Leaving our Kladovan hosts in the morning did not happen quickly. Their house was set up alongside a courtyard with a narrow alleyway leading to another courtyard and house which in turn lead to a different courtyard and another house. Some of these houses were split into two or more living units. As far as I could tell every unit was occupied by a part of our hosts family.
Our hosts insisted we take some Turkish style coffee with them before departing. As we did so approximately 17 members of the family or in laws passed through the first courtyard as we sat there with our coffees. We were introduced to and shook hands with each and every one of them. At each introduction it was announced, to the wonderment of all of them, that we were cycling all the way to the black sea. Most of them must have thought we were pure daft. The rest of them just knew we were. When we were finally able to extricate ourselves we had one final round of handshakes with our extremely hospitable hosts who reminded us that we had in fact officially stayed overnight in our tents down by the river. This was what we were to say if we were asked on crossing the border. I said that this would be no bother and sure didn’t we have at least 17 witnesses to prove it? Thankfully they got the joke and laughed heartily as they waved us off up the street.
We passed the street market which was well underway. The vendors had everything from tomatoes, lettuces, radishes and cabbages, various fruits as well as honey and many varieties of jam and several types of hooch. All produced locally. We headed out of town, eastwards and downriver to see Trajans bridge or at least what was left of it. Apparently a similar amount of ruined remains exist on the Romanian side of the river. My father in law, Lothar Koch-Mehrin R.I.P used to tell a story about the one time he visited the ruins back in old Yugoslav times. He used to work as a journalist I think and had some free time during an assignment in the area so he went to visit the bridge of Trajan. By the way, the bridge must have been an engineering wonder of the world in its day. Indeed it could even be considered so today given the condition of some of the extant bridges or the fact that many riparians still rely on simple ferries to cross the Danube. The river at this juncture is several hundred metres wide and has an enourmous volume of water flowing down it. It also floods often.
As Lothar tells it, he was sitting by the river minding his own business when a Yugoslav soldier came along and asked him what he was doing. Lothar joked that he had just blown up the bridge – pointing to the ruins and making exploding signs with his hands and noises with his voice. Times were more sensitive then and particularly there as there is the very important river crossing and power generating dam just a few kilometres up the river. The joke did not translate at all well and Lothar got to spend the night in the local clink for his trouble.
While we were there a mini bus disgorged a bunch of other tourists including an older couple from the Netherlands. The dutch lady was very upset because she had just learned that the tour she had booked did not include the prices for individual elements of the tour such as museum entrance and the ticket for a boat tour further up river in the gorge of the Iron Gates.
We cycled back to the main road and doubled back through Kladovo to cut across the finger of land made by the Danube. During the first few kilometres we were passed by several vehicles travelling at motorway speed on what was little more than a secondary road. However as we pulled further away from the town the traffic died down to almost nothing. I suppose this was because most of the traffic was local to the town of Kladovo and probably related to the market which would have been ending just then. So we had the countryside to ourselves really. Big wide empty and uncultivated for the most part. Perhaps they were subject to frequent flooding or there was not much livestock in the area that needed fodder. Perhaps they would become part of a wetland nature reserve.
We stopped a restaurant called “Dimic” in the village of Dusanovac which had wi-fi to go with the soup, bread and coffee that we could afford with the last of our Serbian Dinari. I was able to catch the tail end of the second Australia v Ireland Rugby test match and had a pep in my pedal for the rest of the day. This saw us negotiate through the town of Negotin (mainly by following the signs for the Bulgarian border).
We crossed a disused railway before we got to the border at Bregovo. I will probably say this many times in my life but disused railways such as that would make excellent hiking and biking ways and would be a fantastic asset for tourism in any country with landscape as beautiful as that in Serbia.
At the border crossing there were no people crossing. It straddled the river Timok which is a tributary of the Danube. It was eerily quiet, hot and humid. Nothing moved as we approached the Serbian part first. Our passports were given a cursory look and walloped with a stamp. I was somewhat dissappointed to not have been asked about where we stayed the night before. No real exitement here.
bye bye Serbia…
On the Bulgarian side a man with a very white and impressively ironed and creased shirt came out of his (presumably air conditioned) hut and inspected our passports. As we were leaving a Bulgarian car pulled up. We were waved on as the attention of white ironed shirt man was diverted. The driver of the car was alone was ordered out of the car and had to empty the entire contents of the car boot out on to the concrete apron. We were not able to see what was in the car but voices were raised. We kept moving.
The part of Serbia we had just cycled through was not prosperous but this part of Bulgaria was clearly very very poor. We peddled northwards out of Bregovo and back towards the river in the hope of finding a place for a break in the next village which was called Baley. A bunch of surly teenagers hanging around what looked like a possible cafe waved us away and told us there was a place a little further up the road. In Kudelin we did find a shop which also served as a cafe. It was made out of what was probably the front room of a farmhouse and had a lean to attached at the side where there was a place to sit and find out where we were going to stay that night. The place reminded me of the sort of shops you used to be able to find in the small villages of the west of Ireland up the 80s which had a little bit of everything in them. Being back in the EU also meant that we did not need to rely on wi-fi. The local cell network signal was actually really strong there. I was soon able to determine that in a 30km radius there were no booking.com lisitng and ther was only one Air BnB listing which happened to be….. just down the road in Novo Selo which was right by the river in the direction we were heading. Minimum booking was for 2 nights but for the price they were asking it was still a no brainer and who knows we may end up staying another night if we felt like it. The booking was confirmed very quickly and I received an email from a non-Bulgarian sounding Lewis instructing me to call a non-Bulgarian sounding Nick once we were near Novo Selo. We did so and a mancunian accent met us very soon outside a similar shop to the previous one only the building used to be an orthodox church and the owner was the very same guy who had been given a hard time at the border. It was very soon laughter all around at the chances of all us meeting at that time in that place. Nick was constantly being high fived by the numerous kids that were buzzing around the market square in front of the church/shop. It turns out there is an orphanage just up the road where he helps out with maintenance work and also manages to direct donations of clothes and other help to it, mainly from the UK. Nick brought us to our lodgings which was actually a 3 bedroomed house less than 5 minutes walk away. It turns out that the house is owned by an Ulsterman!
you check the Gaelic and somebody else can check the Bulgarian….
Warm welcome to the place we felt indeed. We were quickly showered and at our insistence Nick joined us for dinner at a place he recommended which was actually on a beach on the river. After the hot weather it was really pleasant and cooler by the river but thunder was in the air. Over dinner we were treated to a major thunder and lightning storm across the river in Romania. Not a single drop of rain fell on our side but they were inundated over there. The storm lasted over an hour. This was something that was going to repeat itself over the next couple of weeks and indeed over the summer. The local TV had terrible images of catastrophic flooding up and down the country of Romania and I don’t think a single word of any of these stories made into any news in western europe. I could be mistaken though as I don’t generally watch TV.
Pre storm views at the beach. For a really good value sun holiday you could do a lot worse than come to Bregovo for a week if you just wanted to relax and do very little.
Over dinner Nick outlined how poor the area was. It may well be the poorest part of Europe. The orphans and local families are really struggling. Especially in the winter.