Crossing Europe, Part 2: Dogs, bugs, and a rough ride

UPDATE: I’m pitched up in my tent by the side of the road on the high ‘plateau’ of the central region of Turkey. Over the last couple of days I have climbed from sea level to an altitude higher than the peak of Ben Nevis and my legs are aching more than they have for a good few weeks! Since leaving Istanbul, I have not had to buy one cup of tea (çay) or pay for one night’s accommodation, such is the generosity of the people I have met. Tonight’s camp spot is a small well-kept field beside the road – it was clearly owned by someone, with a picnic bench under a tree, but it was not clear who owned it or where they lived. As I cooked dinner before pitching my tent, a car pulled in and a man stepped out and approached. Thinking he would ask me to leave, I had my apologetic face on, but when he greeted me he assured me in broken English that it was “no problem”, that I should stay as long as I like, and asked if there was anything that he could do for me. I offered my sincere thanks and spent the evening shaking my head in astoundment of the hospitality of the country.

N.B. I started writing this blog 2 days ago so the above wasn’t written today…also, a warning, this post is long!

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I left Part 1 on something of a cliff-hanger but unintentionally, so I will have to start Part 2 with something of an anticlimax.

When I left Bratislava I cycled down through Slovakia and I stumbled upon a town street party with all the local delicacies I could eat from a dozen or so stalls. I decided to stay the night south of the river, across the border…

Hungary: Turned away from the first camp site, I was directed down the road where “my friend” just went. I assumed there was some miscommunication but maybe there was another cycle tourer who had done the same. I was right, and at the next campsite I met Paul and later Cedric who were both on their way to Budapest (coincidentally, we had all come from the same hostel in Bratislava and I had passed Paul on the road that day). We coordinated and headed to Budapest, still my favourite city that I have visited. The capital city stood in stark contrast to other parts of the country I cycled through for the quality of infrastructure – I spent my days in the countryside weaving over potholed roads and broken pavements, with the occasional oasis of smooth tarmac which my bike ate up at speed. I remarked to someone that this was the first country that I had seen stray dogs, to their surprise. The dogs were only a minor curiosity to me at this point, only taking a barking interest in me if I cycled through towns quicker than the local bikes (i.e. walking pace) – little did I know how much I would have to take notice of them in the future.

Croatia: Like Switzerland and Slovakia, I only spent a short amount of time here in the quiet city of Osijek. There was definitely a different ‘feel’ to the poeple and style of buildings but nothing I could put my finger on. I can say however, the border guards were the friendliest I’ve met!

Serbia: I’m sure for many in the UK, like me, thinking of Serbia will evoke a flicker of memories of news reports from the 90’s. I knew little about the country before I crossed the border and after cycling through it for a week and a half, I only wish I knew more now. The people were super-friendly, and very ‘to-the-point’ in a way that sometimes shocked my British sensibilities. Part of the pleasant small-talk with strangers involved the question “how much money do you make?”, something I had never heard spoken aloud before.
I was taken back ‘home’ when I reached a town and decided to stay at a local guesthouse rather than camp – I was greeted by the owner as if I were her own child returning after months away, with a hug at the door and then taken to sit down as she prepared food, before I had a chance to unpack. Walking around, I found myself scanning each room to see that *everything* was ‘English’ themed. A clock showed the time in the UK, there were pictures from London with red buses, telephone boxes and various landmarks, another picture of the Queen hung in the dining room, and the owner had a right-hand drive car (the wrong side for Serbia) imported. The only thing that was ‘off theme’…noone spoke a single word of English.
News had got around the dog community that I was on the way and some of them had moved out of the towns to occupy the country roads as well, barking and starting to give chase if my speed made for an interesting and achievable pursuit. Not yet used to the game, the rush of adrenaline would cause me to try and sprint away, forgetting the weight of the bike doesn’t lend itself particularly well to acceleration!
The scenery was either spectacular, or spectacularly dull, having days winding through incredible valleys, and others in featureless agriculture. One of the most impressive days unfortunately coinsided with what must have been ‘flying-ant day’ in Serbia. Coasting down through a smooth, winding valley road in bright sunshine and amazing autumnal coloured scenes, when suddenly I would crash through a moving black cloud on the road and emerge the other side with bugs in my mouth, hair, and covering my clothes. One of those days where the balance of positive and negative in the world, however small, is immediately apparent!

Romania: I spent half a day looping in to Romania to pick up what looked to be the best route – I feel like I will have to take another trip someday to balance my opinion of the country. Half of the very few hours I spent there were on the worst roads I have ever cycled on that held me at a power-walking pace.
The dogs! Romanian dogs must have had a taste of cyclists, and they like it. If you’re lucky, you hear them before you see them. When you see them, they’re sprinting the 100 yard dash from across the other side of a field, in packs up to 5 or 6. Luckily this was when I was on better roads and I never found out what happened if they got to the end of the field before I did – it certainly kept the heart-rate up though!

Bulgaria: My first day in Bulgaria was a rest day and I spent it exploring the nearby national park with some great people from the hostel. I thought it would be fine to go for a four-hour hike on my ‘rest’ day but not having used my legs much for walking the past couple of months, I woke up the next day aching! I left the capital heading east and, not able to cycle on the highway, I ended up on some lanes and dirt tracks. At one point a wide stream was flowing over the track and as I approached I made a quick judgement, that it was shallow enough to cycle through…I was wrong. Well, half wrong, I was able to cycle through, but I was quickly shin-deep in water and forced the pedals round quickly to emerge the other side, shoes and socks soaked through. Slow-going for the rest of the day with wet feet – this was the second time I considered catching a train to the next town, but I pitched my tent instead. The next day, with my shoes still wet, I decided to book a hostel in the next city so that I could dry them and take a shower after the dusty roads. I made better progress but towards the end of the day I was still 20 miles from the city and the hostel – I had heard that the Bulgarian train service was decent and so, I pulled in to the nearest station and hopped on the train with my bike. The one and only time I’ve travelled off the bike.

Greece: Was I even in Greece? All of a few hours – my enduring memory is of a ford through a fast flowing river. I hit the deck twice trying to cross it, again getting my shoes wet, and eventually crossed barefoot and very slowly.

Turkey: The gateway between Europe and Asia. Upon reaching Istanbul I had crossed the continent. For such a big country that I will spend so long in though, I feel like it needs a post of its own…coming soon.

And so, that was Europe in a nutshell. There are some countries and stories I haven’t done justice to but I need something to talk about when I see people when I’m back!

Happy Friday everyone!!

Rich

The kindness of strangers..

UPDATE: I have reached the penultimate country in the Europe leg of my journey – Bulgaria. I’ve taken an unexpected day off in the city of Plovdiv having cycled some fairly rough ‘roads’ over the last couple of days, it sapped my energy more than I thought and I’m sure Stephanie (the bike) would be glad of a day off and some TLC! Yesterday while cutting between two roads across a once-used but now overgrown track, I saw my first bear print in some wet ground – having to push my bike over the pertruding rocks in the washed-out lane, it certainly made me more attentive to my surroundings and it was the first time my bell has been used as a bear precaution! Tomorrow I move on, two days to the border and then another few days to Istanbul!

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One of the joys of being on the road is the number of people that you come in to contact with every day – whether it’s shopkeepers, other travellers, or just people out and about in towns and on the roads, every conversation and encounter is different. Before I started the trip, this would have been one of the daunting prospects, partly for my own trepidations about unfamiliar social situations, and partly for fear of the unknown that I think most people share. With each day that passed however, it became more enjoyable and I was far more likely to follow up chance eye-contact with a friendly “hello” to break the initial social barrier.

In almost 2 months I have met nice people, good people, funny people, interesting people, and other than a small number of impatient drivers which I could count on my fingers, I can’t think of one negative experience. The memorable moments have been the times where people showed genuine kindness; unsolicited, unrewarded extentions of generosity, empathy and friendliness to someone they have never met.

One day, while cycling in Germany, I had spent a long day on the road trying to cover the miles to get to the next town. Cycling through small backroads to avoid the traffic on the main road, I was following signs to the town and thought I was making good time until I realised I had gone a few miles without seeing another sign. At the next signpost, the town wasn’t listed and I assumed I must have missed a turning; slightly annoyed at myself, tired, and worrying about the time, I was turning my bike around to retrace my steps when a middle-aged couple cycled up behind me. Asking something in German (presumably whether I was lost), I told them the name of the town that I was aiming for. After they interpreted my poor pronounciation, the husband spoke briefly to his wife, turned his bike around and waved to indicate I should follow. Slightly surprised, I was happy to comply and cycled to catch up – we managed a broken conversation as he guided me turn-by-turn for the next 5 or so miles. At one junction we stopped, he pointed down the road and gave me directions to the town – thankfully in German that I did recognise: “Geradeaus”. Straight Ahead. I expressed my gratitude as we shook hands and I cycled the last 10km high on positivity and my tired legs had renewed energy!

Most days on the bike the physical exertion isn’t too strenuous and I’ve realised that what determines how difficult a day in the saddle is, can often just be mental attitude. It sounds clichéd, and I’ve also learnt how much food and a decent night’s sleep can play a part, but when my spirits are high, cycling becomes a breeze even when the roads and conditions are against you.

It also strikes me that when spirits are low, this is often the time when the kindness of strangers is most prevalent. In Hungary, having left Budapest a couple of days before, a long day of cycling without finding a decent camping spot led me to a town that I had seen had a hostel that you could also camp beside. Before even pitching my tent, I took out the food I had bought earlier in the day to have for dinner – a tomato pasta salad so I thought. When I opened it however it was something quite different – a stodgy mess of processed meat and something to stick it together. I had picked up the wrong thing in the shop without noticing. Needing some sort of sustenance, I persevered but could only get a few mouthfuls in before setting it to rest beside me. Tired and still hungry, I began to put up my tent and just as I was finishing pegging the rain cover, I saw an older woman walking towards me. She began to speak in Hungarian, pointing across the grass. Obvious I wasn’t understanding she turned and began to walk, waving a hand, beckoning me to follow – a universal signal I was discovering. As I followed her, I saw she was walking towards a large table surrounded by a family 10 or 12 strong with gift bags covering the surface – I was joining a family party it seemed. The chair at the head of the table was free and she gestured for me to sit in it. Still in my cycling gear I sat down, smiling with a hand raised in greeting to the new faces looking at me as the woman that had brought me over spoke to them. She disappeared quickly and before long she brought out a large bowl of warm soup with chunks of bread – I couldn’t tell them how much this was exactly what I needed. As I ate, the glass of wine by my side was constantly topped and, after a round of cake for desert, we raised our glasses around the table before I took my leave for a much needed shower and some rest. This, I thought as I lay there in the evening, this was why I came cycling.

As I have moved further east, it has become more common for cars to give a friendly toot and a wave as they pass, for road workers to shout encouragement as I cycle slowly past up a hill. Just yesterday as I was standing my bike up outside a supermarket at lunchtime, a burly man with a bald head shouted to catch my attention and, again, waved a hand that I should follow and bring the bike. Walking in to a shell of a building being decorated he pointed up to a camera, that the bike would be safe there, and told me with individual words that downstairs was ‘fitness’, ‘toilet’ and ‘water’ – a gym as it turns out, he owned it and offered its services, for no reason other than he saw me outside.

I have just started reading a book with the same name as this post – stories from others that have travelled or just spent time with relative strangers. Tales to warm the heart and inspire a blog post. I hope that when finished my trip, I can pass on some of the kindness offered to me when I return home – goodwill to all, it will be Christmas by then after all!