Probably the most interesting day's cycling yet which started with a remarkably frugal breakfast in the Hotel Kostolac. Then off in time to catch the 10.15 ferry at Ram to cross to Banatska Palanka. I went early having read on various blogs from other Danubian cyclists that the ferry sometimes leaves early. Yes there are others who do this. There is one exceptionally earnest young Vegan rider last heard of somewhere east of Tehran who certainly likes to suffer. His daily mileages are staggering and a minibar is an alien thing to him. Anyway a pleasant ride in glorious sunshine to Ram, where the ferry ramp is overlooked by an old Turkish fort. The ferry will leave as advertised at 10.15 so I have time to give Cynthia the once over and a little lubrication and she runs all the sweeter because of it.
The Danube here is very wide and I look at the ferry which had been described by the plausible rogue back at the hotel as "not really a ferry. It's just made of wood" and he has that about right, there is water showing through the planking, but luckily there is no chance of overloading in that at that moment there is only me, Cynthia and an elderly couple in a Fiat Uno on board. We are about to leave when the ferryman's mobile rings. It's a call from someone down the road asking if he could wait for them. He did and a few minutes later a white VW with two young Serbs bounces down the ramp onto the ferry. I talk to them during the twenty minute crossing. They live in Vienna and have come back to visit friends. They recommend the fish restaurant next to landing ramp but I have a lot of miles to go and the ferry timetable has put me behind the clock.
It's a twenty kilometre ride to the Roumanian frontier where everyone is interested in my passport and then I have to face my own personal Alpine section. But first farewell to Serbia, interesting, but would I recommend it for a holiday? Well the Serbs seem a bit dour, a bit like the Poles were when I first visited Poland in the late eighties, suffering from post-totalitarian syndrome. After all it's not that long since Milosevic lost power and a democratic system started to work in Serbia. The scenery and the low cost must make it a winner though, take a car spend a day in Novi Sad, two or three in Belgrade then head for the mountains.
Described in my Danube Path Guide as follows "The next 20 kilometres are especially scenic and can be counted as a natural highlight in and of themselves (??? German publisher!). Hills, woods and lush fertile meadows lift the bicycle tourist's spirit and distract from the hard work that his or her legs must deliver to power the bicycle over the numerous and steep hills." Hmm "numerous and steep".There is an alternative route, cycling round the hill, but that's more than 20 Km longer so I decide to go the direct 18 Km route.
So off I go. How bad can it be? It's the hottest part of the day and I start cycling up and up. I knew it was going to be tough and I have developed a routine, cycle until you can bear it no longer then walk a bit, you use different muscles. The important thing is to keep moving otherwise you become becalmed in despair. On and on, up and up, every curve reveals the slope going up and up. I am drenched in sweat, I've run out of water and I am being tormented by midges. Surely I must be at the top soon. On and on, up and up, my thighs are on fire, my lungs bursting. Why can't I have the same drugs as Lance Armstrong? And all the time at the back of my mind is the phrase " numerous and steep". What if I make it to the top and I do a blissful freewheel to the bottom of a valley but then there is another climb and perhaps another after that. I know that I won't be able to do it. I can only do this once. I make it to the top and there shimmering in the distance is the Danube. I have made it to the top and there is just one hill and I am proud to be there. Then for nearly twenty minutes I don't have to pedal at all, as the freewheel takes me to the very bank of the river. People do these mountain climbs for fun. Idiots!
I rejoin the Danube just a few miles before the start of the Danube Gorge, the most spectacular part of the whole journey and it doesn't disappoint, it lives up to it's billing. I could waffle on for pages about how stunning it all is but photos do it better. These are the Iron Gates where the Danube has scoured its way through the mountains toward the east, Roumania on the north shore and Serbia on the south. At the narrowest point the river is only 60metres across.
I cruise along the north shore road feeling that I have deserved this reward for my hill climb. My destination Berzasca is about half way along the Gorge and it's just starting to get dark as I arrive on the outskirts of the village. This is not a booking.com job this, it is an independent booking so I have only an address and a phone number, no map. To be safe I stop on the outskirts of the village and ask a couple of blokes.
"Oh yes. Two kilometres further on, turn left"
To be sure after a kilometre I ask again.
"Oh yes. One kilometre further on, turn left".
On I go and I cycle slowly, checking for turnings or signs advertising the hotel. I ride a great deal more than 1 Km, I almost ride to the next village. There are no turnings. just a couple of farm tracks and a cliff path. It is now pitch dark. It's not dangerous in that there is no other traffic, but I suppose I could have ridden off the edge of the road and plunged to my death on the rocks 200m below. I haul out my I-pad and find the hotel's number and dial it on my mobile. Someone answers.
" Hello I am staying with you tonight, my name is Irwin but I can't find you."
There is a pause. "I am sorry but I think you have a missing number"
A wrong number. Bugger! But this kind man man doesn't give up on me, after I explain my situation to him he goes off to find the correct number.
"If you can't find them, call me and I will help you again".
I get through and try to get them to tell me how to get there when I don't know where I am and can't see my hand in front of my face. The lady at the hotel does her best but her English is as good as my Roumanian so progress is slow and I am getting very angry. I am about to say "Fuck it! I am going to stay somewhere else." Which would not be the brightest thing to say when there was no other accommodation within 20 Km. Before I say it, she says in desperation "I will send a boy in red into the road".
OK. I have to decide whether to go forward or back, I gamble on back and after a kilometre I see a figure in the road with a torch. It is the 'boy in red'. The hotel is up one of the farm tracks. I am still cross and fear the worst as I push Cynthia up a steep rutted track. The 'boy in red' speaks fair English and makes desperate small talk, trying to placate me as I snarl "There's no fucking sign! There's no fucking sign!" (and there is no fucking sign). But we arrive at the top of the track and there is a brand new, beautiful hotel. People rush to take my bags, Cynthia is wheeled away, I am shown to a room on the top floor and it's beautiful. To be honest people in this part of Europe tend to overdo the decoration but someone classy designed the hotel and the room. I have a bath, I eat, I drink, I sleep but there's worse to come.