Slovakia
11th to 14th July 2006

Bratislava was a big and very pleasant surprise. After the crowded, dirty, and heavily touristed disappointment of Vienna, the pretty, peaceful and friendly Slovak city was a welcome change. People seemed to just smile more here. We felt better able to just put our feet up and relax, and felt properly rested after a day spent here. The capital was not the only thing that took us by surprise about Slovakia; the roads were extremely good and made for some great cycling. The only problem we had was in trying to replenish our supply of moisturing lotion (the skin gets very dry after all that sun you know.) We purchased a well-known brand just to be on the safe side, since we couldn't read the Slovak or Czech description on the bottle. A few days later Kat's palms were beginning to go a very odd orange colour, as were the towels after each shower. We'd gone and bought a bottle of fake tanning lotion, damn it, and had been happily smearing it on ever since. Its taken ages to get the blooming stuff completely off.

Although we were not in Slovakia for long at all, we happened on quite a gem of a hotel in the town of Komarno. A Soviet-style monstrousity on the outside (not unusual), and corridors which looked exactly the same as the ones in The Shining. Had it not been for the location in a busy Slovak town, we would have been very scared. The inside of the lift was padded with bright red fake leather, which lightened our mood a bit.

Hungary
13th, and 15th to 21st July 2006

We had a fantastic couple of day's riding from the Slovak town of Komarno, via Visegard, to Budapest. We probably got as least lost here as in any other major habitation (although we still did), which may have helped a bit. It's a great city full stop, and as you round the bends in the Danube and it comes gradually into view, you cannot help but smile, even if you're hot, tired and smelly like us. A very, very big thank you to Paul and Eszti for everything they did for us while we were there, most especially that fantastic curry! Every site we saw was spectacular, and it is perhaps the first place marked down as 'we have to go back there.' And we will, because although we wanted to stay a bit longer, some bloke called Robbie Williams was in concert on that particular day and there was no room in the whole city. Very inconsiderate.

As we made our way further east, we took the small roads and stayed in smaller towns. It made for very quiet cycling - we could go for ages without seeing another vehicle. On the flipside, it meant the road surfaces were less than perfect, but since we often had them to ourselves we could weave round the holes and bumps. Our final day in Hungary became a bit of a marathon, with us cycling over 140km over the border into Romania, where the problem of finding no room at the inn haunted us again...

Romania
21st July to 5th August 2006

Our introduction to Romania was about as unpleasant as we could have imagined. After a relatively painless border crossing, we had a choice of cycling a busy dual carriageway into the city of Oradea, or a smaller road through the middle of the town of Bors. We chose the smaller road. Calling it a road is very kind, as would be calling Bors very poor, and very run down. Reading about poverty & thinking you are prepared for it, and seeing it with your own eyes are very different. We arrived in Oradea tired, and quite depressed. It was getting dark as we rolled through the city, so we made finding a place to stay the priority, despite not eating all day and having done our longest ride so far. By 11 o'clock we had exhausted all possibilities (one of them twice), and were then told that there was an international polo tournament taking place, explaining why all accommodation was taken. An international polo tournament in an obscure city in Romania, whatever next! We spent a sleepless night on a park bench, and though we didn't experience any particular trouble, it's not something either of us want to repeat. By default we got an early start, and made the short ride to the spa resort of Baille Felix by 6am (had we known it was so near we would have ridden there the night before.) Things in Romania are generally run down, so we'll try not to mention it again, but somehow we were not expecting it at a 'famous' resort. But it was. It also doesn't help morale when all the men walk round in nothing but outdated Speedos. We spent a day here sleeping, and then a day licking our wounds and changing our expectations for this part of the trip.

And after such a cheery start to our Romanian adventure, we then hit the mountains! The following few days of cycling have easily been the toughest of the trip; neither of us can remember the last time we ached so much. Romania however is a truly beautiful country, and from the top of a mountain you have just climbed, even more so.

We cannot imagine what the passing motorists think of us, most of them stare open mouthed as they go past. We think it may in part be due to the faces we pull as we haul ourselves up the slopes. When we get back we will not only have massive thighs, but be very good at gurning.

We decided quite early on in Romania that we would not be wild camping - we just did not feel safe enough to do it. The first week of cycling took us through largely rural, hilly country with frequent stops at smallish and quite remote villages along the way to stock up on water and sugary drinks. While the word 'hostile' is probably a bit too strong, we both had the distinct feeling that we were quite unwelcome. Some places were overtly unfriendly.

A few days after Baille Felix, following a particularly steep climb, we pulled over in what we thought was the middle of nowhere, only for a stray child to appear out of the blue and start asking for money. Where on earth he came from, and how he located us and got there so quickly is a mystery. When we made ready to go he began trying to take things off the bikes - even our road map! Whilst he was only a poor kid, and clearly no threat to us at all, it did make us wonder what would happen if we camped in another such place that we thought was deserted, only to find ourselves with visitors during the night. This, combined with the general unfriendliness of the place, deterred us from putting up the tent.

It was during this time that Kat developed an addiction to Fanta. On particularly hot days (that's all of them) she spends the climbs dreaming of the next valley running orange with the stuff, and the appearance of a garage or shop on the horizon is similar (we think) to seeing a mirage in the desert.

From the start of our ride here, we have almost exclusively ridden on the network of 'primary' roads; with the absence of motorways throughout most of the country and the appalling condition of anything other than main roads, there really is not that much choice. To begin with, this was fine - the roads were acceptably quiet, reasonably surfaced and we had few problems. But as we went further into the country the traffic really picked up, particularly along stretches with any links to Bucharest routes. Our road soon became virtually a two-lane motorway, with appropriate traffic speeds, the small run-off area we normally ride on mostly disappeared, but the hills remained equally as monstrous. We felt very like sitting ducks crawling up the climbs ridiculously slowly, while the traffic thundered past at equally ridiculous (but not equal) speeds. We'd had the odd bad day before, but at this point the trip became thoroughly un-enjoyable and the cycling dangerous. When the rear cassette on Richard's bike came apart one day we were fairly annoyed. We could fix the thing temporarily, but we were lucky if it lasted 40km each time.

After a bit of soul searching, and lots of pizza, we decided to avoid the section of road in question and get some other transport to Bucharest. You would not imagine this to be a major problem, but this is Romania... Bikes were allowed on trains until recently, but now they are not, even in the baggage car. They are not allowed on coaches or buses either. The (very helpful) woman at a local tourist office (few and far between in Romania - we were lucky), suggested that if we took the driver of a bus a 'gift' he might look kindly on us and, if it was not too busy, let us on.

So we bought our tickets to Bucharest for a 5am departure the following day, in the nervous knowledge that the only way we could avoid cycling on the busy road was to rely on bribing a hopefully friendly bus driver. In the end, after an initial 'No', we talked our way on. We probably looked very desperate, which we were, and quite comical too trying to mime how diligently we had prepared the bikes to make them as small as possible. I think the moment the coach pulled away with us and our bikes on it, ranks as one of the most relieved we have had. And as the road to Bucharest cut through yet more mountains, just as busy, this time incredibly narrow and with precarious drops, we thanked our lucky stars that we had not attempted to cycle it.

Despite the euphoria of actually having made it to Bucharest safely, it is still difficult to find much else positive to say about it. Romania was the first country that we had a guidebook for (virtually useless, since most of the towns we stayed in were not in it, and we did not agree with the write-ups of the places that were, or the general opinions of the country) and it gave the impression that there was a lot to see in Bucharest, which there is not, numerous places to eat, which there are not, and a pleasant vibe in the city, which is a load of codswallop. So Romania failed in its last chance to impress us, which I'm sure it cares very little about.

According to our guidebook, the shortest and most direct route out of Bucharest would lead us to a Bulgarian border crossing that could not be used by cyclists, by way of the very large Danube Bridge. Not using it however would mean a couple more days in Romania, so we just decided to go that way and be damned. The early morning ride out of the city was surprisingly quiet and relatively straightforward. Moreover, what looked like a horrendously busy dual carriageway on our maps, turned out to be almost traffic-free thanks to some major road works, and also very flat and fast. We were chased by some dogs a couple of times, but they responded correctly to our Dazer, and though it is still quite an alarming experience, they did not seem that aggressive. At the border, no one was bothered in the least that we had bikes. In fact it was a distinct advantage, as we were waved through the massive queues by the border guards. The Danube bridge was virtually empty due to the long time it takes each car leaving Romania to be processed - we had it to ourselves most of the way across.

We are a bit concerned that our record of the time spent in Romania has turned into a bit of a whinge-fest, which it was not meant to be. At first we could not put our finger on what it was exactly that made us feel uncomfortable there, but we are agreed that it goes back to why we enjoyed Germany so much, and that was because of the people. In Romania we were sometimes treated with apathy, but more often with unfriendliness and even downright rudeness. We did meet some very nice people, but their kindness stands out because it was so rare. We can also confirm that there is indeed a stray dog problem in Romania. They are absolutely everywhere - in the towns, in the villages, in the fields, and most especially flattened on the roads - left for months they tend to just become part of the tarmac. We are sorry to say that we were not sorry to leave.

Bulgaria
5th to 11th August 2006

Perhaps it was all in the mind, but we noticed the difference almost as soon as we crossed the border, and felt happier for it. The town of Ruse on the Bulgarian side of the Danube was very pleasant. We have learned since that it is one of the richest places in Bulgaria and looking back we can see that it is true, but at the time it just seemed to confirm the change we thought we had noticed.

We met with a vicious climb on our exit from Ruse, got lost down a dog-infested road that was seemingly made of horse pooh, which was followed by Richard's bike breaking again, and then a massive downpour. None of this seemed to matter though, thanks to the blissfully quiet roads and our looking forward to what Bulgaria had to offer. And we have not been disappointed - the food is fantastic and extremely cheap, it is an incredibly beautiful country, and the people are so freely giving of their time and energy that we thought we may have been on a different planet. A couple of times when we have pulled over to check our map, lorry drivers have stopped their vehicles (blocking the road) and run over to check that we are okay. It has happened with cars as well, but they don't block the road to the same extent. It got to the point that if we just needed to double check our map we would do it out of sight.

The climbs in Bulgaria have at least equalled anything that has gone before, but they are generally helped by the quiet roads and the freshwater taps that appear frequently outside most towns near the mountains. Kat, who consumes about 3 times as much water as Richard, gets particularly excited about these. The towns and villages we have stopped in have been a real pleasure - so many people wave and call out pleasantries to us that it always lifts our spirits.

Our sole rest in Bulgaria was one day in the town of Veliko Tarnovo, and no one will be surprised to hear that we had some trouble finding it. This time we simply followed the signs, even though they didn't entirely agree with are inadequate map. That put us on a busy highway up a big hill, which was a bit of a pain after a day of climbs. When we got to the very top we saw a 'No Cycling' sign on the descent. We normally ignore these, but something told us not to this time. And it was a good job that we did, as the main road goes through a series of tunnels, which cut through the mountains before reaching the town. Instead we took a small unmarked road, which as it turned out took us up and up again through some pine forest, then out onto a road that looked directly into a valley, with Veliko nestled in it. It was by far the most spectacular view of a town we've ever had, even more sweet with the knowledge that we would travel down all the way there. The road was closed when we got halfway down, and since we always ignore this as well, we just carried on. It transpired that the road was closed for good reason, since it had collapsed into the valley below. There was about 2 feet of it left that we managed to squeeze through on, while being admonished by the road workers. Veliko was well worth the stop.

Our last couple of days in Bulgaria were quite tough cycling-wise but largely uneventful. Once we has crossed the hills and reached the southern end of the country the landscape changed dramatically from lush forested hills, to something much more sparse and arid. This part of the country is also heavily industrialised and not as pleasant to cycle through as a result.

The planned route from the border to the town of Edirne in Turkey was pretty straight, but also looked like a very main road, so we decided to take a small detour into Greece on lesser tracks. Richard was chased by a donkey close to the border. The thing seemed to get quite annoyed at him, and in addition to some very loud braying, did actually attempt to run after him. Richard was saved by a fence, Kat was the one who nearly fell off her bike - from laughing.

The quiet route turned out to be a good choice. Whilst our visit to Greece was short, it was very pleasant. The border proved a bit elusive to us though, and after a few wrong turns down dirt tracks, we had to ask the way in a small village. We did not share a word in common with the dear old chap, but he possessed some of the best miming skills we have yet encountered, and we were fairly confident we knew how to get to Turkey. Our only concern was a swimming action that he made in relation to getting to the next town. We assumed that he meant there was a river. We did not guess that we actually had to go through it! The water reached to our knees in places, and Richard got very scared and very stuck. Kat had to go back and forth with each bike before rescuing him. He had cut his foot on a rock though, which made him look slightly less pathetic.

There was a suitable degree of posturing by both sides at the Greek/Turkish border, but apart from some minimal bureaucracy we got our visas and entered Turkey without much bother.