Cycle tours from a Danube river cruise gave Colin Nicholson the chance to appreciate a region where the scars of a violent recent history run deep.
It was one of those cinematic moments. As we turned a corner of the Danube, leaving the dramatic Iron Gates gorge behind us, the setting sun slipped out from behind the Golubac Fortress to reveal a lake so wide that, in the mist, we couldn’t see its shores.
The AmaDolce is one of those comfortable and ultra-modern “twin cruisers” in which the engine is separate from the rest of the ship, so you scarcely notice when the ship is moving or the generators are switched on. We had boarded in the Bulgarian port of Ruse, but our first tour was on the Romanian side of the Danube – Bucharest, some 50 miles north. One of the principal attractions, alongside the turn-of-the-century architecture of the “little Paris of the Balkans”, was a visit to Ceausescu’s Palace of Parliament – the second largest building in the world after the Pentagon.
Riding along the town’s lively waterfront, with its strings of coloured lights above the outdoor cafés, to the 10th-century Baba Vida fortress, also gave us a chance to burn off excess calories invariably consumed during a cruise. And the food – which is traditionally heavy in the Balkans – was excellent, with the national dishes including river fish such as trout and zander.
The evening entertainment was as fresh as the food, with Bulgarian and Serbian dancers throwing themselves around the AmaDolce’s tiny dance floor in an amazingly deft display of folk dancing, the girls swinging from the boys’ necks.
After the Iron Gates, we docked in Belgrade and I had expected a dour, resentful people in a city where the effects of Nato’s 1999 bombings are still clearly visible. But while our guide, Jelena, was hardly impartial, with her denunciation of anti-Serb propaganda and horror stories from Macedonia, she was also wonderfully feisty and fun, with her playful self-deprecating description of national foibles and weaknesses.
The guided bike tour she led gave a real feel for the place, as well as the character of the people. Despite having lived through one of the worst periods of hyperinflation the world has seen – worse even than in Weimar Germany – they had a spiritedness, from the old ladies selling 500 billion dinar notes to tourists to the anglers carefully gutting their catches for dinner and young lovers on park benches.
Emboldened by the experience, a couple of fellow cyclists and I decided to follow the banks of the Danube, where party boats and floating restaurants line the side of the park, to reach the old Austro-Hungarian suburb of Zemun. I hadn’t realised that wearing a bike helmet was a giveaway that we were foreigners and I was slightly unnerved when some boys called out “Where are you from?” as we tottered shakily up a cobbled street. Before my new-found friends had a chance to reply – most passengers are from North America or Latin America – I quickly said “England”, which the boys thought was “cool”.
That night our floating hotel pushed on, so that by dawn we were in Novi Sad, Serbia’s second city and another Habsburg gem. The bomb damage was less evident here than in Belgrade, with all three bridges rebuilt between 2000 and 2005, as we saw from below as we headed to our first port in Croatia, Ilok.
The ship generally runs bike tours only when it is moored. However, there is a section of Croatia you can cycle when it is under way, and that is the 24 miles between Ilok and Vukovar. Ilok is a charming village and the schoolchildren waved at us as we rode past the wineries, which the Serb-dominated Yugoslav forces swept through in 1991. But as our guide Gordan told us his stories of the war, a sense of foreboding filled the air.
Of all of our guides, Gordan was the most balanced. Yet in this place where dogs barked furiously at us and farm people stared first before returning a smile, I felt an acute sense of unease.
Gordan had the advantage of being a “late bloomer”, in his words, not looking his 16 years in 1991. A schoolfriend was less lucky and was sent to a camp in Serbia for three months, where he was so badly beaten that he is unable to father children. But the war was a story of two sides, as Gordan, himself of part-Croat part-Serb heritage, admitted. The crumbling masonry of villages abandoned by their ethnically Serb population after the war spoke of bitter revenge.
As Gordan delivered his commentary, cycling precariously in the middle of the road, my sense of disquiet only increased. Our next stop was Vukovar’s water tower, as pockmarked as a Swiss cheese, where the few hundred defenders of the town repeatedly raised the Croatian flag until the town finally fell. It was getting dark, so we cycled quickly past the barn where at the end of the three-month siege 264 townspeople were shot, and pedalled hard past the mass graves where their bodies were dumped, in our haste to get to the centre of Vukovar.
Unexpectedly, the town centre was one of the most pristine we had seen on our travels. Yet even here there was an uncomfortable feeling in the air, and Gordan admitted that it took him three days to feel right again after his tours. I was glad to get back to the ship.
The next day on a guided tour of Pécs, a prosperous Hungarian town relatively untouched by the events of the Nineties, I found myself missing the outspokenness of our Serbian guides; their proud description of how they had done up the insides of their drab apartment blocks – “Stalin-baroque” they called it – their struggle over whether to settle in the West or to forgo creature comforts and contribute to the rebuilding of their homelands.
Perhaps a cycling tour of Budapest would have connected me with Hungary, but that night the remains of one of south-eastern Europe’s remarkably hot summers, which had seen us bask in the Jacuzzi on the ship’s sun deck in the evenings, turned suddenly into one of the Balkans’ remarkably cold winters. It was not cycling weather.
What to avoid
Taxis from Bucharest airport. These are notorious for overcharging tourists, taking them on roundabout routes and, in the worst cases, dumping them in the countryside if they complain. Ignore unsolicited offers of assistance. Ama organises its own transfers and for those planning a weekend stay, there is the 783 bus, which costs about £1.50.
Restaurants, if you object to cigarette smoke: smoke-free dining has yet to catch on in much of Eastern Europe.
Missing the boat. If you do go out cycling on your own it’s your responsibility to be back before the ship sails. It won’t wait for you.