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

Crossing Europe, Part 1: Ups, downs, and flat roads

UPDATE: It’s official, I am now 1 CONTINENT down! Europe, done. Currently drinking tea (sugar, no milk) in Istanbul. Over the past week in Turkey, I have experienced more generosity than anywhere since the beginning of the journey, partly because I have grown more open to accepting it. With more than half of my time on the road now elapsed, but less than half of the distance, it has been clear for some time that I won’t make it to my final destination on this trip. As is written on countless café walls, notebook covers, and lunchboxes however, it is more about the journey than the destination! I continue East, happy that I have crossed Europe and curious of what I will see and experience over the next month or so. Plans for completing the journey in the future are already being formed so watch this space…

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A lot of my posts so far have talked around cycling without saying much about the day-to-day stuff: the different countries, the food, daily anecdotes etc. This has been entirely conscious but I realise that kind of thing is interesting too so, now that I’ve reached a bit of a milestone, here’s a bit of a recap (apologies in advance for the stereotypes…):

France – Ah France, our long-term neighbours whom we make pleasant conversation with over the fence but talk about behind each other’s backs when we are indoors.
I often forget how large France is. Only when I began to plan the route I realised I would be spending the first week or so crossing it, and only once I had crossed it did I realise it’s one of those countries that has it all, as far as landscapes go. Countryside not dissimilar to our own, just with fewer hedges, the sunny South, beautiful coastlines, and the Alps to cap it off! I stuck mainly to the countryside and kept the Alps at a comfortable distance on the horizon, but I certainly had the sun. The first week was still tough going and more than once in the evening I strapped my water bag over my legs as a makeshift ice pack to try and aid their recovery. Physical exhaustion often leads to mental fatigue and there was several moments I wondered if I had the strength to continue in both senses.
I was surprised by how few people spoke English and mildly guilty that I didn’t speak better French; a self-inflicted guilt as I didn’t feel I was being judged too harshly by the locals.
One thing I miss: biscuit and caramel Vienetta
What I don’t miss: a distinct lack of publicly funded toilet paper.

Switzerland – I criss-crossed the border for a couple of days, only staying long enough to cycle up one picturesque Swiss hill and eat as much Swiss chocolate as I could find. It would be unfair to judge a country by such a fleeting visit so I will reserve my opinion. Stay neutral, as it were.

Germany – a country with the efficiency that we think is a cliched stereotype but gets reinforced at seemingly every opportunity. The rivalry built up on our side of the channel certainly isn’t reciprocated by the Deutsche and they seem to view Brits, or at least the English, with a quaint fondness. There was certainly a different air of friendliness with everyone I spoke to.
I decided to take the short route in Germany, leaving the river and heading out in to the hills. I thought the newly gained strength in my legs could cope with anything but was quickly taken down a peg or two when on a tough day my legs ‘cracked’ after less than 50 miles (similar to hitting ‘the wall’ in running). I was due a rest day in Munich after one more day’s cycling but still had 70 miles and many more hills. It was the first time I seriously considered jumping on a train and skipping a day of cycling (but not the last). After a night’s sleep however, I hopped on my bike and had one of the best days on the bike in the whole trip! Coincidently, it was the first day I discovered the delight of a huge pasta salad for breakfast..
Stunning weather and decent roads meant the rest of my time in Germany was a breeze.

Austria – The hills may well have been alive with the sound of music but I didn’t hear any of it, sticking to the river and the flat, smooth paths and roads as I did. Austria is another country with some truly stunning scenery and it’s almost as pretty when you’re in the towns and cities. Cycling along the Danube in Austria is so leisurely I found myself pushing to cycle fast just to convince myself I was working hard..
Meeting up with my dad in Vienna, I realised, quite bizarrely, that the previous three weeks was probably the longest I had gone without seeing someone I know in my entire life! A record I have since beaten however. It was the most distinctive break from cycling I had taken to that point and I wondered how I would feel, stopping and seeing family. I went with my dad to the airport as he was about to fly out and it was the first time I considered the fact that, if I wanted to, I could just stop cycling. It was in that same moment however that I realised I didn’t want to stop, so that was a positive!

Slovakia – By Slovakia, I really mean Bratislava, and by Bratislava, I mean the small part of Bratislava that I stayed in. I vaguely followed the river in to the country though I didn’t often see the water, staying in the capital for one night before moving on. All I can say is, I got some good ‘vibes’ and ate some good food. I later found out I stayed in the same hostel as a couple of people I met up with the next day…

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That wasn’t meant to sound like a cliff-hanger but this is ‘Part 1’ so I’ll leave you there on the edge of your seats while I pen the next instalment!

Peace and love,
Rich x

Borderlands

“Borders? I have never seen one. But I have heard that they exist in the minds of some people.” Thor Heyerdahl.

Now, I have never thought a pretentious quote is a good way to start a post so I hope you will forgive it. I saw this particular quote on the tote bag of a tourist walking around a city – just to dispel the illusion of being particularly well read – but it did seem to capture the theme of the thoughts I’d been having recently. People, places, countries, borders, geography! Right up my street. Allow me this one post to geek out just a little.

I have crossed a fair few borders in the trip so far but until recently, most of them were unbeknownst to me. Unless I was particularly vigilant, I might have missed the small sign on a streetlight, or the small post painted in the colours of the new national flag. Following the river as I often have been in Europe, to cross the border was to cross the bridge. When I found myself cycling in Slovakia on a public holiday that I hadn’t expected, I wondered how I would get supplies with all the shops closed; it took me half a day before I realised, I can just cycle over the bridge to a shop in Hungary!

Without distinctive geographic boundaries, like a river or a mountain range, borders fall seemingly arbitrarily at city limits, across roads, farms, and through forests. Sometimes the relic of a checkpoint from times gone by but otherwise no people, no questions. I realise that this is primarily because I’m cycling through the EU and, more specifically, the Schengen Area – leaving politics aside (you’ll be glad to hear), it is hugely refreshing! When I approach borders and see people moving back and forth, I wonder if they even think about it. “I’m just jogging to Austria” – I’m sure there were plenty of Slovakian dads living near the border that made that joke after they joined the EU.

More recently, crossing the frontier between Schengen and EU, then EU to non-EU, I have been through the checkpoints – I decided at the first checkpoint that it would be fine to abandon British conventions and skip to the front of the queue; with no complaints from cars or guards, I’m assuming this is the done thing. At every checkpoint so far I have caught the attention of border guards early on as I wheel my bike towards them. At the first crossing I handed over my passport and, after a quick look, the guard handed it to the policija officer sat next to her. “Is this going to be less simple than I thought?” I worried silently as I wheeled forward to the next window.

“Where are you going?” he asked, looking from the passport to me to the bike.

“Cycling to Osijek, then east to Serbia.” I answered promptly. Something in his reaction told me he hadn’t been interrogating, as much as he was just intrigued. “Then I’ll be cycling to Istanbul*” I added which drew a smile from the officer to break the stern border guard facade.

“All by bicycle?!” the original guard asked, ignoring the car that had moved up to her window. I nodded. “You’re crazy” she said with a smile and a shake of her head. I shrugged and returned her smile as I took my passport back and wheeled off.

*(I had taken to telling people Istanbul as I crossed Europe – it doesn’t require as much explanation!)

It has been the same story at each passport check, a laugh and a joke with the guards as I tell them where I’m heading. Some advice on how I could better spend my time before the stamp of approval. Long may it continue as the borders become more visible and the checks more frequent!

Frustratingly, the borders that enclose countries I’ve yet to reach, and the politics within them, have continued to dictate my route. For obvious reasons, I (and the Foreign Office) thought it best to avoid Afghanistan right now. No bother, after crossing Iran I could move north to avoid it. Since cycling however, travel advice is now to avoid Iran, and my visa applications have been thwarted. OK, well after Turkey I can go through the Caucasus, I’ve heard good things about Armenia anyway! Nope. Border crossings are closed between Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan after their disputes! Fine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and across the Caspian Sea then!

And so, my final route won’t be exactly as the original, and my plans seem to change daily at the moment, but I continue East! I added a link under the route map to show the actual route I’ve taken through pins where I’ve been staying at the end of each day, feel free to check it out.

Rich