The Iron Gate

Trip Start Aug 18, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Serbia and Montenegro  ,
Sunday, October 22, 2006

The weather held for the whole week, September and October have been glorious for this trip. Although a lot of the route to Bucharest was only following the Danube in principle- dedicated riverside bike-paths being a luxury Serbia and Romania have not yet found time for- there was some memorable scenery and several interesting characters. The majority of the ride was as you probably imagine, fields- a multitude of different fields of crops. There was corn, corn, corn, corn, cabbages, corn and corn. Every 20km or so there was a tiny village with a shack selling non-perishable foods and cabbages, and another selling car parts. Most people live by the land, dress in many layers of simple clothes such as peasants wear in films. The elderly have grown weathered, withered, bent and small. The youth dress like youth everywhere, and, as some graffiti I saw testified, evangelised even, they listen to SLIPKNOT, RADIOHEAD, and, to my utter dismay, the bottom-feeding cave-dwelling rhyming-slang-inspiring illiterate untalented bastard abortion of Satan JAMES sodding BLUNT. (My hatred of JB stems mainly from the inhuman extent to which his latest drivel was overplayed all across western europe)

There was something of a cultural and linguistic gulf between me and the country-folk I passed, so I can't claim to have learned to understand and appreciate their way of life. It looks a lot like back-breaking toil in return for precious little worldly wealth and barely sufficient means to endure and breed. I'm not sure how content the younger generation are with this prospect.

On the roads, horses, donkeys, mules, cows and people could all be seen pulling carts loaded improbably high with corn (or sometimes cabbages). Apart from these carts there were locals on bicycles held together with rust and with wheels so buckled they're almost true and intermittent HGV and auto traffic. The traffic tended to rumble past without affecting me except, in the case of HGVs, to give me welcome boost with the draft they created. Sometimes people beeped as they passed, which aggravated me for about half a day before I noticed that almost every beep was accompanied by some gesture of encouragement or solidarity.

The highlights of this leg were Vince, Serbia and the Iron Gate Gorge, Serbia. Vince was the village where I stopped the second night. I had intended to go further but dusk was falling and I spotted a shop called 'The Tourist Shop'. It was clearly just a general store, but I reasoned that the name must mean there are tourists here, which means places to stay, and that the owners are in principle pro-tourist, which is always a help. My suppositions proved correct and the moment I walked into the shop the man behind the counter greeted me enthusiastically in German. The statistical likelihood of a foreigner carrying a cycle helmet being German is about 95%, so it was a reasonable guess.

I asked him about accomodation, and was immediately relieved of responsibility for my decisions.

-Wait a moment. Sit there. My colleague will come back in a moment, then I will take you to the place. It costs five euros.

His enthusiasm was faintly unnerving and his conversation quickly turned to his being poor, Serbia being poor and, the real kicker, how hard it is to get a visa for England. I've experienced this kind of angling before, my usual response being to feign niaivity while happening to mention something which demonstrates my ineligibility to invite foreigners to the UK. In this case, I extended my trip to 3years. The helpfulness and friendliness were genuine though, and weren't diminished by the bad news. While waiting for his colleague, he introduced another man whose name sounded like Dragon, but I don't think it really was. About 6pm, while I was having a cup of coffee in the kitchen of the pension I had been led to, 'Dragon' appeared at the door:
-Are you hungry?
-Erm... (cautiously) sure
-I am also alone in town, on business. Would you like to have dinner with me?
About ten different scenarious sprang into my mind, jostling for primacy, all of them suggesting that the wise response would be to politely decline. Just as quickly, however, three clear thoughts cut through the crowd:
1) Most people are mostly nice
2) I want to meet local, native people
So at half-eight I was picked up by a man named Dragon and driven to a hotel in the next town...

...where I'm sorry (for narrative reasons) and glad (for proper reasons) to say we had an excellent dinner of Danubian fish for which he did indeed pay and an interesting conversation about life in Serbia. (once the visa-fishing was dealt with anyway). It transpired that while his normal work was operating a dryer (-drying what? -corn. I should have known) he was here to buy logs to take back to his village and sell. (-why do you get logs here? -Around where I live, there are no trees; just corn). The only unpleasant part of the evening was on the way back, when I asked about the recent split with Montenegro.
-I HATE Montenegro! (said with real venom and feeling)
I was startled by this reaction, but also intrigued. I asked about the rest of former Yugoslavia.
-The Slovenians are ok. (this seems to be a universal rule- everyone in the world loves Slovenia and the Slovenians)
The Croats too escaped his ire, while Bosnians and Macedonians were almost as despised as the Montenegrans.

The Iron Gate Gorge is the stretch of the Danube which cuts through the mountains between Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria. There are photos. It was breathtaking. The afternoon after leaving Vince I stopped to investigate the museum at Lepinsky Vir, where evidence of one of the oldest European civilisations has been dug up by archeologists. It was only a small museum, taking about 45mins to see and read everything on offer- ideal for me and pretty interesting stuff- various pots, outlines of buildings and things the archeologists and anthropologists couldn't guess the use of dubbed 'of religious significance'. I reckon they were paper weights.
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