying my paniers up the stairs. I followed with the click, click, click of my cleats on the marble stairs. Down the corridor, click, cluck, click, passing identical rooms with the doors opened wide, all painted white with two single beds, and a set of towels neatly folded on each. Around the corner, more click, click, click echoing along the empty corridor, until we reached my room, number 13.

I showered and readied myself to go out. I noticed I didn’t have a key for the room so at the reception I asked for a key, to which he took the key for the room 13 hook and showed it to me; it was as bent as a fish hook! No scope for superstition here then, as I’ll do fine without a key. Clearly the influence of the School of Hotel Management in Shannon has not extended its reach to Corabia, or perhaps it is just that these Romanians have a quirky sense of humour.

Day 25 – A shepherd’s salute

Looking at the map of today’s route, the Danube Cycle Path takes a big loop before heading east once more. I was not that keen to head off in the wrong direction so I took the main road instead. The road rose onto the edge of the floodplain and followed that elevated path. I took this, and with a good smooth surface I covered 100km by lunch time. The road overlooked the floodplain of the Danube; wide expanses of flat ground almost entirely planted with wheat, corn or sunflowers. Not much by way of interest for a naturalist, but I did see a nice Great Grey Shrike, and there were plenty of Black Terns just loafing about in the fields. I couldn’t get over the number of stray dogs, many of which were killed on the road; there were dead ones in varying stages of decomposition every couple of miles along the road.

I am getting more and more attention from people as I pass through villages, usually just a good hearty salute. I suppose seeing a sweating pasty Irishman cycling past in lycra from the shade of a fruit tree is something to cheer about. For although bikes are a common mode of transport here it is rare to see one where both wheels are aligned and are missing the buckles. The biggest cheer of all came from two shepherds on the side of the road; a hand raised from me with a ‘Hello’ resulted in them cheering as if it was for the leader in the Tour de France. That was great. I’m sure in a world of watching sheep, moments of light entertainment are welcomed.

Had lunch at Calafat with the intention of planning my afternoon leg of the journey. Was surprised to find that the next accommodation option of any kind was a furter 96km down the road! How could that be? Are there never travellers in this part of the country that need a bed for the night? So I guess it was Calafat for the night and any further attempt to build on the good distance made in the morning, thwarted.

Went for a short cycle to explore the town and its environs; as it was Sunday almost everything was closed and the town seemed deserted. On passing a house of Roma gypsies I heard a commotion and out ran two men in their 30s, running beside me looking for money. I had expected this from children, but not adults. I managed to shake off the two lads, but on turning the next corner I was met by four barefooted waifs surrounding the bike with their little hands everywhere looking for some treasure. The only thing that they could pilfer was my very expensive sun block which I kept in a side pocket of the paniers. Had to go after them to retrieve this. No harm done but it was a lesson for me to take more care of my possessions.

I was going to say that one of the upsides to being stranded in Calafat is that I managed to see both World Cup matches, but those are a few hours of my life I will never get back.