May 2018 - Worldtrip Update
The second month of our travels was a crash course through European cultures and people. From Slovakia we crossed into Hungary following the Euro Velo 6 route. From Budapest we headed straight south into Serbia, on to Bulgaria, Greece, and finally, Turkey.
Our first nights were remarkable, initially wild camping at the Danube and later in the home of the hospitable family of my good friend Marci.
We spent a few days with them in Tahitótfalu, going for hikes, bike rides, and enjoying local foods and festivities. Home-cooked specialities such as Lángos, delicious fatty cheese breads and sweet pastries of all kinds were served. Traditional Hungarian music was playing, and the villages were competing to be crowned best Goulash chefs. A lot of people even spoke German and we ended up in many conversations.
Budapest’s architecutre blew us away as we rode in, we took a break as we approached the National Assembly from accross the Danube. We sat in awe and admired the citie’s landscape. It is quite impressive and resembles (and in my opinion partially surpasses) the historic cities of Europe such as Paris and Vienna. The openess due to the Danube gives the city something special.
The next two nights were spend with Esther and Arthur, they were formidable and experienced warmshowers hosts and even helped me fix my handlebar bag which unfortunately broke a few days earlier on the Slovakian gravel roads. The bag is now stronger than ever, proper metal screws, no more cheap plastic, thanks Arthur!
From the capital we rode on south through the country, Marci described it as “yeah… the Great Plains… it’s fucking boring 😄”. But I beg to differ Marci! It was sandy, thorny, and blistering, our slick tyres were put to a test, I ended up having 3 flats in less than 24 hours. The culprits were blossoming and making up for it with their scent, only a small consolation.
On our way to Serbia we passed the cities of Kecskemét and Szeged, we sometimes rode on very good bike lanes, they were rare, but when they existed they were going on for many kilometers and the surface was of great quality. When we shared roads with motorists we were positively surprised at how prudent and safely they would take us over, a major contrast to the previous countries. We also rode along the river Tisa, on the Euro Velo route 11. The route is officially “under development”, therefor the quality was more that of an old unused dirtroad, however we had the pleasure to ride by ourselves for long strechtes through the natural reserve, sighting deer after deer, stork afer stork, oh and mosquitos, too many damn mosquitos.
Time to head into Serbia, we did not know what to expect, but having met great people from Serbia it felt necessary to go have a look for ourselves. Before we did though, we decided to spend one last night in some adorable oak woods next to the border and roll down the 5km to the border fresh in the morning.
Despite us being slightly nervous about leaving the EU, the border crossing went mostly smooth. However it was still somewhat weird. The Hungarian officer seemed amused about our bike trip, he even asked us perplexed “and you like doing this?”, well, yes, we do. He wished us luck and good travels. The Serbian officer barrely talked to us: “Passports!” — “City?”, were the two only words the brute spit out. Fortunately, children in the next village greeted us with bright smiles, erasing the first impressions at the border, waving and telling us “hellooooo welcooome”. Thanks kids, you already made my day!
The road was of good quality, until we turned right into a field trying to get to the next village over a bridge. There was no bridge, there was no ferry, nothing. We laughed, the sun was hitting hard, but we had no choice, ride back and an additional 16km detour to the next bridge. Hoping it would be there. Fortunately it was.
Subotica was the first Serbian city we visited, it was lovely, the architecture from the Austro-Hungarian empire was very present, I had never seen such an impressive town hall in such a small city.
We then persued our way to Novi Sad, the second largest city in Serbia, Anna who I met on previous travels in Thailand put me in touch with friends of her, April and Sinisa. We had a great time with them, Sinisa had a lot of stories to tell about the history of Serbia, April showed us around the city and shared a lot of strawberries with us. We went on to move to another place in Novi Sad to stay a few more days to wait for a package, my new handlebar bag. It never arrived, but we met lovely people again through warmshowers, Ivana and Endre.
Novi Sad was also the time I had to see a doctor. Hemorrhoids were bothering me, fortunately the doctor I met spoke english, and knew a lot about cycling. In her spare time she hosts people riding near the Danube, so none of what I was doing surprised her, she gave me a lot of tips about how to stay healthy and combat this problem, a few days later I was healthy again.
Belgrade was a funny experience. As we were trying to find our host, people approached us to help, some literally started shouting from their balconies to find our host. We walked around Belgrad for a bit, visited the Fortress, the Contemporary Art Museum, however one of the highlights is that we randomly met a bikepacker from Germany, Jens. We exchanged contacts to perhaps ride a bit together the following days.
Two days later, in the middle of nowhere, around 10pm in complete darkness, Jens joined us based on coordinates I shared with him earlier. What a surprise! We were about to fall asleep. He just rode 40km through darkness to find us in addition to his 100km from Belgrade. Legend!
We rode together for a day, and then decided to split ways due to a different route, he followed the Euro Velo 6 route for another 100+km, while we took a shorter route crossing some rocky hills instead to get to a similar location. Funnily enough, we realised from his tracker that he was 30 minutes behind us as we were having a break later in the day, so we joined again! Surprise Jens! “Where the hell are you two coming from??”. We rode the last 15km to Negotin in pouring rain to a nice cosy bikepacker guesthouse.
At the guesthouse we met a few more bikepackers, from all ages, who either just crossed into Serbia from Bulgaria, or like us, were going to cross over to Bulgaria the next day.
As we woke up, most of the cyclists had already left in the rain, we couldn’t be bothered to start our day soaked, instead we relaxed and enjoyed a nice breakfast with Jens, waiting for the sun. When we left, we first headed 6km in the wrong direction, wooops, sorry folks, my bad. Eventually we turned back, and catched up with all the cyclists that left hours earlier, aaah the benefits of race bike geometry!
As we approached the first city, Vidin, the traces of the now defunct Soviet era became visible, dozens of mega factories, abandoned. Standardised apartment blocks in need of renovation falling appart, once beautiful promenades in urgent need of repairs, and the city, slightly too empty for its size.
In the same day we waved goodbye to Jens, and headed to the Balkan Mountains where we stayed with Annelies, a lovely Belgian lady, who had bought a former holiday residence in the woods, and was now turning it into a selfsustainable project with her friends and volunteers (Check out her project Merope). No running water, but a big lake in front, perfect for cooling down, and having a bath.
The following days through the Balkan Mountains were impressive, we sighted the Belogradchik Rocks, slept next to streams and hemp fields, enjoyed delicious spring water, cycled over many hills, were forced to hike down rocks in Gara Lakatnik, and joined the “Goatmilk Festival” by surprise in the little town of Bela Rechka. The only unpleasant moment was a weirdo telling us we are not allowed to take pictures in a village’s center, and went on to call his english speaking handyman on us. “What are you doing here? Why are you taking pictures? Where are you from?” — Germany, we are tourists, we ride our bikes, chill. — I had no suspicions whatsoever before I took my pictures, but now I sure do.
A few days later we arrived in Sofia, where we stayed with the great people of Sofia Bike. It is difficult to express all the gratitude I feel towards them. They hosted us in the basement of their bike shop, shared beers with us, gave us many many tips about Sofia, told us where to find the cheapest pizza around, upgraded our bikes for free, and were wonderful people to hang out with. Our visit of Sofia can be summarized to: we did a walking tour of the city, and chilled out with them in front of the shop the other days, looking at bikes. Surreal.
All good things come to an end, we left Sofia and headed for the second largest city, Plovdiv. Instead of taking the direct route next to the highway, we rode east into the Sredna Gora mountain range, resulting in a bit of climbing, and a lot of downhills on very good and wide roads! Spring water was predominant again, allowing us to drink fresh water, without carrying much.
In Plovdiv we sat down at a café, in hope to get some writing done. Instead, we met people who were traveling around Europe, so we exchanged stories before heading off to explore the city.
Our route took us up the Rhodope Mountains the next days, we rode the first 10km in an unbearable 42°C, running out of water very quickly. The steep cliffs next to the road made it hard to find a suitable sleeping spot, but we eventually did find a magnificient place overlooking the Vacha Reservoir. We passed the towns of Shiroka Laka, Pamporovo, Banite,… Famous for hiking, winter sports, and thermal water. The days were hard, the road took us up to 1700m, sometimes in unexpected rainstorms (hello mountain weather). The evenings were relaxing, campfires kept us cosy, rivers allowed us to wash.
The last days through Bulgaria were simultaneously beautiful and nerve-wracking, my rear tyre was broken. The rubber was partially gone, resulting in not less than 4 flats. We taped it, layered it with old tubes, cheese packaging, swapped it with the front tyre… And hallelujah, it lasted until Turkey.
From Bulgaria, we rode into Greece, on an empty highway leading to Turkey. I had no visa for Turkey, I failed to acquire an e-visa online, so I took my chance and rode to the border. I asked the Greek border officer who responded amused “This is a small border… I’m not sure they can deliver visas… you can try, it’s only 400 meters ahead…” So I rolled over to the Turkish border with little hope. “Hello, I’m a Belgian citizen, I believe I need a visa, can I acquire one here?”. The officer was momentaly confused, looked through his papers, asked his colleagues, and came back “Ye… yes yes you can, it is eh… wait… — looking through documents — twenty-five euros, but why didn’t you do it online?”.
So here we were, on Turkish soil, with Edirne, the first Turkish city, only 5km ahead of us. We’ll report back on Turkey in our next blog post. Bulgaria was a magnificient place, probably our favourite European Union state during this journey. We’ll also try to write a more detailled article about Bulgaria, to us it feels like the unkown EU cycling paradise.
From Cappadocia, with love, Yves.