Before I set off I imagined that we would be living a free timespace experience that would allow us to lounge around reading books, writing blogs and thinking about stuff. No such thing. If we’re not busy cycling, we’re finding somewhere to sleep, to eat, messaging people or finding out a piece of information, visa this visa that, and sometimes even socialising. Not forgetting to actually take time to do absolutely nothing before we go off to sleep at 9 pm. When we have a few days off here and there, we usually have to spend that time planning and thinking hard about certain things. Sometimes we may even get time to socialise.
Ah yes the double edged sword of socialising and hospitality. We are often in need of a day off, or a buffer zone in between being whizzed around the sights of a town where we stop for a few days and cycling the next day. Indeed, being full time qualified adventurers is knackering, but rarely is this due to the actual cycling itself.
The last time we had some honest relaxing time off was about five weeks ago in a lovely sleepy village called Trpejca by lake Ohrid in Macedonia. This delightful village offered us three days of peace amidst the tiring Balkan culture of ubiquitous noise. Noise by day, noise by night. But not in Trpejca. We sampled a lakeside picture-perfect fish restaurant and were overwhelmed with emotion at the quality of food; it helped that it cost something like £10 for both of us to wine and dine there. The next day we decided to stay an extra night and did exactly the same the next evening.
We then continued and wild camped at this stunning spot in the mountains:
Finally, we had been treated to 3 nights noise-free of sleep!
Macedonian hospitality was fabulous; it’s like an extreme sport for them (not in my words). After staying and eating with our warm showers host in Prilep, we continued away from the main roads and into the mountains. Wonderful switchbacks brought us to a riverside wild spot one evening and the next morning we shared coffee with an old local toothless peasant accompanied by passing border police, one of which delighted in showing us photos of each animal they’d hunted, killed and ate. When his smartphone swipe moved onto a photo of his pet dog; he wasn’t amused with my question “did you eat him too?”
One afternoon, an energetic young couple driving past us, intreagued by our adventure invited us to stay with them in both their hometown nearby and at her family’s in Bulgaria. Even though we would have to turn around and go back in the exact same direction for 50km through steep mountains to meet them, we decided that their promise of a bed, food and being driven around for a day out or two should not be turned down. Ensuingly we returned the next morning and stayed at theirs for three days, visiting local areas by car and feasting on their amazing homemade produce. I even asked grandma to give me an early morning cooking lesson, which was a shock to the family who had never seen a male set of hands covered in flour before. As we left, the young couple Filip and Cveti told us that they had set a date for a long cycle trip of their own. It’s felt inspiring to be inspirational.
It had been our plan to spend at least one night in a Macedonian monastery; it was often suggested and assumed by locals that we should sleep in them. The problem is that it’s never really a good idea at the end of a days’ cycling to climb steep mountains in the hope that a monastry might accommodate us (they are almost exclusively located off remote tracks in mountains). However, on one occasion we got stuck in a storm and had no choice but to chance it. We turned up at the doorstep drenched, which we found out is in fact international sign language for “feed me, warm me and give me a bed”. The place was beautiful and peaceful, we were well fed and accommodated in the hostel-like dorms and the whole thing cost us about £1.
We also met Byulent and his wife on a roadside who were on holiday from Turkey, again insisting that we should be accommodated by them when we reached their town. Indeed when we did reach the border town of Edirne weeks later, we would be shown around this delightful city.
When we did finally arrive into Bulgaria, (we had spent a whooping three weeks in microscopic Macedonia!) it was stunning. Mountain forests with plenty of roadside cabin huts equipped with basic cooking facilities and fresh source water made cycling this country a delight. Luckily we were treated to six days off in this wonderful retreat with Mr and Mrs Carmen.
So far, we can soundly report that the world that we’ve seen is much more caring and hospitable than one might possibly think. What I mean by that of course is that I didn’t expect it to be this way. It’s easy to stay at home and fear through the lenses of media, news, popular beliefs, hearsay or hype. I personally feel that Western Europe has a lot to learn- particularly in terms of hospitality – from many of the countries we’ve traversed. It’s one thing to read that line over and over again in peoples accounts of travels, but to experience it is actually quite magical and always injects pure joy into us.
The week off in Bulgaria coupled with the diminished costs of living means that we have become somewhat more reliant on staying in hotels these days. the heat is too much so we lose sleep. Hotels usually cost us about £18 a night. Reacquiainting with wild camping after a long absence can be tricky. As we set up camp on our only evening in Greece for example we got heavily swamped by mosquotos – this induced panic and a level of hysteria; actually it was one of the most distressing moments of the trip.
Choosing a spot to camp requires skill and should only be performed by qualified adventurers. We thought that the offer to put up our tent on the grounds of a mosque would be a safe option. However, being woken by the very loud call to prayer (broadcast through 4 megaphones atop the minaret) at 4am is an alarming experience. Although, on the plus side, this did put me into an alert state of wakefulness where I found my brain parked on a deeply theological level for the proceeding two hours. I found myself contemplating and tackling such intricate questions as
‘what happens if the singer gets a sore throat?’ and
‘I wonder if they’ll ever switch over to high fidelity calls using a microphone and tannoy with a greater frequency bandwidth (and thus more pleasing to the ear) than the piercing telephone-like megaphone’
I would never have otherwise considered such questions. Actually, the call to prayer, heard at the correct distance is mesmerising and beautiful. The role of a muezzin is considered an art form. The effect is spoiled on me though when you are in a big city (İstanbul) with a dozen mosques chanting in unison but at contradicting harmonies. Sometimes the dogs join in. It sounds like a surreal brainwash call designed to infiltrate one’s dreams. Mission: reprogramme.
Another danger of wild camping is your own paranoia. Also documented by other bloggers, your mind becomes an award-winning crime novelist. Innocuous scratchy noises beneath the groundsheet next to your head allude to the imagery of sinister human activity as you lay stone awake in your bag. After several hours forensically analysing the noises, you eventually become reassured by the fact that the only plausible author of such noises must be a person putting things into shopping bags. Safe in the knowledge that no one could possibly be packing shopping bags for so many hours, your racing mind does eventually drift off.
We are now leaving Istanbul where we have spent 12 days waiting for a visa (which obviously never came **see footnote**)
Istanbul is great; a backstreet paradise containing a plethora of inviting cafés. We have been staying in a poor run-down district with plenty of thefts going on, 3 roads away from the main shopping strip. But this place has character and it feels real.
The hostel staff are 4 young Syrian male refugees with hearts of gold; gentle and caring. Last night they had invited their Syrian female friends over to the hostel BBQ that they organised and cooked for the guests, on the rooftop. Back in Syria, one of the guys was a basketball coach and he used to teach one of the girls. Another girl was his study mate. Another girl is half Iraqi and is just about to start afresh in USA. I guess this bunch of friends decided to escape Hell and stay safe together in numbers in a foreign country. The main reason for their escape was ultimately to escape conscription, and, in probable due course, death. Their families are mostly still in Syria waiting for their sons here to earn enough to bring them over. Some of their family members are already dead. I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody who openly talks about the process of acquiring a fake passport.
It didn’t occur to me to finish this on such a low note but I guess we have parked ourselves in this place we have called “home” and have felt very comfortable in, in the presence of good people and other lovely guests. Leaving will be sad.
Right, back to cycling. Oh, did I mention we’re learning russian?
The conversation with the visa consulate man went something like this:
Us: ” we need to collect our visa”
Us: yes. To collect. To collect visa. We came last week and you said come today to collect visa. You said visa will be ready today
Him: collect visa ?
Returns 2 mins later
Him: Do you have your visa application form?
Us: we gave that to you last week. Do you remember ? We came Monday and you said come back today to collect visa
Returns 1 min later
Him: your visa is in Ankara. You need to go to Ankara
Me: why? You said visa will be here today. We came to you last Monday and you said visa will be ready today. Why is our visa in Ankara?
Him: because you said you wanted to collect it in Ankara
Me: no we didn’t.
Him: yes you did. Because I wrote ‘Ankara’ on your application
Me: no we didn’t. Why would we say that? We aren’t going to Ankara. We need to leave tomorrow and we have no visa. We came last week and you said come today and visa will be ready. Do you remember us from last Monday?
Him: yes I remember you, you said Ankara because you need it quickly
Me: no we didn’t. We never said Ankara. We need the visa here and now……