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 (├žay) 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

Going solo

UPDATE: I’m in Serbia (country #8 after a short detour to Croatia)! 5 weeks of cycling and my facial hair is such that I could probably pass an old acquaintance on a busy street unnoticed. As well as languages changing, I’m now on my 4th or 5th currency, and my wallet is a colourful and confusing array of faces and denominations. Places are beginning to sound far away from home and I’m having to start making decisions about what I’ve been thinking about as the next ‘leg’ of the journey: Asia.

The saying goes that if you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together. Well, I suppose this trip slightly goes against the grain of that proverb as I’m learning how to go far, alone. Whenever I spoke to people about the cycle, it was always one of three questions asked: where are you going, how long for, and who with? Telling people that I was going alone always seemed the most surprising aspect to them but in truth I had never really thought twice about it.

The whole time that I was thinking about the trip, the idea of going together with anyone had never occurred to me, though I can’t think why. I suppose if I ever tried to explain it to anyone, I couldn’t say exactly where I was going, why, or how long it would take. There is probably only a small sub-section of people that would agree to come along under those circumstances; I’m not sure I’ve met any of them and the rest are presumably under fairly close observation.

It was the same story when I cycled across the UK, though I was slightly more in my comfort zone, it never really occurred to me to go with anyone or in a group. I’m not sure what that says about my character and I might not want to dwell on it for too long but as I’ve been cycling along I’ve been considering the pros and cons of solo travel:
Pros:

  • Flexibility – I’m able to go wherever and do whatever I like without discussion or compromise. It’s also quicker to get ready, change plans etc.
  • Less stress – unless you are very compatible with someone, small differences or disagreements can lead to tensions. I also feel that other people are less comfortable with my level of preparedness (or lack thereof) than I am, so I think I would feel under pressure to plan further ahead than I usually would
  • Meeting people – I feel more open to meeting people when I’m on my own and, I think, more approachable, and less introverted

Cons:

  • Less conversation – despite being fairly comfortable in my own company, I can’t help but feel slightly envious of the cycling pairs chatting together as they ride side by side. Even more so of the pair I saw with walkie-talkie headsets!
  • Two heads are better than one – even though it is quicker and easier to make plans alone, with two people come two ideas, and often you pick the best one between you, so it can be better to have more input
  • Experiences – for all the people and places I visit and those yet to come, I often think of the book/film ‘Into the Wild’ and the idea that experiences are always enhanced when shared with someone else. You also never end up in your own pictures

This isn’t the list of the pros and cons of just having company however, for I think whether travelling together with someone or going solo, people seek out company. I’ve noticed that many people travelling alone will often gravitate towards each other, for a break from solitude. I have taken to staying in camp sites along the way and my route so far seems to be joining the dots between cities and the hostels in them. Not only is there the advantage of the *much* needed and coveted shower at the end of the day, but it is a chance to meet and talk to other travellers.

Now, I love hostels. Every time I stay in one I marvel at these melting-pots of society – a juncture of so many paths and stories and characters. It’s easy to meet people and you never fail to meet someone interesting or eccentric (but always fail to get a good night’s sleep). Whether it’s a ‘government official’ sitting in his underwear drinking wine from the bottle, or a young entrepreneur travelling around Europe on an electric unicycle, there’s always a story behind it! You only have to sit alone in a common area and, provided you don’t have your head buried in a book (or more likely your phone), you will soon be chatting with the person next to you or whomever wanders over. For such ephemeral meetings, names become unimportant and can often be the last thing you ask before parting ways, after swapping life stories.

More recently, I’ve been learning the difference between good hostels and bad for meeting people. Just before reaching Budapest, a series of coincidences led me to meet two other solo travellers at a campsite. They had met before and were also heading in to the city so we decided to coordinate and head to the same hostel. I realised that they were looking in more detail at each hostel than I generally had been (beyond the price and rating) to decide where to stay. Trusting their judgement, I booked the same place and we ended up in a great little hostel with such a chilled vibe and interesting people, that my first two-day rest quickly became three days!

After four weeks being constantly on the move, not stopping for more than one day, three days surrounded by people was quite a change. After that, I found it hard to get back on the bike and cycle away from a city I loved and people I would now call friends. It was a lonely half-day cycling to get over the ‘happiness hangover’ before being back in the swing of things, and by the end of the day I had found a beach on the Danube 60 miles south, pitching my tent just in time for a stunning sunset. It reminded me of the things I had been missing in the days before and reminded me of the positives of my self-imposed solitude. To be able to decide where I go and when, and find company when I stop has been great so far. Can’t wait to see who I meet next!

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