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Pedalling through Romania – fast past dogs

Mention that you are cycling through Romania to anybody unfamiliar with the country and you are certainly going to hear some deep-seated opinions. Warnings of corrupt police, thievery, vicious dogs and crime give you the feeling that you are effectively committing suicide but without the foreknowledge of how and when.

Romania doesn’t enjoy the most flattering of reputations. But as is almost always the case these places usually turn out to be the most beautiful and interesting in the world.

Myself and my good friend Mark Commins had left Ireland fifty-three days ago on our overpacked bikes headed for Istanbul. After gliding across England and France we joined up with the Danube in the black forest region in Germany. The mighty river eased us through the mountains of Austria, the farmland of Slovakia and Hungary, throughout the flat scorching plains of Serbia and was now leading us into country number nine. Romania.

Crossing the border at Kaluderovo from Serbia, the jolly boarder police sent us whizzing and winding through the mounti locvei forests which made a welcome change from the featureless plains we had been crossing for the past eight days. Cliff faces flanked us on the many white knuckle descents as tiny insects pinged off our faces.

Romania has often been described as a living museum as it is like stepping back into the 1930s. This is especially evident in the smaller towns where men dress in well presented shirts tucked into their slacks and don felt bowler hats. Their wives wear traditional head scarfs and flower patterned ankle length dresses. Horse drawn carts trot by with towering loads of straw and people. Skimming along the border with Serbia we cycled through beautiful small towns and villages. Each house unique, rustic and colorful with well tended gardens growing sour cherries, apricots and peaches. Shaded benches on dusty footpaths supported conglomerations of chatting locals while children ran out holding their hands for us to high-five as we passed.

A stop for water would often turn into an event. People gathered around inspecting our bikes, taking test rides and chatting about cycling trips they have taken themselves. Everyone enthusiastically offered their own advise on routes and points of interest. Fresh fruit and cola sometimes got pushed into our panniers (not taken out) before being sent merrily on our way.

A wrong turn in rural Romania can never truly be described as a ‘wrong’ turn. Select any side street in any town at any time of day and you will be inundated with curious and helpful people eager for a chat. On one occasion we rolled into the small town of Berzasca. Looking for a shop to buy some energy boosting sweet coffee or cheap ice-cream as our routine has dictated since we started. Not too easy to find in some of the smaller towns as they tend to blend in with the houses. As I was ahead of mark, and have all the navigational skills of a bag in the wind, I mistakenly turned up a heavily craterd side street. Probably because of my strong tan lines and my floppy straw hat, a man sweeping outside his house noticed I was foreign and lost and asked if I needed help. I asked if there was a cafe near by. “Cafe? No. You come to my house and drink with me and my wife” he said smiling as he extended his hand. George was in his fifties, bald, arms like Popeye and a wispy layer of white hair all over his shoulders and torso that, when the sun caught him just right, gave him an almost celestial glow. Inside his pleasantly cool house we were treated with strong coffee and straight-from-the-freezer coke and introduced us to his seven dogs all of whom he either took in as strays or adopted from a life of cruelty. As we cooled off and horses trotted by the window, George educated us on the Romanian uprising of 1989 to overthrow president Nicolae Ceausescu. Romania had become a police state under Ceausescus rule. Like something straight out of Orwellian fiction, free speech was limited, any opinions that went against the communist parties policies were forbidden and it was believed that one in four romanians was an informer. A ratio that the regime encouraged to give the masses a sense of being continuously under observation. Television got reduced to one channel that only broadcast for two hours per day. Electricity was switched off for hours at a time ant there were massive shortages in grocery stores because food and clothes were being exported as part of a brutal program to pay off the national debt of eleven million dollars in a few years. The people revolted. Beginning in the city of Timisoreana, riots quickly spread throughout the country culminating in the capture of Ceausescu and his wife. On Christmas Day, after the briefest of trials, they were promptly taken away and executed by firing squad.

In the days preceding the revolution, George could tell things were going to kick off. “I put everything I could into a backpack and escaped across the river into Serbia on an inflated tire” he told us. “50 kilograms of clothes and tinned food was all I could take.” While there he saved enough money and moved to Australia where he pursued his professional boxing career. He became known as ‘Disco George’ due to his nimble foot-work and fast pace. After nine years he came back to his home town to begin a new life in a newly reformed country.

The three of us made our way down to a plot of land that George owned with a cooler full of much anticipated timisoreana beer (which I wholeheartedly endorse). The plot was situated in a beautiful location on the banks of the Danube. Furniture was set out on the silky sand shaded by overhanging trees. The river silently weaved between the mountains of Serbia and Romania. An old ruin was slowly eroding in the center of the river for the past three hundred years. Friends and family of George arrived and we drank and chatted well into the evening, eating traditional sausage and doing somersaults off the crudely constructed boardwalk into the water. The kids seized the opportunity to practice the english they learned at school. “Hello teacher.” “Yes, of course.” “What is your name this week?”

The great thing about this part of the Danube, for a non-swimmer like me, is that you can walk almost twenty meters out from the bank and still be only shoulder deep in water. Thats where I found myself presently. With a picnic cup full of beer and a grin on my face I splashed around in a fuzzy drunken bubble trying to catch fish with my hands thinking, “I love this country.”

Temperatures often drift into the forties here. Any length of time outdoors around midday can make it feel like you’re getting a scalp massage from Lucifer. (On one particularly scorching day the water in our bottles got so hot I poured in a sachet of instant coffee making a pretty decent brew.) And it was on one of those days that my energy just hit the floor. My legs just turned to two strands of cooked spaghetti and it felt like a dead moose was tied to the rear of the bike. I just couldn’t summon the power to appreciate the places I was passing through at the time. The enormous face of Dacian chief Decebalus was carved into the side of a cliff looking out over some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet and all I could think was, ”meh”. I was hungry, tired of drinking boiling water, sick of being perpetually sticky with sweat and all I wanted to do was call a stop to the whole thing. Then, as if beamed down from heaven, a man came dashing out onto the road from behind a cart, waving us down. We stopped. The man and his family were set up under a lone tree on a seemingly trafficless stretch of road selling watermelons. He approached us with two slices of watermelon which we immediately plunged into our faces. Words cannot describe the joy I felt as the refreshment oozed through my body. The man stood smiling at us as I’m sure he could see the happiness he created. Slice after slice, he fed us until bursting, refusing every offer of payment. Then washed our sticky hands for us with bottled water. The world came alive again. Everything regained its color. People waved and cheered as we blasted through villages weaving effortlessly through blockades of cattle. Kids laughed and raced along side us. And merry toots from yugo cars only encouraged us further. This kind of random kindness seems to be a hallmark of this corner of Europe and would see us through all the way to Istanbul. Time and time again people spoiled us with whatever they had. Wether it was food, drink or encouragement.

In the lazy countryside the smell of cut corn, the rolling hills and fields of seven foot sun flowers are all at their finest in the evenings here. Giant white storks fly above you or perch happily in their unique nests on top of telegraph poles. But in the blink of an eye all this serenity can be interrupted by some of the most spectacular lightning storms anywhere in the world.

On our final day in Romania we were on our way to the Bulgarian border. All around was suddenly plunged into darkness by one gigantic cloud that reminded me of the mother-ship in Independence Day. Fantastic bolts of pink lightning flashed every four or five-seconds silhouetting the mountains behind us. We pedaled harder and harder trying to outrun the storm. But it was no use. Eventually the air pressure dropped and left us in an eerie silence. No wind and no sound except for the soft noise of tire on tarmac. Then the place descended into chaos. Pear sized drops of rain hammered down. Blinding flashes of lightning, coupled with pant-wettingly loud thunder, surrounded us as a tenacious wind threatened to lift us off to oz. “Holy shit!” we’d shout to each other through the wind eagerly searching for shelter. We came across part of a disused railway line off the road and hastily whipped out our tents. Anyone who’s ever tried to set up a tent in a storm will feel our pain. More than a few times the tents took off and sent us running like headless chickens in an effort to retrieve them. Eventually getting them pegged down we dove in, wet and exhausted, but relived. Inside I lay down in the pitch black listening to the pandemonium outside briefly lit up by strobes of pink. A loose end of the tent flapped in the wind.

As I began drying myself off I could hear Mark in the other tent trying to shout something to me. We both erupted with laughter at the realization of just what the hell we were doing. And I thought to myself “THIS is travel. THIS is what we would have missed had we heeded warnings.” And I couldn’t believe that this was the country we were so frequently cautioned about.

In the morning the sun had come out and everything was a peace again. We packed up our stuff and made our way to the port where a boat would take us across to country number ten. Bulgaria.

Mention that you are cycling through Bulgaria to anybody unfamiliar with the country and you are certainly going to hear some deep-seated opinions….

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