Location: Varna, Bulgaria
Miles on the clock: 5835
I felt ashamed after posting the dejected and pathetic rant about bad weather and Polish roads in my last blog. As if to compound this feeling, a day later the rain finally relented and I reached better roads with less murderous lorry drivers.
When I entered Hungary at dusk, one of the first sights I was greeted with was the vast red lettering of a sprawling Tesco hypermarket. As I moved south, picturesque vineyards were replaced by sunflower fields in full bloom. After 500 miles in five days I reached Szeged and my brother-in-law's parents. Zsuzsa was waiting on the outskirts of town with a handmade "Welcome to Szeged" sign, a beaming smile and a Turo Rudi - Hungary's unique chocolate bar containing cottage cheese. She jumped on the tram and, feeling like James Bond (excepting the orange hi-vis vest, generally filthy clothes and large polystyrene helmet), I shadowed the train back to their home.
It was hard to leave the friendly cocoon I lapsed into in Szeged but the road beckoned. As Mary Shelley wrote in Frankenstein -"the traveller's life is one that includes much pain amidst its enjoyments. His feelings are forever on the stretch and when he begins to sink into repose he finds himself obliged to quit that on which he rests in pleasure for something new which again engages his attention and which also he forsakes for other novelties."
I was accompanied to the Romanian border by Shoni and Orsi, two of the family, and then crossed over and pushed on alone into the land of Dracula, heavily laden with homemade cakes, jams, sandwiches and a salami the size of a baseball bat. Timisoara was the first city I reached and I was surprised to notice upon entry that it is twinned with Nottingham. From here on I remained off the beaten track and took the back roads through rural Romania.
Having descended from the mountains I sped alongside a river until it joined the mighty Danube which I loosely followed for the next few days. The lush, green plain the river inhabits winds majestically eastwards, separating Romania from Bulgaria, until it spills into the Black Sea after its 1771 mile journey from Germany's Black Forest. However, at this time of year, straying just a few miles north of the river's fertile valley floor brings one to hills of tinder-dry corn fields which are constantly being burnt off, filling the sky with an acrid smoke and giving everything a hazy, myopic appearance. In the brutal, dry stillness of these rolling hills I saw more horse drawn carts than cars. This is the land of the Roma gypsies who live a harsh agricultural-based existence. I was amused to see their carts decorated with salvaged number plates, while the horses are all dressed with a lively red tassel bobbing back and forth on their foreheads. As I drew alongside the carts on the largely empty roads I would hold mutually incoherent conversations with the drivers who unanimously seemed to find my general appearance hilarious.
On my last day in Romania I was waved off the road at noon by a group of men at a roadside bar. The day was hot and I gladly accepted the icy beer they proffered. We sat engaged in staccato communications and before I knew it I had drunk three beers. The combination of midday heat, a small breakfast, little alcohol for three months and abundant exercise made three feel like thirty. That afternoon, listening to Ennio Morricone's heroic western theme tunes, I wobbled through small villages, pissed as a fart, high-fiving kids, doffing my sweat-soaked sunhat to pretty girls and toothless hags alike, and repeatedly expending my entire Romanian vocabulary at the top of my voice in one beery breath. The hangover kicked in at about 4 o'clock and I swapped Morricone for more sombre sounds, stoping at each of the frequent wells and fountains to douse my throbbing head and drink heavily, repenting of my excess.
The long, narrow bridge over the Danube brought me into Bulgaria and my last country in the European Union. I've crossed 17 countries now and my passport is still embarrassingly bare. I made my way to Varna and met Plamen, an old school friend. Varna is a beautiful city on the Black Sea with the relaxed feel of a holiday resort. Roman, Ottoman and Byzantium ruins are scattered around the town and I indulged in a very lazy two days at Plamen's home in the Brazilian consulate. We went for a spin in the Maserati and, as the needle nudged past 200km/h, I momentarily wondered what my bike lark was all about. Only momentarily though. This morning I remount and head for Turkey and the enormity of Asia that lies beyond the Bosphorus.