I was still riding alongside the Danube, the same stretch of water I followed from Bavaria to Budapest. The river was the one constant as languages, scenery, and architecture subtly changed as I made my way out of Western Europe. Bavaria’s green, onion-domed church towers fizzled out as the buildings became more alpine in the steep valleys of Austria; a lot more concrete started to appear once I crossed the former Iron Curtain and into the Great Hungarian Plain.Things were settling down. The self-imposed taboo of wild camping had been broken and finding a place to camp was slowly becoming as profound a task as checking your emails first thing in the office: just another thing embedded in the routine of your average day on the road. Days by the Danube were pretty uniform. I’d wake up at dawn, break camp and have breakfast before the morning’s dog walkers were about; ride alongside the river; eat second breakfast; ride alongside the river; have an extended lunch break on some sandy bank of the same river, preferably with a can of Radler; ride along the river one last time until I found a suitable spot to camp; and wait. Once the sun begins to set, I knew I’d soon be invisible so I’d throw up my tent, cook dinner and, thanks to the ride, sleep a sleep that would make the dead envious.
After leaving Budapest – and that river – my next main checkpoint was Istanbul. It marked the breakaway form Europe, a continent that was just something to get out of as quickly as possible to high prices. That city also marked the beginning of the Silk Road and the beginning of the adventurous bit, since all my daydreams of this adventure took place to the East of the Bosporus. All I had to do was to get through Romania and Bulgaria, two countries that I knew nothing about and simply posed as obstacles to get through in order to reach Istanbul. It seemed that my mind was already a few hundred kilometres down the road from where I was.Entering Romania involved the first proper border crossing of this trip; and with the fences, guards, and passport checks came the biggest change between countries I had experienced so far. A smiling guard greeted me with “Welcome to Romania” in an attitude and tone uncharacteristic of his colleagues I’ve encountered elsewhere in the world and this attitude continued as I pedalled on. Everyone I passed had a sort of energetic friendliness to them and on my first day’s ride I received more shouts of “hello!” than the whole of the trip up to the Romanian border – through 8 countries – combined. On my third day, while looking for a quiet spot of woodland to camp in, the residents of a nearby house insisted I camp in their garden, insisted that I joined them for a barbecue, and, when I did, ensured that my glass was never empty. This sudden change in the people I came across since crossing the border thankfully brought my mind back from Istanbul to where I actually was; and these encounters really made Romania a great place to ride through. It was no longer just another thing to get through before being through with Europe.I left the Danube finally after crossing it to enter Bulgaria, and once again that country proved to be a huge distraction from my obsession with getting to Istanbul. On my second day I was taken under the wing of Andy, a British cycling enthusiast, who, after inviting me back to their village and beautifully restored home. He further delayed me from reaching Istanbul with a detour to Valeko Turnovo, best summarised as the ‘York of Bulgaria’ for it’s beautiful castle, churches, and cobbled streets. With my map and Andy’s local knowledge, I was sent on my way via the scenic route over the mountains to Turkey along stunning, empty, and perfectly smooth roads.While Romania offered a warm welcome from generous locals, I remember Bulgaria for it’s Mediterranean-style food and fantastic cycling, thanks to Andy’s recommendations. After years of suffering from the rubbish sold in British supermarkets, I finally discovered that tomatoes can be delicious. My own staple, after way too many meals of pesto pasta, had become Shopska salad, a simple yet delicious mix of tomatoes, cucumbers and goats cheese that was never absent from any meal I had in Bulgaria. The roads are also made fantastic cycling. Bulgaria is largely the same size of England but only has 7 million people sharing the space. This, plus the fact that car ownership is relatively low, which basically means you have often pristinely kept roads to yourself. Bulgaria really had potential as a cycling holiday destination and I don’t quite understand why it hasn’t taken off yet as a low cost, up-and-coming alternative to places such as Italy, given the roads and the tomatoes they have here (hey, there’s a thought).On my last night in Bulgaria, I camped on a hill that offered a fantastic view of the last few day’s ride: green rolling farmland in front of a silhouette of mountains on the horizon. It was a a fantastic reminder of the pleasant surprise these last two countries had been and how glad I was that I hadn’t just rushed through. Romania had the people. Bulgaria had the roads. Both were fantastic send-off from Europe.
Next Chapter: Little tulip glasses