09 Aug Trip Diary – Bulgaria to Istanbul
In my last diary update, I was about to try and cross over the the Danube by ferry from Romania to Bulgaria – my 9th country of the trip. The locals had warned me that the crossing can be a bit unpredictable at the best of times and they were right.
It was just before 9 am when I rolled through the industrial area that surrounds the small port in Zimnicea. Long stationary queues of lorries lined the roads, with their drivers asleep or grouped together in conversation while waiting for their slot on the small barge-like ferry. The temperature was already rising fast and the day was due to reach 40 C. I was keen to make the crossing as soon as possible and find a bar or cafe in the larger town of Svishtov on the Bulgarian side to escape the afternoon heatwave.
As I approached the port, the lorries thinned out and a single, potholed-laden road led towards a cluster of white portacabins that served as the border control offices: one for passport control and one for customs. A red and white barrier blocked the way to the slipway where a solitary police officer paced slowly up and down talking on his phone. The rest of the immediate landscape was covered in unkempt grasslands hemmed in by tall chain-link fences. I made my way to the first cabin to find an elderly lady sitting behind a desk piled high with papers and enquired about when the next ferry would be. I was reassured to find out that it was due at 10 am and my wait wouldn’t be too long. I searched for somewhere to hide from the sun but all I could find was a small patch of shade beside one of the cabins. Its slightly protruding roof provided no more than a square foot of relief from the sun.
I sat and waited and watched with slight alarm as the temperature seemed to rise by the minute and I began to regret not stopping off in the previous town to top up my water and food. By 10.30 am, there was still no sign of the ferry; there no movement on the docks at all, and I began to realise that the crossing might not be as quick as I’d hoped. Just after 11 am, I spotted the wide barge-like ferry emerge from behind the trees that blocked my view of the river and watched as it indelicately bumped itself to a stop against the metal loading ramp. Despite its arrival, not a lot happened. On board, the two lorries that had made the crossing from Bulgaria slowly started to disembark and chug up the steep ramp to Romanian soil. It took a further 45 minutes for customs to allow them through and only then, feeling hungry and with a slight case of sunstroke I’m sure, was I beckoned towards passport control and allowed to board.
As I sat on the metal floor of the barge, I watched the slow pace of loading with trepidation. It took almost an hour for six lorries to pass customs and board the ferry but finally, a little over two hours later than scheduled, the engines fired up and the ferry pushed off. The crossing itself took less than 20 minutes. From the Romanian shore, I could easily see people on the Bulgarian side going about their business, which made the wait all the more frustrating. The river can’t be more than 100 meters wide at best and I couldn’t help but think that swimming across would have been a lot faster, if not a bit tricky with the bike. Finally, on the Bulgarian side, I waited my turn to go through passport control and once given the okay, I weaved my way past weighbridges and rusting piles of metal, dodging the gigantic potholes and out on to the road that led up in Svishtov. It might have taken the best part of four hours but I’d finally arrived in Bulgaria and country number 9.
I’d arranged to meet up with a friend who had recently made the move from Spain to a small Bulgarian village called Musina, about 80km from the border. All I had told her was that I should be in Bulgaria some time at the start of July and that I’d let her know more when I got there. Sitting in a public square in Svishtov eating cheap croissants and drinking litres of ice cold water, I debated whether or not I could make Musina by nightfall. It was already 2 pm and the thermometer was now in the low forties-not really the ideal time of day to start an 80km ride. I hadn’t showered properly for over a week and the promise of a good bed in Musina, along with good company and the feeling of being fresh and clean, proved too much to resist. I decided to go for it.
Just before 8pm, I was knocking on the door of my friend’s house after a very hot and hilly ride over the Bulgarian countryside. I ended up resting there for five days, exploring the area and meeting some of the locals and even found time to go for a horse ride around the village on one of my friend’s many horses. By the time it came to say goodbye, the temperature had returned to a more cycle-friendly temperature. I felt ready and rested to take the fast roads and lengthy hill climbs of Bulgaria’s central region. I was heading for the border crossing at Malko Tarnovo in the far south-east of the country as I’d heard it was one of the easier crossings to take into Turkey. Before I got there though, I spent a couple of nights at another friend’s house, Bernie, who had the most the amazing view over the Bulgarian countryside right from her veranda. Late on the 10th July, after getting horrendously lost deep in the forests of southern Bulgaria for over three hours, I made it to the border town of Malko Tarnovo and camped for the night a few kilometres short of Turkey.
Crossing the border was a lot smoother than I thought. Indeed, it was rather quiet; a few cars were lined up in front of me and the only delay seemed to be because the border guards were apparently at lunch as all the booths were empty. However, I was stamped through within half an hour and allowed to start my journey into country number 11. The first immediately apparent difference in this new country was the roads and how good they were. Gone where the rough surfaces and tiny hard shoulders. Instead, the roads where wide, smooth, and the hard shoulder was as big as the main lanes, and I had it all to myself. I’d heard that the Turkish take hospitality very seriously and that many cyclists enjoy a warm welcome wherever they go. I was eager to find out how much of this was true. Well, it didn’t take long. Within an hour of crossing, I was sitting in a small cafe with two Polish hitchhikers drinking chai tea at the request of a Turkish tractor driver who’d spotted us talking at the side of the road. He even paid for lunch for the three of us, a show of kindness that would soon become the norm throughout my time in Turkey.
My plan from the border to Istanbul was to follow the smaller, slightly less congested D020 road, which seemed to be the preferred route of the cycle tourists that had passed this way before me. In general, the road was pretty good and I had at least a small hard shoulder to ride on in most places, allowing large trucks to pass me by in relative safety. On a few occasions, this small piece of safety disappeared and I was forced back in with the traffic and soon learned that you really do need eyes in the back of your head out here since the driving can be a little erratic, to say the least. It took me a little over three days before I got my first sight of Istanbul late on the afternoon of the 13th July and by early evening I was deep within the city and struggling with its crazy steep streets. After a ride of 100km, pushing my bike up these streets was really the last thing I wanted to do but he thought of a warm bed and shower pushed me on. I’d arranged through a friend of a friend to stay with a host for my time in Istanbul, to allow me to explore the city over a few days in the knowledge that my bike would be safe and so I could avoid paying for somewhere to stay for the few days I’d be in the city. My host Bella lived in the district of Śiśli on the European side of Istanbul and the final few streets to her door were a real test of stamina as they got steeper and steeper (you know it’s not going to be easy when the pavements either side are stairways). In the end, sweaty, tired and in desperate need of a shower (not the ideal condition to meet your host, I know), I arrived at Bella’s flat and she instantly made me feel very welcome, and this continued throughout my stay with her.
Over the next few days, I walked and walked and walked, taking in as much of Istanbul as I could, from its beautiful mosques (the giant and famous Blue Mosque being my favourite) to its crowded street bazaars full of colour and noise. On occasion, Bella would take me out on a tour of areas she knew well or would arrange for us both to meet up with more of her friends for coffee or dinner. A few of my friends had warned me about Istanbul but I have to say, never once did I feel scared walking around. I felt safe even walking around late at night. I happened to there for the one year anniversary of the failed military coup and the city was busy preparing to make the occasion. The travel advice had warned of staying away from the large crowds due to gather for the occasion (an estimated one million people came out onto the streets that Saturday evening) and for once I was happy to obey, choosing instead to watch with Bella form the safety of her flat.
Tomorrow, after an amazing time here in Istanbul, I leave the city and head southeast to the city of Eskisehir. However, I heard getting out of the city is not easy by bicycle and that many cycle tourists advise to catch a ferry or bus to the Asian side of Istanbul and then a bus to the city’s outskirts. I’ve chosen to follow the advice and catch a ferry, although my route will avoid the Asian side of Istanbul altogether and instead cross the Sea of Marmara to the town of Yalova. I’ve still no idea about getting tickets or indeed when the ferries leave, but I’ll wait until the morning to figure that out. For now, I want to enjoy my last night here in Istanbul with one more walk through its beautiful streets.
This diary entry covers the trip from 31st June – 20th July, 2017
You can see more from my trip through Bulgaria by visiting the gallery page of the website or by clicking here