As Helen Moat cycles towards the Black Sea coast, she ponders upon the superstitions that have kept her and her son going
Way back in Ungstein – a lifetime ago – in the vineyards of Germany, Karlheinz und Ingrid looked at me with concern as I handed back the keys to my English friends’ holiday home.
“Sei vorsichtig,” Ingrid said. “Du bist nur ein mädl.” Be careful. You’re just a girl.
I laughed: It had been a long time since I’d been called a girl.
But Ingrid still looked worried. “You’ve such a long way to go – and Eastern Europe is, well… not like here."
“Keep in touch,” Karlheinz added. “Let us know how it’s going.”
I emailed him from Basel, telling him everything was going swimmingly – and that we nearly had to swim through the Rhine floods in southern Germany.
Karlheinz sent me an excited email back:
You’ve brought luck at Richard’s house – just after you went we discovered a redstart had secretly nested in the roof of the front door porch. It’s just had babies! In Germany, if a redstart builds his nest in a house, it brings good luck – it’s good luck for you and your trip.
I’m not superstitious, but I found Karlheinz’s email comforting. I liked the idea of the redstarts accompanying us on our journey, keeping us safe along the way.
At the start of our journey, sailing through the night from Hull to Europoort in the Netherlands, I’d felt afraid. My mind was full of ‘what ifs’. What if one of the bikes broke down in the middle of nowhere? What if a bike broke on a Sunday when the bike shops are closed? What if we couldn’t find anywhere to sleep? What if we were attacked by dogs – or people? What if I couldn’t manage the hills? What if one of us took ill? What if we were hit by a lorry?
Slowly, I began to relax. Through Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary, the redstarts seemed to be with us. We met wonderful people. We were showered with kindness.
Then Jamie’s first spoke broke on a Sunday, just a few kilometres from the town of Vukovar in Croatia. He unclipped the back brake and rode gingerly into town. Early Monday morning, the boys in the local bike shop dropped the jobs they were doing and had the spoke fixed in no time, giving the bikes a service too. All for £12. The redstarts were still with us.
The second spoke broke in a large Romanian town. A local man beckoned us to follow him across town on his bike. He stopped outside a ramshackle building and gestured inside. I climbed the steps and found myself in an indoor market. I passed shop spaces piled with clothes, shoes and haberdashery – but nothing that looked remotely like a bike shop. Then I saw a stack of bike tyres outside a draper’s. Jamie followed behind with his bike.
“Broken. Kaput.” I said to the middle-aged woman, pointing to the spoke.
“Da, da,” she said. She didn’t look like a bike mechanic – more of a fashion designer with her coiffured hair and painted nails. I watched her curiously as she picked up a pole and separated dresses hanging from the ceiling – to reveal a stash of tyres behind them. She hooked one and brought it down.
“No, no,” I gestured wildly. “The tyre is good. The spoke is broken.” I pointed to the spoke again.
“Aaah, da, da.”
She went away again and returned with pliers and bent down to cut off the spoke.
“No, no. Don’t cut the spoke.” I didn’t like the way she was wielding the pliers. It looked like she might cut more than a spoke.
We made our escape, the broken spoke still attached. Jamie unclipped his back brake again and we cycled the 20 kilometres to Drobeta Turnu-Severin along a busy duel carriageway with tunnels and demon lorry drivers. We survived, and the next day we found a bicycle shop to replace the spoke. Perhaps the redstarts were still with us.
The third spoke broke in rural Romania. It just happened that the family running the hostel in the village of Bechet had a friend who was good with bikes. It just so happened there was a spare wheel lying around, with a spoke the right size. It just so happened that the friend had the tool – and the skills to fix the spoke. It just so happened, he didn’t want any money for it.
We’d cycled even deeper in rural Romania when the back tyre on Jamie’s bike burst. On the outskirts of an even smaller village, the owner of the small garage sent me off with the address of a place that sold tyres. I rode around the village, searching for the elusive shop until a local teenager took pity on me and rode with me to a tiny store tucked down a side street. The owner had a tyre the right size. It was narrower, but it would do the job. The redstarts were still with us.
Yesterday, we reached the Black Sea. Even as I planned this trip, I couldn’t quite believe I’d ever make it across the continent. But we’re here, just south of Constanta. I’m feeling a sense of displacement in this seaside resort packed with pot-bellied men, bikini-clad women and youngsters with faces smeared with ice-cream, all wandering the shop-lined streets with airbeds and rubber rings.
A rest, then we head out into the Balkans, through Bulgaria and on into Turkey. I’m afraid again: There will be even fewer touring cyclists ahead; fewer people speaking English; fewer towns, fewer villages; fewer places to eat or sleep; fewer bike shops; bigger hills.
But most of our travel fears live in our minds and not in the real world. It’s always better than we think: less dangerous, kinder.And so I will venture out again – and continue my journey to Istanbul, hoping the redstarts stay with us.