Monthly Archives: September 2015

28 & 29 September – to Budapest and a rest day

At the last-minute I decided to have a day off in Budapest. It seemed a shame to pass straight through the city without stopping to do some sightseeing, and besides, I needed to do some washing.

It was supposed to be relatively short and easy ride from Solt to Budapest, however it turned into a bit of an adventure due to a few wrong turnings! Here is my route and stats:

–>28 September – to Budapest (93km)
Sometimes you have days which turn into more of an adventure than anticipated. Thankfully I’d had a very good night’s sleep and breakfast at the Eurovelo6 Stop, in Solt, thus I was able to cope with all the route threw at me, as I pedalled off following the Eurovelo 6 signs.

My hosts had informed me the road got a little bumpy for about 15km, but was generally alright; at least that’s what I think they said, my Hungarian isn’t great, and their English was limited. What they actually meant was the route went off-road, along a grassy track through fields, on top of a dyke type thing. This turned out to be hard work, especially into a headwind, resulting in a fair amount of cursing with only the occasional sheep to hear my plaintive cries. This was day 3 of the headwind incidentally, so it was getting a little tedious.

I didn’t see many other people on the track, just the occasional shepherd or farmer, and then a small group of women resting in sleeping bags down on one side of the levee, with their bikes nearby; I’m not quite sure what was going on, but they looked comfy and waved. Eventually I found a road again, or rather a muddy track, that runs alongside the Danube for quite a way, past a lot of riverside houses and fishing spots. It was pleasant riding, even if I had to dodge a lot of potholes and got a bit grimy.

I must have missed a Eurovelo 6 sign at some point, or they ran out, because I ended up on route 51. The main road was pretty busy, however I can deal with most busy roads after tackling Istanbul. What I couldn’t really deal with were the ‘no cycling’ signs that appeared after a while, and persisted, forcing me to turn off route 51 to try to find an alternative road to Budapest. In my efforts to try to relocate Eurovelo 6 I traversed several muddy farmer’s tracks, that my Garmin device informed me were roads. These tracks deteriorated into trails, until I ended up pushing my bike for about 500m through verdant vegetation before reaching a semi-paved track again. It was fairly tough going, but a good adventure, and satisfying to not have to turn around. I was once again glad of Smaug; tough Expedition bike from Oxford Bike Works that can cope with most things.

After passing a lot of barking dogs, but none that chased me, I rejoined main roads to Budapest.  It was a fairly easy ride into the city, and I located my hostel on the ‘Pest’ side of the river without any trouble; had photos of the hostel location on my phone. Hostel Unity is conveniently situated in the centre of the pub/bar/restaurant area of Budapest, however I hadn’t realised it’s on the third floor of a large building. I had to take my panniers off and transport them, then my bike, up in the lift, however it was all worth it as the hostel turned out to be very welcoming, friendly and helpful. It was also quite quiet, the busy season having just about come to an end.

After checking in I went for a wander around the local area, passing a whole host of drinking and eating venues, all of which looked good. I eventually chose one at random (Reds), and had some Hungarian food, including a great beef stew. The beer was also very welcome after today’s adventures.

Feeling very full I waddled back to the hostel and spent the rest of the evening relaxing and chatting with a few other guests, including Danny from Bristol, who is randomly travelling around Europe for a few months; random travelling is the best way I reckon. As usual there were also a few folks from the US and Australia, on tours of European cities, all good people to chat to.

On the spur of the moment I decided to have a day off in Budapest, as it seemed a shame just to pass straight through the city without having a look around, and I needed to do some washing anyway. Budapest is another one of those cities I got a good feeling about, after only a short while; it’s a bit weird how quickly you can tell whether you’re going to like somewhere or not, must be something to do with the atmosphere, people, and city dynamics. Budapest turned out to be great.

Oh, and good news, my nephew liked the lego I sent him for his birthday, marvellous!

–> 29 September – a rest day in Budapest
After a bit of a lie in, which I’m not very good at any more, I got up and had the all included hostel breakfast, then chilled out for a couple of hours, reading, writing and catching up on the news. I also got some much-needed washing done; maybe the last washing needed before getting back to the UK!

Unity hostel isn’t far from a music college, and you can hear the students practising; some were better than others. The day was bright and sunny, so after studying the map I set out to explore Budapest, or rather ‘Pest’, as the ‘Buda’ bit of the city is over the other side of the river and I didn’t really have time to go there too. To start off with I headed up to Hero’s Square, grabbing a Gyros kebab for lunch on the way; very tasty, and cheap.

If you get bored with photos I apologise, I took rather a lot today. Hero’s Square is good to visit, with statues of past leaders, including Arpad, who I mentioned in a past blog post; he was the leader of the tribes that founded Hungary. There are lots of other statues of people in various heroic poses.

After Hero’s Square I walked up to the Turkish Spa, and took a look inside the foyer. It’s supposed to be very good, however looked a little pricey, and in any case Lobster was getting nervous about all the hot water so we had to make a swift exit.

After a break in the park, where I read my friend Simon’s latest chapters from the SciFi novel he’s writing (check is out for free here), I walked down Andrassy Street to the House of Terror. I didn’t going into the museum, as the tour takes at least a couple of hours, however it was very interesting to read the stories on boards outside. It was also quite chilling, sending a shiver down my spine, as I read about the thousands of people the Soviets carted off to work in Gulags indefinitely, after the Second World War. So many of them died, never to see their homeland again, and so many were imprisoned for spurious or no real reason. The prisoners were treated horrifically, often being beaten to death if they couldn’t work or walk; animals were treated more humanely! I may have the stats wrong but of the 700,000 people transported to forced labour camps, around 300,000 died, and most weren’t repatriated for years. You can almost sense the ghosts of these people as you stand outside the building. The last person was repatriated in 2000, after being discovered in a mental hospital in Russia; he wasn’t mentally ill, he just couldn’t speak any Russian.

It’s hard to take in just how badly the Soviet regime treated much of the population in Eastern Europe, after the Second World War, and something that probably isn’t taught or talked about as much as Nazi atrocities; think it deserves to be, and these victims remembered. I hope the human race can learn from these past events, especially in light of what is going on at the moment in the Middle East and elsewhere.

After a somewhat sobering experience I was in need of something a little lighter, so after a hot chocolate I randomly stopped at the Opera House and decided to take the tour, which included a mini concert. It turned out to be a great experience, and something really different for me. I’m convinced to go and see more theatre, and take in an opera, when I get back to the UK.

The Hungarian State Opera House building is extremely ornate, and was built in 19th century, partly financed by the Emperor Franz Joseph, and partly by the city itself. The Emperor decreed that the Opera House shouldn’t be any bigger than the one in Vienna, and was somewhat alarmed when he saw it of the first time and realised it was probably more splendid.

The interior of the building is magnificent, with sweeping staircases, elaborately carved paneling, busts of composers or other famous people around every corner, as well as lots of great paintings and frescos. The main auditorium is decked out in gold leaf, with a central chandelier illuminating the space; it takes several hours to lower the chandelier, by hand (30 strong blokes) and change all the light bulbs. There are grates under the seats that let cool air up into the auditorium; they used to put ice blocks down there to provide air-conditioning, however things have moved on now. Unlike many of the buildings in Budapest the Opera House wasn’t damaged during the war. A bomb did fall through on to the stage, but it didn’t explode.

The mini concert on the staircase at the end was very entertaining, with a female opera singer doing a couple of numbers. It was a new experience to hear such powerful singing live, and I very much enjoyed it; as mentioned I will be endeavouring to see more musicals and hopefully an opera when I get back to the UK – would love to see Aida.

With the daylight hours getting shorter it wasn’t long before the sun was due to set after I left the opera house, and I was pretty hungry after all the walking about, so I grabbed a hot dog then headed back to he hostel to relax.

Mexican hotdog, just because

Mexican hotdog, just because

There’s still a lot more Budapest has to offer, so I think I’m going to have to put it on the list of places to come back to. This list is getting a bit long now, and I’m not sure how I’m going to balance it versus wanting to see completely new places, however Budapest will definitely rank near the top.

After a great day off I spent the evening doing some planning, and chatting with more guests, including an Australian Expedition leader who takes kids on one or two-week long expeditions all around the world, and traveller from Brazil just finishing his European Tour. Bruno from Brazil has confirmed that South America is a must visit place, although I think it’ll take about 6 months to see it properly…arrggghh…I need more lifetime.

Reckon I’ve got about 1,000 miles to go to the English channel,  so perhaps 2 more weeks riding until I’m back on British soil. This is exciting, but also a little saddening that things are coming to an end. I am however really looking forward to seeing friends and family again soon 🙂

25 to 27 September 2015 – Belgrade, Somber into Hungary

Routes and stats for the last few days below:

A few more big cycling days, and now I’m in Hungary; country number 22 of the tour!

–> 25 September – to Belgrade (144km)
My tent got battered by squalls overnight. The wind really shook my tent, and the rain was quite heavy at points, however no leaks to report. I’m not sure how the stray dog faired however he was still there in the morning, and wagging his tail enthusiastically. The campsite cat wasn’t so enthusiastic about his presence, however they seemed to reach a détente of sorts; the dog soon learnt that sticking his nose at the cat wasn’t a good plan!

After a breakfast of bread, honey and cheese, I pedalled off towards Belgrade after tucking some money under the campsite office door, to keep my karma all balanced. The stray dog attempted to follow me for a couple of kilometres, obviously having decided to join my ‘pack’, however he had to give up after a bit – very good effort though. I think he was quite a young dog, and pretty lonely. I do feel sorry for all the strays around, and something needs to be done about it in several of the countries I’ve passed through; it’s nice when they’re friendly, however more often than not they’re aggressive and alarming.

I rode out of the last bit of the Iron Gates gorge, and then through the fortress guarding the entrance to the gorge near Golubac. The fortress is pretty imposing, and the road runs straight through its lower level. I think it’s been the site of the many battles over the course several centuries, for example between the Ottoman and Hungarian Empires.

Over the course of the day I passed a lot of activity in the countryside, with people out collecting  walnuts or harvesting fruit, or using scythes to cut back vegetation and grass; had to be careful not to lose something vital on the back-swings. I followed the Eurovelo 6 route for a bit, to Veliko Gradiste, then somehow missed a signpost, which worked out alright as I continued on the more direct main road; this probably saved me about 20km on my way to Belgrade.

Today’s ride wasn’t as exciting as yesterday’s, but at least it was fairly flat until the last 30km. The latter 30km proved to be fairly hilly and tiring, however i made it to Belgrade and to Hostel Hedonist without any trouble. The hostel gave me a warm welcome (thanks Philip), and was quite busy despite it being late in the year; I don’t think big city hostels are ever that quiet. With some campsites starting to close for the year I might need to start using hostels or hotels more, especially as there aren’t that many campsites in this part of the world. I could wild camp more, but that depends on suitable sites that aren’t going to be too obvious.

The hostel directed me to a local burger joint for dinner, which proved just what I was after; cheap, tasty, and with lots of calories. The Serbians seem to like their burgers, and produce some excellent quality meat patties. After dinner and a bit of a wander (forgot to take photos), I picked up a few supplies, then chilled out at the hostel with other guests, over a few beers and some honey rakia courtesy of the hosts. Despite there being a few drinking games going on I managed to get some writing done, and plan the next few days, before retreating to bed before things got too messy; good to meet and chat with more travellers again though, and amazing just how many Australian and New Zealanders I’m encountering.

As I retired for the night it started to rain very hard; hope it clears up for the morning!

–> 26 September – to Sombor (170km)
Staying in a hostel in a big city can be fun, but it can also be noisy, and thus I didn’t get the best night’s sleep. Several people were up drinking and chatting until very late, or very early depending on your perspective; 4 were still going when I got up at 06.30. Still, I’d had a fun night, and had avoided a hangover, so I set off towards Novi Sad and Sombor. I wasn’t sure exactly how far I’d get, and what the weather was going to be like, however it turned out to be a long ride and pretty wet for some of it.

It was chilly and damp as I pedalled to Novi Sad, and the road was slippery in places, encouraging stunt possibilities. My back wheel slid sideways when I had to brake hard on the outskirts of Belgrade, to avoid a car performing unexpected manoeuvres, however I managed to not fall off. There was only one big hill to deal with, just before Novi Sad, and the rest of the route was fairly flat. The road before Novi Sad was also very bumpy, reminding me a bit of parts of Belgium, with regular wrist jarring cracks, and some pretty serious pot holes to avoid.

Before reaching Novi Sad I rounded a corner and spotted not a bird, or a plane, but Super Cycling Man. I’d been wondering if I’d bump into Will Hodson, aka Super Cycling Man.  Will is on his way around the world by bike, aiming to pedal 100,000km across all 7 continents, over the course of 5 years, dressed as a superhero. You can check out his story on his website, as well as keep up-to-date on his progress:

It was great to chat for a bit, and compare mascots, although Travelling Lobster was slightly intimidated by Will’s mascot, Dave the Worm. Will’s an amazing bloke, and best of luck to him on his 5 year adventure; I find it hard to contemplate being on the road 5 years, however as I’ve said before you have to chunk it up into smaller sections, and not think about the whole thing; just live in the moment and enjoy all the varied experiences and people you meet.

Novi Sad was bigger than I expected, and very busy; I discovered latterly that it’s the 2nd largest city in Serbia. I crossed over the Danube as a big coal barge passed under the bridge.

Crossing the Danube in Novi Sad - huge coal barge

Crossing the Danube in Novi Sad – huge coal barge

Novi Sad was heavily bombed in 1999 by Nato, during the Kosovo war, and all the bridges over the river destroyed; not that long ago really. Today it’s hard to imagine all the fighting that went on over Kosovo, especially as all the people are so friendly.

There followed a very long ride through flat farmland, into a slight headwind, to Sombor near the Hungarian border. The ride reminded me of cycling from Cambridge to Norwich, through fenland and fields of crops. I was fairly bored by the end of the day, and quite frustrated due to the headwind making it feel like I was constantly pedalling uphill, despite it being flat.

If I get annoyed by a headwind at the moment, I remind myself that at least I’m not being blown backwards, unlike Sarah Outen who is rowing across the Atlantic at the moment, on the last leg of her expedition around the world. Sarah is having quite a hard time of it, with the wind being against her; must be incredibly difficult to keep motivated. You can check out her progress here:

One thing that Sarah doesn’t have to put up with though is dogs, although I imagine there are quite a few other animal hazards to contend with. I was chased 4 times by dogs today; once by 3 Jack Russell sized canines that I could have easily kicked into touch. I didn’t incidentally, however it was tempting.

Although I didn’t pass any other cycle tourers after Novi Sad, I did get plenty of waves and shouts of hello from locals as I rode along, and friendly beeps from passing cars, all of which helped me reach Sombor after 170km. I found the Long Tour Bike Camp, not far from the town centre, and checked in for the night. The Long Tour Bike Camp is a relatively new set up, catering specifically for cycle tourers. I received a very warm welcome from the hosts, and elected to stay in their guest apartment rather than pitch my tent for the night. Whilst still a work in progress it’s a brilliant set up, with a workshop where you can conduct any repairs you might need to perform, and the hosts able to offer route advice, including future accommodation options. As with all these places it’s the hosts that make it, and in this case they are both exceptionally welcoming, friendly and helpful.

After a long ride I was ready for some food, so I headed into town to forage for a few supplies and pizza; the latter was delicious. I guess now it’s getting colder, and I’m pedalling longer distances each day on my way back to the UK, I’m going to have to try and eat even more; could be tricky – I’ll buy more Haribo and chocolate!


A bit later on in the evening I met Jovan Erakovic, the architect of the Eurovelo 6 route in Serbia, and an accomplished cycle tourer himself; he’s friends with the hosts. It was good to swap tales and ideas for future tours. It was also very good to retire to a comfy bed, and needless to say it didn’t take me long to fall asleep.

–> 27 September – to Solt, Hungary (136km)
I felt refreshed and ready for another day’s riding in the morning, and would thoroughly recommend Long Tour Bike Camp if your passing that way by bike. They supplied me with an excellent breakfast; the first time I’ve had bacon in a long time, which made me very happy.

After signing their memory wall, alongside Super Cycling Man’s note who also stayed here, I set off for the border and Hungary, only 27km away. It didn’t take long to get there, and there were no issues crossing, and no sign of any migrants/refugees. There is a big razor wire fence that I believe has only been put up recently.

The border guards were checking cars pretty thoroughly, and asked me if I had any drugs or weapons; I wondered if I needed to declare Lobster, as he’s probably a health risk due badly needing a wash!

Once over the border it was a long flat cycle North to Solt, through Baja and a few other towns, as well as a lot more farmland. The ride was very similar to yesterday’s; flat, damp, crops and an irritating headwind which knocked a few kilometres per hour off my speed. At least the road wasn’t very busy, and there were a few cycle path sections, including a long one a the end of the day on top of a dyke. In one town I passed nets full of what I assume is Paprika, hung up to dry; loads of it.

Only got chased by dogs once today, so Hungary looking up on that front!

Once in Solt I found an ATM to withdraw some cash, getting a bit confused about the exchange rate, then found my planned accommodation for the night; Eurovelo 6 Stop. Eurovelo 6 Stop is another place catering for cycle tourers, and again I received a warm welcome. They have a nice little annex down at the bottom of their garden, with a few beds, kitchen and bathroom; suited me fine. They were in the process of celebrating their mother’s 85th birthday, with family visiting from Budapest; the grandchildren were busy helping harvest pears, as well as walnuts I think, from trees in the garden.

The shops are all closed in Hungary on Sundays, at least they are away from the big cities, so I elected for takeaway from a local restaurant which the hostess helped me order; pizza and a large Greek salad.

I finished the evening with glass of some kind of plum schnapps from the hosts, which did a great job of relaxing my muscles, and made me very sleepy. Everyone seems to brew their own spirits in this part of the world, and here was no exception; excellent stuff but pretty powerful.

Tomorrow it’s on to Budapest where I may have a rest day, before continuing on towards Vienna. I think I’m about 2 weeks away from the UK now, which feels a bit surreal, however I’ve still got some exciting bits of Europe to pedal through. Got a few plans for when I get back to the UK, but still fleshing them out; want to have some fun on home soil before going back to work. Back to work, now there’s a sobering thought!

23 & 24 September 2015 – to Serbia (Negotin) and the Iron Gates Gorge

Serbia is country number 21 on the tour, if I’ve counted correctly. It’s entirely possible I haven’t counted correctly, as I’m slightly tired after several long days cycling, however I’m still feeling fit and am enjoying the riding. I’m kind of pushing it at the moment to see how quickly I can make it back across Europe to the UK, with a view to possibly trying the Transcontinental Race next year, however I think I’m still a bit off the pace for that. Saying that the bike wouldn’t be as heavy, and the route more direct, for such an endeavour, so who knows.

Here are my routes and stats for the 23rd and 24th:

–> 23 September – to Negotin, Serbia (100km)
After a very pleasant night at the hotel Transimpex in Lom, I set my sights on Serbia, country number 21 of the tour! Slight calamity first thing; my honey bottle had leaked, causing a bit of a mess in my panniers, however once I’d cleared that up and finished my yoghurt and honey breakfast I set off, saying goodbye to the cycle tourer I met briefly last night, who is going the other way.

The road alongside the Danube towards Vidin is a tad on the bumpy side, causing a few occurrences of swearing when I hit bumps or potholes I hadn’t noticed, and you don’t really see the river for a lot of it. I did pass 4 cycle tourers going the other way, two from France and two on a tandem, all heading towards Turkey.

There were also a lot of heavy trucks on the road, however once past Vidin I made it to the border without incident. The crossing was very quiet, and I was soon through the Bulgarian checkpoint, saying hello to the bored looking guards and pedalling towards the Serbian side. On the way through ‘no mans land’ I stopped to help push a broken down taxi; it failed to bump-start, however we got it to the other side okay, then I had to walk back to get my bike.

The Eurovelo 6 route in Serbia is pretty well sign-posted, and I intend to follow most of it, just cutting out the odd meander where there’s a more direct route and I don’t miss anything interesting. It was only a short ride to get to Negotin, where I stopped or the night at Hostel Olimpik; another very friendly and comfortable hostel, that also provided dinner and breakfast, all for the inclusive price of about £12, bargain! I’d arrived in good time, especially since I’d gained an hour, so after a rest I went for a wander around town in search of ice cream and a few supplies.

I need to remember that it’ll get dark earlier now, especially since I’ve gained an hour, so I’ll need to start earlier to avoid having to cycle in the dark.

Another cycle tourer turned up a bit later, which provided some good company for the evening. Edi is Bulgarian, but has lived in Paris for the last 10 years, and is currently on his way to Sofia to meet his girlfriend before continuing to cycle around the world. You can follow his progress via his blog here:

Cycling around the world is quite an attractive prospect, and one that I’ve considered a number of times, however I think I’m going to stick with ‘shorter’ trips for the time being. Edi is going via Iran and then the Stans, which means having to get hold of several Visas, and remembering you can’t withdraw cash using VISA or MasterCard in Iran. He should be able to get an Iranian visa fairly easily, however it’s apparently difficult at the moment if you’re British or American.

It was good to relax and chat, and I’m excited about tomorrow when I head to the National Park alongside the Danube and the Iron Gates gorge.

–> 24 September – the Iron Gates Gorge (156km)
The mosquitos decided to attack overnight, which proved very irritating; both Edi and I broke out the repellent however I still got bitten several times. I still slept well, and breakfast set me up  well for a long ride; omelette, bread and jam.

I bid Edi goodbye and good luck on his ride South, and thanked Olivera the hostel hostess, before I pedalled off towards Kladova and the National Park. I set off at 08.30, however it felt later due to the clocks changing. After few hills I made it to Kladova, where the road swung North again, with Drobeta Turna Severin just across the river on the Romanian side. After a few more kilometres I made it the Iron Gates gorge and National Park. The gorge is the longest in Europe, at well over 100km, and has some Roman history with the Emperor Trajan having constructed a famous bridge over the Danube. The ride through the National Park and gorge was through some of the nicest scenery I’ve experienced in while, and made me realise how monotonous some of the roads have become recently lately.

Pedalling through inspiring countryside again did a lot motivate me, and provided a welcome distraction from thinking about the route ahead. The road was also fairly quiet, with little in the way of heavy traffic; just goats, cows, sheep, and frequent circling buzzards.

My ride was accompanied by the sound of cawing crows for a while; I was a little suspicious they were following me. I am always impressed by the intelligence of the Corvidae family, and it was interesting to see them dropping nuts on the road to crack their shells. I think they were attempting to get into Walnuts, there being a lot of Walnut trees in this part of the world.

It was relaxed riding today, with a lot of singing going on, leaving me in good spirits as I covered nearly 160km, with only about 3 significant climbs. I passed 11 other cycle tourers going the other way, with the usual waves and hellos, but none going my way; I think most people pedal South then either fly or catch a train back. I lost count of the number of tunnels I passed through, maybe 17, however they were all short and as such not suitable lairs for goblins or trolls, so Lobster stood down on guard duty. The tunnels were good fun from an echo point of view, enhancing my fine vocal talents no end.

I arrived at the campsite at about 17.00, which was deserted however the shower/toilet block was open, and the power on, so I thought maybe someone would be along later. As it turned out no humans appeared, however I was joined by a cat, and a bit later on by a dog; I think the latter was a stray however he was friendly enough, and slept next to my tent. I seem to be developing a tendency to attract stray dogs.

After a shower and some food, the sun quickly set, and I retreated to my tent to read and get an early night. Aside from the meowing cat, and latterly the snuffling dog, the campsite was very tranquil, however I did get woken up at about 23.00 as a few heavy squalls came through. The wind really shook my tent, and the rain was quite hard for a bit; thankfully no leaks!

Tomorrow I’ll push join to Belgrade for the night, before heading towards Hungary. I need to check the route and decide how close to the Croatia/Serbia border I go; might take a straighter route to Budapest, if it makes sense and doesn’t miss anything worth seeing.

21 & 22 September 2015 – to Sofia and Lom (Danube)

Still making good progress, and great to have arrived at the Danube River, which I can effectively cycle alongside all the way to Germany. I’ll follow Eurovelo 6, but with a few detours thrown in for good measure. To be honest I’m not entirely decided on my exact route, but it’ll be fun pedalling North West and seeing what presents itself.

Routes and for the last 2 days below:

–> 21 September 2015 – to Sofia
Despite a few beverages with fellow hostel guests the previous evening, I felt fine in the morning; must be all the cycling. I was up and had breakfast whilst most people were still sleeping, consuming yet more yoghurt, which has become a bit of a staple. I need to replace burnt calories effectively and healthily, and yoghurt is a good way to do it, or milk, as it also contains protein which helps repair my tired muscles.

After packing up and saying goodbye to Fabien, and the Japanese cycle tourer whose name I didn’t catch, I pedalled off towards Sofia, deciding against a rest day in favour of making more progress towards the Danube and home, especially whilst the weather is good. I’m really going to try to think only a few days ahead, even though I’m excited at the prospect of heading back to the UK; thinking about the whole route gets a little overwhelming, despite having covered over 8,000 miles already, and the distance back to Norwich only being about 1,900 miles.

On the outskirts of Pazardjik, the first big town after Plovdiv, I bumped into a Bulgarian cyclist on the way back from his allotment. We got chatting as we cycled along, with Boris explaining he had worked in the UK, but was back in Bulgaria for the time being. I also learnt that it’s law to wear a high vis vest whilst cycling outside cities in Bulgaria, but not in cities themselves, which is a bit odd and akin to the helmet law in Spain; I reckon I’m safe as my yellow cycling top is pretty bright anyway.

Boris - great to meet another friendly face on the road

Boris – great to meet another friendly face on the road

Boris guided me in to Pazardjik, showing me the best way through the city and back on to route 8. He also bought me lunch in the form of some fine meat products from a local cafe (Tiger Cafe); kebab like products which were very tasty when I stopped to eat them a bit later on. Boris insisted I take a couple of huge apples from his allotment to ensure a balanced diet, which proved very tasty, and all organic. Great to meet you Boris and thanks for the route tips and food, very kind of you.

The rest the ride to Sofia was quite lengthy, and involved a large climb, which thankfully was pretty gradual; bigger climb coming tomorrow so didn’t want to exhaust legs today. I was helped by the weather, with the sun staying behind clouds for a lot of the time, and even a bit of light rain keeping things fresh.

The route passes through some nice forest and small towns, alongside the motorway at times. Route 8 got very bumpy and potholed for one section, as it’s not used by cars much anymore, because they all use the motorway; passed quite a few horse and carts though. Boris had told me earlier that these are mostly the ‘gypsy’ folk, who are nice people but a distinct community; they all tended to give me a wave and say hello, especially the kids. I don’t know if it’s politically correct to label them as gypsies or not.

I had a few encounters with dogs today, but nothing too alarming. At one point 3 shepherd dogs spotted me from across a field, and sprinted about 300 metres to the road, barking maniacally. I was a little concerned when they showed no sign of slowing down, and at the speed they covered the distance towards me, however the lead dog proceeded to wipe out on the road verge, tumbling into the long grass, which caused them all to stop. This allowed me to escape un-molested, whilst they attempted to wander off and salvage some dignity; it was all a bit embarrassing for them.

After following route 8 for miles it ran out, and I had no option but to join the motorway for the few kilometres to reach the city. This wasn’t really an issue as the hard shoulder is wide, and the few police cars that passed me didn’t object. I pedalled into the busy city, past a lot of monuments and statues, then found Hostel Mostel near Makedonia Square. Several people at Hiker’s Hostel had recently stayed at Hostel Mostel, and recommended it. It’s a lot bigger and busier than some hostels I’ve stayed at, but did a great basic dinner, as well as breakfast, and all for about £8 (including a bed in the dorm) so you can’t really go wrong. It’s a great place to meet people too, or just to chill out after a long day in the saddle as was the case with me.

Having arrived a bit later than I usually like to stop, I relaxed for the evening, doing some planning and blog updates; good to catch up! I also did a bit of bike maintenance to fix squeaky pedals, which had begun to annoy me. Smaug seems to be bearing up well, however I’ll need to keep an eye on the tyres still.

Tomorrow I head for Lom and the Danube river, assuming I make it that far; there are some big mountains in the way.

–> 22 September – to Lom and the Danube
Going to experiment with a slightly different style on this blog post, and see if it works; writing in a different tense, which might suit converting into a book more – let me know if it works, or not as the case may be.

I had a good night’s sleep in the Hostel Mostel dormitory, in Sofia, with about 20 other people in the same room; after a long ride little keeps me awake. The hostel breakfast is excellent, including scrambled and hard-boiled eggs, fruit, bread and jam, all of which makes great cycling fuel. I have a feeling I’m going to need a lot of fuel today, with a long ride to the Danube ahead of me.

Avoiding the playful kittens I push my bike out on to the streets of Sofia, under overcast skies. It’s nice not to have to bother with suncream for a change, and to be riding in cooler temperatures. It doesn’t take long to pedal out of the city, and find route 81 heading North. The first part of the ride is fairly boring, through farmland and the occasional village, then the road starts to rise up into the mountains. I climb for several hours, with a few down sections providing a rest for my legs, however I know that means I’ll just need to go back up again, until I reach the top of the pass. My motto for the tour is turning into ‘there’s always another hill’.

I pass through a few small towns and villages, where people are selling honey or vegetables by the roadside, leading to a lot of friendly waves or hellos.  There are a few bothersome dogs, however in general the canines in Bulgaria don’t seem as aggressive compared with Turkey or Greece; often it seems like they just can’t be bothered. The road continues to meander through fields, before rising up into pine forest, then beech and silver birch. The beech forest is particularly beautiful, especially near the top where wisps of low cloud permeate the canopy. I start to hear music from somewhere as I near the top; it must be from the nearby village, however it was slightly confusing as the sound bounces off hills; quite bizarre in the otherwise peaceful setting.

The clouds draw in at the top of the climb, and it gets quite cold, a novel sensation after being so hot for a long time. I stop to catch my breath, next to a cloud smothered reservoir, before starting my descent. There’s a small cafe at the top with a few people sitting outside having drinks; I content myself with a banana and some Haribo.

After reaching 1,350m in height, the descent down the other side is going to be exciting. I pass through more beech forest, which proves more beautiful than the Southern side, especially once I emerge from the low cloud. I get the shivers for a few minutes, in the cold and damp conditions, the chill air seeming even colder when you’re travelling at speed. I whizz past a road cyclist going the other way, exchanging waves, then pause for moment to take in the beauty and tranquility of the area.

Thankfully the traffic has quieted down, so there is little to interrupt my fast descent, and reduced danger from cars or lorries in the low visibility. I spot a few people filling up water bottles from roadside springs; this seems very common in Bulgaria, with a lot villages having their own springs, which are apparently good to drink from.

After really enjoying the mountainous section, even if it was tiring, there follows a long and slightly monotonous ride to Lom and the Danube, across gently rolling farmland, and past the city of Montana. Montana was a possible overnight stop, however I decide to carry on, and am glad I did as it feels very good to reach the Danube, getting rd of some of the anxious and slightly sad feelings I’d been experiencing. As I enter Lom I spot a sign for the Eurovelo 6 route, which brings a smile to my face; this route should take me all the way to Germany!

I find the Hotel Transimpex right on the banks of the Danube, and it’s only 30 Leve for the night; about £11.20. This is still a bit more expensive than the last few previous stays, however I have Leve I need to use up, and figure it’s worth it to celebrate reaching the Danube. There’s a nice restaurant attached to the hotel where I have dinner, after a walk around town and a stop at a market to get supplies; important not to run out of Haribo.

I briefly meet another cycle tourer who turns up later in the evening, on her way down towards Romania, working on organic farms (WWOOF – look it up, sounds interesting). I expect to meet a few more cycle tourers now I’m on Eurovelo 6, so we’ll see what tomorrow brings as I head to Serbia, country number 21 of the tour.

18, 19 & 20 September 2015 – to Bulgaria, and heading for home

I forgot to mention the ‘lovely-jubbly’ man in my last blog post! He was stationed near the Basilica Restaurant chatting to tourists and inviting them to his shop. He must have watched a lot of Only Fools and Horses because he repeated the classic Del Bog phrase constantly; hearing ‘lovely-jubbly’ shouted down the busy Istanbul streets was a somewhat surreal experience.

It’s been 3 focused cycling days since Istanbul, as my mind turns towards getting home, however I need to remember to slow down a bit and enjoy the ride. I’m a bit nervous about the route, what with border closures and migrant/refugee issues being in the news a lot, however as yet I’ve not run into any difficulties, and think I’ll stick with my planned route up to the Danube, then following it to Germany.

Here are my routes and stats for the last few days:

–> 18 September – to Luleburgaz
I felt quite emotional leaving Istanbul and finally pointing my bike in the direction of home, after four and a half months on the road. I’ve still got a long way to go though, and need to concentrate on the next few days rather than what I’m doing when I get to the English Channel, otherwise it all gets a bit overwhelming.

Bike ready for the final leg home; leaving Istanbul and #bunk hostel

Bike ready for the final leg home; leaving Istanbul and #bunk hostel

After charging my energy reserves over a hostel breakfast, I packed up and bid goodbye to the #bunk hostel. I decided to pedal back along the coast to Silivri, then take the D100 North, rather than go via Saray; the latter a longer route, and more rural so increased chances of being molested by dogs.

The road out of Istanbul was just as busy as when I pedalled into the city a couple of days ago, although I did take a slightly more road-about route. I remained on high alert until I was well past the 3 lane chaos, with slip roads, buses, taxis and random driving all adding to the ‘fun’. The road has a lot of debris on it, which I think caused the puncture I noticed later on in the day; quite a slow one where a shard of glass had pierced my rear tyre. If I was using Schwalbe Marathon Plus tyres I doubt they’d have punctured, and I’ll keep an eye out for a shop selling them in a suitable size. Changing tyres will probably have to wait until Vienna; my current tyres should last until then anyway – they’d probably get me all the way home..maybe…best play it safe.

After about 80km I started to head away from the coast, and reached the town of Corlu, a possible destination for the night, however it was still early and I wasn’t feeling very tired to I decided to press on to Luleburgaz. The road continued to rise and fall over ongoing hills, meaning I ended up climbing a total of 1,466m today, over the case of 161km; I was helped by a bit of a tailwind, and a few ice-cream breaks. Whilst I felt strong physically, my mind was a little fragile due to thinking about getting back to the UK too much, as well as being anxious about the route and possible border closures. When I pedalled around the UK coast in 2013 I rarely had any sad days, however they’re a bit more common on this tour, as it’s been mentally harder, a well as longer; need to live in the moment more rather than looking ahead too much.

Despite a punctured rear tyre, which I had to stop and pump up a couple of times, I eventually made it to Luleburgaz and found a cheap hotel of the evening. Hotel Arda is a bargain at approximately £6 a night, although they could really do with cleaning the rooms occasionally; didn’t really bother me as only need somewhere to sleep, and the shower worked alright. The owner proudly informed me I was the 10th cycle tourer to stay at the hotel this year, and as such  qualified for free tea and coffee; shame I don’t drink caffeine. The hotel has hosted French, Canadian, German, British and American tourers, which isn’t that surprising seeing as it’s on the route to Istanbul and there isn’t a lot of choice if you need to stop in this area. Despite only speaking rudimentary English we managed quite a long conversation, and I was again struck by how friendly most people are in Turkey.

After mending my puncture, and phoning home which helped boost morale, I headed into town to find some food; very nice kebab, as well as a quick visit to a supermarket for a few supplies. I’m eating a lot of yoghurt at the moment, as it’ supplies a lot of energy and is reasonably healthy; also got some nice honey to add to it.

This should be my last night in Turkey, as I head over the border into Bulgaria tomorrow, as long as it’s not closed or blocked with refugees/migrants.

–>19 September – to Lyubimets, Bulgaria
Another day of not many photos as I remain focused on cycling; the scenery wasn’t particularly noteworthy in any case. I did pass a few cycle tourers going the other way, who all waved or shouted hello, but didn’t pass or get passed by any going my way; think a lot of people fly back once they’re reached Istanbul, if they’re not carrying on round the world.

I woke up at about 06.00 to the sound of early morning prayers at the local mosque, which were  pretty loud, and left me slightly confused as to where I was for a few moments. I’d slept very well until then, despite the slightly grotty room and several mosquitoes buzzing about and biting me.

The good news was my rear tyre was still inflated after I’d mended the puncture last night, which was a relief. If the fix hadn’t worked it would have most likely been flat by the morning, so one less thing to worry about. I set off on the road to the border with Bulgaria, the D100 again, passing through Edirne after about 50km, where there’d apparently been some migrant trouble. I didn’t see any trouble, or anyone that looked like migrants/refugees for that matter, however I think they’d all been moved to the border with Greece, or were on the motorway rather than the D100.

There were an awful lot of empty plastic bottles next to the roadside, which suggested a large volume of people had walked that way, however empty plastic  bottles next to the road are hardly an uncommon sight; people just throw them out of their car windows, which I find a very strange attitude.

I started to pass a long queue of lorries next to road-side, with a about 7km still to go to the border. I wondered if something was up, however the cars were still whizzing along. I stopped for a cold drink at a garage, and the attendant informed me it’s always like that; large number of lorries and smallish border.

It took me about 25 minutes to get through the border checks and into Bulgaria; I got a passport stamp for leaving Turkey, but not one for entering Bulgaria unfortunately, I guess because it’s an EU country. I did get sprayed with water/disinfectant as I pedalled through, which was a bit of a surprise, however the bike, and no doubt me, could do with a wash; I guess it’s a precaution to help prevent the spread of diseases such as foot and mouth.

After the border I joined route 8, a much quieter road and far more enjoyable, with more trees and more sympathetic countryside. At a truck stop I found an Exchange shop where I changed my remaining Turkish Lira into Bulgarian Leve, at a reasonable rate. It’s good to get rid of leftovers, as you tend to end up with a wallet full of currencies you can’t use anymore. Route 8 went a bit off-road at one point, and through a waste dump (most traffic is on the motorway), however I stuck with it and it was a nice ride to Lyubimets.

After an 80 mile ride I checked into Hotel Fantasy, stopping slightly earlier than has been normal. There are very few campsites in Bulgaria, that I can find anyway, so I’m likely to be staying in hostels or hotels for the duration, all of which seem to be cheaper than many of the campsites I’ve stayed at on Western Europe anyway! I might wild camp if I find a suitable spot, however as hotels/hostels are so cheap it’s just as easy to use them.

After washing my cycling gear, which was getting a little odorous, and a quick wander around town, I had a meal in the hotel restaurant, which was also very cheap, and a cold Bulgarian beer which was very pleasant.

I’m feeling a lot less anxious and relaxed now I’ve crossed into Bulgaria with no issues, and am making good progress. Whilst the language is hard, Bulgarian people are really friendly again; long may this trend continue. Aiming for the ancient city of Plovdiv tomorrow.

–> 20 September – to Plovdiv
Another reasonably long day in the saddle today, covering 131km to Plovdiv, and to another hostel for the night. Staying in hostels is great, as you generally get to meet lots of like-minded individuals, and even other cycle tourers. The Hiker’s Hostel in Plovdiv is a good example, and nice because it’s not massive, and has a courtyard where you can relax and chat to people; the beer is also cheap and cold.

Plovdiv itself is a fascinating old city, with loads to see. It’s origins can be traced back thousands of years, and from what I read it’s been invaded many times, by all sorts of people, who have all left their mark in the archaeology, much of which can still be seen. I didn’t do a lot of sight-seeing, as it was just nice to chill-out and chat for an evening; loads of different nationalities at the hotel including British, French, Australian, German, Czech, Austrian and Bulgarian. The host, Todo, was another friendly Bulgarian, who appeared a bit later on in the evening with some Rakia, a strong Bulgarian spirit, brewed by the locals, which left everyone smiling; there are variants of this all over the Balkans and down into Turkey.

To get to Plovdiv was a simple case of following route 8 again, from Lyubimets up through the countryside heading North West. I pedalled for about 7 hours, through more farmland, and small towns with roadside stalls selling produce; lots of squashes, and jam.

The road got busier latterly, and I spotted a few German cars heading North, probably returning home from holidays; strong to think they’ll make it to Germany in hours rather than days (admittedly a lot of hours). As with yesterday there were a couple of cycle tourers heading South who I waved to. After a cold drink/snack break at a garage I arrived on Plovdiv, pedalled about a bit trying to find the hostel, eventually went the right way, and checked in.

This post has gone a bit back-to-front, however needless to say I spent a very relaxed evening chatting to other guests. Conor, originally from Cumbria, is in the process of hitching back to the UK from Australia, no mean feat and some interesting stories, whilst Fabien is on his way back to Normandy from Greece. There was also a Japanese cycle tourer, who started in Estonia several weeks ago and is pedalling around Europe a bit, a German guy who makes his own music and is touring in his minibus, and Ming from Singapore. All interesting folks, and apologies for forgetting or misspelling any names! There were a few feisty political discussions, mostly revolving around the migrant situation, however it was all good debate and interesting that everyone mostly thinks the same thing. I even managed to get a bit of planning done in between chatting.

The Rakia definitely helped ease aching muscles; developing a slight twinge in my back that I’ll have to keep an eye on. Tomorrow I intend to head to Sofia, a long ride with a significant climb which will put me well on the way to the Danube; or I might have a rest day.

One last thing – heard about the Rila Monastery in Bulgaria, which sounds like a great place to visit; famous Eastern Orthodox monastery where you can stay. It’ll have to go on the list for a return visit, as is a bit off route, and majorly into the mountains!

16 & 17 September 2015 – rest days in Istanbul

Two days off in Istanbul, and I even managed a lie-in until about 08.30 each day! It was great to finally reach the city, after a long ride from Tarifa in Spain, and even longer from Nordkapp in Norway. It seems like a long time ago that I started this tour, at the beginning of May, however I still have about a month and a half to go, to pedal back to the UK, catch a ferry, and then back to Norwich via a few friends and family.

Back to Istanbul, somewhere I’d been thinking about visiting for a long time, however I was feeling pretty tired after some long days in the saddle, so I didn’t do much on day 1; blog updates, snooze, lunch, snooze, walkabout, snooze, more food…snooze.

I did manage to get out for a wander in the afternoon, taking in a few sights and walking over the river and back. When in a new city I like to just have a good ramble about, without any specific objective in mind, to get a feel for the place, taking in random sights, sounds and smells.

Istanbul really is where East meets West, with so many colours, cultures and contrasts; people in conservative Muslim dress to fashions you’d see on the streets of Paris or Milan. There are all the usual high street chain shops you’d expect, however the smaller shops, street vendors and bazaars are far more interesting, to me anyway.

It’s almost magical exploring the city for the first time, and finding out what’s down a narrow alley, around a jumbled corner, or through a crowded street market. There is of course loads of great food to be had, and lots to tempt you as you wander about; I opted for an Iskender Kebap in the evening, as recommended by my friend Hena. It was very nice, however I’m not sure it beats the kebab I had from Mr Kebab in St. Pauli, Hamburg; close thing however the latter was exceptional, also from a Turkish restaurant.

I spent the rest of the evening chilling out at the hostel, chatting with the hosts or other visitors; always good to meet new people.

Having not done a lot the previous day I was ready for some sightseeing, bracing myself to deal with crowds and queues. I’ve got a whole load of photos which will recount my day better than words.

I walked over the bridge to the Old Town, after energizing myself with another great hostel breakfast, then visited the Topkapi Palace and Harem, the Basilica Cistern, the Sultan Ahmet Mosque (Blue Mosque), and Grand Bazaar. I also just had a good explore, so all in all it wasn’t that surprising that I was exhausted by the end of the day; sightseeing far harder than pedalling, and walking uses legs differently to pedalling.

The Topkapi Palace is lavish and architecturally grand. It was a bit odd walking around the harem and reading about eunuchs and what life was like for the concubines; a different world!

After the relative quiet of the harem it was a lot more crowded in the main palace, and I didn’t have the patience to queue for all the exhibits, however needless to say it’s an amazing place, and a staggering testament to the Sultan’s wealth, power and influence.

Buildings like the kitchens were also really interesting, and the treasury, however you can’t take photos in them. There are whole rooms dedicated to making the royal confectionary; must have been some very good baklava. The treasury puts the crown jewels to shame, with artefacts and gifts from all around the world.

Whilst the palace is amazing, my favourite visit was the to the Basalica Cistern; the largest covered cistern in the city, which is known about anyway – I wonder what else lurks beneath Istanbul’s streets, yet to be discovered (hopefully not Cthulhu). The Cistern was built by Justinian I in 537, and is a must see if you visit Istanbul; it’s also nice and cool down there. It’s unclear why there are two medusa heads, and why they’re upside-down or sideways, but they’re very cool; could be positioned that way of luck, like they did on axe handles.

After the cistern I walked the short distance to the Sultan Ahmed/Ahmet Mosque, and had a sit down for half an hour waiting for prayers to finish – nice to listen to. It’s another building that’s very worth a look around, and great to visit a big mosque, rather than another cathedral; been to loads of them. You can also experience how important faith is in so many people’s live here, compared with for instance in the UK, where it takes a backseat for the most past. You have to take off your shoes to go inside, and no shorts allowed; I was pretty sure there’s a no lobster rule too so he got stashed in the bag with the shoes.

The last place on my list to visit in Istanbul, although you could spend days exploring further, was the Grand Bazaar; basically a huge shopping mall, but not in the modern sense. I think you could probably buy most things there, from antiques, to spices, leather goods, scarves, jewelery, food, tea and coffee, clothes, ornaments etc etc etc.

Needless to say my legs were shattered after all that walking, so I stopped at the Irish Bar on the way back to the hostel for a pint and some food. My last evening in Istanbul was spent planning and chatting, with a quick excursion for an aubergine kebab and some baklava; the kebab was good but again didn’t beat Hamburg. The Baklava was excellent and topped up my energy reserves for leaving in the morning.

Tomorrow I hit the road again, travelling North West on the final stage of my tour, back to the UK. There’s still around 2,000 miles to go, however I’m likely to be pretty focused on pedalling for a while, rather than sightseeing. I’m a  bit nervous about border closures, with all the migrant/refugee movements going on, however I’ll just have to keep abreast of developments and re-plan if necessary; I’m sure it’ll work out fine, and they’ll be time for some exploring once I reach the Danube.

15 September 2015 – to Istanbul

Istanbul. A city I’ve been thinking about visiting for years, and now I’m here. I’m finding it slightly surreal after 4.5 months on the road, and nearly 7,800 miles pedalled. Reaching Istanbul completes my second major objective of the tour, and is a great sense of achievement after being pretty nervous about the route; just goes to show that getting out of your comfort zone, and overcoming your fears, is a good thing, leading to some great experiences.

Here the link to my final leg:

I’m now on holiday for a few days before starting my journey back to the UK; a distance of about 2,100 miles to pedal, all the way back to Norwich. I’m intending to ride alongside the Danube for some of it – here’s my expected route:

Intended route from Istanbul to Norwich

Intended route from Istanbul to Norwich

If you fancy flying or catching a train out to join me pedalling for a few days, drop me an email. It should be a fun ride back through Europe, especially the bit alongside the Danube, pedalling literally through castles, and through more countries I haven’t been to before.

I haven’t done a stats update for a while, so here’s one:

  • Distance pedalled: 7,790 miles or 12,464km
  • Number of days: 135
  • Average distance per day (including rest days): approx 92km or 58 miles
  • Number of rest days: maybe 11, need to check, I lost track a bit when staying with friends in France. If I exclude rest days I’ve pedalled about 100km a day.
  • Number of punctures: 7
  • Number of new tyres: 2 – Schwalbe Marathon Plus finally wore out near Toulon. Got some Malamut tyres to replace them which seem to be working okay, but think they’ll wear out a lot quicker.
  • Number of new spokes: 6 (all at once due to chain slippage spoke mangling incident in Sweden)
  • Number of new chains and rear cassettes: 1 of each. Might need to replace again in Germany
  • Number of new saddles: 1 – the Brooks saddle has been a wonderful replacement
  • Min temperature: 0 degrees Celsius, although might’ve dipped below that some nights in Norway
  • Max temperatures: About 42 degrees Celsius in Spain
  • Windiest conditions: Denmark – about 5 hellish days of headwind
  • Favourite stop: With friends in France (Ardeche, Provence, Marseille), followed closely by Tarifa. Istanbul may yet rival.
  • Next target: Danube river then back to the UK in time for the Norwich beer festival
  • Most useful gadget: SP Dynamo Hub, for recharging my phone and Garmin
  • Friendliest country: Not had an unfriendly one, however Albania is winning at the moment; can’t count France as was with good friends there anyway!

–> 15 September – to Istanbul (140km)
I’ve heard the expression ‘the city that never sleeps’ applied to lots of places, however I think it truly fits Istanbul. I have rarely been to anywhere quite so vibrant; a bustling metropolis with so much to experience. I wasn’t sure if I make it all the way today, after a few long days in the saddle, and 90 miles left to pedal before reaching objective 2 of my tour, however once I got going I knew I wouldn’t stop before I’d made it; barring mechanical failure.

After a very good night’s sleep, and consuming a buffet breakfast included in the price, I felt ready for the ride ahead, and the good news was my legs didn’t feel to achy after the previous few day’s efforts.

My conscientious application of suncream of course summoned the clouds, however little could dampen my spirits as I approached Istanbul. I rejoined the D110 after leaving crazy Tekirdag behind, and started the long ride East. The road got steadily busier as I got closer to my destination, and I had to tackle a series of big ascents, climbing a total of 1285m during the course of the day.

The D110 turned into the D100, passing Silivri, and several other large towns on the way, all merging into a constant metropolis along the coast to Istanbul. The traffic got crazier and crazier, meaning I was on high alert, with a two lane road turning into 3 lanes, and roads merging or diverging at regular intervals; I used the service road running next to the main road quite a lot, however it was just as busy. Before it got really busy I paused at a garage for an ice cream break, preparing myself for the last 50km to Istanbul; the ‘suburbs’ really do go on for a long way!

After a final long climb, passing a high tower that’d been on the horizon for ages, things got really exciting. It’s not that it’s particularly dangerous, as although the driving is madness everyone seems very alert and conscious of what’s going on around them. There was a lot of beeping, and I had to move quickly on a number of occasions to cross slip roads, or move around traffic. City riding, although mentally tiring, can be good fun as long as you’re careful and cycle ‘defensively’; which basically means be a bit aggressive and make sure people know you’re there.

Istanbul is awash with buses and yellow taxis, and I started to encounter more and more of these as I made it past the airport and into the city proper, letting out an involuntary ‘yabbadabbado’ as I got closer to finishing objective 2.

I crossed over a final bridge (Unkapani I think), which moved about a lot, then rode up a last hill to Taksim Square, where I paused to locate a hostel on my phone. There was a promising looking one about 500m away, right in the centre, so I made my way there. My luck held out as they had space, so I booked in for 3 nights; may change that to 4 depending on how I feel.

Often when entering a city I get a feeling within the first hour as to whether I’m going to like it. With Istanbul the feeling was pretty immediate, especially after a warm greeting from Esme at the hostel; the city has a buzz to it, and I immediately felt at home, and excited about having a proper explore. It was nice to check in knowing I had a few day’s rest coming up, with no need to worry about where I’ll be sleeping, or whether there’s going to be a pack of wild dogs around the next corner!

After a shower I went out for a wander around the Beyoglu district, which is the main shopping area, and separated from the old city by the bridge I’d crossed earlier. I’ll probably visit the old city the day after tomorrow, as tomorrow is going to be dedicated to rest and relaxation. The streets were packed with people; a diverse range of nationalities and appearances. I enjoyed listening to the street musicians who appear regular intervals, and generally taking in the sights and sounds. I wasn’t particularly surprised to find an Irish Bar, and thought it providence that I stop there for a cold beer to celebrate my arrival.

Despite the buzz of the city I was feeling pretty tired after 4 serious cycling days, so I retreated to the hostel for the rest of the evening, and enjoyed chilling out with the staff and a few of the other guests; Australian, Turkish, US, Israeli, German – you always meet other interesting travellers.

As always any sponsorship in the form of donations to the Big C, Norfolk’s Cancer Charity, are greatly appreciated and keep me motivated – here’s a link to my charity page:

Thank you to all recent donors; you’re all fabulous!

12, 13 & 14 September – 300 miles in 3 days, to Turkey

Three big days – routes and stats below:

–> 12 September – to Nea Iraklitsa (Kavala – 152 km)
I was sad to leave Jorn, Clara and Tom, however it was time to set out solo again, on my way to Istanbul before turning North towards home. Team Thessaloniki were up to see me off, before they went in search of boxes to pack their bikes into for flying home; not something I’ll need to worry about, touch wood, as I’ll be pedalling home. I bid them au revoir and cycled off, with a big climb ahead of me to get out of the city and on the road towards Turkey.

My emotions were a bit mixed on setting out solo cycling again. I was sad to be leaving good company, but also excited to be setting out on the road to Istanbul, to complete the second major objective of my tour. I planned a few big legs to get there with enough time for a few days off, before turning my wheels back towards the UK; it’s going to be weird heading for home.

The climb up over the hills from Thessaloniki was taxing on several fronts. The ascent I could handle, however I wasn’t quite prepared for the number of stray/wild dogs. The small road wound up through pretty forest, however I didn’t really have time to enjoy it or take photos, and would recommend other cyclists take the main road instead. The dogs are a complete menace, with packs of them lounging by the roadside. A few just looked at me, however more often than not they’d get excited, start barking and chase after the bike. My nerves were jangling as I pedalled up the steep gradient, alert for ‘mans best friend’ making an appearance. Unfortunately I couldn’t pedal fast due to the hill, and was pretty terrified when at one point I was surrounded by 7 or 8 snarling hounds. The advice is to get off your bike and walk, as then they’ll lose interest, however I wasn’t sure that was the best option for a pack of wild dogs. I snarled and shouted back, and carried on, mindful of any of them sneaking up behind me as they are want to do; they start off at the side or in front, then circle around to come at you from behind, much like velociraptors I reckon. They didn’t bite me, and I’m not sure they would have done had I stopped, but I didn’t want to risk it. Dogs continued to be a menace throughout the day however that was the worst ambush I encountered; Greece really needs to do something about their stray dog problem.

Lots of people waved and shouted greetings or good luck as I pedalled East, passing two big lakes as I followed the main road, then along the coast in the afternoon. I stopped for a lunch break at Lidl; always reliable and cheap wherever you are in Europe.

It was nice riding next to the sea, and mostly flat, however I still managed to climb over 940m in total today; the headwind was a bit of a pain too however I haven’t had to endure one for a while. I bumped into a French touring couple and their young son near a large lion statue, and stopped for a chat in the shade.  They are touring Europe for a year, and are from Marseille; they live next to Luminy, where I lived for a year, and where I was a few weeks ago – small world! It was good to speak French again, and to meet more tourers and hear about their experiences and plans; we compared route notes before I carried on. It’s pretty amazing to be touring for a year, especially with a young son (maybe 5 to 6). I hope they get on alright in Scandinavia where it’s likely to get a little chilly!

With a while to go before I reached a campsite, but with the option to just sleep on the beach, I pedalled on. As I was on my own I really wanted to make a campsite, as I was still nervous about dogs causing a problem. After a long day I made it to Paradiso camping in Nea Iraklistsa, or Eleftheres, not far from Kavala; for €10 a night and peace of mind it had been worth the long ride.

There were lots of Bulgarians staying at the campsite and making merry (they drink…a lot); I guess they travel down to the coast for their holidays. I settled in the for evening, eating dinner from supplies I bought at Lidl, and amusing myself with the kitten roaming the campsite.

Long day planned again tomorrow, to Alexandroupoli, which should be my last stop in Greece.

–> 13 September – to Alexandroupoli (185km)
Today turned out to be the longest ride of the tour to date, covering 185km in about 9.5 hours; a good time for me, especially as I still climbed nearly 1,000m in total. As a result I was pretty tired when I stopped for the evening, so I’ll keep this brief.

So today turned out to be mostly a cycling day, with the usual dog avoidance tactics. I set off in good time from Paradiso camping, and pedalled to Kavala, a large port town with boats going out to the islands, including Samothrace.  Samothrace would be an interesting place to visit another time; it’s the site of the Sanctuary of the Great Gods, the ancient city of Palaeopoli, and was home to several mysterious cults, each with their own rituals an practices in ancient times. Kavala itself is a bustling town, with lots of fishing by the looks of it, and several interesting features including a hilltop fortress and viaduct.

The road led me inland to Xanthi, then back down to the coast on my way to Komotini. These were pretty long stretches of riding, passing numerous signs for archaeological attractions, thermal baths, and through a nature reserve. I soon passed the 100km mark, with another 85km still to go if I wanted to reach Alexandroupoli.

The dogs today were in no way as bad as yesterday, however I still had to be on the look out and got barked at or chased a few times. During one pause I encountered a friendly hound who just wanted to say hello, with a whole body tail wag thing going on; a nice change!

To finish the day and get to Alexandroupoli I had to get over the hill from Sapes, and down to the coast, a long climb alongside the Via Egnatia. This old Roman road was constructed in the 2nd century BC, to link various colonies all the way from Albania to Constantinople; I think I’ve been following its rough route for some time now, as it passes by Lake Ohrid, then through  Macedonia, Greece and on into Turkey. Needless to say I passed yet more signs for more holes in the ground interesting ancient archaeological sites. I also passed a lot of farmers harvesting sunflowers on my way through the countryside, with mounds of seeds being shovelled into sacks.

Sorry about the finger intruding on those photos; the hazard of taking a photo whilst pedalling!

You could spend a lot of time exploring this corner of Greece (Macedonia and Thrace), however I haven’t got a few weeks to spare right now, but might come back at some point; I find the historical period around Alexander the Great pretty fascinating.

I eventually made it to Alexandroupoli, and found the Municipal Campsite close to the city centre, and next to the beach; a comfortable and non-crowded site, with its own restaurant and decent bathrooms. There were a couple of German motorcycle tourers I chatted to for a bit, however mostly I just wanted to rest after a long day, and do some last-minute preparation for Turkey; already had the Visa but wanted to learn a few basic phrases and check the route to Istanbul. After a basic meal and trying to learn the Turkish for ‘hello’, ‘please’, ‘thank you’ etc, I nodded off in my tent, not waking up until about 03.00 in the morning, having failed to brush my teeth.

Beach at Municipal Camping, Alexandroupoli

Beach at Municipal Camping, Alexandroupoli

–> 14 September – to Tekirdag (Turkey – 155km)
Today’s ride means I’ve covered 300 miles in 3 days, which is another record for me. I’m still feeling fit, however am looking forward to a break in Istanbul now; only 2 or 3 days away! I had wanted to challenge myself and see just how far I could get, however I don’t think I’ll continue doing 100 mile days on the way back to the UK, as it turns into an exercise in just pedalling, with little time for much else. If I aim for 70 or 80 miles a day that’ll see back to Norwich in plenty of time for the Beer Festival, provided I don’t get distracted along the way, for example by the Munich October Fest 😉

I’d also been motivated by wanting to get to Istanbul and out of ‘bad dog’ territory, however I have the feeling it’ll be similar in Turkey, and perhaps with even less in the way of campsites; not too worried about that as they’ll be cheap hotels along the route, and wild camping is always an option. Whatever happens it’ll feel good to be pedalling towards home, rather than further away from it; looking forward to boring friends and family with my tales from the road.

I pedalled out of Alexandroupoli, and on to the border with Turkey, passing quite a few Greek military vehicles along the way, and dealing with several hills and a headwind which woke my legs up. I had to take the motorway on the last stretch to the  border, as there wasn’t another option, however there were hardly any cars on it, and a wide harder shoulder and no dogs meant it felt like the safest bit of road for a while. It took a little while to get over the border, due to a slight queue, however once they’d stamped my passport and checked the photo of my Visa on my phone they waved me through, past all the waiting cars and lorries. I’d half expected to see queues of migrants/refugees a the border, trying to get into Greece, however none were evident; the border guards were checking car boots pretty carefully though.

It’s quite a long border crossing from Greece to Turkey, over a river, and passing armed soldiers at regular intervals on both sides; they all waved or said hello, but don’t think they get on with each other very well still. There were lots of flags flying on both sides, however I think the Turks win on the who has the largest flag front!

There followed a very long ride, down a pretty boring and at times bumpy main road, to Tekirdag. I passed Ipsala, Kesan, Malkara and Inecik, as well as several smaller towns, as I cycled down the D110, which proved to be quite busy, with traffic ranging from dilapidated but still functioning tractors, to modern and expensive looking cars, as well as a lot of lorries.

The road also passes over one hill after another, meaning I climbed a total of 1360m today, resulting in very tired legs by the end; first time my legs have really ached in a while. There are a lot of garages along the way, providing ample opportunities for drinks or toilet breaks, and the people are all really friendly; only got barked at by a few dogs too. I benefitted from a mostly cloudy day, so didn’t get too hot, despite the hills, however the headwind made things tough going at times; inconsistent too, which is just irritating.

There’s a campsite about 14km on from Tekirdag, however my legs were just too tired to pedal any further, and besides, it was getting late with the sunset just an hour away. I stopped in Tekirdag and found a hotel right on the seafront for the equivalent of £20 a night, including breakfast; this felt like a bargain, with an en suite bathroom, and what to me is a luxury room (air con etc). I’d recommend the Hotel Rodosto to anyone passing through; friendly, cheap, and convenient.

I was quite excited about my ensuite bathroom; also washed cycling gear, much needed!

I was quite excited about my en suite bathroom; also washed cycling gear, much-needed!

After settling in I headed into town to withdraw some Turkish Lira, and visit a supermarket for dinner. I was really hungry after another long day, and my legs were in serious need of refueling, so I returned to the hotel with a lot of food, spending the evening eating, phoning home, and checking the route for tomorrow.

Depending on how my legs feel in the morning the plan is to cycle all the way to Istanbul tomorrow, which’ll get me there a day sooner than expected, with more time for a mini holiday before heading for home. Bonus!

10 & 11 September 2015 – rest day and Thessaloniki

I decided to pause in Edessa for a day’s rest, seeing as the weather forecast was rain and storms all day, and I was in good company. Route and stats for the following day below:

–> 10 September – rest day in Edessa
As already mentioned the weather forecast was pretty foul, so we decided discretion was the better part of valour and had a rest day in Edessa. A day off would also give Jorn a chance to get over his stomach bug, which had been hanging around for too long and was making cycling very uncomfortable for him.

Alen decided to brave the weather and carry on to Thessaloniki, before making his way to Istanbul. I doubt I’ll catch him up, as he does some pretty big distances each day, however we might meet again in Istanbul, or in Vienna when I pass through; where Alen lives.

Tom and I grabbed breakfast from a bakery, where we found some fantastic pastry based sustenance including sausage rolls, cheesy thingamys, spinach triangle pasty type products, and doughnuts. We weren’t sure what we were buying but they were all very nice, especially the doughnuts. The police also pulled up whilst we were eating, to buy breakfast; you can always tell a food establishment is good if the police or fire service stop to buy food there!

We met up with the others back at the hotel, and spent a few hours chilling whilst Jorn went in search of pharmaceutical cures for his stomach bug. He returned with various remedies, and an invite for coffee from people he’d met at the pharmacy. We joined Achilleas and several of his friends in a local cafe for coffee (they did decaf) and a chat; they were all exceptionally welcoming and friendly, and as always locals bring a place to life. We decided to grab lunch at a local restaurant, recommended by Achilleas; good to have some traditional Greek food rather than jut another kebab (Gyros).

Lunch with some new friends in Edessa - locals very welcoming

Lunch with some new friends in Edessa – locals very welcoming

After lunch Achilleas, who lives in Bristol at the moment but is back here for the holidays, took us on a tour of Edessa, to see the old town and waterfalls. The old town (Varosi) was destroyed by the Nazis during the war, as it was a centre for the Resistance. It was good to have a local show you around, thanks Achilleas!

The waterfalls give Edessa its nickname, the City of Waters, and are pretty impressive, once powering a big waterwheel, as well as other machinery; there are various channels leading to buildings, but most are now defunct.

After a bit more wandering, passing quite a few establishments closed due to the recession, we retreated to the hotel for a nap, keen to get out of the wet for a bit. We also arranged with Achilleas to meet up in the evening for a few drinks; it was an R&R day after all.

After a bit of blog updating, and feeling justified about taking a day off when the rain got really heavy, we headed out to meet with Achilleas and his friends at about 21.00. As with a lot of southern Europe things get going later, and it’s not uncommon to eat about 22.00. The small bar, recommended by Achilleas, is a great little venue, although unfortunately I’ve forgotten its name! We spent a very pleasant evening chatting with him and his friends, over a few beers, or in their case a few Mojitos; great bunch of people and really nice of them to give us such a warm welcome, and spend the evening with us.

It was great to have had a rest day in good company, with no cycling whatsoever, however tomorrow it’s back on the bike to pedal to Thessaloniki; the last leg of the tour for Tom, Jorn and Clara, and a step closer to Istanbul for me!

–> 11 September – to Thessaloniki
We were on the road in good time, leaving Edessa on a slightly chilly and damp morning, however the weather was set to improve as we approached Thessaloniki.

After a brief climb we flew down a long hill, and enjoyed relatively flat riding, covering something like 70km in 3 hours; very fast for me – I think a slight tailwind might have provided some assistance. The road was a little tedious, and the traffic got steadily busier as we approached Thessaloniki.

After a brief pause for Jorn to fix a puncture, hopefully the last one of their tour, we found a spot for lunch next to a garage, on a well-tended grassy patch next to the main road; it was noisy but comfy.

Lunch break on a nice grassy patch, next the busy road

Lunch break on a nice grassy patch, next the busy road

Aside from Tom’s panniers falling off due to a somewhat bumpy road, and the occasional dog deciding to bark/chase us, it was ‘smooth’ riding the rest of the way, although the traffic got quite exciting at the outskirts of the city, and as we made out way to the centre. We had to dodge around a lot of cars ad buses before making it to the sea, where we stopped to celebrate the end of Jorn, Clara and Tom’s tour, a great achievement!