Serbia

August 7, 2010

In Serbia, we felt like we had to work hard for every kilometer.  The roads are a lot rougher, and we encountered some substantial hills that were not marked on our bike map.  A hill is always harder when you’re not expecting it.  We also had a day of steady headwinds and crosswinds, which meant we were only able to go about half our normal speed, and we got worn out very quickly.  Somewhere along the way, we noticed that the signs marking the bike route had amusing little phrases at the bottom.  We found one that said, “You have certainly made your opinion of Serbia so far.  We hope it is a nice one, but if it is not completely so, here is something that is sure to help: please lower your expectations. 🙂 ”

A sign showing the way along the bike route and recommending that we lower our expectations

The day that we biked to Belgrade was the kind of day when you wonder if everything is actually happening or if you are just dreaming it.  To get to the city, we had the choice of going on a busy road with traffic and hills, or an unpaved path through the fields.  The guidebook had a nice picture of the unpaved path, showing it as a straight, level, hard-packed dirt path.  You can probably guess where this is going; if you guessed that the path looked nothing like the picture, you’re right.  It was bumpy and muddy and rocky and had deep holes that had been filled with pieces of broken pottery—definitely not the best surface for bike tires, but fortunately we made it without any flats.  We took our own picture of the path and thought maybe we should send it to the company that made the guidebook so they can update their picture.  Every once in a while, an old Renault or Yugo would come bumping along the “road” and we had to pull off to let them pass.  We were wondering where these people were going, and they were probably wondering the same about us.

Our dirt path, with a Renault

Finally we got back on a real road and made it into Belgrade; we were glad that part of the route took us through a park so we could avoid some of the traffic.  Our plan was to take a train out of Belgrade to bypass what the guidebook described as “the stress, traffic and climbs of the not particularly attractive main route to Smederevo.”  The guidebook made the process of taking a train out of Belgrade sound pretty simple.  Maybe we should stop believing what the guidebook says.

When we went to buy our tickets, we were told by a no-nonsense employee that bikes were not allowed on the train.  We decided that there must be some way around this, and we resorted to asking broader and broader questions until we got an answer we liked.  Is there a different train that takes bikes?  Is there a train to Romania that takes bikes?  Is there any train that takes bikes?  Finally the employee told us that maybe we could ask the conductor, and he might let us take our bikes on the train.  That answer was good enough for us.  On our way out to the train platforms, we saw an information office and decided to try asking there.  This time we got a young girl who spoke a lot more English and was much more optimistic about whether we could take our bikes on the train.  Sure, no problem, just ask the guy who sells tickets at the front of the train.  We learned that it pays to ask several people several times.

We found our platform and waited for our train to arrive.  A couple minutes before the train was supposed to depart, it still hadn’t arrived, but we noticed a steady flow of people boarding a train on the next platform.  Lindsay checked the train schedule and found out that there wasn’t supposed to be a train on the next platform, so we started to wonder if that was our train.  We ran over with our bikes and asked the conductor, and indeed it was our train.  When we asked about taking our bikes on the train, we got a similar series of answers: no…well, maybe…OK, put your bike on the train now so we can leave.  There was no designated space for bikes like on German and Austrian trains, so we stood with our bikes in the entryway for the next couple hours.  There was no ventilation in that part of the train and no seats, and every time we tried to sit down on the floor, someone would walk through and we would have to get up.  We weren’t sure if this was really any better than just biking through what we were skipping by taking the train.

Lindsay holding up her bike on the train out of Belgrade

Fortunately, Serbia made up for its difficulties with some beautiful views and very friendly, hospitable people.  We have found the Serbian taxi drivers to be especially helpful.  Several times when we were standing along the road looking at our map, a taxi driver has pulled up to give us directions.  One even drew us a little map of the turns we had to take to get through town, since our bike map is not very detailed.  Further complicating our navigation is the fact that half of the signs are written using the Cyrillic alphabet.  By the end of our time in Serbia, we got pretty good at deciphering Cyrillic.

Can you read this? (See the end of this post for the answer!)

Our last couple days of biking in Serbia were some of the most memorable days of the trip.  One day we started out at Silver Lake, which was beautiful and peaceful. Our route took us right along the Danube the whole day – that’s actually pretty unusual, because in some parts of the route we don’t see the Danube for many kilometers.  The road went right through Golubac castle (yes, literally through), which was built in the 13th century; some of the towers rise out of the Danube River.  The rest of our route went past rocky cliffs which provided amazing views.  Also, we went through close to 20 tunnels that day—we walked our bikes on the sidewalk through all but the shortest ones, as the tunnels had no artificial lighting.  We were very glad for the lights on our bikes then.

Golubac Castle, with a road running through it

One of Golubac Castle's towers, partially submerged in the Danube

Tunnel #4, the longest tunnel we went through, measuring over a third of a kilometer...it looks dark in there...

That day we only went through a few small, isolated towns which offered no accommodations and hardly any grocery stores.  We had to plan the day well so we had enough to eat and drink along the way.  We ended the day in Donji Milanovac, which had somehow thrived more than the other towns and offered several hotels and restaurants.  There we ran into two other travelling couples—one German couple that was also biking the Danube, and one German/Italian couple that was backpacking around Europe.  It’s always refreshing to meet other travelers who understand your experiences.

That evening, the town happened to be having their annual fish soup festival, where many people from the town gather to cook their fish soup in big kettles over a fire.  We joined the small crowd sitting on the bleachers to watch the action, but we couldn’t quite gather from observation how it was supposed to work, so we asked some young guys sitting nearby if they spoke English and could explain it to us.  One of them explained that this is a traditional festival for all the towns in Serbia that are along a river.  Judges and spectators can try each of the soups, and at the end of the evening one is chosen to win a prize for the best fish soup.  Each chef has his own secret recipe with different kinds of spices and fish from the Danube.  Together with our new friends, we tried a few different recipes and took our guess at which one would win.

Fish soup cooking over a fire at the festival in Donji Milanovac

Lindsay standing in the Danube in Donji Milanovac

The next day was our last day in Serbia.  After going through a few more tunnels, we reached the Danube’s narrowest point, where it breaks through the mountains.  We made slow progress as we stopped every few minutes to take pictures of the beautiful views.  At one point we were snapping pictures of the river when Lindsay told David to quickly turn around and look at what was coming.  He turned and managed to snap a couple pictures of a Lamborghini zipping by with a dramatic mountain landscape in the background.  Finally the road descended to the border crossing where we would leave Serbia and enter Romania.

A Lamborghini driving through the Danube Gorge

The Danube Gorge: the narrowest point of the Danube

Leaving Serbia, entering Romania

_________________________________________________

*Answer to “Can you read this?”: The first city listed on the sign is Novi Sad, one of the cities we passed through on our route.  We don’t know what the other words say. 🙂

Advertisements

Croatia

August 7, 2010

The border crossing from Hungary into Croatia was the first time during our trip where we had to show our passports.  Our time in Croatia was short and sweet.  We were only there for a few days, but we had some excellent biking on smooth roads. OK, we also had some big hills, but we were feeling pretty good that day, so it wasn’t too difficult.  On Sunday we gave ourselves a much-needed day of rest in the city of Osijek.  It basically rained all day, so we didn’t do any biking that day.  We didn’t do much of anything, actually, and we were OK with that.  Finally in the evening the rain cleared up and we ventured out to explore a few sites in the city.

Statue and cathedral in Osijek, Croatia

Our next day of biking took us through the town of Vukovar, where we saw a lot of damage still visible from the civil war in the 90’s.  The most memorable was the old water tower that still stands above the city.

Old water tower in Vukovar; notice the damage from the civil war

While we were in Vukovar we stopped for lunch at a restaurant and asked our waiter what some typical Croatian food was.  He recommended cevapcici, which were little fried sausages served over large pieces of fried bread.  Not the kind of meal you’d want to eat on a regular basis, but we figured we’d burn off the calories soon enough with our biking.

Cevapcici, a typical Croatian dish recommended by our waiter

Our first taste of eastern Europe

July 31, 2010

After leaving Austria, the next country we went through was Slovakia.  We approached the Slovakian border with our passports ready, as our guidebook said that we would have to get in line with the cars and go through a checkpoint.  When we arrived at the border, however, we saw cars driving right past the abandoned border patrol building, and the bike path continued without interruption.  Since Slovakia is part of the European Union, you no longer have to get your passport stamped.  Another bonus: Slovakia uses the Euro just like Germany and Austria, so we didn’t have to switch to a new currency.

We spent a night in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, and then over the next few days we criss-crossed the border between Slovakia and Hungary a couple times, since the Danube forms the country border at that point.  Finally the Danube makes a sharp turn south (this is called the “knee” of the Danube) and continues in that direction through Hungary.  Here are a few highlights from that time:

  • Gyor, Hungary – Actually, the highlight of this city was our experience with trying to get out of it.  Our map of Gyor seemed to be out of date, as the roads on the map weren’t matching up with the roads we were riding on.  At one point we were standing by the road studying our map, and a tow truck driver pulled over, beeped his horn, and said something to us in Hungarian.  We shrugged our shoulders and he got out of the truck and came over to give us directions.  We couldn’t understand a word he was saying, but he described the route to us in Hungarian anyway.  He finally resorted to drawing three circles on the ground to represent the traffic circles we were supposed to go through, and then he pointed in the direction we were supposed to go.  Shortly thereafter, we passed a girl on a bike who stopped us and asked which direction she was going.  It turned out she is from Germany, and she’s riding the same route we are, but without a map. (That’s a whole lot easier in Germany and Austria, where the routes are well marked with signs, but once you get into Eastern Europe it gets harder.)  We decided to ride together, and between our map and her ability to speak enough Hungarian to ask for directions, we were able to find our way out of the city.  We rode for most of the day together, and it was refreshing to be able to connect with someone on a deeper level than just buying a Coke or asking for a hotel room.
  • Esztergom, Hungary – In this town we happened upon a cultural festival in the main square.  On the stage, the program alternated between a group performing traditional Hungarian dances and a musical group playing traditional Hungarian songs.  There were also some food vendors around the square, and we indulged in a taste of home with some “American hot dogs.”  Even that turned out to be a bit exotic though, as our language barrier resulted in some spicy ketchup on our hot dogs. As we sat and enjoyed the program on stage, we noticed a poster for a Hungarian gospel choir that was supposed to perform that evening.  We thought it would be interesting to see the choir perform, but we couldn’t understand the information on the poster to know where the concert was supposed to take place.  As it turned out, they were the next act in the cultural festival!  Many of the songs they sang were in English, and we got a kick out of being the only people in the crowd who could sing along as the choir performed DCTalk’s song “Free at Last.”
  • Mohacs, Hungary – This was the last town we stayed in before crossing the border into Croatia.  We couch surfed (www.couchsurfing.org) with a girl and her family, and this was one of our favorite experiences in Hungary.  Her mom made Hungarian goulash and crepes for supper, and the next day we went out with our host and her friend to find some cultural sites in the town.  Among our stops was the workshop of Englert Antal, a man who makes the traditional wooden Buso masks used during Carnaval celebrations in Hungary.  (www.englertantal.hu). He explained the history and meaning of the masks and even let David try out some carving techniques!
  • Condition of roads/paths – Sometimes the bike route is just a path worn into the grass on top of the dike that runs along the Danube.  Sometimes it is a gravel path (one of our least favorite surfaces), and sometimes the path looks like it was paved about 30 years ago and has since crumbled. Once in a while we actually get a nice smooth bike path.  And sometimes we have to just ride on the road.
  • Communicating with people – Hungarian is one of the few European languages that is essentially unrelated to any other language.  English therefore, has almost no words or even roots of words in common with Hungarian.  Whereas in German, you might be able to get the gist of a sentence like “Was ist der nächste Halt?” (“What is the next stop?”), the Hungarian “Mi a következő megálló?” offers no linguistic clues to the English speaker.  With that said, some of the Hungarians we talk with do speak some English or German.  (German is a very helpful language to know here!)  Some people say they speak a little English, but they never actually say anything in English; they just listen to us talk and then they respond in Hungarian.  If we are talking with an older person, sometimes they will bring over a younger person to talk to us in English.  Some people only speak Hungarian and there’s no one around who speaks English, so we just communicate with gestures and pointing, and we complete the transaction while speaking two different languages to each other and not understanding what the other person is saying.  Fortunately the process of buying a Coke is pretty universal, and the words “Coca-cola” and “Pizza Hawaii” are the same in every language we’ve encountered so far.  Pepperoni pizza is not what you’d think, though.  We ordered that once and got a pizza with spicy green peppers on top.  We are learning a few Hungarian words, like thank you and hello/goodbye.  In Hungarian you can actually say “Hello” (sounds just like the English word hello) to mean hello or goodbye.  It feels really funny to leave a store and say “hello”!

A traditional Hungarian dance at the cultural festival in Esztergom

In Hungary there are still some thatched-roof houses...notice the satellite dish

Englert Antal, a local artisan, demonstrates how to carve a Buso mask

A typical bike path along the dike next to the Danube in southern Hungary

One last little bit of Austria

July 31, 2010

Before leaving Stockerau, we took a train into Vienna and spent a day exploring the city and looking for our old apartments and the places where we used to hang out when we lived there.  Lindsay lived in Vienna for two summers (2003 and 2004) as part of her German studies in college.  During her first summer there, she took classes at a language school.  We looked for the school, but we weren’t able to find it; apparently it had moved to another part of the city.  We did, however, find the apartment that she lived in that summer.

Lindsay's first apartment in Vienna, above a bakery

During Lindsay’s second summer in Vienna, she took some classes at the University of Vienna on topics like German art and literature, and teaching foreign languages.  During that same summer, David came to Vienna with a group from college for a month-long cross-cultural trip.  The group took language classes at the language school Lindsay had studied at the previous summer, and we all lived in an apartment building close to the language school.

University of Vienna

University of Vienna

The apartment building where we lived in the summer of 2004

That afternoon we had lunch and spent time reminiscing in a restaurant we had frequented during our time in Vienna.

That night we said goodbye to our host family in Stockerau and prepared to resume our biking trip.  The next day we stopped in the center of town to get some things before leaving, and we ran into one of our students from the English camp.  She wanted to know why we were still around after the rest of the Americans had left, and we explained to her about our biking trip.

On our way out of Austria, we visited an area called Carnuntum that is famous for having many Roman ruins.  We visited the ruins of a Roman arena.  We were surprised that we were allowed to walk through, and even on, the ruins.  In the museum at the arena, David tried on a gladiator’s helmet (OK, not the real thing, it was a reproduction).  It was quite heavy and hot…it was hard to believe they actually wore helmets like that!

Walking on the Roman ruins

David’s new bike helmet

Quick update

July 27, 2010

Hey everyone…just wanted to give you a quick update to let you know that we are still alive and well. Since we left Austria, we have biked through Slovakia, Hungary and Croatia. Today is our first day in Serbia. Tomorrow we hope to reach the capital, Belgrade.
Hopefully we will be able to get some full-length posts up soon, once we find some wi-fi for our laptop, rather than just catching a couple minutes here and there on a computer at the library or youth hostel.
Stay tuned for more details…

Slovakia, here we come!

July 13, 2010

In our last post we were still in Germany, but very close to the Austrian border.  Biking into the second of the seven countries that we will be biking through was exciting, though if you blinked at the wrong time you’d miss the border crossing.  On the one side of the trail a small rusty sign getting enveloped by the tree it was nailed to marked the location of the “landes grenze” – the country border.  There was no one there to check passports or anything – a perk, I suppose, of travelling within the European Union.

Austria proved to have some of the smoothest, flattest bike paths that we’ve been on yet.  Also, the path often stayed close to the Danube, unlike some of Germany where you catch periodic glimpses of the river as you navigate through scenery that consists of mostly fields, forests, and small towns.  Our first day in Austria was our longest biking distance so far – just shy of 100 km.  The distance seemed much shorter, however, as terrain is usually a bigger factor in biking fatigue than your actual distance.  That night we stayed in Linz, the third biggest city in Austria (though that actually doesn’t say too much – a quarter of the Austrian population lives in Vienna.  Most of the rest of Austria is rural).

Our next day of biking included an excursion to Mauthausen, one of the largest World War II concentration camps in Austria.  The sobering atmosphere of the camp was augmented by clouds and rumbling thunder that rolled in just as we arrived at the camp and that lingered as we toured the bleak grounds.  The storm clouds passed just after we left Mauthausen, however, and that evening we got to the small town of Grein after another day pleasant biking.

The biking after Grein was on smooth, flat terrain, but we noticed the flipside to being on these ideal bike paths – scads of other bikers.  The stretch between Passau and Vienna is by far the most famous section of the Danube bike path, and many groups rent bikes and panniers to do a three or four day trip.  We don’t count ourselves among their ranks, however, as we’re biking a much longer distance and our clip is about twice as fast as most of theirs.

The afternoon and evening of the day after Grein was, however, perhaps one of our favorite times here so far.  We entered the Wachau region – a beautiful area with ancient small towns surrounded by mostly vineyards and apricot orchards.  We explored a medieval tower with spiral staircase that led to the top of the tower.  Apparently this tower is always open for curious people like us to explore.  If there were anything this old in America, I’m sure it would be off limits for passersby to investigate.  From the top of the tower we had a great view of the Danube and the town until dusk set in and we had to end our enjoyable evening in the Wachau.

The next day we were scheduled to get to Stockerau (a city not far from Vienna), where we would meet a group from Lancaster to do a week of English day-camp at a church in Stockerau.  Around mid-afternoon we came to a large sign beside the path that said simply “2000.”  We checked our map and found that we were 2000 kilometers from our ultimate destination – the Black Sea (the entire river is 2840 kilometers long).  That day was one of the hottest days so far, but we knew we would be able to get a long shower after meeting up with our host family.  We met up with the group and with our host family, the beginning of our short-term mission section of the trip.  This section of the trip deserves its own blog post, which we will hopefully have up soon.

Today we are biking from Stockerau through Vienna, and tomorrow we hope to enter our third country – Slovakia.  This means we’ll be leaving some now familiar things – the German language, the Euro, and, in some cases, well-marked bike routes.  And we’ll be entering countries where the city names have more diacritic markings than actual letters.  But we are armed with a bike route book and a phrasebook with all of the eastern European languages that we plan to encounter – what more could you need?

Austrian Border

The border crossing into Austria

David touching the Danube

David touching the Danube

Riding through the countryside

Riding through the countryside

Vineyards in the Wachau region

Vineyards in the Wachau region

Riding through St. Michael

Riding through St. Michael

On top of the medieval tower in St. Michael

On top of the medieval tower in St. Michael

Only 2000 more kilometers to the Black Sea!

Only 2000 more kilometers to the Black Sea!

Detour to southern Germany

June 28, 2010

Greetings from sunny Germany!

On Thursday morning we left Ingolstadt and made very good time biking towards Regensburg, enjoying ideal weather and beautiful remote German countryside. This was by far the most enjoyable biking we had so far. As we approached Regensburg that evening, we decided we might enjoy finding lodging in a guesthouse in one of the small, quaint towns surrounding the city rather in the pricier, somewhat touristy town of Regensburg itself. We found exactly what we were looking for in the village of Matting, where we were the only lodgers in a small, family-run guesthouse. We chatted World Cup “football” with the portly, mustached guesthouse owner over a very German meal of knödel and wurst before retiring for the night.

The next morning we got on our way after receiving a hearty farewell from the guesthouse owner (in the best English he could muster – “Happy holiday! Happy holiday!”). We rode a short distance into Regensburg, hoping first to visit to former residence of the famous 18th century astronomer and mathematician Johann Kepler, which is now a museum. The museum, however, was closed, though a beautiful Ferrari parked right in front of the house made the destination worthwhile. In the heart of the city itself, we were impressed by the very medieval feel (Regensburg is an ancient city – we got to see a Roman gate from the second century).

We boarded a train in Regensburg to get to Oberammergau. We weren’t about to bike here since it’s in a very mountainous region near the southern border of Germany. It’s not on the Danube, but we made it a destination on our trip because this is the year of the Passion Play, a production that the small town has put on every ten years for almost four centuries, with a few interruptions for wars and such. According to tradition, in 1633 the villagers of Oberammergau vowed to perform the Passion Play every ten years out of gratitude that their town was spared from the plague. The play involves most of the people who live in the village, and they perform it several times a week throughout the summer. The production is almost six hours long, with a break for supper in the middle. It was an impressive and moving show, although it took a lot of concentration to follow the dialogue, as the play was performed in German.

On Sunday morning we attended Mass in English at the Catholic church in Oberammergau. It was an unfamiliar format for both of us, but we couldn’t really follow the lead of the other people in the congregation because they were all visitors as well, probably here to see the Passion Play.

While we’re in this region of Germany, we didn’t want to miss the opportunity to visit Neuschwanstein, one of the most famous castles in Germany. After a hike up a steep trail to get up the hill, we took a tour of the castle. It was beautifully decorated and had a great view of the valley below. However, it was also quite crowded with tourists, and it will feel good to get back on the bike paths through the quiet German countryside. During our bus ride back to Oberammergau, we encountered a disabled vehicle that was blocking the road. Our bus driver steered the bus over the grass shoulder and onto a small, unpaved bike path to bypass the incident. We tried to start some applause after we got safely back on the road, but the only other person on the bus at the time was a nonchalant teenage girl who was listening to her iPod.

Today we will return to the Danube by train, this time to the city of Passau, where we will resume our biking and cross the border into Austria. In just a few days we’ll meet the missions team in Vienna. We’re looking forward to seeing what the upcoming week holds for us.

Kepler House Museum

Roman Gate in Regensburg

Roman Gate in Regensburg

Passion Play Theater in Oberammergau

Neuschwanstein Castle

Neuschwanstein Castle

The bus driving onto the bike path

Our first week

June 24, 2010

Our first week in Germany has been full of surprises.  Germany has had an unusually cold and rainy summer so far.  Our first day, it started out raining, but by afternoon it cleared off a bit, and we were able to stop and enjoy a hillside of “baa-ing” sheep.  That night we stayed in a youth hostel located in an 11th-century castle.  And yes, it looked and felt like a castle, albeit with heated rooms.  Our second day, the rain persisted, so we stopped biking part way through the day in Gutenstein and checked into the first guesthouse that would take our credit card (as we discovered that in small German towns, many establishments only take European debit cards or cash, and the next ATM was two towns over).

On the third the day, the weather was still cold and wet, but bearable.  We biked to the nearest train station and took a short train ride to get us back on schedule.  We recommenced biking in Munderkingen, with Um as our destination.  Our path on this day took us on a slight detour away from the Danube and past the Blautopf, the source of the nearby Blau River.  On a sunny day, the spring has a deep blue color.  However, the overcast weather that characterized our trip up to this point gave the spring a greenish hue, though this was still more attractive than the muddy brown of the Danube that resulted from all the rain we’d had.

In Ulm we couchsurfed (www.couchsurfing.org), which is a nice way to learn about local culture by staying with a local resident.  The next morning in Ulm, we decided to attempt the 768-step climb to the top of the world’s tallest church steeple at Ulm’s Lutheran church (perhaps not the wisest activity before a long day of biking – but we decided it was worth it).  After getting new brakes put on our bikes at a local repair shop, we started on our way towards Gundelfingen, arriving there in the early evening.  The next day we biked to Donauwoerth, took a train to Neuburg, then finished that day’s stretch by biking to Ingolstadt.

Our couchsurfing host in Ingolstadt, Sebastian, met us on the Danube, and we biked directly to an open-air showing of a World Cup soccer game.  Due to some kind of German security law, we had to surrender our helmets at the entrance to this event.  Perhaps the security guards were afraid we would be more likely to riot when wearing bike helmets.  Here, our thoroughly Bavarian host introduced us to some thoroughly Bavarian cuisine.  At the end of the night, we discovered that the event security guards had already gone home, leaving us helmetless.  Sebastian was fairly certain that if we returned to the event the next afternoon, he would be able to get our helmets back.  He graciously offered to let us stay another night, so were able to take the next morning to see the beautiful city of Ingolstadt instead of continuing on our way.  Incidentally, Ingolstadt is the home of the German car company Audi.  (About 30,000 of the 120,000 residents of the city work for Audi).  That afternoon, Sebastian was indeed successful at retrieving our helmets. We enjoyed a sunny afternoon in a park, where Sebastian taught us how to juggle.  In the evening we went to his friend’s apartment to watch Germany play Ghana in the World Cup.  We watched the game on the rooftop of the apartment, which allowed us to hear all of the commotion in the city after Germany won this important game.  We stayed at Sebastian’s apartment a second night, which brings us to this morning.  Today we continue on our way to Regensburg.

Welcome!

June 15, 2010

Thanks for visiting our blog, where we will chronicle our journey from Germany to Romania this summer.   We are leaving from Philadelphia at 9:15pm on June 15 and we plan to return on August 18.  Hopefully in that time we will have many interesting experiences to share with you.  Stay tuned…

Lindsay