Category Archives: Eastern Europe 2008

Vienna to the Black Sea

Cycling a variant of the Danube Cycle Route

Train from Geneva, Switzerland to Vienna, Austria

Cycling from Vienna

15th Sept Sopron, Hungary 98.7 km
16th Sept Celldömölk, Hungary 95.0 km
17th Sept Balatonberény, Hungary 87.o km (camp)
18th Sept Kaposvár, Hungary 83.0 km
19th Sept Harkány, Hungary 110.2 km
20th Sept Osijek, Croatia 77.9 km
21st Sept Futog, Serbia 120.6 km
22nd Sept Belgrade, Serbia 26.5 km plus bus from Novi Sad
23rd Sept Belgrade, Serbia 0.0 km sightseeing
24th Sept Stara Palanka, Serbia 102.8 km
25th Sept Lepenski Vir, Serbia 87.9 km (camp)
26th Sept Kladovo, Serbia 84.0 km
27th Sept Calafat, Romania 109.1 km via Bulgaria
28th Sept Bechet, Romania 105.4 km
29th Sept Galati, Romania 52.7 km plus train from Carabia
30th Sept Galati, Romania 0.0 km Margo not well
1st Oct Crisan, Romania 91.2 km (camp)
2nd Oct Crisan, Romania 0.0 km birdwatching (camp)
3rd Oct Jurilovca, Romania 75.1 km
4th Oct Constanta, Romania 104.1 km
5th Oct On the train 0.0 km
6th Oct Geneva, Switzerland 11.8 km to CERN

Train from Constanta, Romania, to Geneva, Switzerland

Final Odometer Reading: 1524 km

For comparison, the direct Vienna-Constanta route by car –that we did not take– is 1356 km, including 651 km on motorways.


Beyond Language

Knowing the local language is useful for a traveller, but it’s impossible to learn them all. On this trip, there are five we could have used: German, Hungarian (good luck!), Serbo-Croat, Bulgarian, and Romanian. All we had was a phrase book. By the time I has learned to say please, thank-you, and goodbye, we’d be across the next border and on to a new language.

Nonetheless, there is a lot that can be communicated with face, hands, tone of voice, and a few key words. We have a special memory of meeting a Serbian man –who must have been in his late seventies– and feeling we had understood each other well, despite the shortage of words in common. Although dealing with language difficulties while travelling independently is hard work, this kind of encounter is the payback.

As we approached the Iron Gate, we pedalled into a Serbian village which must have had a population of about 300 souls. The weather was warm, and it was time for some cool liquid refreshment. Chris likes a beer for his roadside stops, and my choice is usually Coca-Cola –for the sugar and caffeine. We kept a look-out for a terrace with tables, but all we could see was a tiny shop with the usual curtain of plastic ribbons hanging at the doorway to keep flies out. There were crates of beer outside, and two older men sat on the bench, libations in hand. When we first paused, they gestured towards the main road out of town. They weren’t trying to chase us off; they simply thought that no foreigner would have a reason to stop there.

Pivo? I inquired, making motions of opening bottle and taking a swig. Beer? Now, there’s a useful word. Soon after they understood what we were after, we were sitting beside them on the bench with our own libations. I recognized the names of countries as the gentleman chatted to me in an inquiring tone. He was asking where we were from. Ca-NA-da! he cried in astonishment, his face alight. Stress patterns are different in other languages, and it is harder for a Serbian to decipher CA-nuh-da, so I say it their way. The next ten minutes were taken up me showing him a page of images I’d brought along: a map of Canada, a Vancouver skyline, family photos, activities we do in our country. I pointed to the photo of my great niece. Dva. She is two years old. No, not my granddaughter –my brother’s grandaughter, but she lives near us. I pointed to images and maps. He chattered on to me in rapid-fire Serbian. I didn’t undertstand the words, yet I understood much. He was telling me how many children and grandchildren he had, how proud he was of them, that family was important, that people were the same everywhere, and that countries should not fight.

As we prepared to leave, I pinned one of those small Canadian flags to his lapel. He grinned from ear to ear, and chattered on. He asked Chris chivalrously whether he might kiss me. His question was polite, though it wasn’t the words that told us so. Chris and I nodded, and he kissed me on both cheeks before we rode away.

Dovidenja, Serbia. And thank you —Hvala.


Notes on Stoves

We had planned to cook our own one-pot dinners on this trip, at least some of the time. We were unable to do any cooking, however, and ended up carrying a cooking pot and our new so-called versatile stove 1500 km, without ever being able to find a gas cannister that would fit it.

After quite a bit of discussion and investigation before the trip, we left our liquid fuel (MSR Whisperlite Internationale) stove behind, having been told that running it on unleaded gas would ruin it, and we were unlikely to find white gas (Coleman Fuel) or kerosene. The stove we bought for the trip, an MSR Superfly, would fit “almost any canister” we were told by the lad at MEC. There would be no problems with different types of screw threads, he assured us. It attaches to the canister by gripping the rim. How clever! We were sold on the idea.

We couldn’t find any gas canisters with rims in Hungary, Croatia, or Serbia. They were all a rimless design. And we couldn’t find any gas canisters at all (other than 100kg propane tanks) in Romania.

If we travel in Eastern Europe again, we’ll take the MSR Whisperlite and find something combustible to feed it. We may shorten its life, but at least we’d have been able to cook a few meals.


Notes on Tires

Our experiences with punctures, based on four tires on two bicycles:

Cuba, January 2006:
1800 km, Schwalbe (Marathon and Marathon Plus) tires,
no flats.

Castlegar to Vancouver, August 2006:
800 km, Schwalbe tires,
no flats.

Spain, May 2007:
1500 km, Schwalbe tires,
no flats.

Total distance on Schwalbe tires approaching 10,000 km, and
NO flats.

Eastern Europe, September-October 2007:
1500 km, NOT Schwalbe tires, but mid-range tires that came with the bikes,
FIVE flats.

We love our new Surly touring bikes, but we should have upgraded the tires before we left. One flat per 300 km is just not worth saving a few $$$.

The roads of Eastern Europe are not that different than those on other parts of the world. All our punctures have been in the centre of the tire tread, not in the sidewall, and it is the tread or bead where Schwalbe puts the Kevlar. With this much empirical evidence, why would anyone start on a trip without Schwalbe tires? We never will again!
Don’t leave home without them!

And no, we were not paid by Schwalbe to write this.


Bicycles on Trains

We boarded a train from Constanta to Bucharest in the morning, riding to the train station and bagging our bicycles there. The bags are the regulation Swiss bags that we ordered for delivery to Chris’s office.

There is a movement to make trains more bike-friendly in Europe. The movement is well underway in Northwestern Europe, but it has spread only slowly and policies are far from uniform across the countries –Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, Romania–covered by our Eurail Pass. Our research from Canada told us that, in Switzerland, nearly all local trains accept bicycles as-is –in fact they provide several hooks for the bikes at the front of each rail car, and the appropriate doors are marked with the image of a bicycle. You must pay a small extra fee for the as-is bicycle. However, as-is bikes are not allowed on overnight or inter-city trains –a logistical problem for us.

If we’d been forced to take only local trains from Constanta all the way back to Geneva, the trip would likely have taken us a week, so this was not practical. A little more research told us that, according to Swiss train rules, placing the bike with front-wheel removed into an official nylon bag would magically transform it into mere luggage, acceptable on any train. This is why we’d ordered the bags, and carried then with us, using them as camping mats and picnic blankets as we travelled.

To get from Constanta to Geneva, we took six trains in just under 48 hours. The longest leg was from Bucharest to Vienna, and we had booked a two person room in a sleeper car. With bagged bikes placed vertically, we still had the use of both beds. This train arrived in Vienna over an hour late, which forced us to reschedule the rest of our homeward trip onto less bike-friendly trains with shorter legs and tight connections. Some of the connections looked impossibly tight, and we had serious doubts we’d manage them all and to get “home” to Geneva that night.

Wheeling a loaded bike through a train station is easy, even if you’ve removed the pedals and turned the handlebars. But the requirement that the bikes be bagged meant that, at most connection points, Chris carried two bagged bicycles, grabbing each by the crossbar through the bag. I carried four large panniers, two slung over each shoulder. Each pannier-unit was one front pannier inside a rear one.

In Vienna and Zurich we got baggage carts, but those had their challenges too. Add to this the fact that some connection times were under five minutes, and some arrival and departure platforms at opposite ends of the station. Keep an eye on your watch, and get your pile of stuff ready at the car door as the train slows to a stop! As you scramble through hurrying crowds, remain upbeat in as many languages as you can muster, and other passengers who must dodge your awkward cargo are less likely to get annoyed.

Constanta-Bucharest-Vienna-Innsbruck-Feldkirch-Zurich-Geneva Airport. Departing Constanta at 7:00 a.m. on Friday, and arriving in Geneva at midnight, Saturday. I don’t know how, but we did it!

The scenery was gorgeous, as we mapped our progress across Europe. Fellow passengers were pleasant and mainly very supportive. Conductors –with one notable exception– were helpful and supportive. At times, we felt we were pushing the boundaries of so-called bike-friendliness. The fact that we had first-class tickets helped. First class is what you get with a Eurail Pass when you are over 26. I think my almost-white hair didn’t hurt, either.

Would we fly from Constanta to Geneva next time? As I write, I’m still processing the train experience. Ask me a little later.