Belgrade (SRB) – Istanbul (TK) / 3543 km / 1.73 Million Turns
“Warning, at certain times of the year, the following road section may contain thorns that puncture even the strongest of tires”, the Eurovelo signpost stated. Looking at each other, we quickly concluded, certain times of the year is probably not this time of the year. Plus, we not just have strong tires, we have the equivalent of Lamborghini when it comes to tires, Schwalbe Marathon Mondial Evolution. In good spirits, we quickly rode on…
Of course, things did not go as assumed (as they often do). About 15 km on, Sabine halted due to a flat front tire. In the middle of a small Serbian village, we had to fix the puncture. After putting the inner tube in water, it turned out it wasn’t a single puncture but that we had three in the same tire. In total, we removed more than 30 (!) thorns from our outer tires. As we were working on our bikes, curiosity made a few Serbians gather around us. Having fixed the tires, we of course could not leave their village without a healthy shot of Raki at one of their houses. Using hands and feet, he explained we chose the perfect spot for this bad luck; the Serbian Raki would make us go forward as rockets, so we would quickly catch up!
Leaving Belgrade, we planned to cycle the ‘Iron Gates’, a narrow gorge of the Danube straddling the border with Romania. After so many kilometres of cycling next to this wide-flowing river, it was amazing to think that all the million litres of water from Germany onwards had to squeeze through this narrow opening. The road, winding along high cliffs, dark tunnels and lively towns, was definitely worth the detour.
After a very (very!) rainy final day in Serbia, we crossed the border into country #7, Bulgaria! Since it had been raining for 36 consecutive hours, we took an extra rest day in the city of Vidin. Most of our previous rest days were planned in cities and towns with many highlights, so in the beginning we were a bit restless on what to do in this town. As the town actually lacked any highlights (think of an Eastern Bloc city in the 80s, grey, rain, you’ll sort of get the picture), we spent almost all our time in the only local restaurant/pizzeria (pint of beer for 1 euro, pizza for 4), and had our dinner, lunch and dinner again here. Great pastime in the end!
Bulgaria was definitely different from the countries visited so far: The people were a bit more reserved than in for instance Serbia, so the honking of cars was over for now, it was a lot cheaper, but most of all, it was a lot more mountainous. We first visited Belogradchik, an old fortress built in between large rock formations, very impressive! At the entrance of the fortress, we also noticed there were some hiking and mountain biking routes through the boulders. After many kilometres on asphalt, we were both keen to take up a downhill mountain bike challenge so decided to take this route. Although the route started as a wide track, it quickly became an overgrown goat trail, where it was a real balancing act to get the fully loaded bike across the narrow path along the steep hills. Downhill was great fun though! Things became a bit more challenging when, in the end, we had to carry our bikes up about 30m before we could access the normal road again. It took us about 2 hours for 5 km, but we managed in the end.
After a brief visit to Sofia we changed direction once again and went east towards our first major checkpoint, Istanbul. Cycling through this section of Bulgaria was a big delight, with the Balkan mountains to the north and the Rhodopian mountains to the south, both still covered with snow-capped peaks. We had a brief stopover at the city of Plovdiv, which is the current European Capital of Culture, and is characterised by both a lot of Roman ruins and very hipster-like coffee bars! After Plovdiv, we were eager to get into Turkey, we had heard so many great stories about cycling in this country.
Turkey! Although this part is technically still Europe, once again we feel further from home than before. The first big city you arrive in is Edirne, where our Warmshowers host Enes took us in like family. Enes was our first example of what makes Turkey such a special country to travel in: the people themselves! He showed us around town, treated us soup at his favourite restaurant, took us for tea etc. This Turkish hospitality continued when we left Enes’s home and cycled on to Istanbul: along the way, people invited us to sleep at their homes, have a bath (do we smell that bad already?), drink more tea and chit-chat about Holland (either that we have flowers, that it’s flat, or that we have Wesley Sneijder as he played at Galatasaray for a while).
The final stretch from Edirne to Istanbul was a tough one though, Europe does not surrender so easily. Rolling hills for as far as the eye could see, with the winding road going up and down, up and down, up and down. A fresh headwind made the physical effort worse, but the challenge was mostly a mental one, coping with these never-ending hills. We were glad that, after a brief section on a six-lane highway (!), we met the Bosporus, the body of water separating the continents. It was a bit surreal to realise we cycled all the way to the edge of Europe and we could almost swim to Asia! Istanbul was in sight, a week of unwinding and relaxing lay ahead of us.
When starting the trip, we frequently said: “Well, let’s make it to Istanbul first, then the adventure really begins”. How wrong we were! Europe was surprising, magnificent, welcoming, tough, rainy, full of history and natural beauty, raw, but most of all very rewarding. If this was the appetizer, we are now fully ready for the main course!
Talk to you soon,
Tom & Sabine
Ps: We have made two videos of our trip, you can see them here!