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.

Day 24 – Into the Iron Gates Gorge

The wonderfully Tolkienesque named Iron Gates Gorge, sparked my imagination when first I checked to see what delights the Danube had to offer. Wild, relatively untamed landscape at a large scale, at least by European standards. A narrowing of the Danube river where a huge volume of water is channelled into a steep gorge between the Carpathian mountains to the north, and the Balkan mountains to the south. The river narrows to just 150m at one point, you can shout to someone across the river in Romania, and is about 80m deep; for a river, that is exceptionally deep. Limestone cliffs towering to 500m above the river in places.

For centuries this was the most difficult navigational section of the Danube, and is a region steeped in history. It is easy to understand how with the waxing and waning of empires and the ebb and flow of different colonisations this gorge was a tumultuous place, caught in the crosshairs for its strategic importance.

The construction of a dam downstream in the 1960s has risen the water level, and tamed the flow somewhat. It also resulted in the disappearance of homes of 17,000 people, and the flooding of an island that was home to a community of ethnic Turks. It also permanently disrupted the spawing of several species of Sturgeon, including the Beluga Sturgeon. A monster 500kg specimen was caught here once, but such wonders are now a thing of the past.

Speed boats and pleasure craft now ply the waters taking tourists up through the gorge. I saw the gorge from a different perspective, from a road that snakes around the southern side, passing through tunnels then rising to a vantage point with a wonderful view. Cycling, I think, is a good way to see it, for the vistas unfold slowly, with a slighty different perspective at each turn, and the rise and fall of the road are felt in your legs.

At one vantage points, I noticed there were lizards basking on a sunny bank. I tried sneaking up on a couple, to get close to them, but had no success. They beat me at this game. At one place, where there was a cluster of thistles growing along the road, butterflies were attracted to the blooms. I spotted a good few Cardinal butterflies, which I think is Europe’s largest fritillary, and the spectacularly vivid orange, Scarce Copper, both magnificent butterflies. There was also a very dark skipper which was camouflaged really well on the dark earth. It might have been a Dingy Skipper, but much darker than the ones we get at home.

A couple of geologists with hammers tapped away at a rock face at one place. I read that a key focus of the National Park here is on geology, as it displays many interesting aspects of the areas geological past. Although I am a geographer I never managed to get a solid foundation in geology, so it holds little interests for me.

From the last vantage point, it was downhill and out of the gorge with Romania off to the left in a wide arc. It was there I was heading, crossing the border along the dam. I was a bit perplexed when the Serbian Border Officer took out a magnifying glass and scrutinised my passport; I was hoping the quality of work of the lads in the Irish Passport Office was up to scratch! It was, apparently, and I escaped to freedom.

Day 23 – Taking the mountain road

Overcast skys, rain and a cool ferry crossing first thing. It could have been the Killimer Car Ferry but for the Black Terns keeping us company. This morning’s landscape is very different. Gone are the wide open flat vistas, now it is mountains closing in on you. A quick 30km through mixed cultivated land and past some riverside tourist beaches, looking forlorn just like Lehinch strand on a wet day. Then onto the spectacular and wonderfully named, Iron Gates Gorge.

The gorge is a 134km stretch of the Danube where the river cuts through a narrow, deep valley transecting the Carpathian and Balkan mountains. It forms the border between Serbia and Romania to the north, and the wooded valleys and hills either side are two large National Parks. The entrance to the gorge is guarded by the imposing Golubacki grad castle, a huge fortifications that rises from the Danube. The first part I would travel today, but the most spectacular section I will do tomorrow.

The clouds hung low as I approached the entrance to the gorge, adding a mysterious kind of foreboding to the landscape. After 30km of the grey valley the mystique dampened somewhat, and it felt rather like cycling a very long and wooded Killary Harbour, complete with its tourist coaches.

Lunch was a bottle of beer, for there was a power outage in the village where I stopped and nothing else was on offer. Immediately after my break, I was offered the choice of continuing along the valley for another 30km or taking the old mountain road to get to the same destination, albeit with a bit of a climb and a few extra kilometres. Well it wasn’t really a choice, and I headed for the mountain. Up the Serbian boreen I went, past the last few houses and past some cultivated fields, past clusters of mobile bee hives every couple of hundred metres. Then into woodland, with the road deteriorating all the time. Corner after corner, up it went, gradients of 12, 14, 16 percent spinning slowly, slowly keeping a rhythm going. A bend, then focus on the next, just keeping moving, up and up, with the woodland closing in either side and the rain dripping from the leaves. In places the road was little more than a river channel, but there was always just enough asphalt to know I was on the right track. Through beautiful old mature beech woodland unlike anything we get in Ireland, but no time for them now! After I don’t how long, I began wondering had I made the right decision way back down the valley. I convinced myself that the worst that could happen was that I would have to retrace my footsteps, provided I could remember the way; a right, then left, left again… Then I began to think the top of the mountain can’t be that much further. Turning the pedals, in the lowest gear, turning, turning, one revolution at a time; 6km done, 8km, 10km. Then, round a corner and the gradient levels out a bit, always a good sign. Then at 13km, just about at the point of no return, straight ahead was one of those lovely, comforting waymarker signs; whether it said 2km, 22km or 62km to the next village it didn’t matter, just knowing you were on the right track was comfort enough. Invigorated, another bit of climbing and the road leveled off, a couple of kilometres on an undulating track through woodland, then suddenly onto mountain pastures with wines of hay. Beautiful rich pastures, and as if by way of a reward for making the long slog up the mountain, the clouds lifted a bit and the view improved. I was suddenly looking at the Danube in the valley below. It was worth it after all.

The descent brought me through more mountain meadows with the sound of cattle bells somewhere in the valley below. Every couple of metres there were Great Banded Grayling, a large dark butterfly with a very visible white band, basking on the warm asphalt; they were everywhere. Then close to the bottom of the descent, on entering woodland once more I was almost defended by the sounds of cicadas, with their unrelenting chirring.

I was pleased with my days work; I had covered 105km and climbed 1,500m through a special Serbian National Park.

Day 22 – The last outpost

The last few days have all been about covering the distance. As I am finding out, despite its name there are long stretches of the Danube Cycle Path on busy roads that are going in the general direction of the Danube, but not anywhere near it. But today I was back in touch with the river and cycling through a bit more varied landscape.

The river now is less tamed and has shallow flooded marsh and low woodland ideal for herons, egrets and other riparian life. I came across my first Europen Pond Turtle on the track. I disturbed it as I passed so it retreated into the safety of its shell. Ever curious, I lay down, face to face with the turtle to see how long it would take for it to come out of its shell and twaddle away. 23 minutes it took – a piece of trivia that might come in handy at a pub quiz sometime, and proof that I have way too much time on my hands. Livestock grazed the ‘long acre’ of the flood dyke; buffalo, cattle, sheep and goats, and as always, fishermen were perched at regular intervals all along the river.

Part of the route took me across open dune-like grassland; machair, without the sea. Looked like an interesting habitat so I stopped for a while to explore. It was alive with insects. Each step forward resulted in disturbing a cloud of blue butterflies. I made an attempt at their identification, but other than seeing there were at least two different species, what they were I’m none the wiser.

As I cycled I was joined by Bee-eaters, flying along like brightly coloured swallows. I saw where they nested too, just like sand martins, making borrows in sandbanks. A Little Owl was hunting in daylight as she had a noisy family to feed in the roof of a nearby shed.

My route was taking me towards mountainous country – I could see the start of the Carpathian Mountains in the distance. I was heading toward a corner of Serbia hemmed in by the Danube and the Romanian border to the north and the Carpathians to the east. The only way out is by boat, a ferry crossing of 25 minutes which I would take first thing in the morning.

My accommodation for the night was unlike any place I’ve been before, a sort of last outpost. The ferry leaves from here four times daily, but unless you get the morning ferry it is best to linger here, for there is little accommodation for some considerable distance on the other side. Every traveller ends up here, having a beer or two, eating, pouring over maps and generally just killing time. Photographs pinned to the wall showing a cross- section of the travellers that graced this place with their company. There is little need for the proprietor to worry about decor, cleanliness or personal hygiene, for he has a captive market, he has you in his web. A dry bed where things don’t bite and a hot shower is what you get. And a proprietor way too eager to help with everything, and to talk to you incessantly with his six words of English. I braved the food, not wishing to think of the hygiene standards operating behind the kitchen door, but it was surprisingly good. And a plate of pancakes with jam were pushed on me for dessert. And God, they were good! And, then there was little to do, but kill time.

I met the first fellow travellers for a number of days today. A Dutch couple were parked up in a small camper van along the way, so I joined them for a short spell. They were driving and cycling in the Balkans for three weeks They had visited Albania, Bulgaria and Romania and were now in Serbia. It was nice speaking in English again, and they were friendly and interesting. However, they were so judgemental about the countries they had been through, which annoyed me a bit. I don’t think travelling through somewhere entitles you to be judgemental. Also at the last outpost there were four Austrians, two couples in their 50s, entrapped. We exchanged pleasantries but they were only interested in themselves and had no curiosity about me. At one stage I couldn’t help overhearing (well in truth I was listening) one of my Austrian fellow traveller giving out to his wife for not being at the table when their fish soup arrived. Made me appreciate lone travel; having myself to give out to is more than I need.

The Austrians were travelling with electric bikes. Electric bikes, I ask you? Not that I’m being judgemental, you understand.

Day 21- Slogging it out in Serbia

I awoke early to the calls of nature; house sparrows on the roof, a golden oriel and whitethroat in the garden and a pheasant off in the fields. Mirko insisted that he drive ahead of me to show me how to escape the maze of roadworks, which was very nice of him. Before we left, he handed me a big bag of fruit for the journey.

I don’t know if Mirko was a fan of cycling in the 1980s, and thought that all Irishmen with bikes had the same ability as Kelly, Roche and Early, for off he shot.

Now an old fellow on a bike, a tired and stiff old fellow, needs fifteen or twenty minutes in the morning to spin the legs, just to warm up. Well with Mirko at the helm, there was no neutralized section, it was off from the go, and with half an orchard as a handicap. A 5km time trial over the back hills of Serbia to wake me up. But, thanks to Mirko I was headed in the right direction; I’m not sure how I would have managed without his help.

It was like a normal Irish summer’s day; about 18 degrees, raining with a breeze. I put the head down and covered the miles as best I could. As I cycled, off to my left a lone Black-headed Gull was flying into the wind. Made me feel like I was on one of my usual training spins into Paulstown.

The route was entirely along roads and they became busier the closer I came to Belgrade. The last 40km or so through the outlying towns and suburbs was a long, long slog; a very busy road being sprayed by traffic. When I arrived in Belgrade early afternoon having covered 90km, I looked like I had just completed the Tour of Flanders on a wet day, and was very self-conscious about going into a restaurant to eat. But, feck it, I was paying good money and I needed some food. Judging from the look of the waiter, I don’t think I was the most welcomed guest!

One of the drawbacks with cycling is that in urban areas, the bike becomes a hindrance. You can’t just abandon it with paniers, and hauling it around is a pain. I had wanted to spend a bit of time looking around Belgrade, at least see the city centre. My impression was of a grey city, mind you anywhere would look grey in weather like this. You could see that there were parts, particularly along the docks where an old warehouse has been converted into bars and restaurants that there were trendy areas.

As it happened I lingered longer than I wished in Belgrade, so wanted to get out of the city for the evening. Navigating the huge bridge over the Danube during rush hour was an experiece, but I survived that.

The last stretch of about 14km was back on the flood dyke along the Danube, but this was really difficult going. Unsurfaced and deeply rutted, and beginning to churn up a bit after the day’s rain. Was glad to stop for the night, having covered 130km. Stayed in a rather grim hostel, but I wasn’t complaining.

Serbia were playing their last match of the World Cup so I went to a pub to watch it. Conclusion, Serbia don’t have a great football team, and their supporters are a joyless shower. The beer isn’t bad though.

Day 20- A meal with Mirko

The priority for today was to cross into Serbia and have someone give the bike a bit of an overhaul. Nothing serious just a few adjustments and some lubrication.

The border was only a couple of kilometres from where I stayed, so first thing I crossed the bridge over the Danube into Croatia. All very straightforward just a stamp in my passport.

Bačka Palanka, the town on the Serbian side, proved unsuccessful for a bike shop so I would have to until the regional capital, Novi Sad, about 50km further on. It was back on the flood dyke again, more wide open spaces and a reasonable surface for cycling. At one spot there were a few men fishing- it was a lovely sheltered inlet, so I had my break here. I watched as one man sitting in a boat at the shore caught a few small fish; over the space of about half an hour he had takes from about three much bigger fish, but he failed to catch these. For the first time ever I began to appreciate the challenge and perhaps the allure of course fishing. As I watched a Black-crowned Night Heron flew into the inlet and quarried around owl-like scanning the water’s surface. That was a surprise and a delight to see.

The approach to Novi Sad is met with a cluster of high rise appartment blocks that have seem better days. Around one, a peregrine falcon screeched- I wondered had anyone else noticed from the busy street? I found a very obliging bike shop, Fanatic, who took my bike from me and gave it the once over- charged me only for parts, which was very decent. Novi Sad has been chosen as European City of Culture for 2021 – in the short time I was there I got the sense it is a quirky city and could offer a lot in that role.

About 20km or so from Novi Sad, I came to roadworks where the main road was completely dug up- in true Craggy Island fashion, they took the road in for a few months to repair it. This resulted in cars turning off onto farm track and general travel chaos. Finally, I arrived to where four cars had come to a dead end. You always know things are bad when all the locals are out of their cars and on their mobile phones looking for some assistance. Certainly I hadn’t a clue where I was to go. One local finally had it nailed, and gave everyone there detailed descriptions of where to go. To be fair to the man, he didn’t ignore me. It can be difficult enough at times to get direction you can understand from a farmer at home, but one with a Serbian dialect was a bridge too far. I rode on in the vague direction the cars went, but of course was stumped at the first cross roads. Finally, when completely and utterly lost, and arriving to the end of a lane in some hillside in the back of beyonds, I spied a sign for what looked like a guest house- a very welcomed sight.

It is often the way with travel that when you are at your wit’s end and most in need of bit of a break, that you fall on your feet. I arrived as a lost soul on the doorstep of Mirko Jevtović’s home, to be greeted with true hospitality. Mirko house was small but homely. He lived here with his wife, but she was away for the evening. He gave me a room overlooking his garden – a long orchard with meticulous maintained fruit trees and bushes. Coffee was produced first thing, and with a mixture of English, German and Google translate were got chatting. He was an interesting man, with a nice manner. It was easy chatting to him. I was shown the garden and he treated me to peaches and nectarines from the tree. Gardening was his great passion. He invited me to eat with him and a great plate of meat, cheese and vegetables was produced. I also tried some of his homemade plum schnaps; that went down smoothly! He handed me a pepper. I was about to bite into it but he warned ‘It is angry’. Heeding his advice, I took a sliver to taste- angry, indeed it was! A good expression I though for something that would blow the head off you.

We broached a few topics that would have been interesting had we a greater range of vocabulary. I didn’t need to know much Serbian to get the gist that Mirko was not a fan of the EU!

Our evening finished up watching Argentina just managing to qualify for the knockout stages of the World Cup, and exchanging photos and news of our respective families.

Day 19- Wounded Vuckovar

Headed off for the morning to visit Kopački Rit Nature Reserve with a load of tomatoes the landlady, Helena, picked from her garden. The Nature Reserve is a vast expanse of wetland – lakes, marsh, reedbeds and flooded meadows – that extends for miles on the Croatian side of the Danube. This area has an interesting history in its own right. It has long been used as a hunting area and Tito had his Hunting Lodge here – which is now open to the public. The area was taken over by Serbia during the Yugoslav Civil War, and was heavily mined. There are still no-go areas here, but not anywhere near where I was. After the ceasefire, the land was given by the UN back to the Croatian government and it is now being actively promoted for eco-tourism.

I spent the morning here doing some bird watching, first along the boardwalk area that allows you to get really close to the reeds and pools, then out on the flood dyke to get an elevated view of the miles upon miles of the reserve. It was nice to see there were plenty of information boards about the reserve and some of the important aspects of wildlife, in Croat and english which was helpful. Some of the birds I saw included pygmy cormorant, purple heron, ferruginous duck, great white egret, black stork and Savi’s warbler. It was also nice to see both middle-spotted and lesser-spotted woodpecker within minutes of each other. I couldn’t get over the number of Grey Heron here; along one flooded field, albeit a long field, I counted over 150 birds. I also saw a stoat coming out of the jacks; must have been a surprise for anyone in there!

The afternoon took me through a region that saw some of the worse brutality of the Serb-Croat conflict- names like Osijek, Vukovar and Nemetin that I would have remembered from news items on the war, which was really just a few short years ago. Such brutality and slaughter in a place that now seems so normal. There are a few memorials to this period that I passed and there are derelict buildings pock-marked with bullet holes still as a reminder. Vuckovar Train Station still lies in ruin, with the station sign hanging over the door. Vuckovar itself was largely destroyed during the conflict and is a sad, strange place. There is no centre, rather the centre was destroyed and is slowly being rebuilt with modern purely functional buildings. There is no sense of any master plan or concept of urban design. There is a strange sedate air to the place, as if people speak in hushed tones. To me it seemed like a town whose heart and soul had been destroyed. I felt the whole experience difficult and impossible to comprehend how quickly things can escalate when the right/wrong conditions prevail. A couple of days ago I was worried about my grey men in suits; today I am glad it is not men in military uniforms that I have to answer to.

The last leg of the cycle to Ilok, just at the border with Serbia, brought me over a succession of ascents and descents of 8 percent, as the road followed the undulating landscape. Finished in Ilok for the evening having covered 110km. Had a beer looking onto the Danube and across to Serbia.

Day 18 – Crossing to Croatia

I awoke and was packed up early, but as I passed the centre of the town I was surprised to be met by hoards of kids on bikes making their way to the start of the triathlon. Today was the day for the young ones and obviously you need to get up early if you want to be a triathlete. There were kids of all ages, some really young; they seemed to be moving around by different age groups. I didn’t see the group with stabilisers, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they had one.

I didn’t know there was such a palaver about triathlon. First the bike needs adjusting, then re-adjusting. The numbers need to be fitted on the competitors and their bikes. Then the bikes are checked that their brakes are working, the seat is secure, as is the helmet. There seemed to be a question over the size of some of the wheels, so they had to be measured. Then there is a ritual around finding your bike stand slot, fixing your shoes to the pedals, ensuring the straps are just loose enough for your feet to slip into. And the helmet just exactly on the bike where it can’t fall off. Then running shoes and another race number are laid out, like a sacrificial alter, neatly beside the bike. And all this was only the nine year olds! Anyway eventually the race got underway and there was great excitement.

This morning it was once more onto the flood dyke, but along the edge of a Nature Reserve. Beautiful tall woodland and luxuriant backwaters and creeks, with the background sound of croaking toads. The grassland on the dyke were rich in diversity and colour, alive with insect life. Lizards, basking on the warm track surface scurried to safety as I passed. Butterflies and day flying moths too basking on the grass soaking up the morning sun. A deer bolted for cover and a bit further on, a marten bounded across the track. I don’t know which one, for it could have been any one of a few different species that occur here. Think of the terror it would strike in the pine marten campaigning Longford Councillor knowing there are more than just pine martens to contend with should he ever decide to holiday in these parts!

A short ferry trip brough me to the last Hungarian town before the border with Croatia. I had some Forints left over so I decided to have a meal. Having a nose for such things, I noticed that there were quite a few well dressed families in a restaurant on the main street, eating their fill. It was a buffet, all you can eat for 2,400 Forints, expensive enough but at least I’d be well fed for the rest of the day. Well there were three main stew options; a brownish-red one, a cream one and what can only be described as a snot-green one. The colour alone put me off the latter, but I definitely wasn’t going to touch it when what seemed like a fish eye there looking up at me. I went for the brown option with chips. The gloop I got defied description. What I though was meat certainly bore no resemblance to anything I had eaten before. I couldn’t touch it, but the chips were good. I returned to try the cream option, taking only a small amount this time. Whatever it was, was equally unappetising. For a third attempt I chose some of the roasted bits, notice I didn’t say meat bits, as these proved to be from parts of the animal (what animal I’m not quite sure) which I understood the EU had outlawed for human consumption some years back. It gave ‘all you can eat’ a whole new meaning. I did have some fruit though which was good. Not only was the food inedible, it was pricey; I can safely say it was the most expensive banana and chips I ever had.

It was then off for Croatia. After what seemed like an eternity cycling across land without any building, I finally arrived at the border control, and I duly took my place in the queue of cars waiting to be ushered across. There were two tiny kiosks next to each other, with a customs officer in each; first the Hungarian then the Croat. I handed my passport to the Hungarian who didn’t make as much as eye contact with me, never mind speak. He checked my pasport on a computer then handed my passport, behind his back, to his Croatian colleague. I could tell by his demeanour he was finished with me, and I could move on.

Two feet away, across the border in sunny Croatia, I was met with a cheery ‘Hello sir. Where have you come from?’ I told him. ‘And where are you going by bike’? I mention Bilje, my planned stop for the night. No, he wanted to know about the bike trip. ‘Cycling the Danube’ he repeated with some interest. ‘And why did I want to do that?’. Fair question, I thought, but I just shrugged my shoulders. Now, with half of Hungary backed up trying to get out of their homeland, I was beginning to feel a bit self conscious- should we not speed things along a bit? He was having none of it; he was full of chat and no matter the reams of policies and legislation there are across the EU to assist the free movement of people and goods, wasn’t going to let these get in the way of being helpful. He asked me what route I was taking to get to Bilje. When I mention the Danube Cycleway he grew concerned. I should not go that way, a shorter route was to go via – and here he lost me listing about a dozen incomprehensible village names all ending in -vac or -vic. He knew I was struggling so asked if I had my map- that duly resulted in me fumbling in my paniers, fishing out the map and Mr Croatian Customs Officer and I pouring over a map, with half of Hungary and by now quite a few homeward bound Croatians looking on. When he was sure that I would save myself 10km or so, he waved me off as if we were long lost buddies.

In Croatia, off to my right I could see a ridge of high ground, the first I’d seen for days. The route took me towards this, a small ridge of mixed cropping, including wine production. I had to climb this ridge. My legs had forgotten how to go uphill, so I had to give them a stern talking too.

Later I saw my first Black Stork of the trip, which was nice. Spent the night at a lovely guest house in Bilje. The landlady couldn’t have been friendlier or more obliging. She insisted that I have a plate of homemade sponge cake with apricot jam. I guess she thought I needed them!

I had covered 110km by the time I stopped for the evening.