Here you can find all of our posts from leg one of the trip in one place, starting with a summary of the whole leg:
London to Istanbul – Summary – 27 May 2010
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!
Turkish Delight – 26 May 2010
Sorry for the rather naff title for this post but I’m afraid I couldn’t resist! As you might have guessed, we have made it to Istanbul in Turkey, and so are officially at the end of leg one of the trip. Leg two will take us all the way through Iran and Central Asia to Kashgar in Tibet/China, so it feels like the adventure really starts here.
It is some time since we last wrote, to be honest we don’t have much of an excuse for that other than the fact that we had a rather lovely time in Bulgaria and got rather relaxed! After Pleven we headed through the countryside to Veliko Tarnovo. An interesting ride as the weather was rather thundery and we had several moments where we seriously considered taking shelter under a tree to avoid being the highest object around. But in general we were able to see the storms coming and to watch them from a distance, really quite spectacular. Veliko Tarnovo is a lovely little town that clings to the side of a gorge in central Bulgaria. Rather touristy, but not too much, and for a good reason; the setting is wonderful and the town itself has been well maintained, with lots of pretty little cobbled streets and old buildings. Plus there is a plethora of rooftop bars and restaurants which is really rather civilized, particularly after a couple of nights of wild camping. We had another day off here, during which we walked to a village called Arbanasi about 4km away. Almost all uphill, but the views were spectacular from the top, and we had a lovely long lunch admiring the view. Walking downhill afterwards felt really rather slow though! I should take this opportunity to recommend the hostel we stayed in in Veliko; it is called the Nomad’s Hostel and is a great hostel, complete with a nice balcony with a good view. The staff are very friendly and welcoming, and gave us a great send-off when we left.
We were planning on reaching our second destination – Sozopol on the Black Sea coast – in two days, but this wasn’t quite to be. We had cycled about 50km through some rather hilly countryside, and through a thunderstorm complete with torrential rain (although the rain was actually rather welcome as it had been rather hot before), when just as we were tackling a rather steep hill Christine’s bike made a rather alarming crunching noise and came to a complete stop. Closer inspection revealed that the chain had come off at the back and had got caught in the wheel, snapping 5 spokes in the process. We can only assume that the limit screws had come loose over time, as their function is to stop this happening. Thankfully we realized almost immediately what had happened, as if Christine had carried on riding the bike the back wheel would almost certainly have been ruined. Unfortunately, although we carry spare spokes to cover spokes snapping, we had made the decision before we left not to carry the necessary equipment to remove the rear cassette as it is rather heavy and we didn’t expect to need it (a cassette removal tool and chain whip, which is what you need to to replace spokes on the derailleur side of the wheel), and so were unable to fix the bike ourselves. So we walked 2 km to a main road (we are glad the accident didn’t happen earlier when we were 10km or more from the main road as the road we were on was literally deserted) and stuck out our thumbs. Now when I say main road, this is Bulgaria, and that equates to a vehicle every 5 minutes or so. The first 3 didn’t stop and we were getting concerned that we might be there for some time, but then a small van stopped and, courtesy of the mini-phrasebook that we had compiled for every country (which includes the phrases ‘we are having trouble cycling, can we have a lift to the next town please’, and ‘our bicycles are broken, is there a bicycle repair shop nearby?’), we were able to communicate the problem to them. The only thing was their vehicle was too small for us and our bikes, so they kindly flagged down the next psasing vehicle, and between the two vehicles we and our bikes were transported to a garage 15km away. We weren’t convinced that the garage would be able to help us, seeing as it was a car garage not a bike shop, and were preparing to be told that we would have to take a train or a bus back to Veliko Tarnovo or even further. However, the mechanics were clearly very practical guys and had no trouble disassembling the wheel and improvising a method of removing the rear cassette so the spokes could be replaced. The whole process took over an hour but at the end they wouldn’t take any payment for their work which was very kind of them. All in all, although it set us back a day, we were very glad to have had the experience; it really is this sort of thing that cycle touring is all about.
The next day we continued on, taking two days to reach the coast. The weather was very hot – over 30c – so we were really looking forward to a splash in the sea. The riding was quite hard going, although the map implied the route should be pretty flat, it was in fact undulating the entire way, which gets quite tiring in the heat. A highlight of the ride was when we stopped for a drink in a village called Dimcevo about 30km from Sozopol. We sat down in a cafe, and when it was realized that we were British, someone ran off to get someone else that lives in the village; we assumed that it was just someone that spoke English, but in fact it was another British person who happened to be living in the village! We had a nice chat, and had our first offer of free accommodation which was very kind but we decided to decline as we were very keen to get to the sea, seeing as it was so hot. So we carried on, hoping to find a campsite by the beach. This wasn’t to be, however. Bulgarian’s clearly are’t really into camping (to give you an idea, in France there are over 2500 registered campsites, Bulgaria isn’t that much smaller, but has less than 50 campsites), and the three campsites we found were closed until June 1st. Quite annoying as it took quite a bit of time and cycling to estabish this. In the end we gave up and went into Sozopol to find a hostel that we had been recommended by the owners of the hostel in Veliko Tarnovo. And I have to say we were very glad we ended up doing this and not campng. The managers of Yo-Ho hostel in Sozopol – Stefan and Toni – knew from the people in Veliko that we might be coming by, and really went out their way to make us feel welcome. In particular, because the hostel was very quiet, they kindly gave us the best private room – complete with balcony with amazing view and a nice kitchenette – for the price of a dorm. We were only planning on staying for a night or two but ended up staying for four! We didn’t do an awful lot while we were in Sozopol but it was great to have a few days properly relaxing. On one of the days, Stefan kindly invited us along on a trip with some of his friends. The purpose of the trip was to investigate places along the coast for day trips from the hostel later on in the summer when it is busier. We visited a couple of wildlife reserves, then spent the afternoon at a bay that we had to ourselves because it is quite hard to get to – a 20 minute walk from the road – the sort of place we would never have found by ourselves. A fire was lit to cook some food for lunch while we went for a walk around the bay and took a dip in the sea. The dip didn’t last long though as the water was rather chilly, and more to the point, Pete spotted a snake slithering off a rock into the water just as we got in! Needless to say we got out the water quite quickly!
The other highlight of Sozopol was our rather random brush with the Bulgarian media. Following the events with Christine’s bike described above, where we were really rather touched by the kindness of the people involved, Pete had the idea of sending an email to a Bulgarian news agency telling them about our trip and how much we were enjoying being in Bulgaria. We didn’t really expect anything to come of it, but several newspapers picked up on it and ran a story on us (including a photo culled from our website; see here for one of the stories: http://www.vesti.bg/?tid=40&oid=2977651). The articles included a link to our website, with the consequence that overnight the number of hits on our website went from around 7000 to over 14,000! Even better, a Bulgarian TV channel (TV+) got in touch asking for an interview! We gave them the number of the hostel we were staying in in Sozopol, and they came down the next morning with a film crew. They asked us some questions about our trip, our experiences in Bulgaria etc, and got some footage of us cycling around. All very random. The footage was apparently broadcast the next evening, but unfortunately we didn’t actually get to see it, so not sure if we made idiots of ourselves or not! All in all a memorable and amusing experience.
After Sozopol we cycled down the coast and then over the hills to Malko Tarnovo, where we wild camped before crossing the border into Turkey the next morning. The formalities were quite straight-forward at the border, and it was immediately apparent that we were in a different country by the quality of the roads. Bulgarian roads vary from reasonable to really quite atrocious, with pot holes big enough to swallow cars never mind destroying bikes if you are not careful. The road to the Turkish border is no exception, however the minute you cross the road widens into a 3-lane brand new highway with a huge hard shoulder, great for cycling. Slightly bizarrely though is the fact that there was virtually no traffic on the road – in the 40km to the first town, we passed at most 20 vehicles (in either direction) – making us wonder why they had invested so much money in such a wonderful road. We weren’t complaining though as we hit our top speed so far – 65.5km/h! Another feature of Turkey that became clear straight away was the friendliness of the people. We lost count quickly of the number of people beeping and waving, even leaning out their windows (while driving!) shouting ‘welcome’, and pulling up alongside to say hello and offer us a lift (which for the record we politely declined!). Really great. We also had our first experience of the Muslim hospitality that we have been told to expect. We were planning on wild camping, but had some trouble finding a spot because the land was quite agricultural. We found an area that looked ok by the side of a field and were about to set up camp when a car pulled up with a local farmer. Great, we thought, he is going to say we can’t camp here. We were right in some respects, he didn’t think we should camp there, but only because he thought we should stay as guests in his house instead. This took some time to convey as he didn’t speak a word of English, and we no Turkish; pictionary skills were required! I must admit that we were rather sceptical at first, assuming that payment would be demanded, so we made sure to ask ‘how much’, but he made it clear that no money was expected, so we happily packed up and followed him home. Not wanting to impose any more, we went out for dinner (proper Turkish kebab!), but when we returned they invited us in to the living room for coffee and baklava and biscuits, well it would have been rude to refuse wouldn’t it?! Slightly awkward because of the language barrier, but we showed them the pictures of our families and of London that we have with us, which we think they appreciated, and they showed us pictures of their children, and they taught us some words of Turkish. All in all a thoroughly enjoyable evening, certainly an experience that will stay with us. The next morning the guy even got in his car and led us out the village to make sure we went the right way – very kind.
We then continued in the direction of Istanbul. We had an idea that we wouldn’t get all the way in on our bikes, seeing as Istanbul is legendary for being a huge (over 17 million people live here) and sprawling city, with horrendous traffic on fast, big roads. We were right, but it was even worse than we expected. We got as far as a town called Corlu, which is still 100km away from Istanbul, but already it was clear that it was going to be one big conurbation all the way, and the roads were becoming practically suicidal to ride on. So we did the sensible thing and got on a bus to the centre of Istanbul – some may call it cheating but I hope most people will appreciate we didn’t have much of a choice! Istanbul’s otogar (bus station) is still 13km out of town, and clearly motorway was the only option to get in to the town centre, so we checked out the metro system for the last part – quite interesting taking our fully-loaded bikes on escalators but other than that it was no problem. We still had 4km from the nearest metro station to our hostel, not very far but it took us over an hour courtesy of atrocious traffic (and I mean atroicious; makes London at rush hour seem like a quiet country village!) and difficult navigation; old Istanbul is all narrow, hilly, windy, cobbled streets. Not only that, but our GPS, which we were using to navigate through the centre, did its best to take us off the main roads, but with the unfortunate consequence that it directed us right through the Grand Bazaar! As anyone who has been to Istanbul will know, this is one of the biggest covered markets in Europe, with over 4000 stalls on narrow alleyways and inevitably with hordes of people. By the time we realized what was happening the lanes were too narrow for us to turn around, and we ended up having to get security to escort us through! Amusing in hindsight! So we were very glad to reach our hostel, where we headed up to the roof terrace to enjoy a well-deserved beer overlooking the Bosphorus towards Asia. Quite a smug feeling knowing we had cycled all the way to the tip of Europe!
Istanbul is wonderful, absolutely worth a visit. The architecture is not only stunning but totally different to what we are used to in the West, with amazing mosques all over the place. There is also a very vibrant feel about the city too, and it is great just wandering around taking in the atmosphere, having the odd cup of chay (tea) and the occasional (well, ok not so occasional!) kebab. What is also great for us is that we are here at the same time as other cycle tourists that we know either from the UK (Dean, who fell off his bike in Bratislava and broke his arm, but who has impressively recovered quickly and got back on his bike within 3 weeks, and absolutely caned it through Serbia and Bulgaria to catch up with us!), or who we met along the way (Ollie and Tom). We are all staying very close to each other so have been spending time exchanging stories about our trip so far, as well as sorting out practicalities for the next part of the trip. So far this has included visiting the Iranian embassy to apply for our visas – we all had our applications approved so are now waiting for the paperwork to be completed – a frustratingly slow process, and one which set us back over $150 each, seems like daylight robbery but obviously it is an unavoidable cost. They have also retained our passports while they are doing this, very annoying as we are also aiming to get our Uzbek visas in Istanbul, but can’t even submit our applications until we have our passports back from the Iranian embassy. Because of these practicalities we will be spending almost 2 weeks in Istanbul (hopefully no longer, but that depends on the Uzbek visa…). However that is not a disaster as Istanbul is a nice place to spend time, and we are in a nice hostel which helps. Plus we have some friends coming out tomorrow for a few days, which we are really looking forward to. Even better we realized the other day that the grand prix is being held in Istanbul this weekend, and we have been able to get tickets to go. None of us are really into motor sport but it should be a great experience and a fun day out, can’t wait.
Anyway this post is quite long enough so I will leave it there. From here we follow the Black Sea coast for a couple of weeks before heading inland down to the Iranian border. The hills are going to get bigger and the temperatures are going to increase as we head East, so we are a little nervous about how we are going to cope. So watch this space to find out!
Well isn’t time flying. Today (9th May) marks 6 weeks since we left our house in London. In some ways it doesn’t feel like we have been going that long, but in many other ways our lives back in London almost feel like a lifetime ago. It has to be said that although we miss a few specific things such as friends and family, overall neither of us is sure why we were nervous about starting the trip, so far it is proving to be a great experience. Anyway we are now in a town called Pleven in Northern Bulgaria. After Belgrade we headed south east, taking 2.5 days to reach the Bulgarian border. It was a hard couple of days though, because we encountered our first serious hills since the Black Forest in Germany. Indeed on the second day we had a long afternoon with 10km of solid uphill to a pass at 900m. Admittedly this is nothing compared to what we will face in Turkey/Iran/Central Asia, but hard going nonethless. However the physical exertion was countered by great scenery, nice weather and good roads with hardly any traffic. A further bonus was that at the end of the first day, when we were fully expecting to wild camp as we were pretty much in the middle of nowhere, out of the blue appeared a brand spanking new thermal spa hotel complex. It advertised camping, but it turned out that the campsite wasn’t ready yet, however it was only 30 euros for a room in the hotel so we decided to treat ourselves. The hotel had several pools both inside and out as well as a jacuzzi and mud bath so we had a nice relaxing evening. The hotel manager was also very helpful, thankfully he spoke quite good English and was very interested to talk to us which was nice. Apparently we were the first tourists from Western Europe to visit the hotel and so were something of a novelty. We even thought about staying for a second night but couldn’t because we didn’t have enough cash and they don’t take plastic – the hotel manager was very apologetic about this, explaining that they don’t even have a phone line yet because they are out in the mountains.
The next night we were able to find an actual campsite – quite an achievement considering that according to the Serbian tourist board there are only 12 registered campsites in the whole country; when you consider that Serbia is bigger than Wales it seems that camping is not a popular pastime here. The campsite we did find (15km north of Bor, for anyone that is interested!) wasn’t that great either, its main downfall being that the owner has 3 dogs who wander about freely and take it upon themselves to guard the loo block, baring their teeth and growling aggressively to all those who dare try to pass. Pete and I resorted to visiting the loo block together as it was quite scary going alone! To be fair to the owner, having dogs wandering freely seems to be par for the course in the countryside. Not great for cyclists as dogs absolutely love to chase us, and we have already lost count of the times that we have had to put in a sprint effort to get away. We are learning that avoiding eye contact and not making any sudden moves helps, but nonetheless we have ordered a Dog Dazer (a small device that emits an ultrasonic sound unpleasant for dogs) for my friend Sarah to bring out when she comes to meet us in Istanbul. Hopefully this will help us ward off future dog attacks.
The Serbian/Bulgarian border was a bit strange, being well manned but eerily quiet. Indeed on the 11km road that connects the last Serbian town with the border, we didn’t see a single vehicle. Currency exchange proved to be a bit of an issue here – because we knew it might be a day or two before we reached an ATM in Bulgaria, we took out a reasonable amount of cash on our last day in Serbia, with the intention of changing it at the border. However not only was it impossible to change Serbian dinar directly into Bulgarian lev – we had to change the dinar into euros, then euros into lev – right scam – they only had 25 euros worth of lev at the border! We took all of it, so I hope nobody else wanted to change money that day. Thankfully Bulgaria is a very cheap country and that gave us more than enough money to last until Belogradcik, where we were able to take more out. Belogradcik proved to be a pleasant surprise – we were treating it only as a stopover, but ended up taking a rest day there as it is in a beautiful location and is surrounded by fantastic rock formations (check out the photos), as well as having a fortress that was worth spending time at. It was a small but friendly town and we were glad we ended up there. Our visit was also well timed in terms of weather, because it had been rather humid for several days and in the afternoon of our rest day the heavens opened and there was an almighty thunderstorm which lasted for hours – would not have wanted to be out in that! The stop also gave us time to fix one of the two gear failures which both happened on the previous day – first one of the cleat clamps (not sure of the technical term) on one of Christine’s pedals came loose and fell off before she noticed, meaning that now she cannot use the cleats on her right pedal (not a disaster but a tad irritating), then later on during a particularly pot-holed downhill bit of road one side of Pete’s front pannier rack collapsed (considering that the rack was new for the trip, we are not impressed). Thank goodness for bungee cords which meant we were able to attach the affected pannier to the back of Pete’s bike until we were able to fix the rack using a combination of gaffer tape, cable ties and a couple of bits of wood. Hopefully it will last until Istanbul where we should be able to get it replaced.
The weather was fine the next day so we cycled on. We spent another night wild camping courtesy again of a non-existent campsite (it has happened several times that campsites marked on maps turn out not to exist, quite annoying really), unfortunately we didn’t pick the best spot because the track we followed was a lot more muddy than it looked so everything was quickly caked in mud. To make matters worse, just after we had off-loaded all the bags we spotted a dead sheep in the bushes right next to where we were hoping to camp! Needless to say we moved further up the track! We then moved onto a town called Pleven which although not particularly exciting from a tourist perspective is really very pleasant, with a lovely centre which is pedestrianised and filled with street cafes and fountains. The plan was to move on today, but when we woke up it was pouring with rain so we decided to stay put another day – we are a little ahead of schedule for meeting up with our friends in Istanbul so no problem to do this – and have spent a lazy day sleeping, eating, visiting the mall to do some shopping and try the massage chairs (50p for 5 mins, couldn’t say no!), and just generally chilling out. Plus we have found a strong contendor for best kebab of the trip so far, which we will probably be having for dinner again tonight!
Tomorrow we move on to Veliko Tarnovo, which is meant to be a very pretty little town, and then onto the Black Sea where hopefully we will have time for a day or two on the beach before heading into Istanbul. We recently applied for our Iranian and Uzbekistan visas, which we hope to pick up in Istanbul if approved, so are crossing our fingers and toes that they come through ok otherwise a radical route rethink will be required – wish us luck please!
Dondering down the Danube Part Two – May 1 2010
Having said goodbye to Christine’s parents in Vienna, we pedalled on to Bratislava in Slovakia. The distance is only about 40 miles or so, so only took us half a day, but what a difference. Whereas Vienna is full of amazing buildings that are very well preserved, as well as generally being immaculate with good quality public facilities, Bratislava is rather grey and run-down with a very Soviet-style era feel to it. The roads are mostly in a terrible condition, and it turns out that a couple of days earlier Dean, who we first met in the UK and who is doing a similar trip to us (but was a couple of days ahead of us at this point) got his front wheel caught in a tram line, fell off and broke his arm. Not good at all. Our sympathy is slightly limited though by the news that he has headed off to India to enjoy some beaches and cheap beer while his arm recovers, before returning to Bratislava to continue the trip. We hope he is having a good time and that the recovery goes ok! Needless to say we were very careful cycling around the centre of town.
I don’t wish to sound all negative about Bratislava though, it does have a very charming old quarter with lots of nice bars and restaurants, and a well-preserved castle which provides a great view over the city. It also has a lively nightlife and very cheap beer, with the consequence that hordes of stag do descend at the weekends, mostly from the UK it seems. We experienced this first hand as we were there on a Friday night – doesn’t make you proud to be British! All in all certainly an interesting city to visit, but perhaps not at the weekend if possible!
The following day we cycled out of Bratislava with Matt, a fellow cyclist currently on a similar itinerary to us, and with his Slovakian host (via couchsurfer), who kindly cycled with us for the first 30km or so – very useful as otherwise we might have got lost! It took us two days to get to Budapest, firstly along the river and some countryside on the Slovakian side, then through Hungarian countryside and some more riverside. We spent the night at a town called Komarom, which was great because it has thermal spring baths, with several campsites nearby. It was certainly nice to spend some time soaking in thermal waters after a long day’s cycling! The following day into Budapest included the pleasant town of Estzertom, known for its architecture as the Rome of Hungaria, as well as the ‘Scenic Knee’ of the Danube, basically a big bend in the river north of Budapest which is particularly picturesque. The weather was great- summer has officially arrived – so it was a very pleasant couple of days. Arriving into Budapest was somewhat chaotic because it was a Sunday, the weather was great, and there had been a huge cycling event in Budapest the day before. Consequently the bike path north of Budapest, as far as the pretty little town of Szentendre, was absolutely mobbed by people getting out of the city, mostly on their bicycles. All very nice but a little hard work when you actually want to get somewhere! Rather than get stressed we decided to do as the locals were doing and stop for a cold beer to avoid the worst of the rush. Once installed at a hostel in Budapest we met up with Ollie and Tom, who we mentioned in previous blogs – it was good to catch up and hear about their experiences. We then had 2 days off the bikes, during which time we explored the city and generally relaxed – most welcome! Budapest is a lovely city with lots of impressive architecture and a pleasant chilled-out feel to it. One of the highlights for us was visiting one of the many thermal spas in the city – we went to the ones in the main park, and were very impressed. The complex is housed in an old but well-preserved ornate building, and includes around 20 pools of varying temperatures both inside and outside, as well as saunas and steam rooms etc. And all for around £10 each for the day! We took something to read and just relaxed. So much so that at one point we both dozed off in one of the warm pools!
After Budapest we headed south, with the intention of reaching Serbia via Kecskemet and Szeged, but this was not to be – turns out the road we wanted to cycle on is barred to cyclists (not sure why, it is not that busy). Unfortunately we only found out after not one but two police cars (complete with blue flashing lights!) pulled us over – bit of a heart stopping moment but they were very nice and even spent 5 minutes poring over our map working out the best alternative route. Turns out they did us a favour, as the minor roads we ended up on were much nicer and virtually free of traffic, making the extra distance the diversion entailed well worthwhile. Even better we found another thermal spring campsite to stay at for the first night.
In general southern Hungary is really rather pleasant, the part we cycled through is a great wide plain which although completely flat still manages to be quite scenic and pretty, without being too agricultural. The whole area has an extremely rural air about it, but you are never too far from a town with well-stocked shops (including Tesco hypermarkets which quite randomly are everywhere in Slovakia and Hungary, complete with Tesco own brand food) and most other things you might need. Serbia has been a little differerent. We reached the border at lunchtime on the second day, and had our first proper border crossing complete with stamp in passport. When you think about it, it is quite impressive that we have come this far and this was the first time anybody had looked at our passports, aside from a cursory glance in Dover. No doubt we will miss how easy it has been travelling from country to country from now on! We arrived almost immediately in Subotica, which is nice enough, but it quickly became clear that Serbians aren’t too fussed about putting up road signs; they just seem to assume everybody knows where they are going. I can only assume they don’t get too many visitors. To make matters worse, our GPS mapping system doesn’t include Serbia (actually, it is meant to include major towns and roads, but it has hardly any detail even in central Belgrade, I will be having a discussion with Garmin about that!), so we had to ask for directions several times to get us out of Subotica. Even then we ended up on a diversion – not impressed! Since then the roads have been better signposted, although now we are in Belgrade it is a nightmare because the street names are only in Cyrillic – everywhere else signs are in both the Cyrillic and Roman alphabets – we don’t understand the Cyrillic alphabet so the only way to get round is to establish where we are (usually by asking) then to count the blocks in the right direction – great fun! Anyway, northern Serbia is much like southern Hungary i.e., very flat, but much more agricultural so not so great to look at. To make it worse, we had a headwind the whole way to Belgrade, which was hard work. However we did see lots of great wildlife, particularly huge storks and enormous hares. We also had our first night wild camping – not intentional, we were aiming for a campsite marked on our map, but it turned out not to exist. Not a problem as we are perfectly well equipped to wild camp, and the weather is great (30c every day, 10-15c at night – did I already mention that?!), so we found a nice spot and set up camp in time to watch a lovely sunset. Had a bit of a fright later on in the night though, we were very close to a railway line which we knew was in use, but didn’t necessarily expect trains on it at night; some time after going to sleep we were awakened by a deafening noise and a bright light as a huge freight train rushed by, giving us both heart attacks!
The next day we pushed onto Belgrade, a very long day (155km with a headwind = sore everything and tired legs!), but it meant we arrived a day earlier than planned so we have 2 days off here which is good. Also we had been warned not to cycle today because it is a big national holiday in Serbia, and apparently the roads are likely to be full of drunk drivers! Not sure how true this is, but definitely a good incentive for pushing on and getting in and off the roads a day early. Our first impressions of Belgrade were not good – the last 10km or so into the city were very industrial, busy and polluted, not what you want at the end of a long day. Plus then we had the navigational issues mentioned earlier. However now we are here and have recovered it is a lot more pleasant. The old town and fortress are nice to wander round, and provide great views of the surrounding area, which is quite pretty as Belgrade is at the confluence of two rivers. We spent today pottering around and treated ourselves to a leisurely lunch in an open-air cafe – things are so much cheaper here it is much more feasible to do that sort of thing from time to time which is nice. We then went to the park for an ice-cream and a snooze, very relaxing! Because of the holiday it seems the whole of Belgrade was out doing a similar thing so we also spent quite a bit of time people-watching. Some other entertainment has come in the form of the official Belgrade tourist guide, which is rather refreshingly honest in places, e.g., ‘Belgrade is a fairly safe place. There is not a single part of the city where a girl should not be walking on her own in the middle of the night. However, hazards do exist. In particular, while strolling round the old town, beware of the bits and pieces that may fall off the buildings awaiting their restoration’. ‘Unless you have a penchant for the Dakar rally experience, you had better abandon the idea of driving round Belgrade.’ ‘Doctors and medical staff in state-run hospitals are professional and reliable. The worrisome part are poor maintenance of the hospitals, a result of insufficient funds. If you are ill, you are advised to see a private doctor in order to avoid an agonizing wait’. ‘The toilets in this restaurant are best avoided unless in an emergency.’ I could go on, all in all quite amusing.
Next on our itinerary we head East over the mountains (not looking forward to this) into Bulgaria, which we cycle all the way across until we reach the Black Sea and Turkey. And then leg one of the trip will be complete!
Dondering down the Danube – April 22 2010
Since leaving Stuttgart we cycled down to Ulm, a lovely old university town, where we picked up the Donauradweg, a bike path that runs all the way from Ulm (which is near the start of the Danube) to Vienna, Budapest and onto the end of the Danube at the black sea. We took several days to complete the first section from Ulm to Passau, which was pleasant but not signposted well enough, resulting in lots of zig-zagging, some backtracking and even some unintentional off-roading through a forest! Nonetheless it was an enjoyable few days, particularly because of the lovely and well-preserved Bavarian style towns that we passed through, such as Donauworth, Ingolstatd and Regensburg. Ingolstatd stands out because of the youth hostel we stayed in, which was housed in a wonderful old fortress. According to the attendant, the room we stayed in used to house a cannon! The weather was mostly reasonably kind to us, apart from on the day that we cycled from Regensburg to Passau. At over 120km, this was one of our longer days. It was going fine until lunchtime – the path was smooth and flat and we had a bit of a tailwind so we were flying along – but then the heavens opened. I can honestly say that the rain we experienced for the final 2 hours of the ride was the most torrential I have ever seen other than in movies. To top it off, it was accompanied by regular hailstorms and even a thunderstorm! However it did encourage us to cycle fast and we arrived into passau in record time, albeit looking like drowned rats. We had planned on camping but decided that the youth hostel was looking much more appealing, although just typical it was located at the top of the highest point for around, with gradient to reach it – ouch!
We had a day off the bikes in Passau, where we met up with Christine’s parents who came out to spend a week cycling from Passau to Vienna with us. Thankfully they had booked the train rather than the plane to get there and back, otherwise they might not have been able to come out after all. We then spent 6 days cycling the route, which was fabulous. That section of the Donauradweg is the best known and is indeed the most popular cycle route in Europe, because it is very scenic and incorporates numerous historic and pretty towns and villages. Even better it was completely flat, which combined with the fact the fact that we were cycling at a rather leisurely pace, staying in guesthouses rather than camping (courtesy of Christine’s parents who kindly treated us to our accommodation all week) and having numerous coffee stops, made for a nice relaxing week. It was nice to do the route in the off-season, as the path apparently becomes very busy during the peak season – think the M25 in rush hour but with bicycles – as it was we only saw a few other cycle tourists.Quite amusingly however, the cyclists we did see we kept bumpign into. In fact this was to beome a feature of the week. In Passau we found ourselves sharing a dorm with a couple of guys that we had met in a campsite just outside of Ulm a few days earlier, who are doing a similar trip and who left the UK the day before us. We also met up with Dean, who also left the UK shortly before us on a similar trip and who it transpired was in Passau at the same time. Dean was cycling with an American guy called Matt, and we kept bumping into them all the way to Vienna, which was great. And we also ran into Greg, who we met in a hostel in Saarbrucken a week or two earlier. Remarkably, all of these meetings were completely coincidental! We hope to meet up with some of these guys again later on in the trip, and are definitely looking forward to swapping stories.
We arrived in Vienna this morning and will spend tomorrow sightseeing. It feels a bit funny to be here because we were here for a long weekend just six months ago – although we flew last time! Still can’t quite believe we have cycled all the way here. After leaving here we will head to Bratislava and onto Budapest, and then into Serbia and so forth – the list of countries that we have visited is growing fast!
Au revoir saucisson, guten tag schnitzel! April 9 2010
Well, we made it as far as Germany! Since we last wrote, we left Valenciennes and cycled for a further 4 days through France until reaching Saarbrucken in southwest Germany. The scenery improved significantly as we moved into the Ardennes region, however we struggled to appreciate it because the weather took a turn for the worse. The temperature dropped to around 5c during the day and 0c or less at night (on the one night we camped we woke up with frost on the tent!), it poured with rain and the wind continued to threaten to blow us over. Typical April weather admittedly, but not much fun when on a bike all day. Needless to say we ended up blowing the budget and staying in cheap hotels rather than camping (no youth hostels or any other type of cheap accommodation in sight). We figured this was a good time to have a day off the bikes – after all, we had by this stage cycled 300 miles in 6 days straight – and so spent a day holed up in a hotel in Charleville-de-Mezieres, doing laundry, sleeping, eating, and watching TV – heaven! The next day we pounded out a good 150km – helped by both fresh legs and a tailwind for the last 50km or so – but it took 10 hours and we were in the freezing rain all day, hard going. By the time we reached our destination (Thionville) we were both completely soaking and freezing cold, and so our original plan of camping to even out the budget was abandoned and we looked for a hotel. However the first hotel we tried took one look at us and announced they were full! Thankfully we got lucky with the second hotel, and I can safely say never have a hot shower, radiator and comfy bed been so welcome!
But what a difference a day can make. The next day we woke up to glorious sunshine and spent a lovely day coasting through the beautiful hills of the Moselle valley – definitely the sort of day that cycle touring is all about. The roads were smooth and fast and there was very little traffic. There were lots of killer uphills but equally lots of fantastic downhills – at one stage the cycle computer on Pete’s bike recorded 64.8 km/h, above the local speed limit of 50 km/h tut-tut! Almost a shame there wasn’t a speed camera to capture the big grins on our faces! Late in the afternoon we crossed into Germany, but with no fanfare – there wasn’t even a sign to take a photo of and the only way we knew we had crossed the border was because it was marked on the map. After leaving Saarbrucken, we had 2 very hot and sunny days – 30c in the sun at one point! Very pleasant, but cue the onset of comedy tan lines – my personal favourite are the ones on our faces from cycle helmet straps! After crossing the Rhine, we went across the black forest – very scenic but very hilly! In less than 24 hours our total ascent was over 1500m, that’s somewhat higher than Ben Nevis! By the time we got to Stuttgart, our current location, we were definitely ready for a rest day. Next we head down to Ulm where we pick up the Danube, which we will be following all the way until Belgrade. Christine’s parents will be joining us for a week from Passau to Vienna which we are very much looking forward to.
Low-flying wheelie bins – March 31, 2010
So we are now in valenciennes, which for those of you less familiar with the geography of france (like us!) is approx 50km south of lille, in NW france. after leaving canterbury we had a very foggy and rather scary ride to dover – we literally had the option of very hilly, muddy and narrow country lanes, complete with tractors, or the very fast A2. why is everybody going to dover in such a hurry! ended up pelting down the A2 to get off it before becoming road-kill ourselves, thankfully didn’t take us long and the last part is lovely as it is a great big downhill. had a final burger in the ferry terminal and acomedy p hoto of us lined up with the lorries ready to board the ferry – you might think they would have a separate lane for bikes! honestly, the more I cycle abroad the more I realise how unenlightened we are in the UK vis cycling. Anyway, calais needs no introduction or discussion, needless to say we were soon free-wheeling in the direction of St Omer, our first stop. it got windy and hilly towards the end, and seeing as we had cycled 100km (after 100km the day before) we were glad to find a campsite (albeit rather grotty) and set up camp. after dinner it started pouring down so we holed up in the tent and watched 24(the wonders of technology – I am so glad we bought this laptop with us!) until we fell asleep – didnt take long. we were the only people in the campsite whcih was handy seeing as it was raining the next morning so we decided to cook our porridge and have our tea in the shower block, better than being outside! then we were off to lille, another longish day (60km or so) and a good sleep in the very spartan but warm and comfortable YHA. have to say wasn’t that impressed with lille, we had a cycle round and unless we missed something ie the town centre, there isn’t much to see.
today was another 60km to a small but pretty town called valenciennes. the day started badly for pete when he managed to do the classic not-taking-his-foot-out-the-pedal-in-time-and-falling-over-sideways-while- stationary manoevure (at this point pete would like to point out that it wasn’t his fault, he does know how to use cleats, it was because his panniers were unevenly loaded. which apparently wasn’t his fault). thankfully he wasn’treally hurt, only one plaster was required, and even his pride is intact as no-one saw other than me. unlike in vietnam last year when I did exactly the same thing but into a muddy puddle in front of a rvestaurant full of bemused vietnamese people – now that was embarrassing! anyway the main issue with todaywas the wind – so much of it it was actually scary, despite our weighed down bikes we kept almost being blown into the middle of the road – thankfully there was little traffic. the day got better though when the wind turned into a tailwind and we flew along (with the odd low-flying wheelie-bin for company), arriving at our destination feeling relaxed and with plenty of time to do things like blog-writing.
Talking of fitness, overall, despite our combined lack of fitness at the start we seem to have been coping remarkably well with the cycling. Admittedly this has probably been helped by the pancake-like nature of the landscape! But all praise for my saddle (a Brooks leather one), I haven’t so much as winced gettign on it in the mornings. We have also been eating well, or just lots – we have discovered the ideal lunch for cycle tourists, pain frites (chip butty to you or me). carb-tastic!
The wind is due to continue for a few days yet so we are giong to take it slightly easier than planned as it is not going to be a tailwind any longer and a headwind is very hard work. Have been skirting the border of belgium and will probably be popping into luxembourg at some point in the next fewdays but mainly will be staying in france, bring on the pain frites! hope you are all well and that those of you in the UK aren’t too cold!
Day one – March 28, 2010
Well, we made it to the canterbury, albeit feeling quite tired! The day started eventfully when we realised that pete had a puncture just before we were about to leave – bad luck or what! probably the result of over-zealous pumping on pete’s part last night. anyway, with that fixed we were sent on our way by our friends Sarah, Helen and Amanda who impressively came round at 8.30 having stayed up all night following a trip to the ministry of sound – they weren’t looking too happy but sent us off in style anyway
we were lucky with the weather, a bit cloudy but no rain and even a tailwind for some of it! the main problem today was the distance – the route I had got from a cycling forum was supposed to be about 55 miles, but after an interesting unplanned diversion around faversham (the local council really needs to improve its cycle sign provision!) and an another long and interesting diversion courtesy of our gps, which we switched on after the faversham debacle (to be fair to the gps it is set up to avoid main roads, it just seems there aren’t many non-main roads around here, necessitating long deviations), we ended up cycling over 70 miles. And kent is hilly!
Needless to say we were very glad to reach the lovely kipps hostel in Canterbury, where the staff are very friendly, the facilities great and the beds comfy (pete is currently asleep!). we are planning on having a big dinner then an early night. tomorrow should be somewhat less taxing, with an 18 mile trip to dover (following the main road this time!), a ferry ride then 20 or so miles to St Omer where we plan to camp.
All in all it is great to be off, we have been planning this for so long, even when it was just an idea, it was fab to hit the open road this morning. Hope everybody is well and looking forward to monday morning!