Friday, 26 April 2013

A Little Place To Call My Own

On Bucharest's Bulevardui Libertăţii is Romania's National Institute of Statistics. That must have been the best place to work during Nicolae Ceaușescu's dictatorial reign. As you might know, I love maths but there isn't much room for creative thinking. But in a communist statistics department you could invent any old shite. Productivity is up by how much this month, you say? Oh, I dunno. How about a million percent? That'll do. Brilliant.

Right across the road from the National Institute of Statistics is a building that has provided a few amazing statistics of its own. Although in the late 80s Ceaușescu - the man who put the first syllable in 'dictator' - was failing to balance the books, he decided to build himself a little palace. This palace turned out to be, then as it is now, the largest civilian building in the world, as well as the heaviest and the most expensive. Well, we're all in it together. Even though Cameron trots out that line, equality was never supposed to be the backbone of capitalism, but it's the very heart of communism. Given the squalor of a lot of Bucharest's apartments even today - judging by their crumbling exteriors at least - it's hard to see how building such a monument to himself back in the 80s could have helped Ceaușescu's popularity. Luckily it didn't and he was shot before it was finished.

The palace. Though in real life it's bigger than that.

The building itself - now called The Palace of the Parliament - is fuppin' huge. It has 1,100 rooms on 20 stories (8 of which are underground). To do a lap of the building's exterior is a two mile walk. The total floorspace is 340,000 square metres. Can't visualise that? It's approximately 50 football pitches. And then there's the opulence of its building materials. They used a million cubic metres of marble and 3,500 tonnes of crystal. The building has nearly 500 chandeliers for gawd's sake.

And it wasn't a green field site, oh no! In his wisdom, Ceaușescu - remember, to build his one home - demolished a vast area of Bucharest's historic district and with it nineteen Orthodox Christian churches, six Jewish synagogues, three Protestant churches and another eight that were relocated. Oh yes, and 30,000 homes.

The palace cost Romania three billion euros. When you see it for yourself, this monstrous white elephant with its huge Corinthian columns, you can imagine the effort, the labour, the time, the resources that went into. It's slightly worrying that the UK's deficit (the amount the UK's debt increases each year, not the debt itself) is about 40 of these palaces. That's two thousand football pitches of palace with twenty thousand chandeliers, each year. Just think how that money could have been spent instead. They could almost have built two palaces for each of the ConDem cabinet. Oh, go on, they deserve it.

Bucharest's Museum of Contemporary Art - usually a good-for-a-laugh pit stop in any city - is in the corner of the palace. Unfortunately it's the far corner and so it's a bit of a walk. The car park near the museum is falling to pieces. Its surface is in bits. Perhaps the budget isn't there to maintain such a palace. But the museum is free, or at least it was today. It didn't contain the usual collection of bonkers things that you'd normally expect in such a gallery although it had its moments. There was a film of a wolf and a very nervous looking deer trapped in a room together. The wolf stalks around, the deer wobbles a bit, the wolf lies down, the film repeats. You never get the death scene you are obviously anticipating. Is that what it means? Is it saying how we crave that blood lust moment. How should I bloody know? I just thought the wolf looked nice and fluffy.

That's the problem, and perhaps the beauty, of contemporary art. You can interpret it any way you like. It means nothing and everything. There was another film of a circle of about thirty people, all different ages and ethnicities, laid face down with an outstretched, bandaged palm towards the centre of the ring. A woman - the artist I'm guessing - lays a fuse in a large circle over each hand and then, when she's finished, she sets fire to it. A closeup of each hand shows the person's reaction as the flame passes over their particular bandage and lightly frazzles their naked fingers. What does that mean? Maybe it means we're all in it together. Or maybe it means one single person can cause pain to a large group and there's bugger all you can do about it. Maybe it's a metaphor for the palace itself.

Or maybe it's just a load of cock. After all, most contemporary art is cock. And I've got the statistics to prove it. I know 'cos I just invented them.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Live From The Crossroads Motel

I was expecting snow and ice and polar bears, wasn't I? It didn't happen. I got lucky again. The evening before I set off, as I trudged to a grungy pub in Graz to say a final farewell to good mates Damian and Jo, it was sleeting a sort of miserable, icy chowder of depression. The next day, Pete and I began this gymungous journey and it managed to stay dry but a frozen wind blasted our stupid, little faces until the only option was to dive into another bar, but one that wasn't a dive this time. Then, the next day, Pete left to return to reality and the sun came out. That was over a week ago. And the sun's been out every day since. And it's forecast for the foreseeable future, as long as we only try to foresee for a few days. I'd say 'thank you, God' but He's probably busy infecting African babies with malaria or something.

But something bad has happened. As I sit here, in the most inappropriate motel in Romania (I'll come to that in a minute), glugging a glass of Transylvanian red, which appropriately looks like a cup of blood, I can't remember anything about Hungary. Well, that's not entirely true. I remember Budapest but, from what I saw, Budapest doesn't seem very representative of Hungary. I mean, it had buildings and stuff. Most of Hungary is this big, flat, featureless thing. You can't take a decent photo of a big, flat, featureless thing. It can't be done. Have you ever seen a decent photo of an absolutely massive pancake? Well, have you? No, you haven't.

So the long days of ticking off the kilometres as I passed through sparsely populated Hungarian villages, where the only human interaction was someone who looked like the big, lurchy fella from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre gurning at me from every bus stop, has added up to an indistinct memorial blob of partially flooded, very, very flat farmland. Oh, and cheap beer. If you're Hungarian, don't get me wrong. I probably chose a really rubbish route. And I'm not knocking Hungarians. I had a great chat with Robert, one of your lot, who ran a hotel in Budapest. I think. Maybe I just dreamt that conversation to fill in the gaps.

Anyway, now I'm in Romania and I have to tell you that the roads are bleedin' mental. If you look at my Romanian road map, there are basically four choices of road. There are motorways, of which there are not many and it seems no one uses them anyway. How do I know this? Because all the traffic that should be on the motorway is on the A-roads. The colour of motorways on my map is irrelevant as I can't go on them. A-roads, which are red on my map, are usually in an OK condition, except the shoulder, i.e., the bit I have to cycle on. The shoulder is full of stones and broken glass and twisted metal, so I try to keep out of that. But then the juggernauts might get me. So I go back into the shoulder. And so on. It's not perfect.

There are two other types of road. One of these is yellow on my map and appears to be a sort of B-road. I haven't found one of these yet but I'm hoping for one the day after tomorrow. And then we come to the last type of road, the really thin, little, white one. On most European maps this indicates something like a peaceful, idyllic lane. And it can mean that here too. But if instead of the map showing a really thin, little, white road, it shows a really, really thin, little, white road - and you honestly do need a magnifying glass to tell the difference - then it means an unsurfaced road, the sort of track they used to have on the 80s motocross show Kickstart, and there are loads of these. Bloody millions.

Today my destination forced me on to a purely red, A-road route. It was trucks and coaches and cars going at light speed all the way for about six hours. I'd planned to go a bit farther but, with a strong headwind, I quit early when I found a roadside motel. I felt frazzled. I thought a beer or a glass of wine might calm me down and remove the heavy goods vehicles from my nightmares. But, silly me, this motel sits right by that busy A-road. Each time a juggernaut goes past - about ten per minute on average - my walls wobble like I'm on the set of Crossroads. So  I won't get much peace. And then I discovered that the train comes past my window too. When that happens the whole room turns inside out like in that film Inception. But apparently this too shall pass and so everything's just dandy.

If you're planning a cycling holiday in Romania, may I suggest France instead. Or not cycling at all.

Monday, 8 April 2013

No Cheese, Sherlock!

Some people have a difficult start in life. Take US goalkeeper Tim Howard for example. He was diagnosed with Tourette's Syndrome as a young boy. But I think, like Sherlock Holmes on a pushbike - Bicyclelock Holmes if you like - I've deduced that little Tim was the victim of a terrible misdiagnosis. Let me explain, by which I mean let me waffle nonsensically for a bit and then come back to it right at the end.

Country number one this year is Hungary. It's where I'm sat right now, in a forgettable little town, drinking beer at 1980s prices. Before leaving Austria yesterday with good mate Pete, I'd given him a little cribsheet of important Hungarian words, written phonetically for ease of pronunciation. My cribsheet is very useful for this bizarre language but having done my extensive research there are some words in Hungarian that I will remember until the day Alzheimer's sets in. It's hard to forget that the Hungarian word for 'cheese' sounds exactly like 'shite'. Or that one version of their word for 'no' is 'minge'. Oh, and 'trees' sounds like just like 'faaaak'. I could be wrong about all this. I got my information from Google Translate's virtual speaker. Maybe it had been hacked.

Anyway, we set off yesterday on what was possibly a stupidly long distance for a first day - 134 km (90 miles). I hadn't cycled so much this winter and it turned out that Pete had never cycled so far in his entire life. By the time we hit the Hungarian border, still with 60 km to go, we were tired and extremely Hungary. Luckily, just over the border was the sort of transit cafe/bar you see in lots of places over here. There appears to be a rule that they are only allowed one party of customers at a time. And - lucky us! - we were that party.

The staff, of which there were many, spoke a little German but we tried our Hungarian phonetic cribsheet. Something that sounds like 'kate scher' got us the two beers we desired. Yeah, Google Translate! Scanning the food menu, my eye was drawn to their burger options, particularly their 'shiteburger'. Fearing that they might know enough German to fulfil our order a little too accurately, we went for the 'extraburger' without really knowing what the extra was. It turns out to have been cabbage. Nice cabbage though.

We struggled on to Szombathely, our destination, with a fierce headwind and collapsed into the cheapest hotel we could find, which was also the only hotel we could find. This saving allowed us to eat in the only restaurant open on a Sunday evening (apart from McDonald's) and go a bit mental. The highlight was a bottle of wine that was made from a bizarre Hungarian grape that could only be enjoyed if it was blended with a more popular grape, a bit like the way that people can only stomach Piers Morgan if he's interviewing someone much less of a twat. The wine tasted alright though. And then there was the main course. I ordered a mountain of meat offering allsorts but also, and this was the reason I choose it, pigs' trotters. It was another first for me. Mmm, they're, er, gelatinous.

What the 'trees' has all this got to do with Tourette's Tim Howard and his effing and blindingly good goalkeeping. Well, Tim Howard was born in the USA - wait for it! - of Hungarian parents. Have you put the picture together yet? Tim wasn't swearing uncontrollably. He was just talking to his dad in his native tongue. Tim's doctor clearly didn't have my phonetic cribsheet. Or am I talking 'cheese'?

It's Snow Joke

(This was supposed to be on my other blog - the Open University one - but they don't seem to be replying to my emails...)

I'm excited. By the time you read this I will be either preparing to leave Austria or already on the road to Budapest on the final leg of the UniCycle50 tour. And unless something amazing has happened to the weather between writing this post and you reading it, it's all going to be a bit snowy. The whole point of splitting the ride into three stages, from April to September for three years, was to avoid the cold stuff. Oh well.

So far, over the 22,500 kilometres I've cycled, I've been spectacularly lucky with the weather. Over the twelve months of actually moving through Europe I have probably had less than three weeks of rain, and six days of that was trying to escape England right at the beginning. And if the rain wasn't as severe as expected, neither was the summer sun. August 2011 probably wasn't the most intelligent time to be cycling through Spain, but then again neither was it ideal to spend the whole of July 2012 in Turkey. Luckily for me, the temperature rarely exceeded 35C (95F) in either place and that's bearable on a bike as long as you keep moving. As this year is the Northern European stage I can't imagine it's the heat that's going to be the problem.

So it looks like, statistically, I'm due some rubbish weather. Fortunately, the countries that I'll be cycling  through during the coldest period of 2013 - Austria and Hungary - get a good dumping of snow every year. Surely they will be able to cope with it better than the UK does. I'm expecting clear roads, although the campsites might be more of an issue. That is, if they've even bothered to open at all by the time I pass by.
I'll be presented with a bigger challenge if this year's winter continues into the second half of April. The only hills of any decent size this year are the spooky Carpathian mountains that rise up shortly after I cross the border into Romania. Romania is known for its dodgy roads even at the best of times. If there's snow at the bottom of the hill, climbing up to a pass at 1200 metres will be interesting. Still, no one said it was going to be easy.

So, six months of cycle adventure and study is spread out before me like a slightly scary duvet, taking me through some of the most rarely visited places in Europe. And if you happen to live in or around Budapest, Bucharest, Chisinau, Kiev, Minsk, Warsaw, Vilnius, Riga, Tallin, Moscow, St Petersburg, Helsinki, Stockholm, Oslo, Copenhagen, Cardiff, Dublin, Belfast or Edinburgh, I'd love to meet up for a beer or, more likely, a giant mug of steaming coffee and a warm blanket. You can reach me at once my computer has defrosted.