16 Jul Trip Diary – Hungary to Bulgaria
Budapest had been amazing and I found it hard to leave the city life behind me after five days of exploring most of what the capital had to offer, I continued my journey south along the Danube watching the city landscape fade away over the horizon as I headed for Romania.
It didn’t take long before I was back in the countryside, rolling on through the huge fields of wheat, corn, and rye and, unsurprisingly, getting quite lost in the process. That’s the thing about traveling slowly: being unbound by time constraints and having a lack of anywhere to be, getting lost is perfectly acceptable and only adds to the sense of adventure. On top of that, it brings you to places, to landscapes, to people, and experiences you would never have known about had you only navigated the maze of small dirt tracks and unkept side roads. On this occasion, it also gave me my first glimpse into a challenge I knew was coming at some point, one that has been known to end the trips of many a cyclist or hiker and one I was rather anxious about: wild dogs.
For me, wild dogs come in three types: strays, farm, and shepherd dogs. These, you understand, are not the type of dogs you throw a ball for or who roll over in anticipation of a good belly scratch. Wild dogs are out to survive and have no quarrels about stealing your food, even when it’s still bubbling away on the stove, and will happily fight you for it. The farm dogs and shepherds dogs are kept for one thing and one thing only: protection. And, they are very good at it.
Encountering the wildlife
This first encounter was whilst cycling past a remote farm. My attention was more taken with the beauty of the landscape than the thought of any danger of the four-legged kind. The gates to a farm were open and as I passed, the silence and tranquility of the early afternoon were abruptly replaced with the sounds of barking and snarling and the appearance of three large dogs hurtling towards me at top speed to come say ‘hi’ in their own, frightening way. All the advice I’d received before the trip about how to deal with situations like this was the same – stop moving and try and to get the bike between you and the dogs. Speeding off (not really that easy to do on sandy tracks with an 80kg bike) will only encourage them because these dogs like to chase and by standing still the hope is they lose their interest and will be happy to return home without removing one of your limbs or part of the bike as a trophy. When I first heard this, it struck me as completely counter-intuitive: stopping would just mean I become their easiest target of the year, but it worked. The dogs circled the bike for a minute or two, snarling and barking and making the odd lunge for one of the panniers or trying to sneak a strike at one of my calves, whilst I performed a strange circular dance with the bike in an attempt to keep it between me and them. Eventually, they gave up and started to retreat, no doubt bored by the lack of chase and fleshy rewards, and I slowly walked the bike away, constantly glancing over my shoulder to make sure they weren’t planning on a second attempt when my back was turned.
Over the next few weeks, I had many encounters with dogs, all ending with me keeping my limbs, and with them achieving little more than scaring me half to death. The worst by far is the shepherd dog. These really came into play when I reached Romania and into the mountains where they protect the flocks of sheep from bear and wolf attacks. Even when I was a fair distance away from any flocks, they’d still seek me out. On one occasion, I watched them bound across the grasslands for a good minute or so before they reached me, bursting through the thorny shrubbery in the usual aggressive way. They only retreated with the shepherd’s calls. I never once got used to the experience and learned very early on that any sheep, no matter how far away, are best given a wide berth.
Crossing to Romania
It took three more days to reach the town of Kiszomber, a few kilometres short of the border between Hungary and Romania. Those three days provided some of hardest cycling to date. Keen to stay away from the poorly surfaced main roads and wild truck drivers, I decided to stick as much as possible to the quieter back roads, despite the threat of getting lost and the increased chances of bumping into wild dogs. But here’s the thing about Hungarian back roads, at the least the ones I found myself on. They don’t really exist in the way maps might lead you to think they do. On the map, they’re shown as clear white lines that snake through the countryside joining the small towns and villages but, in reality, they are little more than infrequently used sandy tracks. The first few kilometres after turning off the main roads may be poorly tarmacked, but this soon runs out and breaks away in a crumbling mess of stones and lumps of asphalt then deep sand and no sign that vehicles have been this way in some time. I spent the best part of these three days pushing the bike along these tracks, cursing my decision to be frightened off the main roads. Occasionally, I’d get a run of tarmac through the villages I encountered, but it never lasted long. So you can imagine my happiness on riding into Kiszomber and being reunited with a rideable surface. After wild camping since leaving Budapest and with daily temperatures in the mid-thirties, it was with a disheveled and rather sweaty appearance that I presented myself at border control, handing over my passport with the best happy face I could muster. Within a few minutes, and after a few puzzling looks from the police when I explained what I was intending to do with my time in Romania, they waved me through and I pushed off into country number 9.
Before I left on this trip, I’d been invited by a couple of German friends I’d met during my time in Australia to their wedding in the north of Germany. The date for their big day was fast approaching and I had been trying to create a plan that would allow me to attend ever since Slovakia. I was hoping to fly out of Timisoara, Romania, but didn’t want to take the bike with me. I found somewhere in the city where I could keep it safe, along with most of my equipment. For weeks I had been contacting hostels and cycling groups in the area to see if anyone was willing to help me out and, after a bit of persistence, I stumbled across Liviu and his company, Walking&Bicycle Tours, based in Timisoara. Not only was Liviu incredibly helpful and informative, he also took it upon himself to find me accommodation in the city at an amazingly discounted price at the beautiful and friendly Hostel Costel. When I arrived in the city the second day after crossing the border I found that everything had been taken care of for me. The hostel was expecting me, and Spiri the owner had agreed to look after my bike and kit whilst I was gone. The hostel itself was the first of its kind in the city and still remains the go-to place for travellers of all ages and it’s easy to see why. The tranquil gardens and quiet dorms, mixed with incredibly helpful and informative staff and a central location make it the perfect base for anyone exploring the city. Liviu gave me a morning of his time to take me on a bike tour of the city and show me the kind of places that only experienced tour guides can. Then I spent a hot few days roaming the city before my flight back to Berlin.
The wedding itself was wonderful, even if I didn’t understand most of what was going on. It was great to be back amongst friends and be part of their special day, despite being the most under-dressed attendee there – strangely, I don’t have a suit with me on this trip! I returned back to Timisoara four days later, after successfully negotiating the Romanian public transport back to the hostel, and spent a further three days exploring the city. At some point during my trip back to Berlin, I’d picked up what can only be described as a case of man-flu from hell and when the time came to say goodbye to Liviu, Spiri, and the rest of his team I still felt pretty awful. Over the next few days, I made very little progress. On one day, I barely rode 10km before giving up. A total lack of energy, blocked nose, and a brain that wouldn’t compute tasks that were normally not too much trouble, like negotiating traffic or map reading, meant I found myself camped up for a few days in a small woodland not far outside the city. Resting may have been good for the body as I spent my time doing little more than lying down or eating, but it was hard on my mind. I’m not one for staying still long and find it almost unbearable when I’m forced to do so. After 48 hours and feeling only mildly better, I couldn’t take it anymore and packed up, deciding that even a slow pace was better than staying put. The flu would stay with me for the next ten days, well into Bulgaria, but each day I woke up feeling slightly better.
Man flu from hell
My initial plan was to head into Transylvania, around the town of Brasov before heading south towards Bulgaria, but the lack of energy and my difficulty breathing meant the hills were proving too much. Progress was painfully slow and I was forced to push the bike hills that normally I’d happy plod my way up. After two days and not getting as far into Transylvania as I wanted, I made the decision to head south earlier than planned and back towards the flatter countryside along the Danube. It meant missing out on a part of the trip I was really excited about – the mountains of Transylvania – but I made a promise that I’ll come back one day. I did, however, manage to practice my bear avoidance techniques whilst camping ( food placed high in trees etc.) and although I never saw any, a few unfamiliar, loud noises after dark meant for some interesting nights.
Back to the Danube
After another day or two, the hills receded and I found myself cruising along the banks of the Danube again. Camping spots were definitely harder to find outside the forests and things didn’t go quite as I planned one night in particular. It was around 8 pm and I was still searching for somewhere to camp in the barren landscape. The few villages I’d passed through were almost deserted and there was no one around to ask for a bed for the night. The one police station I’d found (nearly always good for a bed or use of their grounds) seemed to have been closed for many years – an old rusty police car half buried beneath the undergrowth confirmed the fact. Eventually, stumbled upon a derelict building a few kilometres outside of a village – one that had never quite been finished in the first place and was now left to the elements. Exhausted from a long day’s ride, I made dinner on the lower floor of the building and unrolled my sleeping mat. I decided against using the tent as it wasn’t forecast to rain and I had a roof over my head anyway, albeit pocketed with large holes that exposed the building’s twisted rebarb skeleton. All seemed well as I drifted off with a cool breeze blowing in off of a nearby lake. That is, until just before 1 am when I was abruptly woken from my slumber by the shouts of ‘Police’ and patrol car lights bouncing off the unfinished walls in a bizarre blue and red light show.
No one really likes to be woken in the middle of the night, but the experience is all the more confusing and unwelcome when it’s the police shouting in a language you don’t understand, when flashlights are shined in your eyes, and hands are unnervingly fingering unidentifiable objects attached to their belts. In an instant, I’d gone from fast asleep to sitting bolt upright trying to take in the situation and doing my best to explain why I had made my home for the night in an abandoned building. As it turned out, they, like most of the people I came across in Romania, were very friendly and more concerned about my safety than moving me on. They left, but not before warning me of the many thieves that operate in the area and one officer giving me his mobile number with instructions to call if I needed anything. It would be far quicker than calling 112, he explained, as they would be in the area. I nodded and agreed, too embarrassed to admit I didn’t have a phone. It took a while to get back to sleep again. I’m still unsure how they found me as I couldn’t be seen from the road. Finally, after almost ten weeks of wild camping and remaining undiscovered, I’d been found.
Today’s the 30th of June and my last day in Romania. Despite my initial concerns, mainly due to reports from people who had never been to the country warning me about the likes of gypsies, I found the country to have some of the friendliest and most welcoming people I’ve encountered yet. Kids in the villages would run to the edge of the streets as I passed through and attempted to high-five me as I went by. Many times, they would run alongside the bike, laughing and clapping and playfully pushing me along on the steeper sections. Only in the bigger cities did I encounter anything close to trouble. The kids, mainly teenagers, would descend upon me if I stopped to rest and immediately start asking for money. Occasionally, they would try and riffle through my pockets or unclip pannier bags and, on one occasion, they grew quite aggressive at my refusal. It’s hard to know exactly what to do in such a situation – after all, they are children and being aggressive and standing your ground isn’t an option for adults. In the end, walking off proved to be the better option, as they soon got bored.
Later today, I will attempt to cross into Bulgaria via the ferry from the Romanian town of Zimnicele to the Bulgarian town of Svishov. I’ve heard from locals the ferry can be unpredictable and that the timetable isn’t really worth paying much attention to. It’s forecast to hit 40 degrees later so fingers crossed there might be somewhere for me to hide from the midday sun if things go slowly at the port. I’ll let you all know how things went in the next blog post.
Wish me luck!
This blog post covers dates from 7th June – 30th June, 2017
For more photos from this section of the trip visit the gallery page or click here
Edited by – Emer Garry