Thursday, 28 June 2012

a truer north

Sarajevo from the 17th floor

Sarajevo - Dubrovnik road

first sea since Denmark

Dubrovnik, a bit like Bath
2.4 thousand miles and most everything else behind me I am in Montenegro. I spent an hour marvelling at the superyachts moored in the Tivat marina (they made me feel better about my flashy bicycle) and enjoying the crass Geordie banter of a deckhand I met on the jetty (Mark Barrett from green watch's next door neighbour...). It was a far cry from the hour, in a Sarajevo museum, that I spent despairing at an exhibition of beautiful, devastating photos taken during the city's three year seige. I was most struck by the pictures of civilians preparing to run through sniper fire to get about their everyday business, the children holding hands. It is a beautiful city now, as no doubt before; the once abundant Beeches felled for fuel have been replaced with all kinds of fruit trees which now line the streets instead. I stayed with Ossetian Zoe from Couchsurfing who indulged my vain soulsearching and later emailed me this poem

in the fragile velveteen
of the wind of your passing
you seek
a truer north
an internal horizon
beckons with whispery promises
- an ineffable tensing of self
made up of pounding blood, sun warmed metal, flashing tar
you seek
in burning muscles and miles
a truer north

which made me feel all deep, and touched. Thank you, Zoe. Gracious hosts abound, but not two (long, mountainous) days later in Dubrovnik where my Couchsurfing requests were futile; the hospitality presumably innundated. I wandered about the pristine old town looking for bullet holes (a recent habit) then spent some hours on the beach watching gaggles of chicken white, lobster red and occasionally quite comely English girls preening and burning (*excuse me, would you watch my bicycle while I take a swim?) - wondering if I shouldn't just pay for a room and stop a night or two. In the end I thought better and left to struggle smugly defiant up a few more hills before sleeping badly in an olive grove. But not before I'd been flagged down on the road by American Jeffery who knew who'd built my bike despite it being from Somerset and invited me to stop on his boat just South of Tivat the following evening. So here I am taking morning sun on the prow after deep, air conditioned sleep; full charge in my devices and best muscovado in my coffee. It's nice to mix it up.

lake Skadar, straddling the Montengrin & Albanian border

the Albanian border

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Belgrade to Sarajevo

chez Vlad
I spent my five days in Belgrade mostly lazing in Vladimir's welcoming apartment. But they were also punctuated by trips sightseeing and to the bakery for what I think of as Turkish food, beers and Bristol chat with Jack, football matches and another memorable mixed grill this time with Serbian socialites, surgeons, stylists and TV personalities. Best of all was on my first night finally becoming uncle to little Elias; happy and healthy along with his mum. I left on Monday in noon sun and my new straw hat; the crowning of many, petty wardrobe-indignities. My anxieties about surviving extrication from Belgrade's choked and tangled highways were calmed and rendered ultimately vain by Vladimir's carefully zoomed and cropped internet maps. But my elated exhaustion after the fact led to such a series of logistical and topographical errors that by Tuesday morning I found myself camped desperately and very obviously without permission in an orchard of green plums, lost, with only three inches of water and no food or currency. I left promptly, stopping shortly in a garden apiary to trouble a man for water and directions. At length they were provided but not before the obligatory rakia spirit, coffee and entire bowl of clear honey were throbbing as hard in my veins as the bee sting in my temple. Do not underestimate the occasional brutality of Serbian hospitality! At about 9am I escaped unsteadily into the days rising heat to cheers of "strong leg! strong leg!". Indeed there was something fortifying to that narcotic breakfast formula because it seemed no time at all until I was crossing the Bosnian border at Loznica, where I took cash, lunch and crucial shade.

Serb suburb

crossing the Sava after Belgrade
Serb country
a breakfast kidnapping

And then came the Bosnian mountains. Not so bad in retrospect; but enough at the time, crawling in the heat unable even to outrun the swarm of flies after my sweat, to make me doubt the whole endeavor. But you stop and rest and regroup and swat some flies and then after too long you reach the top of the pass for goulash and pivo; tighten the chain and loosen the hamstrings. After that, impossibly, its downhill again; plain sailing for 40 miles with a string orchestra in headphoned ears, a visual feast of buttercup mountains all around, the sun perfectly pleasant hours beneath its intolerable apex, a nephew safely born, all roads behind and before and suddenly you're in Sarajevo knowing beyond doubt that these highs and lows are exactly why you came; exactly why you left.

I'll stop here the weekend, then back into the hills; West towards a beach holiday.

Bosnian beehives

first look at Sarajevo

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Balkan Borders

I spent just two nights in Graz, but eked out the company from my host Max and his friend who rode with me the first day onward to Maribor. It was good to share, briefly, the student life with Max; late nights and conversational days. Slovenia, in two nights, also passed too quickly. The highlight was an epic electrical storm which trapped me transfixed (and quite scared actually) in some kind of large bus shelter for the night. I watched dozing 'til dawn. Late morning I was woken by Camille from France, evidently excited to meet another tramp. Camille also quit his job (and, he confided not a little triumphantly, his girlfriend) to walk from the Southern tip of Spain to Istanbul. We talked together a couple of miles and he oohlala'd at the weight of my bicycle until I pointed out that, unlike his backpack, my bike carries me... (mais oui! mais oui!) We had bread and cheese and chocolate banana sweets to celebrate our folly and then it was all backslaps and bonhomie: adieu! bon voyage! Nice guy. I dithered at the border not wanting to leave.

  Last night in a Croatian meadow I found eight or nine hours unbroken sleep. Amazing what a little REM does for the constitution; this morning brought epiphanies of ease, confidence, cheer. I breezed through procrastinated bicycle ablutions (flossing sprockets, exfoliating rims, moisturising the saddle - my own are much more haphazard) and even did some rare limbering. Today has been a simple joy of thoughtless pedalling and everything for its own sake. I've been enjoying getting into a camping routine. It takes a few days, a certain exposure to the outdoors for that creeping accumulation of feral habits to become shameless (washing in fountains, not alighting the bicycle to pee, a fruit tea bag in the pasta dregs etcetera).


 Stopping for borek and cherry strudel in Vukovar I had a long chat with the identical twin restauranteurs whose names I should've asked. They told me about the 1991 siege and  massacre which the town is famous for, and their own leaving aspirations - Canada (oddly enough I thought). I asked what the war was all about. There's a stupid question! Although I'm curious now to ask a Serb (maybe best not). I feel quite warm towards the Balkan people already. I'm not sure 'they' like being lumped together like that, all considered, but they're friendly, keen to help and talk - taking time to understand and be understood.


Tonight I'm in what looks like a half built wooden bar before a lawn to the river. There is an electric light and nobody else. The sign said free camping but I shant pitch my tent; the roof and floor look sound enough. Since Maribor I've been heading South East, skirting the Hungarian border through Slovenia and Croatia. Tomorrow I'll enter Serbia. From Belgrade I'll hang a right, back West to Sarajevo. I'm a litte sad to see so little of Slovenian mountains; to miss the Croatian beaches. But Bosnia has mountains, too, and Albanian beaches will be less crowded. And it'll be good to see Jack in Belgrade; there's purpose in visiting.

Belgrade: Cycling City

Thursday, 7 June 2012

from Graz

A long Viennese weekend, where to start? Forget the high street; just as grim as any other and twice the price. But the rest! Mozart's something or other live in a great candlelit church, festivals in the park, Klimt and Egon Schile, Pakistani food - eat all you can and pay as you like (or was it vice versa?), indulgent afternoons with horseraces, big wheels and apricots... At one point I found myself in such high spirits that I bought a bottle of gin to temper them. I had a lesson in Israeli cheesemaking (Labneh, strained yogurt really) and was introduced to an Indian tour guide, well connected and well familiar with overlanding the Silk Roads. Likely I'll one day stop somewhere with dubious hospitality and I won't know how to respond at all. Anna and Yuval more than met my inflated expectations, it was wonderful. When it finally came time to leave on Monday Anna gave me a mystery gift, an escort through the city and a scribble of paper which was in fact a perfection of onward directions to Wiener Neustadt. The rain became a downpour just as we parted.

Anna & Yuval, Viennese big wheel
 It poured all day and the text from Vienna saying the sheets would be left on my bed just in case did little to steel my resolve. After six hours of torrential and increasingly cold rain one starts to delight in waterproof socks and the knowledge that quite soon there'll be a few square metres of flat ground hidden behind trees or tall grass or somesuch upon which to make a hasty camp. Bicycle tourist is a bit of a misnomer for one as gratuitously equipped as I. Really the bicycle is just the chassis of an elaborate, ingeniously collapsible and waterproofly packable sort of mobile home replete with leather upholstery, silk-lined, down-filled and splendidly air-cushioned double bedroom with spacious vestibule, minimalist titanium kitchenette and a tardis wardrobe of Goretex, merino and polyester-mix ... Now I even have espresso in the morning. I can feel my puritanic father frowning a little but for me it's a constant joy. So much for being bashfully well-equipped; lies, daily I am in reveries at the function and aesthetic of it all. Anyway, I camped, ate my gnocchi, opened Anna's thoughtful gift, had an exhausted little cry and slept fitfully, the rain still disturbing me through my ear plugs. I hadn't reckoned on the emotional toll of goodbyes on the road. I love good solitude almost as much as good company, but the latter is always welcome after a few days. And then it's not long before hospitality becomes home and leaving again, however much I anticipate it, becomes a little fraught and draining.

 But the following days to Graz were glorious. The best kind of solitary in gentle Alpine valleys; wind shimmering wheat fields, postcard villages and only one fairly shallow pass at Semmering. I guess the real hills will start in Slovenia.

the pass at Semmering

Friday, 1 June 2012

Vienna Verboten

the Danube
I've been looking at lots of maps since I got to Vienna yesterday. In the end I took a long-cut from Prague heading straight South on the Vltava, then Straight East on the Danube, instead of South East without any river. It added a couple of days but it is good to follow water; rivers are also going somewhere, coming from somewhere. And you can wash socks in them. The Danube goes all the way to the Black Sea and I have a decision to make. A cycle route follows its banks through Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria. I picked up the path in Linz shortly after entering Austria, and for two days to Vienna I averaged almost 15 miles an hour. For those unaccustomed to loaded cycle touring, that's fast. Really it's a highway; fast, flat, signposted, easy. Slovenia, and Croatia have more or less opposite qualities. I could be in Istanbul in a month and a half, or I could spend indeterminate weeks struggling lost up sweaty hills with no obvious route beyond the Croatian coast. But I'm in no special hurry... I think the decision is made. 
the Vltava
Perhaps its just my ignorance in history but national borders always seem arbitrary to me. Nonetheless, the border between the Czech Republic and Austria pretended in every respect to mark a genuine distinction. Over a couple of kilometres the tarmac improved several grades,  the peoples' skin tone lightened several shades, the tractors became Audis and the farmyards vineyards. They'd even infused the breeze with marzipan and quince to mask the familiar base notes of horseshit and oilseed rape. But despite all this, the cooler air and now mountains looming afar, the most noticeable thing for me was the reappearance of my favourite German word on the signage - verboten. A different country altogether from anything-goes Czech where I happily camped in building sites and was right at home drinking tinned beer on the road from my bottle holders. Austria is genteel; expensively functional but a bit repressed. In Wachau province along the Danube every village is covered in roses, surrounded by vineyards and framed by castle ruins atop a scenic crag. And each is nicer than the one before until it becomes almost too much to bear. I struggled to find places to camp feeling I had to hide away from the healthy families out walking, the sturdy, milk-drinking children out practising sports everywhere. It is not the easiest place for tramping and wild camping; shitting in the woods doesn't feel right in Austria (and for sure it is verboten).

4 o'clock jobs in the Czech Republic

one of the castles on one of the crags
For now it feels good to stop in Vienna. I'm staying with an old friend Anna, who I met in almost another life on a beach in Thailand 8 years ago. She surprised me with strawberries and third trimester pregnancy. It's been good to rest up, catching up. So today I've seen some of the sights and all of the cafes in Vienna. History and art are everywhere again. I liked a plastercast olive tree in a white building amidst a rose garden, and the big, bright plastic couches scattered around the trendy areas. I went shopping - black paint for where my panniers chafe their racks and a tough new back tire. Tomorrow I'll go looking for a little aluminium hob-top espresso pot and since my flipflops failed in Prague I've an idea to swallow my pride and pick up a pair of Crocs. I understand they vent well, and might be just the job for evenings around the tent.... It is good to keep on top of my scant domestics.


leaving Czech