If you would rather not read all of our posts from the leg one of our trip, here is a summary:
It is over eight weeks now since we closed the front door of our house in South London, waved goodbye to our friends and cycled off in the direction of Australia (well, ok Canterbury to start with!). In some ways it feels like a very long eight weeks – so much has happened, and we have had so many experiences that our lives back at home seem a lifetime away – but the time has also flown by so much that we can’t quite believe that we have already cycled 3800km to Istanbul.
The first few weeks of the trip were most memorable for the weather – think lots of freezing rain and hail, and howling gales – typical April weather but challenging to cycle in all day! France was nice but didn’t feel too adventurous as we have both been to the country quite a few times before. As usual we particularly enjoyed the patisseries though! We had originally planned to cycle through a corner of Belgium and Luxembourg but decided to stay in France instead in order to avoid as many hills as possible – quite difficult in that part of the world! We crossed into Germany through the Black Forest, which was very scenic but involved some very long strenuous uphills (and of course some equally exhilerating downhills). After Stuttgart we made our way down to Ulm, where we picked up the Danube cycle path, which runs all the way from Ulm to the Danbue’s end in the Black Sea in Romania. In Germany and Austria the path is well maintained and signposted, giving us a lovely, flat, car-free ride through these countries. The section from Passau to Vienna is quite well-known because it passes through some very scenic countryside as well as some lovely little towns, and is consequently one of the most popular bike routes in Europe. Christine’s parents had been thinking of cycling this route for a while and so took the opportunity to cycle it with us, taking a leisurely week to get from Passau to Vienna. Despite some inclement weather it was an enjoyable week for all. Arriving into Vienna was great because it was the first place that Pete and I had been to before (by aeroplane last time!), so it really felt like we had ‘arrived’ somewhere. It is a wonderful city so it was great to have a chance to see it again.
After Vienna we followed the Danube to Bratislava, only a short ride but into a totally different world. The contrast between the relative wealth and prosperity of Austria and Slovakia is made very apparent by these two cities, with the former being immaculate and full of fancy cafes and restaurants, and the latter feeling rather grey and run-down in comparison. However, Bratislava is not without its charms, which include a delightful old quarter and a well-restored castle, and we had a pleasant half-day there. After Bratislava we continued down the Danube to Budapest, a scenic journey which took 2 days and included some lovely quiet country roads and an enjoyable stay at a campsite attached to some thermal springs – just what a tired cyclist needs! The weather had improved significantly by this stage and it was really quite hot arriving into Budapest. It was our first visit to this wonderful city, and we really enjoyed the couple of days we spent there. Particular highlights included climbing the hill to the citadel for a stunning view over the city and beyond, and visiting some of the amazing thermal baths for which the city is famous.
South of Budapest is the so-called ‘great plain’ of Hungary, which is completely flat and very rural. Although the scenery was not exciting per se, the roads were lovely and we really enjoyed the couple of days it took us to reach the border with Serbia. The pancake-like countryside continued into Serbia, all the way to Belgrade. Unfortunately we had a strong headwind all the way, making for difficult riding despite the flatness. Navigation also started to become tricky at this stage, because not only did we have no GPS (the Garmin maps we have do not cover Serbia), but many of the signs are in the Cyrillic alphabet, meaning Christine had to consult our Russian dictionary to decipher them! Belgrade was a nightmare to cycle into, involving 10km of busy, dusty, bumpy roads, coming at the end of a long hot day of cycling. We were very glad when we finally found our way to a hostel. The hostel we stayed in was rather amusingly called ‘Happy Hostel’, I say amusing because the staff could not have sounded more miserable when answering the phone or the door buzzer, although once inside they were friendly enough. Central Belgrade was much nicer than the outskirts, with a fortress and a pedestrianized old town. The first day we were there was a national holiday and it seemed that the entire city was out to celebrate and enjoy the sunshine, making for a great atmosphere. The next day we headed out to a big park on an artificial island on the river, complete with beaches and facilities for every sport imaginable. A very nice way to spend a hot day.
South of Belgrade the topography suddenly got a lot hillier, and we had quite a few long climbs to get to the border with Bulgaria. The scenery was spectacular though, and the roads virtually traffic-free, so we weren’t complaining too much. Everybody we encountered was very friendly too, for example in one town we stopped to buy some groceries, while Pete was in the store 3 different people approached Christine to have a chat and look at our bikes, regardless of their level of English. It seems that ‘western’ tourists are pretty unusual round here – a number of people we spoke to complimented us on how well we spoke English, because it didn’t occur to them that we might actually be from the UK! This friendliness and level of interest has only increased as we have headed further East, and will no doubt be an enduring feature of the trip. Bulgaria was a pleasant surprise to us. We didn’t have great expectations following a less-than-wonderful skiing holiday there a couple of years ago (to be fair, that was more because of a lack of snow, which affected the whole of Europe at that time). The first place we visited was a town called Belogradcik, which is slightly remote from the rest of the country, but which is well worth visiting because it is surrounded by fabulous natural rock formations which are really quite impressive. Then we moved onto Pleven, again a nice place made nicer by the fact that it is not on the usual tourist itinerary. We liked Pleven because it has a lovely town centre which is pedestrianized and has lots of open-air street cafes and bars, giving the place a great atmosphere. Plus this place wins the award for best kebab of the trip so far – we had two each! The next stop was Veliko Tarnovo, a gorgeous little town that snakes around a steep gorge in central Bulgaria. A bit more touristy, but with good reason, there is plenty to see and do here, and lots of rooftop cafes and bars with splendid views for the evening time. After leaving Veliko we had our first major mechanical failure that we couldn’t fix ourselves (5 snapped spokes on the derailleur side of Christine’s bike), but the day was saved by a collection of strangers who between them gave us a lift to a garage at a nearby town, where the bike was speedily fixed, all for no cost to us. I’m sorry to say I can’t see that happening back at home!
We then moved onto a small town called Sozopol on the Black Sea coast, which is really very beautiful. We had some great accommodation here, and ended up spending 3 full days relaxing by the beach. It was great to get to the Black Sea as it was the first coastline we had reached, plus the weather was great so we had some very refreshing dunks in the sea. Definitely felt like we were on holiday! Although we were sorry to leave Sozopol, it was exciting to move on towards Istanbul, a thriving cultural metropolis and the junction between Europe and Asia. We have been here for a week now while we sort out our Iranian and Uzbekistan visas (don’t we all just love bureaucracy!), get some work done to our bikes, and catch up both with other cycle tourists that we have met along the way, and friends from back home who are flying out to meet us. A well-deserved break, we hope you agree!
The most common question that we have been asked both before we left and along the journey is ‘why are you doing this trip?’. Before the trip got going the best answer we could give was something along the lines of ‘we want to see the world’, but without being entirely sure what we would see or whether we would like it! Now that the trip is properly underway it is much clearer that we are not just seeing the world, but well and truly experiencing it, and that that is what the trip is all about. Next on the itinerary is Iran and Central Asia; no doubt the going will be much harder physically in these regions (think big mountains and deserts, high temperatures, not to mentioning cycling in full Islamic dress…!), but to be honest we are both excited about the challenges that lie ahead. Bring it on!