Bulgaria: enjoying a mini-holiday on the Black Sea!
We entered Bulgaria just as we would later leave it: there was no-one at the border points to control our passports. As we illegally entered the country we were greeted by endless fields of rape and poppies. The road was fairly good, but unlike Romania the villages and cities were far apart, which made the cycling slightly more relaxed and therefore enjoyable. As we approached Balchik we turned off the main road and were rewarded with a beautiful view of the coastal cliffs. We had planned to stay at the camping ground in the city but then remembered that it was our five-year anniversary that day so we decided to treat ourselves to something a bit nicer. We ended up booking ourselves in the Bohemia hotel, a quaint little place run by an Englishman, and then enjoyed a celebratory dinner by the sea front. As I woke up the next morning, ready for another day of riding, Angela informed me that she was sick again so we agreed to stay in Balchik one more day so that she could recover. Just as well, since it gave us time to visit the lovely botanical gardens and watch some of the French Open on TV. We decided to make up for the lost time by pushing hard the following two days, hoping to cover more than 200km. Why that sudden hurry you might ask? Well, before we left Vienna in March, our friends Tanya and Chris checked out our route and realised that we would be cycling right by their condo on the Black Sea. Since no-one would be staying there at the time of our arrival, they generously offered us to have a mini beach-holiday in their nice little apartment.
On the first day we rode 105km, passed the city of Varna, but were told that none of the campsites that were indicated on our map actually existed. Luckily I managed to get a hotel room in a three-star hotel for only 13€. Bargain. On the second day we crossed a range of low-mountains before reaching Nesebar, a historical town situated on a small peninsula and part of the UNESCO World Heritage sites. We wandered around the narrow little streets for one hour before having lunch and pushing forward towards Burgas. There we followed the coast on a brand new cycle lane (the first real cycled lane we’d seen since leaving Kazimierz) before getting back on the main road and painfully getting through those last 30 km on a big motorway and a strong headwind. Eventually we arrived in Sozopol and found Chris and Tanya’s condo around seven in the evening. We were knackered, after having cycled 220km and climbed more than 2000m, but delighted at the prospect of chilling out by the beach!
We had an amazing time at the condo, enjoying some swimming, blogging, watching movies and visiting Sozopol. One evening as we were finishing a delicious dinner at a cliff-side restaurant, we even got to see a group of dolphins swimming and jumping around in the bay below. Great times. So great that the two days we had planned on spending there quickly turned into five… But we had to move on if we wanted to see any of Turkey, so in the morning of the sixth day we reluctantly gave the apartment keys back to the manager and hopped on our bikes again, feeling a bit down but ready to climb the low mountains separating Turkey from Bulgaria. If only we’d known what was awaiting us, it wouldn’t have been so hard to leave Sozopol!
– The Black Sea is quite clear, warm and not too salty (we even saw a dog drinking water directly from it)!
– The delicious fish!
– It’s the cheapest country we’ve cycled through in Europe.
– Balchik:good vibes and relaxed city.
– Some dead-ugly beach-resort cities.
– Almost getting run over in Sozopol on my way to the shop… That time it was my fault though.
Turkey: why didn’t we plan more time here?????
After one last night wild camping in Bulgaria, we climbed the last few kilometres and reached the border at the top of a big hill shortly before midday. I just needed to get my passport stamped but Angela had to buy a visa (another reason why being a frog is better than a rosbif). Once on the Turkish side we expected the road to be an easy-peasy downhill all the way to the city of Kirklareli, but soon realised that it was going to be another one of those up and down rides that we love so much. It was hard-going and damn hot, but we enjoyed the landscape, which had changed drastically since the morning:the dark green hills on the Bulgarian side had been replaced by bright yellow ones, covered here and there by pines trees. As we reached the top of one of the many hills, I turned around and asked Angela in German if she was OK, as we quite often do (Alles klar Angie?). A few seconds later a man waved at us and asked in German where we were heading to. I waved at him and shouted “Istanbul” back as we started going downhill again. Half an hour later, at the top of another hill, a car stopped in front of us and the same man stepped out of it, asking us where we’re from. Before we even had time to finish explaining our trip he told us to follow him as he wanted to invite us for a few drinks. We stopped at a road-side restaurant and he ordered us drinks AND food. His name is Tuncar and he comes from Kirklareli but worked almost 30 years in Germany. He is now retired and enjoys a sweet life in Turkey with his German pension. Before we managed to finish our plates he told us that we could stay at his apartment for the night if we wanted to. So generous.
The same day we met up with Celil, the friend of a Warmshowers member who unfortunately wasn’t there when we arrived. He introduced us to his friends and together we enjoyed a friendly and interesting conversation around cups of Cay. They introduced us to Kiwi Cay, a warm, green and jello-tasting drink which we became so fond of in Turkey. English was obviously not on their curriculum but luckily Furkan, who dreams of one day going to England or the USA, spoke it perfectly and acted as our translator with everyone else. Later in the evening they threw a last minute dinner together, just for us, with delicious Turkish food, Raki and turnip juice. I can’t say I liked those last two very much but we both felt honoured and had a wonderful time with them. So just like that, out of nowhere, we spent the night at a stranger’s house and were invited by young students for dinner. All this on our first day. Way to welcome us Turkey!
After a night in a hotel in Uzunköprü (I felt rubbish after not wearing my hat in the sun all day), we arrived in Kesan, where another Warmshowers host had arranged for us to stay at his dad’s farm. As we waited in the shade for our host to arrive, we suddenly spotted two cycle tourists riding up the farm’s driveway. Enter Kath and Andrew, from New Zealand, who we ended up cycling with all the way to Istanbul. Kath found a job as a teacher in Madrid and both of them decided to come to Europe early and cycle from Madrid to Istanbul (or so they thought). They were also heading towards the Gallipoli Peninsula so we decided to stick together the next day. Apparently they wanted to visit some places important in Kiwi history: battlefields and cemeteries was it? Anyway, something to do with sending an army of sheep over to Europe during the First World War… Just kidding. As a matter of fact, the Peninsula was the scene of many important battles during the First World War, between the Allies (French, English, Australians and New Zealanders) and the Turks. When the Allies failed to reach Istanbul through the Bosphorus (at the time named Constantinople) and secure a sea route to Russia they decided to give it a try over the Peninsula. That failed as well but the British like to remind everyone that they managed to organise a successful stealthy retreat, with minimal casualties. Typical.
After a tough climb in the morning we were rewarded with a beautiful view of the Peninsula, on the other side of the hills. In the afternoon we reached the southern side of Gallipoli and a feeling of excitement overwhelmed us as we spotted the Bosporus and the Asian side of Turkey for the first time. That evening we were once again fooled by our maps regarding the location of a potential camping site. Luckily we found one further down the road, at a little restaurant right by the Bosporus (although we ended up pitching our tents in the property next door without realising it). After a short cycle the next morning we arrived in Eceabat, our base while exploring the sights of the Peninsula. In the afternoon we all cycled north to Anzac Cove where Kath and Andrew visited the memorial and some of the many Australian and New Zealand cemeteries. It was the hottest so far since the beginning of the trip, but we cooled our bodies off in the sea as we snorkeled to the shipwreck a hundred metres off the North Beach. The next day everyone decided that their legs were hurting and that they should take a day off, so I cycled to the tip of the Peninsula all by myself. Half-way through the cycle I thought I might regret it, but the landscape was magnificent and visiting the beautiful French cemetery and Abide, the Turkish war memorial, were definitely worth the effort. Eceabat was also the place where we discovered the wonders of Turkish cuisine: Balik Ekmek (fish kebab) and Baklava (Turkish pastries) were top on the list of dishes that fattened me up in Turkey…
The next morning we caught the 8AM ferry to Cannakale on the other side of the Dardanelles and tried to stay off the main road and follow the coast as closely as possible. Although it probably added a good 30km to our route, it was quiet and pretty, and allowed us to stop in small cafes for tea. Every time the local men would invite us to their table and we would chat for half an hour before hitting the road again. And every time one of those men would pay for our teas and refuse any money in return. This was the Saturday before the big Turkish parliament elections and as we turned onto yet another small road we came face to face with a convoy of at least a hundred cars rallying through the villages for the right-wing party. The mood was cheerful and the honking deafening as they passed us by, handing us Turkish and party flags. A few kilometres later, as we cycled passed a rally for the opposition, I glanced back nervously at my panniers to make sure that the flags we got from the first rally were not sticking out (the right wing party ended up winning those elections. No surprise really, their rally had at least twice as many cars as the opposition one!). That evening we went through our habit of looking for a campsite that was on our map but didn’t actually exist. Eventually in one of the little towns we spotted a shop inside a hotel. They confirmed that there was no campsite within a 50km radius but I noticed that the hotel had a nice piece of lawn right in front of the beach so I asked whether we could just camp there. The lady who owned the family hotel agreed right away and wouldn’t take any money from us in exchange. She opened one of the rooms to give us access to toilets and a shower and even brought us tea and cake as we set up the tents. We all agreed that the least we could do in return was to have breakfast at the hotel the next morning. After a swim in the sea and a football game against the lady’s son and his friends (Turkey 5 – New Zealand/France 4) we all went to bed feeling happy after another great day in Turkey. The next evening, after an uneventful day of cycling, we tried our camping luck again, this time directly by the beach of the little holiday town that Kath had spotted from the road. At the bar we found an old Turkish man who spoke German (he had also worked in Germany for many years) and who introduced us to the manager of the place. Once again we were offered to camp by the beach for free and had an amazing evening swimming in the calm sea and watching a beautiful sunset. After a morning of cycling in the rain the next day (our first proper rain since departing Poland) we reached the city of Bandirma, where we bought our ferry tickets to Istanbul and checked into a cheap hotel.
Arriving in Istanbul felt unreal! As we left the ferry we cycled straight up to the Blue Mosque for celebration photos and then down to Eminonu for a last Balik Ekmek together before splitting up and joining our respective Warmshowers’ hosts: Kath and Andrew further up the Bosphorus and Ange and I in Kadikoy over on the Asian side. We spent three days there with our friendly host Keremcan, exploring this less-touristy part of town on foot and by bike, chilling out and watching movies and series in bed. After popping over to the European side for a stroll around the spice bazaar, I spotted a familiar face wandering through the stalls but wasn’t sure if it was maybe just my imagination playing tricks on me. When I noticed the bike panniers hanging from the shoulder I had to go over and ask! I wasn’t crazy after all, this was indeed Ed Nicholson, an old Nottingham University classmate who I hadn’t seen probably since graduating back in 2004. He and his girlfriend had taken three months off to cycle from England to Istanbul. What a small world!
On our fourth day in Istanbul we packed our panniers, said goodbye to Keremcan and crossed over to Sultanahmet back on the European side. My parents were joining us for four days and had booked two hotel rooms for all of us in a nice hotel! Thanks mum and dad! Even my sister Alex decided to tag along without informing us and I did my best to hide my surprise when she snuck up from behind to surprise me. We had a lovely time together, catching up with news from home, visiting the main Istanbul attractions and enjoying delicious restaurant food in the evenings. Time flew by quickly and before we knew it, it was time to say goodbye again. I knew it was coming yet I still felt extremely down when we hopped on the shuttle to the airport to catch our plane to Uzbekistan. I was sad to leave my parents of course but I also couldn’t stop thinking about what lay ahead of us: a whole new adventure was about to begin in Central Asia and it made me freaking nervous…
I could go on and on here!
– People’s friendliness and generosity
– The delicious food
– Istanbul, particularly the Kadikoy area, the Cisterns and Aya Sofia.
– The beautiful Gallipoli Peninsula
– Catching up with my parents and Alex (shame B wasn’t here)
– Cycling a week with Kath and Andrew. Hoped you enjoyed it as much as we did guys!
– Putting all the weight that I had lost since the beginning of the trip back on in Turkey (actually, now that I think of it, this one should be placed in “The Good”…).
– The fact that all the main roads are being transformed into motorways. Unfortunately for cyclists the secondary road-network isn’t very dense so most of the time there are not many alternatives…
– Getting only Angela’s Kazakhstan Visa back in time, although we applied together!
– The fact that everyone thought that my dad was Turkish in Istanbul. When getting to a main attraction the security would direct him straight to the queue for “locals only”. At one time in Aya Sofia he pretended to control tickets as my sister walked past him. She played along and handed her ticket over, and a group of girls behind us turned back in order to look for theirs! Too funny.
– At some point Angela put her helmet on back to front without even realising… She must have been tired, but Kath put little “front” and “back” stickers on the helmet that night without her realising at first, to make sure it wouldn’t happen again!