Wednesday, 29 September 2010

13/09/2010 Krusevec - Derekoy (Distance 75km)

After a light, and frankly insufficient breakfast we are on the road by 9:00am. Katharina slept better thanks to the addition of my 'guitar tarp' over her single skin tent. We make a stop in Byala Voda for some food supplies. I realise how bad my diet has become now I'm with Katharina. I leave the shop with a giant pack of croissants, chocolate bar, and sugary drink. She has fruit, olives etc – perhaps time I re-evaluate.

The twenty five kilometre ride to the boarder town of Melko Tarnovo is very scenic. The hills and valleys are covered completely by lush greenery. It's beautiful. This is perhaps my favourite part of the country. I think at some point I'd like to further explore the mountainous middle of the country, but that will have to be another time. We come across a road block. The detour is a very rough track heading uphill. We take the gamble to ride over the road block and continue on the main road, unsure of what we might discover. We hurtle downhill until we find the reason for the closure. A section of the road about twenty metres long has just fallen away down the valley. The armco barrier is still intact but has pulled the concrete foundations with it as the road dropped away. It looks quite impressive.

In Melko Tarnovo I stop to send a postcard to Jess. As I sit outside the post office and write it on my knee a voice over my shoulder says “hello” in a rather non-Bulgarian accent. Geert is from Holland and riding to Istanbul with his friend Wilbert. We arrange to meet for lunch in the town centre once we have done our postage/shopping chores. With a well stocked food bag Katharina and I head to the square. Introductions out the way we get to eating a fair old feast. All sharing each others food. The guys finish their 9000km trip in Istanbul having cycled through Scandinavia and then down through Eastern Europe. We decide to ride together. And I suspect simultaneously get a case of “pedallers paranoia”. Communally we make the call to meet at the boarder for whoever is last. It's no surprise that after 9000km they make up the eight kilometre climb like mountain goats leaving Katharina and I in their dust. We catch them taking a rest at the first Bulgarian checkpoint. No real games with the officials, we are all through without difficulty.



I'm surprised to hear that the guys haven't cycled with anyone else for the duration of their trip. I on the other hand, barely feel like I've cycled alone! They decide to ride at our slower pace simply to have company. Riding as a four is lots of fun. The road on the Turkish side couldn't be more of a contrast. Four lanes of glassy tarmac with a generous hard shoulder. With my obese steed I often catch and overtake the crowd on the downhills. Only for our positions to swap back once the gradient goes against me. The down side of such a great road is the removal of “countryside charm”, the black ribbon cuts straight through the valleys and hills. I feel a slight detachment from the landscape (which suggests I should be bumping along a single track lane). I figure however, that there are worse uses for EU money...

We pick a camp spot early as we'd all like to make the most of our new found company. Off the road we cycle through fields until we are suitably hidden from view. With tents up we get on with the evening meal. Geert and Wilbert cook fresh food every night. We all throw in whatever we have. Lots of fresh veggies, tuna and pasta go on the stove. Olives, bread and cheese to start. They also share out a bottle of Bulgarian Merlot. Once the wine's finished Geert pulls out a bottle of Raki and shot glasses! These guys are prepared. We continue to chat long into the night until the bottle is empty. At which point the guys pull out their melodica's and give us some jazz classics. There's something indescribably wonderful about sitting in a random field somewhere in the far North of Turkey, with three people I hardly know, chatting, drinking, singing and laughing. At such moments it's easy to remember why I decided to do this.

As we drift off to sleep we hear wolf howls. It's much easier to get over the scared vibe when not alone. And even enjoy the beautiful sounds of the natural world.

12/09/2010 Irakli Beach - Krusevec (Distance 96km)

Pretty slow start to the day. We chat with Lena and her boyfriend, both of whom are from Austria. They both sport some seriously sun bleached dread's, combined with hoodies and shorts they fit the scene perfectly. Before Irakli they were travelling around Turkey and give me some tips on where to go. Her boyfriend heats coffee in a saucepan on an open fire. We then drink it from a communal large jam jar. Such simple living holds massive appeal for me. Although I feel I have achieved it in some areas of my current lifestyle, Irakli beach shows me that there is still a way to go. We say goodbye to our new friends and push our bikes back up the steep dirt track to the main road. While doing so, I'm already thinking about my next visit and when it might be.

The cycling has a fairly brutal start with an eight kilometre climb straight from the off. Though in due course we receive a fair whack of downhill and I manage a new record for Bulgaria at 73kph. The ride to Burgas is not so taxing, but with out a decent breakfast we are both feeling the burn. I see adverts for apartments for 35,000 Euros and fantasise that I could live a lifetime at Irakli for that. I stop to pick up a postcard. The route out of town seems a little confusing so we ask the way. It happens that the taxi driver we ask speaks German – it seems I picked the right riding partner in Katharina.

Twenty kilometres out of town I pull into a layby to wrap up my guitar against the spitting rain. While doing this we both look around the woodland that surrounds us. The dense forest would provide a perfect camping spot. We take a walk with our bikes until we are out of site from the road. The path on the forest floor has seen little activity recently I don't expect anyone to discover us. We set up the tents. Katharina reads while I talk to Jess on the phone. Once dark we head to sleep. We both wake in the night to a bassy growl emanating from deep in the forest. I convince myself that the source of the noise came from behind a distant fence I saw through the trees. Bears can't climb fences right?...

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

11/09/2010 Varna - Irakli Beach (Distance 74km)

Once again I attempt to get my fill of the free breakfast. I pinch a couple of cheese sandwiches for a mid-morn snack. Katharina is worried I'll be much quicker so decides to leave early while I'm packing my gear. Sadly the paranoia of “how fast do you ride?” “how often do you stop?” etc can serve to get in the way of enjoying cycling with company. Much like the concerns I had when Mihailo and I first met.

As I ride out of Varna I manage to draft a passing truck and my speed is dragged upto 45kph, that is until I reach a hill. I cross the bridge and what do my eyes fall upon? Why, another green sign for the highway of course! I don't know why I bother trying to avoid it. It appears to be my destiny. England to India – on as much highway as possible! Yet again no tooting from the cars. As I top a four kilometre climb I notice a car in my mirror, it overtakes and pulls up on the hard shoulder infront of me. Atlast someone!! I pull along side as the window decends, fully expecting a torrent of abuse for being where I shouldn't. “Hi, can you tell me the way to Golden Sands?” ha! I should have known....

I make good pace excited to be riding with someone and also that I might find the hippie community I read about some months ago while still in England. I see Katharina taking a drink break and I stop for one also. From then on we ride together towards Irakli. In uber touristic Obzor we see many new, and rather ugly, apartment blocks. One that stood out to me was called “Fort Knox” it really didn't seem like a nice place to holiday. But each to their own...I guess most people look at me and think the same.

We see the signpost for the beach and hang a left down a dirt track. Once at the beach we park the bikes up and take a walk along the sand. The beach is beautiful, and vast. The advantage of being here so late in the seanon is that the place is very quiet. When we return to the car park we meet Delian. He is working for Bulgarian radio and asks to do a short interview with me. I accept – quite excited by the idea. He tells me they sometimes air on BBC World Service, that would be cool!! I realise I'm not cut out for live broadcasting, as soon as were done I think of many more things I had to say.

(As I type this from the future here's a link to the interview)

Delian is a great guy and offers to take us down the beach to the areas where people live. We're Once we arrive we say our thanks/goodbyes and go to explore the settlements. Irakli has attracted hippie's for over 30 years. The beach is now under threat from illegal building activities. People come hear for the warmer summer months and live on the beach until the temperature drops. Settlements are dotted along a stretch of the beach and woodland. Some of the camp spots are quite well established, it's evident that people return year after year. There are long drop toilets, fire pits, benches and flat sleeping spots cut into the hillside that extends up from the beach. I'm disappointed by the amount of litter here, while some people are careful to preserve the natural beauty of the area, it appears many aren't. We select our camping area and immediately put the dining table to good use to eat our lunch. With full bellies we go to say hello to our neighbours. It's the end of the season and so most have already moved on but there are perhaps fifteen people left. Everyone is really friendly and we are welcomed into each and every settlement. Katharina is happy to meet some fellow Austrians so that she can speak her mother tongue once again. We chat away the night and listen to music. I'm very glad I found the place and would like to return at “high season”. I think spending the summer with such a crowd of like minded folk would be great. I bid goodnight to our new friends and retire for a reasonably early night.

10/09/2010 Varna - Rest Day

My intention is to move on today so I'm up early tucking into the free breakfast. After my third coffee I realise I've been happily chatting away for two hours. The guys at the hostel ask if I'd like to stay another night, I need little persuading. Nick, Jamie and I take the bus north to the hot springs. There we bob in the eggy waters for a few hours. My muscles relax nine weeks of tension, it feels AMAZING!! The guys are from Winchester and very easy to get on with. We head back to town and go in search of lunch. The authentic Bulgarian grub we find is abit of a let down.

I lounge away the afternoon listening to the stories of various travellers. I find a map in the hostel indicating the species of wildlife found throughout Bulgaria. I notice that wolves and bears are quite common throughout, particularly in the central/northern more mountainous regions. I ask the guy at reception if this is still the case and he informs me that it is. So it turns out what I thought were stray dogs howling were infact wolves...quite glad I didn't know at the time. I take note to be more careful with my food storage from now on. I feel a little chuffed that I've already cycled through wolf/bear country. Ignorance it appears, is indeed bliss! Though actually, I suspect the bears stay much higher up in the mountains – so I'm hardly the cycling version of “Grizzly Man”.

A mellow evening is spent much like the previous night. The only addition being some Bulgarian wine to wash down dinner. Steady drinking and chatter. Katharina and I decide to ride together for the next day or so. We are both heading in the same direction so it makes sense. We have both heard about Irakli Beach further down the coast and intend to make it our next destination. Jamie plays some Metallica on my travel guitar – extra cool points! My early night is not so early. But considering how often I'm alone in my tent, it would be foolish not to make the most of my time with new friends.

09/09/2010 Novi Pazar - Varna (Distance 72km)

I wake to the beep of my alarm at 6.00am. Feeling surprisingly good. As I unzip my door to the world I'm happy to see that the sun is yet to clear the hills before me. While rolling up my tent I get the first flash of gold on the horizon. I eat the last of my food – half a chocolate bar and four cookies, knowing that I'll have to stop again soon to really fuel up. The morning is crisp and for the first time on the trip I set off wearing my fleece. As soon as I enter the town of Novi Pazar I stop at a garage for a coffee. I utilise the toilet to replenish my water supply, inhale a Snickers, and continue on my way.

The road heads directly East towards the rising ball of fire. I can't tell if it's a windy day, or if my proximity to the ocean means I simply feel more breeze. But not even the headwind can deflate my buoyant mood. Over the course of thirty minutes the Red Ochre sky turns to Blue before my eyes and the mist lifts from the fields. Today is going to be a good day. My first view of the Black Sea. The sand between my toes for the first time since Dover. I almost feel like I'm reaching my final destination. And thanks to my early start I will be in Varna nice and early. Which gives me lots of time to explore and decide where to stay.

By 11:00am the sun is hot and so I ride bareback once more. I pass through two small villages, both of which have many friendly waving people. For the remainder of the ride fields are my only company. I pass Pobiti Kamani, a petrified forest dating back some 50 million years. Seaguls squawk above my head, I'm close, I'm really close. Just outside of the town I rest in the shade of a bus stop to guzzle some water. A kind old lady gives me some fresh apricots. By 13:00 I make it to the centre of town, lock up the bike, and go to explore. Though my sightseeing is cut short when I spy a pastry shop with cyber-cafe over the road.

Half an hour later I'm checking into the YO-HO youth hostel. That wasn't part of the plan. I decide some company would be good, and the little I've seen of Varna looks nice eoungh to warrant the stop. The hostel has a great colourful paint scheme with a nautical theme. The staff are very friendly and the price is right, I conclude – a good find. In my room is Paula from Italy. She is in Bulgaria relaxing and sun chasing, she offers to take me on a quick tour. We chat and walk for a few hours. Down through the park to the beach, and then up to the lighthouse. As I dip my toes in the Black Sea waves of satisfaction ripple through me. I stand for a few moments just staring out to sea, trying to commit the moment to memory - my camera is not around. If my trip ended today I'd be happy, very happy. But it still feels like I've only just begun. I've cycle across the tip of the iceburg, and I'm eager as ever to tackle the rest.

We return to the hostel, but not before stopping off at the market for some fresh veggies for dinner. The small communal area is great for socialising. I quickly get chatting with Katharina a fellow cycle tourist from Vienna. Jamie and Nick from England. Along with some folks from Belgium and Germany. The hostel is a work in progress. The hostel owners are turning the basement into a rehearsal room. They invite us down to watch a local punk band put the final polish on some tunes as they have a gig the following night. We buy some beer from the local shop and head downstairs to take a listen. The dirt floor is covered in part by wooden pallets. Carpets line the walls and egg boxes cover the ceiling. Combined with the crumbling mortar of the bare brick walls this place could only be described as RAW. It's great. The band are going for it, sadly minus the drummer. Watching them reminds me of the joys of playing in a band. Once the music stops we head to the top floor to another communal area of sorts. Lots of couches, foosball, a few guitars, and company from all over the globe. It was a good night, and an equally a good decision to stay in the hostel.

Monday, 27 September 2010

08/09/2010 Bjala - Novi Pazar (Distance 145km)

The Formula 1 breakfast may be adequate for the average appetite, but a typical cycle tourist develops a mammoth capacity for food. I ask for “one for the road”, and although they oblige I suspect I pay a little over the odds. I get my trusty steed from it's hiding place in the corner of the car wash and return to the sun terrace. There I sit for some time with the hotel manager. For the last 24 hours he has been very helpful, not bad service for 18 Euros. I purchase some croissants from the bar and scoff the lot before returning to the road.

The riding was reasonably entertaining. Endless fields extend towards the horizion in every direction. Every so often a cluster of charming rural houses would pop up. Donkeys stand idle in gardens while waving children running through the street. Inbetween such settlements the road would disappear ahead of me until lost in heat haze. I ride bareback for a while, my black top is not so appropriate for blazing sun.


My first stop for the day is in the town of Popovo. As I roll through the streets I'm taken aback to see people sitting out side caf├ęs drinking coffee. It's at this moment I realise I haven't seen people socialising in this manner for some time. All of a sudden I feel teleported back to Western Europe. It's nice to see the contrast, but I have developed a liking for shack style coffee drinking with grubby lorry drivers. An environment for which I tend to be appropriately dressed. I take a short lunch break on the floor of a Penny Supermarket entrance.

Back on the bike I spend a few minutes hunting for the main road. Once on it my afternoon is simply a case of following the undeviating route. On a particularly long decent I build my speed to 63kph. A cluster of men are standing in garage lay-by, as I zip past they laugh and wave. Further on down the road I hear sirens behind and I pull tight to the verge. One of the men from the lay-by passes me in a beat up Skoda wearing a huge grin. I can't help but chuckle.

I arrive in Shumen to realise there have been some route modifications since my map was printed. Some of you may already sense where this is going...I conclude my map had been hanging around in the Serbian book store for some time. Though it's now twilight, it's not so dark that I can't see the green sign telling me that the road I am merging with is in fact a highway. Great! I'm slightly concerned by my effortless ability to seek out such roads. But what concerns me more? The majority of my route through Bulgaria had been on main roads. While on such roads I regularly hear people tooting their horns at me. Some to say “hi” some to say “move” and some for no apparent reason. And yet, as I pedal down the highway in the fading light, no-one gives a shit! The one road on which it is forbidden to ride, is oddly the one where my presence is tolerated most. The highway is new, and doesn't have an exit for 30 km. I dilly dally for a moment. Tossing up whether to cycle the wrong way back to the main road. Or push on until I reach the first exit. Both seem dangerous, I decide to go with to flow. The only saving grace being that the surface is great and I can hoof along at 30+kph. But even at this pace it will be getting on for an hour before I am back on single lanes roads. Not my finest moment. I consider camping on the verge and continuing in the morning, but after passing the second semi decomposed dog corpse I rule out this idea. I search the black landscape for an underpass or adjacent country lane that I can carry my bike to. None turn up, I pedal on. After 20km I see a sign for Novi Pazar, the final kilometre to the junction lasts forever.

I round the corner of the exit and stop to study the signs. As I do this a fairly large wild dog decides I look like a fun object to chase. I pay thanks to the adrenaline in my blood stream for raising my energy to a sufficient level that I am able to make my getaway. “Fido” is more persistent than most wild dogs. I think he could sense my fatigue, and the potential meal that came with it. But thankfully the stubborn mutt looses interest after five hundred metres. Before me I see the light pollution from Novi Pazar. I'm in no mood to be picky about my camping spot tonight. I pull into a field, it's not flat, it's not smooth and it's not hidden. But it's bed.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

07/09/2010 Balgarena - Bjala (Distance 60km)

My method for dog dodging was not so successful. The farm dogs down the road were barking all night long. Once more I employed the use of my earplugs, though this meant I slept through my alarm. An additional hour of sleep was lost as I discovered I'd crossed another time zone – sweet! Before leaving I attempt to wash in the tiny sink and fill my water bottles. I made the school boy error of using my drinks bottle for a midnight wee container. Wee flavoured water, yum yum yum. An iodine wash soon sorts that out mind. On the road by 10.00am.

My increasingly smelly and spotty body tells me tonight would be a good night for a shower, this being my 5th day with only half a bottle wash. And I'm just not a “wet wipe” kinda guy. I'm chased all morning by a rather itchy arse, definitely time for a wash I think, whatever the cost. Through the course of the day the gently rolling hills increase in amplitude. The day is hazy and cloudless with perfect temperature. I make my usual garage stop for a cold drink. The lady shares her crisps with me as I guzzle a litre of peach juice. With my 5-a-day sorted I scream through the 10 kilometres to Bjala. Police have closed off the road, seemingly for no apparent reason. I ask them for directions to a hotel. The first one they point me to is closed, and appears to have been so for some time. I ask again and I'm sent down the closed road, which turns out to be my mapped route through town. It's nice not to have to worry about traffic and I weave across all three lanes.

The area seems full of development and there are several truck stops either side of the dual carriageway. A huge advertisement informs me that I'm near to a Formule 1 hotel. I've never stayed in one but have heard they're something like a European Travelodge. Absolute five star luxury to me then!! I decide to enquire about the price, fully expecting something ridiculous. Elated I am when told 18 Euros will get me an en-suite room. With my bike locked up in the car wash I haul my bags up to my room. Clothes, maps, digital gizmo's explode all over the room in a matter of seconds, I waste no time in showering off five days of grime. I spend some time flicking through Bulgarian TV channels. I manage to find and English version of "Wall Street" which keeps me entertained, having not heard so much English dialogue for some time. I wash all my clothes and get an early night, damn that's a rock and roll evening!

Friday, 24 September 2010

06/09/2010 Selanovci - Balgarena (Distance 108km)

I wake tired thanks to a broken nights sleep. As I finish packing the farmer comes down the dirt track towards the main road. He doesn't stop to ask questions and infact only gives me a cursory glance. No harm done it seems. As I wheel my rig towards the main road I hear the sound of squirming rubber. My trailer tired is flacid and lifeless. I eat, repair the puncture and by 09.15 I am ready to roll. The straight road from lastnight continues all the way to Knezha. I stop at the supermarket for supplies. Lay my solar charger out in the sun and tuck into some waffles and milk. Intrigued by my setup a guy approaches and shakes my hand. His name is Tesi. With my bike packed once more I ask him for directions out of town. “No problem, follow follow”. We wind through the streets for a few minutes attempting to communicate. Tesi explains that the pollution is bad here and he can feel it in his lungs, he rides a bike to keep fit. Good on him. We climb the hill out of town and he points me in the right direction. Rather nice of him to spare some time for a directionless cyclist.

In Pleven I stop for lunch. Escaping the sun in the shade of a supermarket for half an hour. Having gobbled lots of chocolate I jump back on the bike to make the most of my sugar high. I get 2x successful directions out of town. Slowly coming round to this asking malarkey. If nothing else it forces an interaction. Some days this is the only verbal contact I have, and at such times I find it most valuable. Whether I know my way or not.

It feels good to be on the main road heading directly East. Each pedal stroke serving to push me further from home and all things familiar. I pass a group of guys in a layby. Nothing shady going on, they seem to be testing out a race tuned Yamaha R1. Popping wheelies and screaming up and down the road dodging trucks. I do like the sound of the new R1 and crave to feel the sensation of acceleration once more. They wave and cheer as I pass them.

The combination of long straight road, and oppressive heat is wearing. I resort to my ipod to occupy my mind. In the town of Balgarena I stop at a garage for a late lunch/early dinner. The pump attendant is very friendly and speaks a little English. I buy a bottle of Coke for some sugary goodness and sit on a bench outside with my bread and tuna. Two bikers on an afternoon blast stop to fill up. After doing so they approach for a chat. One guy rides an X11, the first I've seen, and speaks very good English. They have done several big European tours including the UK. They tell me camping anywhere in Bulgaria is fine and that I will have no problems. I decide to push my luck and ask the garage owner if I can set up on the garage grounds. After my night of canine company I'd like to sleep a little closer to civilisation tonight. My request is denied but he points me to the garage next door which is also a truck stop and bar. The owner speaks German and with awful pronunciation manage I secure a place to pitch me tent.

Behind the bar is an unused patio in need of a serious weeding session. It's perfect. The toilet is too small for a wash and the area is a little too public to “bottle shower”. I take the opportunity to play some guitar. My fingers are slow and clumsy. With sore fingertips I put the guitar way, head to the bar and try for some chat. Most folks appear to be leaving/returning to their trucks. Four days of no shower does little for the social life. With the last of the light I take my pew at the tables outside. Drinking some below average lager at below average prices I study my map.

05/09/2010 Lom - Selanovci (Distance 112km)

Lazy boy! At 07.50 I finally leave my increasingly smelly bed – one of the negative effects of cycling and not washing. While packing away my tent I see a shepherd return with his flock. He doesn't appear too angered by my being on his turf. The conversation is brief as I'm yet to learn any lingo, but we exchange pleasantries. I consider afterwards that he may have rather calmly said “If your still here when I come back...I'll shoot you”. But the thought leaves as quickly as it came. I'm determined to give Bulgaria, as any country, the chance it deserves.

I get into Lom and manage to waste 5km with a wrong turn. An instinct tells me to check the map, and I'm glad I do. A woman laughs at me as I pass her on the return leg of my de-tour. Seems they have a sense of humour alright. I on the other hand am not so amused, but tweak the corners of my mouth into a smile nonetheless. Once on the correct course I leave the town and cycle past endless fields. Not the small awkward shaped fields I foolishly expected. But large, square fields with very modern John Deer's and New Holland's, they certainly aren't all poor it seems. The cobbled climb out of the village of Micia caught me by surprise. My lowest gear has had little use over the last few weeks. The village seems very poor. People of all ages hang out in the dirt streets off the main road. I see a waddling toddler in rag tag clothes. He has a piece of blue string in his hand, at the other end of which is a puppy trotting by his side. I'm unable to lift my lens to the adorable scene. I try to imagine the thoughts of the child's parents as they watch me take a picture. I would feel very uncomfortable if I made them think the son is some kind of spectacle. An attitude that is bound to hinder a career in photography.

I stop for a biscuit break and sit on a bridge. The passing cars kick up dust clouds as they zoom by. I see two cycling tourists but they don't stop for a chat. For fifteen minutes I sit, knowing that I need to consume some calories. I get bored and decide to see if I can catch a “heelclicker” on the bridge with my camera on self timer. The first attempt goes surprisingly well, so I don't try to perfect it. I continue on uphill past the bridge. The stony hardcore becomes asphalt once more and with it my speed increases.

While heading for Oryahovo I consider my route and have a last minute change of heart. According to my map the riverside town has several pensions with the promise of a shower. But that would be wimping out. In silence I give myself a talking to and decide to “Man Up”. I scrap the shower idea and make the decision to cut south and pick up a more direct route to the coast. The urge to reach the Black Sea grows within me daily. It's always been a big milestone in my mind. Some rubbish like “If I can just make it to the Black Sea, then it will be a big trip, then I'll believe I can make it”.

I pass many friendly faces in the village of Selanovci. The Smile Game has now developed into waving, and more often than not, the gesture is returned. As the sun lowers in the sky the light softens and the crop fields develop a golden glow. The road is dead straight for as far as I can see. On the right side the verge is lined with hedges that would be perfect for concealing my tent. With two hours of remaining daylight I push my bike through a field that has recently been turned over. I sit and stare at my maps while snacking on bread and tuna.

Darkness begins to dominate the scene so I set up the tent. A tip I picked up second hand from Mihailo was the bottle shower. Pour on one to wet, soap up and one to rinse. I decide to do it in two halves to minimise my “naked time”. Concluding that if I get caught by the farmer in his field he may look upon my situation favourably. If I get caught naked in his field, my evening could take a very different turn. With my top half done I feel the familiar prickle of a mosquito on my shoulder. Within seconds my nude torso is bombarded by the little fuckers. Towel and arms flail for a few seconds but I soon realise this method of removal is not so effective and dive into my tent. Once settled I hear some rodents rustling in the bushes. Search around for my earplugs in the dark and then relax back with muted hearing. An unknown period of time later I hear the discomforting sound of the stray dogs howling like wolves. Even with my earplugs in they sound close. I hear foot falls in the field, it sounds like there are quite a few of them. Not for the first time on this trip I quiver in my sleepingbag. “Getting close to nature, hmph, stupid idea!” .With blind searching fingers I explore by my sides to see if I brought my penknife in with me. Now, while I can whittle a rather fine wooden penis. I don't feel equipped to dispatch a group of dogs with my trusty Victorinox, sharp though it may be. Fatigue and fear battle within me, thankfully the latter wins over.
Zzzzzzzzzzzzz, "Hooowwwwwwwllll How How Hooowwwlll" (Shudder) Zzzzzzz : Repeat

Thursday, 23 September 2010

04/09/2010 Jabukovac - Lom (Distance 142km)

I'm not as close as I thought to the boarder town of Negotin. But After 40km the sign by the road side tells me I have arrived. It's an odd town with old farm style houses next to new European influenced town houses. Merc's and Audi's flash past and disappear faster than you can say “Don Corleone”. Actually they tend to be registered in Germany, Austria and Italy and are owned by people working there. They return with their fat salaries and build grand homes to display their wealth. Some are nice, but many are rather tasteless. Personally I think it's more fun to pretend they are all drug barons. My fanciful ideas are further encouraged when I see bullet holes in the signpost for Bulgaria.

Leaving the town I notice my front tyre becoming very squishy. Puncture number three. I wheel my bike off the road into a field. While lying it on it's side the tyres slip in the damp grass. The oily manky front chainring makes some nice dirty holes in my shin. First blood to the bike.

With inflated tyre I return to the tarmac. I follow the EuroVelo signs and as a reach a succession of switchbacks at the base of a hill a toothless old man flags me down. Sun weathered features, tatty wool sweater and eyes that glow like embers, he has a soothing contentness. Living alone on the hill side I wonder how he fills his time. Perhaps he doesn't feel the need to do so. He instructs me that there is a flatter route if I head back to town. He's trying very hard to make me understand so I don't have the heart to continue on up the shorter more elevated route. At the expense of half an hour I take his suggested course. And it is indeed much flatter. Through the rain I see the Bulgarian boarder looming. I almost stumble when the stone faced boarder guard asked for “Paper of residency”. I reply in like with stone faced diplomacy. It would be and ultimate fail to have boarder issues while still in Europe. At this stage, passport stamps and boarder crossings retain their novelty value. I hope this remains the case. I don't think the excitement of entering a new country will wear off. But moving East I will be wading through thicker and thicker bureaucratic sludge, which could well test my patience.

As soon as I am through I feel the difference. At least, I think I do. I'm not sure how much of that is down to prejudices back home and those collected on the way. Mafia, corruption, thieving gypsies and poverty spin through my head as I ride. The poverty is evident. I see plenty of gypsy communities, though right now, they don't appear to be thieving. Hmmmm. I really hope I can shake off my preconceptions. Knowing full well I'll get much more from my time here if I do so. I continue to see many street dogs as per Southern Serbia. I conclude it's the one's that don't bark that you need to worry about. If the first sound I hear is the snap of teeth at my heels diffusing the situation takes a little more care. And “Mr Barky” just likes to make a noise – much less of a concern.

I make a late camp near to the town of Lom. Set just off the road on the hill side, I have a great view of the river and the Romanian plains beyond. After a little exploring I discover I'm not as far from civilization as first thought. A phone conversation with my friend Mongy is done at whisper volume. I put up the tent and eat once the inky black decends.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

03/09/2010 Golabac - Jabukovac (Distance 131km)

I unzip the door of my tent to blue skies. Today will be a good day. Mihailo had mentioned on several occasions the beauty of the gorge I will be passing through. My breakfast consists of strawberry jam and bread. With this in mind I intend to make today's first stop quite early to find a more nutritious meal. I roll up my tent, still wet with the mornings dew, and hit the road.

I find a little shop in the first village I come to. Perusing the shelves I select various tinned meats, a fresh loaf and commence with breakfast part two. The spammy mush tastes like farts and I'm unable to finish the tin. Fortunately the shop did have some bananas which should keep the fire burning for a while.

The road clutches tightly to the bank of the river, and steadily I gain altitude. Higgledy piggledy fields give way to steep cliff faces and over the course of the morning the scenery becomes more and more spectacular. The road is good, the weather is good, this is fast becoming my favourite stretch of the river route. For those toying with a EuroVelo 6 trip, you could do a lot worse than to ride Serbian run of the Danube. Across the river I stare at the hills of Romania and spare some though to my route possibilities. I don't want to take a bridge only to find I must get a ferry further on down the river. I decide to head for Bulgaria. I pass through countless tunnels, the longest of which is 371m. After a few “tower buzzing” moments I turn my lights on. The tunnels are narrow and coach drivers thunder along with reckless abandon. Back in daylight I watch huge barges fight against the flow with epic inefficiency. Surely there must be better ways of moving quarried goods by now, though, I doubt cheaper....

Free wheeling into Donji Milanovac two grinning police point their speed gun at me. They check out my bike while I fill my water bottles at the petrol station. From this point I cut away from the river in the direction of Negotin. It's too late to get there tonight but I attempt to squeeze a few more kilometres out of the day. I pull off the road and put my bike behind a small bush. It's not my most concealed camp spot. But I can see I settlement up a head and don't want to ride on to the other side of it.

I wait until dark before putting up the tent. I get to sleep very quickly. At some point in the night I am disturbed by what I assume are stray dogs howling like wolves. At once I am back the Jack London novel I recently read. In my fatigued state I roll over and return to dreamland. They are welcome to my spammy mush if they can get it.

02/09/2010 Pozarevac - Gulabac (Distance 69km)


As always it's fun to ride with company. Gane rides a recumbent, you really can't help but stare at their odd looks. We take a snack stop at a lake. Gane shares out some peanuts and I hand out some of Sasa's apples. I make an abysmal attempt to ride Gane's bike along the lakeside path. I really can't get used to riding position of lying on my back – much too set in my ways it seems.

We ride to Golabac at a good pace - for me at least. The guys on their unloaded steeds appear to require little energy output. At it's widest point the Danube is around 5km. It is at this location that the guys head home before the light fades. Alone once again. From here the river becomes very narrow very quickly. This creates a certain amount of turbulence and is the main reason I had to pooh-pooh my idea of rowing a section of the river. I begin to scour the land for a camping spot, with an hour of daylight left I can afford to be picky. Fishermen and gypsies have their pick of the lay-bys, it appears I'll have to settle for “sloppy seconds” as it were. Taking a wee stop near a small orchard I investigate the surrounding land further. A small grassy path leads down to the waters edge. An ideal fishing location....only this peg's not taken.

Tent up, I chomp my tin of tuna with some bread and admire the scene before me. The lush green hills reflecting in the glassy water, while tiny ripples lap the mini beach at my feet. Further down the bank I hear two fishermen laughing and joking. I hope they don't mind my presence. But in half an hour darkness will consume me and not a soul in the world will know of my whereabouts.

I sleep very well on Sasa's monsterous airbed. Before I'm fully awake we head to town for some breakfast and coffee. We sit for sometime in Sasa's favourite coffee bar, the waiters there are very friendly, I can see why it's his top choice. We return to his house and I collect my bike. Milica hands me a bag of fresh vegetables from their garden. She has tears in her eyes as I wheel my bike out through the gate. Sasa explains that she enjoys hosting people very very much and is always sad to see them leave. We stop off at the local bike shop and talk with the mechanics - who very kindly give my chain a much needed oiling. Sasa has arranged for two cycling chums to ride with me which is super cool. One of whom is Mihailo's friend Gane whom I met in Vienna. Once they arrive I say my goodbyes to Sasa and the mechanics.

01/09/2010 Belgrade - Posarevac (Distance 131km)

I'm reluctant to remove myself from bed at 08.20. Blurry eyed I head across the road to the market for pastries and yoghurt drink. Once the bags are packed I wrestle my bike into the lift. Sitting downstairs in the lobby I perch on a step and wait for the rain to stop – I really am becoming more Serbian. I decide to give it 15 minutes otherwise I'll head out into the volley of water. Staring through the window at the grey I fantasise about being back in bed. But that would be the lifestyle of the jobless bum and not the cycle traveller. Inevitably the minutes pass and I leave under light drizzle. I meet Miljan, give him the flat key, and say the last of my Belgrade goodbyes.

The way out of Belgrade is not the most scenic of rides, industrious sprawl escorts me to the Danube. As I cross the long bridge to the opposing bank my left arm is caressed by several passing trucks. The Eurovelo route becomes muddy. At first it's fun, but after some time I tire of the slipping and sliding. My mood is tottering on a fairly narrow ledge of various emotions. After ten days I'd started to get comfortable in my surroundings. Becoming softened somewhat by my comparatively luxurious environment. And although I was very glad to be back on the road, this comfort made leaving all the more difficult. 

The mud turns to stony ground and the riding gets a little easier. To qualify for a EuroVelo route a certain percentage of the path must be sealed road – I guess I've now found the section that makes up the remainder. In the distance I see two dark slow moving figures. As the distance closes I make them out to be hooded people in black clothing. Great! I've found the Serbian druids and they appear to be making in my direction. But as the meters between us diminish I realise they are actually just shepherds with a heard of goats. They mumble greetings to me but my pidgin Serbian is unable to decipher the words. The lady at the rear of the herd walks with a serious limp. Their clothes are beyond ragged and the lines in their faces deep. These people live hard lives and I find it impossible to surmise their age. My immediate uncontrollable reaction as we make eye contact is pity. As I bump and rattle along I consider their situation, angered by my thoughts. Perhaps they pity me. Infected by boredom and unappreciative of the love of my family and friends I attempt to rack up kilometres to find solace. I'll spare you my turbulent thoughts on this subject, but suffice to say I turned such ideas over in my mind for the next few hours.

As I ride along the path I can't see the actual river which is somewhere off to my right. Swamps and lakes have formed along it's edge making homes for many species of wildlife.  I see more herons than ever before in my life. Thier long elegant form unmistakable on logs and reedbeds littering the lake. A swift flies in circles around my bike for several minutes allowing me a great view of one of my favourite birds. Paraqueets cherp a happy song. It's far too pretty a place to be glum, and so I'm not.

I fight with a headwind for a while and the town of Kovin takes some reaching. I observe that I don't feel so good on the bike today, and my legs are protesting a little more than usual. I wander if ten days is actually too much of a rest. After two days any muscle soreness or blisters have disappeared and I can catch up on any missed sleep. Is it possible to get too much rest? With the possiblility of a roof and bed I push my weary body onwards, determined to make Posarevac.

By 20.00 I'm entering the outskirts of town. I get the the centre and put the call in to Sasa, my host for the night. He comes to meet me on his bicycle. We ride through the town for a few kilometres until we arrive at his home. I take a quick shower, meet his mother Milica, and then we head into town. It's festival season. The central square has been filled with a stage and quite a crowd have gathered. Coincidentally the band playing are the winners of the Guca festival I was at the week before. I meet some of Sasa's friends as we watch the dancing and listen to the music. Next we head to a blues bar, just my kind of place. Here I try my first dark Serbian beer, and very pleasant it is too. We chat about this and that while Stevie Ray Vaughan wails in the background. Sasa is excellent company, I learn more about the war, his work, and his philosopy on life, which I find most agreeable. He has hosted many people at his house over the past few years. The idea being that he can build a friendship with people from all over the world. Perhaps at some future point they can return the favour and host him. And to have houses and friends all over the planet is a wealth we both strive for. I am happy to be his first house in England. At the end of the night we find a very good local band playing an impromptu acoustic set. All in all an excellent night. I am pooped and sleep like a log.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

23/30-08-2010 Belgrade

A week of rest, coffee bars, blogging, and hanging out at the cyclists hostel. Situated in the Bohemian quarter of the city we have our pick of the many bars, cafes and restaurants. I find little in the way of random live music, and so my picture of Serbain music will remain as Crazy Trumpet Mayhem.

A few afternoon's are spent at Belgrade Lake. 3km of water with beaches all the way round, surrounded by parkland and a colossal array of sports fields/courts. It's a top place to take a swim, sit in a shaded cafe drinking cool Jelen, or simply enjoy the views : ). The place is busy every day, I wonder if anyone here works!! At one end of the lake is a cable drawn wakeboard circuit, I'd love to have a go, but even with the free accommodation I feel my budget taking a bashing.

Mornings are rarely an early event. Dan and Claire also sleep on the balcony to escape the heat, I usually wake to Dan stepping over me (not a pretty sight) and then returning with a loose leaf jasmine tea, not bad service eh? Once up we take a communal gander through the market, conveniently situated over the road, stocked with fruit and pastries return to the flat.

Our days are a blur of blogging, lounging and sight seeing.

Evenings are again spent in cafes or bars. When Mihailo isn't with friends he takes us sight seeing, the fortress is a pretty place to wander through at night. We see the buildings that the NATO bombs hit, interestingly they have not been knocked down/hidden, perhaps left as I silent reminder? I don't know...

Arno has brought with him a mini aluminum flute, after a game of "find the key" we jam away the night, Sarah on percussion with my cooking pots and "shaky love egg" as it's become known. We use Dan's laptop for lyrics we actually manage to complete some songs!!

After saying goodbye to Mariusz and Sarah we crack on with a 4-way bicycle service orgy - sweet!

Thursday see's more rooms become available at the "cycle hostel" Dan and Claire leave in the morning and Arno in the evening. Back on my todd, it feels quite strange after being with so many people, but the time had to come eventually. I've forgotten what it's like to ride alone, to have no-one to talk to or reflect with at the end of the day. It almost feels like I'm starting over and I sense the old apprehension creeping back.

Arno's final destination is Japan, and route is, in part similar to my own. We have made a loose agreement to meet up again at some point. I joked that: perhaps whilst cycling at night through the moonscape of Iranian salt deserts I will catch his flute on the wind and know I'm headed the right way. And so we are going to attempt to meet up for a desert jam by firelight.

I don't know if it's the same for all forms of travel, but moving forward everyday has a strange effect, in that as soon as you stop moving, once physically recovered you feel compelled to maintain the gathered inertia. I find no logical reason for this, I even ponder if it could get in the way of good experiences that only expose themselves with a stay of longer duration. After 3 days of spending most of my time in cybercafes doing some much needed catch up, the soles of my feet are screaming to feel my pedals beneath them once more.

And so onwards, to Bulgaria....

Farewell and thanks to Mihailo and friends (Miljan, Ana, Toma,Joca ,Miki ,Teo and many more)

22-08-2010 Belgrade Beer Festival: Take Two

I wake feeling surprisingly good. The breakfast is even better than the evening meal, with many similar dishes but the addition of some fresh(still warm) milk, and also kimak (which is cuds/whey I can't remember which). Theo and I take another Rakia with our hosts - hair of the dog and all that. We lounge away the morning, slowly sobering up. Another magic frappe from Eva and I'm right as rain.

We give thanks to our generous hosts and leave at around 14.00, we meet for a coffee on route back to Belgrade. Miljan and Ana have a trendy flat in New Belgrade. We sit and eat water melon, to the relief of my company I take a shower - though I think my sandals need bleaching, or better yet burning! Smelling slightly better we head to Savana, I've heard much about this place over the last 20 days. One of Mihailo's favorite places to be, sipping coffee and chatting away the afternoon. As with many of the riverbank cafes Savana is built on a floating pontoon. It's nice to be bobbing on the river, though at first I mistake the sensation for lastnights Rakia rearing it's ugly head. I meet more of Mihailo's friends and also chat more with Theo and Eva, when they take their leave I talk with Miki. Born in Israel he qualified as an architect in Belgrade to escape National Service, he speaks with eloquence in several languages including English. He's very keen for me to receive a balanced view of the city and interested to hear my first impressions. He recommends some places for me to go that might be a little more "here and now" and abit more real, I hope I get the chance to visit them. We are heading back to the flat and so say our goodbyes, I would have liked to spend more time getting to know Miki and hear his thoughts on Belgrade, he seemed very objectively aware of the ins and outs of life in the city.

At a Cafe near the flat I say hello to Mariusz and Sarah (whom we me in Hungary) and Dan & Claire (Linz/Vienne) and their new riding friend Arno, which takes the population of the "cyclists hostel" from one when I left, to six. Showering done we hit the Beer Festival for my third night in a row of liver abuse. All the faces are more familiar than the first night and I feel surrounded by friends. After sampling some beers we go to dance. There's quite a mix of music, I quite like the Serbian rock, mainly because I've never heard it before. I'm disappointed when a DJ set takes me right back to Zanzibar. It doesn't happen often, but I think Dan managed to "out camp" me on the dance floor - I conclude he and Claire didn't meet while dancing : ). We return to the bar for more drinking but a soon as Faithless comes on Dan and I are back in the mix, we slip through the crowds towards the stage. Center front is a ragged circle of topless muscle bound giants with t-shirts and scarves hiding all but their eyes. They are pushing and fighting anyone that gets too close. Since meeting Dan I get the impression that in some respects we think on a similar level, I glance a look at him, he says "fuck it" - and we charge in. We bounce in the dust and sweat for sometime, the best way I can describe it is "punching above my weight". At the edge of the circle we grin at each other with a childlike glee. Then suddenly WHAM!! As the dust disperses I see Dan helped to his feet - all in good fun. So with one bruised knee and two bruised egos we return to the safety of our friends. We manage to loose Sarah for sometime, but once reunited we head back to the flat. I move my bed onto the balcony due the the heat, it makes for a great nights sleep.

Guca Day 21-08-2010

At 09.30 I meet Miljan and his wife Ana. They have very kindly offered to take me with them to the Guca Trumpet Festival. They are very friendly and with our common interests in Travel, CouchSurfing, music etc, the journey passes quickly. They spent five weeks together in England and returned with quite a negative view of the place/people. I hope I don't speak out of turn when I say that I think Mihailo's friends were surprised to hear he had befriended an Englishman. I understand Mihailo's words were along the lines of "he's not typical English" - which obviously brought about the conversation of "what is?". We did infact share many views on this matter. Ana has that wonderful ability to speak her mind at all times, I admire such blunt honesty, and at times wish I possessed it. I concluded that they are prouder to be Serbian than I English, but before I get to Nationalist ranting....

It's the 50th Anniversary of the Festival which started off as a modest gathering of trumpet players. No classical training, all self taught and playing improvisations by ear. Over the proceeding years this has snow balled considerably. Trumpet players and folk song and dance groups from all over the world now consider it a great honor to be invited to the Assembly. Each year see's an increase in visitors from all over the globe. The town usually inhabits 1000 but for these four days half a million pass through. Way beyond it's capacity people throw up tents anywhere and everywhere - school buildings, grass verges, random fields, the banks of the river and one bold fellow who sat his tent on a pile of rocks IN the river. Every inch of available space is filled with either a tent, a car, or a drunk sleeping off last nights mayhem. 

We head out of town slightly to me some friends. We spend a few hours with them but sadly most of the group are heading back to Greece due to work commitments. Theo and Eva and staying another night and returning with us to Belgrade. A few years ago the group from Greece after a night of carnage decided to head a way into the sticks to get some peace to sleep, they set up their tents in a field in the dark. In the morning the lady owner of the field came over and gave them breakfast. Now, every time they return to Guca they set up their tent in the family's garden and are treated to wonderful homemade food, and so this is where we make camp. We all sit at a round table shaded by grape vines and chat away the early afternoon. The cocktail of languages bouncing around the table consists of Russian, Serbian, Greek and English. We drink coffee and Rakia - of course,the atmosphere is tranquil, any stresses of the trip dissolving in an instant like the cube of sugar in my coffee. At 3 o'clock we go to explore the festivities, considering most people are still asleep it's quite busy. Looking in to various kafana's I see people dancing on the tables to the chirp of live trumpets, I have no idea what to expect in 12 hours time when people really start to party. Everywhere I turn I see people wearing grins, it has a very happy energy. We wash down tasty pljeskavica with Jelen (one of the nicer Serbian lagers) and wander the streets listening to the music and soaking up the ambiance. We sit in the shade of a tree and are all overcome by the overwhelming desire to snooze, after just one more Rakia we return to the "campsite". Back round the table with yet another Rakia in hand - not sure I'll make it through the night at this rate. We set the tents up while a feast is prepared for us. More great tomatoes, their own lamb, cabbage stew with beef (again their own), homemade bread - very organic eating. The generous farmhouse kitchen is quite scruffy by "Ikea" standards, but clearly house everything required to prepare a great meal. What struck me most was the well - In the middle of the bare concrete floor was a hole about the size of a dustbin lid and out of it came a hand-pump well - forget your weathered oak worktops - thats rustic!! After the meal we do some more relaxing, Eva makes us some Greek frappes - yum. Theo and Eva's luxury travelling item is an electric whisk, hows that for commitment to "frappe perfection". At 8 we make our way to the center as this is when the contest begins. Theo works for Canon and has got several "press" passes, allowing us backstage amongst other perks. Like true journalists we fill all available bags with beer and rakia, then make out way to the main stadium. There is quite a crowd, full of energy and alcohol - we do our best to catch up and make a pretty good job of it. The dancing becomes more and more animated and most of the crowd is moving to the music. Arm in arm with various strangers we dance in big circles. In my inebriated state the simple footwork tests my co-ordination to the full. It's a very international crowd, bottles of the infamous spirit are passed around as if everyone's known each other for years, many are keen for us to try their homebrew which they believe is the best. The taste ranges from the "downright delicious" to the "straight from the petrol pump". 

Some I the music is abit "poptastic" and cliche for my tastes, but an equal quantity is very very good. I'm irritated that adverts are played on the big screens adjacent to the stage where normally one would observe live footage closeups of the performance. A sure sign that the corporations are tightening their grip on what was once a very natural and pure music festival. There is a whiff of Nationalism, with lots of flag waving - but hey I'm a guest here, and if they're proud of their country then why not. At some point in the night the Rakia takes it's first victim in Eva and Theo takes her back to camp. 

The rest of the night becomes pretty blurry. After checking on Eva we go into the press pit and backstage. It's good fun and the view of the crowd is awesome. At some point I'm asked by an actual journalist who I reported to, having had my brain stripped of any remaining whit by alcohol I reply "The BBC" - nice one James, lets see you get out of this. Thankfully I cant remember what was said next, it was probably to shameful to repeat...But it didn't end in a fight and I was even offered backstage passes to the following nights Beer Festival finale...result.

The atmosphere was never anything other than completely friendly. Bumping into people while dancing didn't induce some kind of macho stand off. I remember treading on a girls foot - she even smiled! I tried my best to look apologestic but suspect I had lost control of my facial muscles my this point. Some how we made our way home in the car, creeping along at 5mph down a tiny little dusty lane. No surprises I slept like a baby...a really really drunk baby...

Sadly no pics from Guca folks, left my camera in Belgrade - dick!

Novi Sad - Belgrade 20-08-2010 (Distance 118km)

Tanja is our wakeup call - no easy task with two knackered cyclists. After 2 or 3 of such calls we are pried out of very comfy beds, the prying eased by the prospect of breakfast. Giant and tasty meal done with we reluctantly pack our belongings. Based on the company and hospitality so far I suspect leaving Serbia could be tough. Tanja gives us a bag of snacks and we say our goodbyes. It's going to be a hot day. Mihailo did this route on his way out and so know the location of the hills, allowing me some time for mental preparation. Though 6km @ 8-10% requires surprisingly little effort these days. I try to put myself in Mihailo's place, the last of a 40 day 3500km tour, heading home to family and friends -must feel pretty good. We've cycled together for 20 days and each one genereated some story worth telling. I'm impressed he timed it so well, arriving back home on the day he promised - dont think I'm capable of such organisation, though I guess I'll have to be once visa's demand arrival dates etc...

On a particularly hot/straight stretch of road we spy through the rising heat haze the unmistakable siluatte of a loaded cycle tourist. Subconciously we press the pedals a little harder to close the gap. Carlos is nearing the end of his trip from Madrid to Belgrade. We ride together for a few k's and stop for a cold Coke and a chat, cheeky icecream too. Shortly after a pair of seriously loaded cyclists roll by the shop. We wave a greeting and they pull up to say hello. Both bikes have trailers, they park up, give a whistle and a dog hops out of each trailer. Michael and Sybille are from Munich. Unbelieveably these four are also heading to India!! If you'd like to follow their progress here's a link to they blog - they even have business cards!!

The dogs are very well trained and even sit for photos on demand. Their daily distances are relatively low due to the immense weight they both carry. I definately feel a pang of "If they can do, I must have a chance!", but I must not forget - it's down to much more than kilos carried. We say our goodbye's and steam off at 30kph, having chatted for longer than intended we will struggle to get to Belgrade on time. We have plenty of energy after the break and a hoofing along. Mihailo signals to pull over, we cross the road and through the gates of a house, unaware that we had anymore stops to make I am confused. One thing I'm slowly learning, unsure if it's a trait typical to Surbs or just the one I've met - all time constraints are forgotten as soon as a socializing opportunity arrises. No bad thing I think, though quite a contrast to socializing back home where a certain degree of punctuality is expected. When meeting Tica and Jovana Mihailo did warn me that Serbian girls are always late.....

So we sit in the garden and I get aquainted with four other cyclists and the house owners. We sip some very refreshing sweetened mint water and Mihailo fills all in on his trip and how he came to meet the hairy Englander sitting across the table. The cyclist are friends of Mihailo's from his previous tours and will be joining us for the final furlong. It will be great to ride in a group though the have a distinct lack of luggage and I'm slightly concerned I wont be able to match their pace. I'm releived to find their speed bareable, though suspect it's mainly for my benefit. They stop to show me a comical door bell that appeals to my childlike humour - various car/tractor parts take the form of a man, when the bell is pressed a siren sounds and he spray water from his cock. Nice! Further down the road we stop again - food time. I'm clearly the only one concered about Mihailo's time limit and decide to adopt a more "Serbian" approach - forgetting I have anywhere to be and enjoying the food and company. We see the guys with dogs again and share some Coke with them, after some more group photos we jump back on our bikes - I expect the pace to be furious. As I push off I notice a rather squishy back tyre - great timing!! I pump it up and hope I can limp it the last 30 km's. At 32kph I can keep up ok, though seemingly this requires next to no effort from my companions. We reach a hill, jeers go up and as one we stamp on the pedals - they all hit the 40's and I'm panting away stuggling to make 20kph. Eventually that gradient eases and I'm able to close the gap again - at the cost of a fair proportion of my fleeting energy reserves. My arse is bouncing more than normal and I see my rear tyre once again in a sorry state. I take several stops to maintain some kind of tyre pressure. The road's in central Belgrade are closed off due to the Beer Festival - hows that for timing! I ride the last km on my rim. Side by side with Mihailo we weave through the walkers towards the riverbank, it's quite exciting - I almost feel I'm finishing my trip!

Mihailo is very happy to be reunited with his friends. He has told me about many of them while we cycled so it's good to get introduced and put names to faces. I fix my puncture and join the group for a beer or two in a riverside cafe. I follow Mihailo's friend Joca through the city on his scooter to the flat and my home for the next few days. Joca instructs me he'll pick me up in 30 mins for the Beer Festival - result!

As I mentioned earlier, several of the roads through town are closed off for the event, compared to beer festivals in England this could only be described as off the scale! Parking is difficult but once sorted we continue on foot. The emphasis is definately more on Festival. A big stage plays live Serbain bands and DJ sets later in the night. Bars selling various Lagers surround the perimeter and people fill in the rest. I've no idea on numbers but wouldn't be surprised if there were around 10 thousand (very roughly). Lots of drinking, dancing, happy people. Joca was my escort home but I managed to loose him in the masses. After an unsuccessful bimble through the crowd I decide to make my way home...where ever that is. I leave the crowds heading East, though I wanted North - I put this down to my sense of direction being 90 degrees out of phase thanks to the beer...yea....right. My blistered feet protest and I flag down a taxi - this could be expensive.

"Where to?"

"Well, here's the thing.....I'm not too sure. But I do have a key, perhaps we could try all the locks in downtown Belgrade??".

Joca took me to the flat via the fortress and so I ask to go there in the hope that I was paying attention when I cycled through earlier. To my utter amazement I direct the driver to the door of the flat. I still don't know how, drunken luck maybe....