All posts by akkirkendall

BratislavaViennaPrague

We’re very behind on the blogging and we’re very sorry about that… We have very little down time now so it’s been hard to find time to write. I’m going to try to catch everyone up through the Czech Republic, here we go:

 

So in the last post I mentioned we slept in Slovakia, and then the next morning we crossed back into Hungary to see the Esztergom Basilica. After seeing the Basilica and eating delicious Hungarian food, we crossed back over to Slovakia on April 30th and started our riding for the day. We realized that morning that we’d left our tiny, adorable traveling French press in Hungary and I almost broke up with Haegan. I’m kidding (mostly). It rained a bit that day and we saw lots of other tourists who we enthusiastically greeted. They didn’t seem to want to talk much though and we realized that we’d now crossed into countries where bicycle touring is very common. The awesome bike paths continued and eventually we ended in Velky Meder at a bar where we hoped we could ask around to find a place to stay the night. Turns out the bar had rooms for rent so we were set.

It was raining the next morning and we didn’t have very far to go to Bratislava so we spent the morning drooling over long missed items like tortillas and curry paste at the local supermarket. (Billa is awesome). We left and found ourselves on long straight paths with a wind directly against us. We took frequent breaks but still managed to get to Bratislava in good time. We went to a hostel and found they were booked for the night. So we went to another hostel and found that they, along with every other hostel in the city, was also booked. The cheapest hotel was well out our range so we hung out in Wild Elephant Hostel to use the wifi, desperately trying to find a place to stay. What had totally forgotten was that it was May Day weekend, so everyone was taking a holiday, and had booked their rooms weeks in advance. As we were searching WarmShowers and CouchSurfing, we started talking to Sarah and Sam, who are also from the US, but are working/studying in Austria. They offered to share a bed to free another bed up for us. We checked it with the owner who said it was fine, and we couldn’t tell Sarah and Sam how grateful we were. Not too long after we made the arrangement, there was a cancellation so they got to keep their beds and Haegan and I shared the one free twin bed in all of Slovakia. We went out with Sarah and Sam that night to see the fireworks over the river. It was really nice to talk to them and we were both inspired by how much they’ve done even though they’re not much older than us. The next day we toured around Bratislava: accidently spent about 3 hours at the museum in Bratislava Castle, saw Michael’s Gate, Church of St. Elisabeth, St. Martin’s Cathedral, and walked around the old city.

Fireworks on the Danube
St. Michael’s gate

    

The Church of St. Elizsabeth
Communist art

 

That night we went to dinner with some friends we made from the hostel. Look at this giant vessel of beer:

  

The next day we said goodbye to everyone at the hostel (Wild Elephants has been one of our favorites so far) and rode to Devin Castle before heading Vienna. Devin Castle is about 15km outside of Bratislava right on the Danube River, built on a cliff. The castle was first built in the 9th century and was continually fortified by different groups for the next 6 centuries.

Ruins of a Roman church
The Maiden’s Tower

 

It is very strange to be able to ride from a major city in one country, to another major city in a different country in one day. Bizarre. The riding was actually kind of boring, although very very safe as we were on paths far from roads most of the way. When we crossed from Slovakia to Austria (on a pedestrian bridge no less) we found wide open fields with beautiful views.

International pedestrian bridge

Cyclist counter

 

The bike infrastructure seems to be getting better and better as we go, and Vienna did not disappoint, although a bit confusing direction wise, navigating the city felt safe on a bike. The hostel we found was very nice, very clean and a really nice kitchen which we didn’t use that night because we needed cheap Chinese food.

The next day we were completely overwhelmed by everything that there is to see in Vienna. First we walked to the Schonbrunn Palace and walked around the (free) garden.

The palace
Giant fountain
View from the top of the hill

 

We started walking back to the center and realized that if we tried to see the whole city by foot it would take too long and we’d be exhausted. So we got day passes for the public transit and saw St. Stephen’s Cathedral and the Belvedere Palace.

A different church
The cathedral
And the exterior
In the palace
The palace garden

 

The Belvedere Palace has a large collection of paintings by Gustav Klimt, including The Kiss. The museum was a little more than we usually like to pay for sights but completely worth it to see all the paintings we saw. Here are three of our favorites:

Napoleon at the St. Bernard Pass- Jacques-Louis David

The Kiss- Gustav Klimt

Fritza Riedler- Gustav Klimt

 

The Kiss was absolutely incredible, I don’t think I’ve ever been so enticed by a painting. I waited about 20 minutes for a guided group to leave so I could look at it full on, and I was very glad I waited. It’s rather hard to explain, it’s not a feeling I have words for.

 

After learning all of Austrian history through paintings we went to Hundertwasser, a collection of funkily decorated and designed buildings.


  

We then just hopped on the trams and rode around until we saw something we wanted to see up close. It didn’t take very long and we got off to see Karlskirche.


 After a long day of sightseeing we made dinner at the hostel and got ready to make our three day ride to Prague.
The first day was quite beautiful, open sky and giant fields of yellow flowers, and very very flat. Overall, pretty uneventful and that night we stayed with the Leutgeb family in Eggenburg, Austria. We had a really nice time talking with Eva and Lisa, and they recommended stopping in Telč, Czech Republic.


   We were up very early the next morning and walked around Eggenburg a bit before heading out. That day was very slow for us, and we weren’t really sure why. Despite our sluggishness we made it to Telč that evening. The next morning we toured around the city, climbed an old bell tower, and walked near the river. Telč is a cute little city, and we enjoyed our morning there.

World War II paintings by Jewish artists- both on the church

    

We rode 100 km that day through the beautiful Czech countryside.

Another border
Wide open space

 

Although long, this was probably one my favorite days of riding. On of the descents we turned a corner to see the sun was setting over the hills and fields, a view that made me feel both comfort and awe at the same time. I stopped to take a few pictures as Haegan continued down… maybe stopped a little too long as he started to get worried. Worth it though:


 

We rode into a little village and stopped outside the town bar where many people were outside to ask about a place to set up our tent. We were invited to set up our tent in the yard of an apartment building right next to the bar. After getting set up we went to the bar, Czech beer is supposed to be very good, so we had heard. We walked in and just so happened to be standing next to the one person in the bar who spoke English. We sat with Ota and had a great time chatting with him. He plays the piano and sings, so he was the jukebox for the night. We got to hear some Czech songs and few American ones too. We felt so lucky to be there, the sausage was good, the beer was good, and the company made the day one of our favorites. Ota invited us to have breakfast with him and his family the next morning, which we were happy to accept.

Ota on the keyboard

 

We met Ota’s wife, Lucie, and their two kids Jaro and Maruska the next morning while we tried some Czech cakes and homemade jams made by Lucie. We decided to spend the day relaxing and hanging out with them. We found out that they actually live in Prague but Lucie’s family is from the village we were in so they spend the weekends there. They invited to stay with them in Prague, and again, we couldn’t believe how lucky we were to run into such generous people.

Veronica is a pro dandelion chain maker
Šarka invited us for breakfast the day we left for Prague

 

The next day we rode to Prague and met up Ota and Lucie later that evening. They helped us plan out what we should see in the city and the next morning we walked with Lucie to the train to get to the center. We got to the center pretty early, before many places were open, and before there were many tourists. Again, I’ll let some of the pictures do the talking here:

The Jerusalem Synagogue
Powder tower
Church of Our Lady Before Tyn
The river
St. Stephans

Charles Bridge
St. Nicholas

  

We met up with Lucie in the afternoon and went grocery shopping to get some things so we could make dinner for the family. With mixing and mashing assistance from Jaro and Maruska, grill help from Ota, and kitchen guidance from Lucie, we made pork chops, mashed potatoes, and Southern biscuits. It took us a little longer than we had hoped (we get rather excited about cooking in full kitchens), but we enjoyed spending time with the family.

 

The next day we set out again for the city and saw the main sights of the Jewish part of Prague. We were able to buy a pass for all four synagogues plus the cemetery and took the better part of the day.

Ark in the Klausen Synagogue
The Old-New Synagogue
Memorial at the Pinkas Synagogue
The jewish cemetary
The Spanish Synagogue

 

I learned a lot from the exhibits in the old synagogues (I think Haegan learned some too), and the memorial in the Pinkas Synagogue had me pretty close to tears. The walls inside the synagogue are covered with the names of the families from The Czech Repulic that were murdered during the Holocaust. The sheer number of names was overwhelming, it made me feel very small and very helpless. To see the names listed on the wall is such a powerful visual of the tragedy of the Holocaust.

The rest of day we just wandered around and walked up to the Metronome to get a great view of city.


 

The next day we said goodbye to Ota, Lucie, Jaro, and Maruska, and left to make our way to Germany. The rest of the riding through the Czech Republic was really nice, the bike paths were very well maintained and as we got closer to Germany we started passing more and more tourists. More to come soon…


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Hungary

Sorry it’s been a while since our last blog post! We’ve been very busy and this post has been sitting unfinished on the laptop for a while… So here we go: Hungary

We crossed from Croatia to Hungary on April 23rd, after spending about two weeks in Croatia. It was kind of strange to cross into another country as we hadn’t in a relatively long time. We were greeted by these very overwhelming signs:

There are so many!
There are so many!
Like many border crossing before, we noticed changes immediately. We could see the German influence the style of the houses, and even Hungarian seemed a bit more Germanic than the previous languages. We could very quickly see we were no longer in the Balkans, and now in Eastern Europe. The riding was very nice, the landscape very flat and open, a bit like the Midwest actually. I’m not sure what exactly I was expecting, but I wasn’t expecting to ride the Hungary and feeling like I was in the Midwest. It was a bit strange, but a little nice at the same time. In the evening we found ourselves in a very touristy area, we guessed made touristy because of a large local hotspring. We found a campsite and settled in. As were setting up the tent, an Austrian woman came over and asked if we needed anything. We were able to borrow a hammer from her and she gave us some bread. When we returned the hammer, she and her husband gave us a beer, cheese, and chocolates. They were very sweet and we were so glad she came over to talk to us.

Gifts from Austrian caravaners
Gifts from Austrian caravaners
The next morning we got rode to Lake Balaton, the largest lake in Hungary. The lake is about 77 km long and only about 4 km wide in most places. We rode along the path near lake through not quite open summer towns. The towns were a little eerie because they were perfectly functional, just closed. We enjoyed riding on a bike path and the views of the lake were very nice. We camped a few times along the lake and even managed to make ourselves a proper meal.

Nice scenery along the lake
Nice scenery along the lake
Not a bad sunset
Not a bad sunset
Real food off of plates!
Real food off of plates!
IMG_4041

After leaving the lake we had a bit more trouble finding camping but were lucky enough to run into Iyasor, who helped us find a place near a field, despite not speaking the same language. It was one of the stranger places we’ve camped, but not bad. We left early the next morning and stopped in Székesfehérvár (we never figured out to pronounce this…) to get coffee. It was a very picturesque city and made for a very nice stop. We continued and found a road… for bikes. It was awesome. Because it was a Sunday there were lots of families on bike rides and we didn’t at all mind the traffic. We came to a small lake and tried langos, which is fried pizza dough with sour cream, onions, sausage, cheese, and peppers. Haegan loved it.

Flowers everywhere

Bike road!
Langos
After lunch we decided to ride a little farther than planned so we could stay at a campsite where there might be showers. The riding continued to be flat and easy, and along the way we stopped at an old castle.

A castle
The campsite was pretty empty and we made ourselves dinner in the common kitchen. The next morning we left for Budapest and after a bit of standard riding into a new city chaos, we made it to The Goat Herder Espresso Bar. The cafe is owned by Dave and Corinne who kindly offered to host us while we were in Budapest. At the cafe we met Rohan and Mark who are students at the vet and med school across the street from the cafe. After chatting for a bit they showed us the first (and probably most well known) ruin pub in Budapest, Szimpla . The 7th District, which used to be the Jewish ghetto, has many run down buildings which have now been turned into pubs. The bar has a very artsy and welcoming feel, very different from any of the other bars we’ve been to on the trip. After a beer, they showed us the Dohány Street Synagogue, which is the largest synagogue in Europe and the second largest in the world. The Synagogue has a collection of 26 torahs and beautiful memorials for the victims and heroes of WWI and II.

The Synagogue
Interior
The tree of life memorial
60 year holocaust memorial
We hung out with Dave and Corinne that night and talked about their cafe and previous travels. They had lots of stories and were able to give us some tips on our next destinations. The next day we started by seeing Heroes’ Square, which has statues of many of Hungary’s great leaders. Right behind the square is a large park and Varosliget, which has an old castle. I was completely spellbound by the castle, I loved the architecture of the various buildings and the detail on all the columns and statues. We walked down Andrassy Ave and saw the Opera House and then went to the Parliament Building. I loved walking through Budapest, at every street there was some beautiful building to see, something to admire. I don’t know that I can do the city any justice in words, so here are some pictures that might do a better job.

Wide open boulevards
Heros’ square
Part of the castle
Theater
Parliment
Fisherman’s bastion
 That night we went back to Szimpla Bar and met Sabrina and her friend, both from France. We had a very nice time talking with them and will hopefully meet up with Sabrina in Paris! The next day we took it easy, but not without a lot of backtracking and a little confusion. We had to get Haegan a swimsuit so we braved the mall, made it in and out in 20 minutes. Then I realized I had forgotten mine at the apartment so after spending some time on Margaret Island, we rode city bikes back to the apartment. As we get better at riding long days, we get worse at walking long days. I used to easily walk about an hour every day to and from school, and now I find myself getting pretty tired after about two hours of sightseeing. The days on bikes seem more like rest days than the days in the cities. So, we got some city bikes (the rent rate is extremely reasonable), and went back to the apartment. Then finally we got to Gellert Baths, one of the many bath complexes in Budapest. The complex has various pools and saunas at different temperatures. It is a bit maze like so we got separated for about 40 minutes but really enjoyed relaxing and trying out the different pools.

City bikes!
Relaxing at the baths
Classic Gellert baths picture
We took our nifty city bikes back to the apartment and made dinner for Corinne and Dave, risotto and salad. We had a really nice staying with them and hope we can see them in the States.

We were slow to get moving the next day, we stopped by The Goat Herder to say goodbye to Corinne and Dave, and then stopped by Bajnok bike shop. We talked with the owner, Copter, for a bit and he made us some coffee with honey (delicious), and gave us some souvenirs from the shop. Haegan got a t-shirt commemorating one of the last Hungarian master frame builders and I got a jersey with the Hungarian flag colors. Haegan and Copter talked bikes while I tried to follow along (I’m not totally lost anymore), and we bought some bells for our bikes. Bajnok was a really cool shop and we were glad we found them.

The Goat Herder
Bajnok
That day we rode along the Danube and ended in Esztergom, where there is a large Basilica we wanted to see the next morning. All the campsites and hostels were closed so we casually crossed over to Slovakia over the Danube to find a place to sleep. We crossed over the bridge, back into Hungary, the next morning to see Esztergom. Schengen Zone = freakishly easy border crossing and no stamps. The Esztergom Basilica was incredible, we saw a beautiful collection of items from the Basilica’s history, the crypt, and we got to walk along the top of the dome.

Massive basilica
View from the top
In the Crypt
Got some goulash on the way out

With just a quick bridge crossing we were in Slovakia. It was a bit odd to not even see a border control station, but from now until Morocco that should be the norm. No more stamps for us. We had an amazing time in Hungary and really fell in love with Budapest while we were there. And now the journey continues…

Oh look, a castle!

On April 2, we left Tirana mid day and in good spirits. It was finally sunny and we figured we could probably camp that night. We were on a busy road for a while and then found some smaller roads running through the small towns. The riding was nice and kind of slow because we were both so happy to be out in the sun. Almost every person we passed waved and said hello, and the kids we passed asked us our names. Everyone was so outgoing and friendly. When we stopped for lunch, we asked a few people where a good place to eat was. A guy on a scooter showed us a restaurant and we sat down for nice, and very cheap, meal. We realized that many people knew Italian as a second language so we were able to communicate fairly well with Spanish and Italian. After lunch we rode a bit more and passed a large abandoned factory. We rode through a few more small villages and over a dry river until we stopped in Lezhë for coffee. As we were sitting Haegan noticed a castle on the hill behind us. We found it so strange that we had just stumbled upon a castle, and if we hadn’t of stopped we might not have noticed it. We stopped and locked our bikes so we could climb up to the castle. The park where we locked our bikes had ruins from the Ottoman Empire and large mosaic of the Albanian flag. We thought maybe we could camp there since the grass was nice in the walls of the ruins. We asked a man who offered to watch our bikes if camping was allowed in the park with the ruins. He seemed to think our question was silly, of course we could camp in the city’s ruins. We climbed up the hill the castle and hoped we might be able to watch the sunset from the top. The castle was first built in Illyrian times and then fortified much later by the Venetians in 1440 and then the Ottomans 100 years later. The earliest record of Illyrian civilization is from around 400 BC and lasted until about 200 AD. We’re not sure when the castle was first built, but it was probably about 2000 years ago. It’s crazy to think about people building massive structures on top of tall hills using only man power and basic tools, the thought gave me goosebumps as we walked around the ruins. There are still walls from Illyrian times, ruins of a mosque from the Ottomans, and Roman arches. While we were in the ruins the church bells from the town below started ringing. All the sounds blended together to make a sort of chaotic but beautiful sound. The castle closed before we could see the sunset but we still had some spectacular views.  

  

 We returned to our bikes and found a cafe with internet so we could check a few things. Our phones don’t work in Albania and a few other countries in the Balkans. We then decided to find some dinner and found a pizza place a little ways into Lezhë. It was getting dark and we had such a good day. The riding had been beautiful, we had stumbled upon a castle, and the people had been so friendly. Unfortunately, the good day became tainted when we returned from dinner. We found our bikes with open bags, our handlebar bags ripped open. We first noticed that my cycling shoes missing and then that our Garmins were gone. Thankfully we had both taken our wallets and phones, although we stupidly had left our passports. We were very lucky those were not taken. A policeman passed us and we tried to talk to him but he didn’t speak and English and didn’t understand our nervous gestures. Another man passed us and he called his friend who spoke Spanish and I talked to her for a bit. I had a hard time understanding her, partially because I think Spanish was also her second language, the phone service wasn’t very clear, and I was nervous. Eventually we gathered everything we could find, some our stuff was on the ground, and walked to a hotel nearby. We talked to the manager there who offered us a cheap room and told us that he could take us to the police if we wanted, but that it would take a very long time and probably wouldn’t solve anything. In retrospect, we probably should have still gone just to have the incident reported, but it was late and we were pretty shaken. In the room we tried to figure out what all had been stolen, making sure that everything important was still with us. The stuff that was stolen can be replaced, it’s just expensive. We were both frustrated that we had gotten too comfortable, that we had relied on the locks on handlebar bags to work against theft, and that the incident could have been so easily prevented. What was also a bit frustrating was that everything that was taken had almost no value to anyone but us or someone in a very similar situation. Whoever stole our things won’t be able to get hardly any money for what they took, and they weren’t very useful everything day things either. Things like my cycling shoes and Haegan’s retainer are pretty useless for anyone but us, but are rather difficult for us to replace. It was hard not to go through the what-ifs but we eventually just had to realize that we just needed to move forward. The next morning we decided we couldn’t let the mishap ruin our short time in Albania, and we also realized that we needed help. We really didn’t want to have to ask for help, especially financial help. After we arrived in Montenegro (more about this later), and I had access to e-mail again, we were completely astounded by the amount of support we received, both in donations and nice messages. We are both so incredibly grateful to you all, it’s hard for me to express how much the community’s support has uplifted and motivated us. We have found that the blog helps stay connected to everyone back home, we love hearing back from everyone, and it’s very comforting to know people are reading and following along with us. And then when we needed a little extra help we got an outpouring of support and positivity. We are very, very lucky and we can’t thank you enough. We are now hesitant to tell people where our things were stolen because there are still hard feelings between the Balkan countries. Albania is one of the poorest countries in Europe and the Balkans, and when we told people where our things were stolen, we get a sort of, “well of course Albania”, response. It’s sad because we still really liked Albania and would like to go back to see more of the mountains and coast. The day we left Lezhë we rode through more small towns and were given an apple and chips at a small convenience store. It was sunny again and we crossed the border into Montenegro a little after lunch.  

 It’s incredible how quickly you can start to see difference after crossing a border. Within a few miles the landscape and the feel of the place will change. We noticed very quickly that Montenegro is a wealthier country. The roads were a bit nicer, the houses a little more kept. The people were also very different. They are less outgoing, a little more reserved than Albanians and Macedonians, but still very nice. After stopping in Ulcinj at a cafe we looked for a place to camp. The road followed a cliff with small villages in the valley. We rode down into one of the villages and asked around for a place to camp. We hoped that when we asked people might offer us a spot in their yard or field, but instead they would direct us to a campsite. We then realized we had to be more direct and simply ask if we could camp in a specific spot. We were able to camp in a small field surrounded by a small stone wall.  

Nice spot to camp

 The next day of riding was fairly uneventful. The coast of Montenegro is very rocky with large cliffs. Our riding involved many climbs and descents, bridges and tunnels. The climbing wasn’t too bad although I really started to miss my cycling shoes. We rode pretty close to the coast all day, enjoying the view of the Adriatic and the cliffs on the coast.  

  

Burek: meat pie (delicious)

  

Lunch beach

  

 That night we stayed in a small apartment because it was supposed to rain that night. We rode into Kotor in the morning and just from riding through we decided we had to come back to spend at least a week. I noticed a wall on the mountain right next to the coast and after following the wall I saw there was a near the base and a castle at the very top. I stopped to show Haegan and we were both awestruck by the structure. It was even more striking I think because we weren’t looking for it.  

Monastary

  

 The town has great views of the surrounding mountains and seems like a very relaxed place to be. The riding along the coast in Montenegro was hilly like the day before and eventually we climbed up to the border and crossed into Croatia.  

  

  

  

#fourcountriesoneweek

 Not long after we crossed the border we had another climb, this one not quite as long, but very steep. We had already ridden about 50 km (30 miles) of climbs and descents so I was getting a little tired, especially of long climbs. We rode a little ways and came to another long and fairly steep climb. I was trying to concentrate on the beautiful scenery, the small stone fences and nicely laid out grape vines, so that I wouldn’t think so much about how much I didn’t want to riding up another hill. I wasn’t very successful at distracting myself so I then decided that I just had to make it up to the top of the hill, and then I could complain and be miserable all I wanted. When I finally made it to the top I couldn’t help but cry a little, I couldn’t tell whether it was because the climb was so painful or if it was because I was so happy I had made it the whole way up without giving up. After that we had yet another climb up to our place for the night, this one still slow but easier after having toughed out the last one. It was probably my most accomplished day of riding, and getting through those rough patches has only gotten easier and easier.  

Autumn crests a difficult hill

  

 We stayed at a place we found on Warm Shower’s, Mikulici Nature Park. The park is small piece of land overlooking the Adriatic Sea, just outside Mikulici village. It was quite a climb to get there and as we rounded to the park we were greeted by six dogs at the driveway. Marko opened the nature park 8 years ago after retiring from his work in Canada and has lots of stories about his past travels and the people who have stayed at his park. We enjoyed the lively conversation and were very grateful when Marko let us sleep in the office so we didn’t have to get rained on.  

View from Marko’s porch

  

Little puppy

  

Marko’s place

 In the morning we had fresh bread and then started our way to Dubrovnik. A few kilometers in we met Adrian who lives in the area. He started a local cycling group and rode with us for a little bit. It was funny meeting up with him because right before he rode up we had been wondering if it was possible to get tired of being the area. After talking with Adrian (he’s lived in the area his whole life), we figured it’s probably pretty hard to get tired of.  

Adrian’s picture of us (we forgot to get one off him…)

 We only had about 30 km (19 miles) to go from Marko’s and we figured since Dubrovnik is on the coast that the riding would be fairly flat. Wrong. It seemed as though we climbed 90% of our way to a coastal town. The Croatian coast is very rocky and hilly, with many cliffs that go right up to the sea. It’s beautiful and the views are fantastic. It’s also very tiring.  

A rare downhill

  

   

The view from the top if the last climb

   

Another fantastic #selfie

   We found Dubrovnik Backpacker’s Club and were greeted with an Easter lunch made by the family who runs the hostel. They were very welcoming and let us stay at the hostel even though they weren’t officially opening for another two days. After a bit of lunch and showers we walked to the Old City to explore a bit. We were a bit shocked because there were so many tourists. The places we’ve been haven’t been very touristy so it was strange to be surrounded by other people speaking English. We walked around a little bit, admiring the old city walls and eventually found a little bar right on the wall next to the coast and watched the sunset.  

  

  

 The next day we had breakfast with the host family and decided to ride on some of the islands on our way to Split after the oldest son told us more about the area. He drove us to the old town and we started the walk up to the old fortress. The fortress was built by Neapolitan but was used as recently as 1995 during the Croatian Homeland War. After walking to the top we had a great view of the city and then entered the fortress and walked through the museum about the Homeland War.  

View from the top

  

  

  The Homeland War was from 1991 to 1995 after Croatia declared its independence from Yugoslavia. Serbia tried to capture Croatian land and attacked Dubrovnik as a kind of black mail. Many Croatians fled to Dubrovnik because they thought the city would be spared due to its historical significance. The city was attacked many times during the four years and over half the buildings were damaged. We were shocked to learn about such a recent war and how little the international community did to protect the old city. It’s very interesting to travel through countries like Albania and Croatia who so recently became countries and had conflicts no more than 20 years ago. We walked around the top of the fortress and then took the cable car back down to the Old City. We then visited the Dubrovnik Synagogue, which is the oldest Sefardic Synagogue in world. The Synagogue was built on the second story of an apartment building in the Old City where Jews found refuge after they fled from Spain in the 16th century. Although Dubrovnik provided a safe place for the Jews, they were confined to only a small part of the city and only experienced short periods of equality. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take pictures inside.

While we were walking around the harbor of the Old City we saw a guy on a touring bike. We went over to talk to him and found out he’d been touring for 5 years and was now heading back to France to finish his trip. We exchanged information and figured we’d meet up later as we were heading in the same direction. We’ll tell you more about our adventures with him, Jacques, in the next post. After a little more wandering we bought tickets to walk around the top of the city walls. It was very nice walk with lots and lots and lots of stairs. Note about Croatia: so many stairs and hills. Taking stairs up to a city wall makes sense, but it seems that to get anywhere in Dubrovnik you must climb a few hills. If an old man here told me that he used walk to school, uphill both ways, I’d 100% believe him. It’s kind of ridiculous how hilly it is. The city wall was very impressive though and we had fun walking around and peeking out holes in the wall.  

   

    

#caughtgramin
     

We got back to the hostel and I made tabouli with the leftover bulgur we bought in Turkey. Even though the bulgur wasn’t normal for tabouli, it was nice to make and eat something so familiar. We met Claire from the UK and hung out a bit in the common area of the hostel. Although Dubrovnik was expensive and kind of touristy, we really enjoyed exploring the old city and the surrounding area. We left the next morning with hopes of flatter riding and a free place to sleep. More about that later. 

Kid, you’ll move mountains/Skopje or bust

We left Sofia on March 22, a bit later than intended, but not too bad. In Sofia we heard a lot about the Rila Monastery so we decided to change our route a bit to check it out. We rode out of Sofia and immediately started climbing. It was astounding how quickly we went from being a fairly flat city, to in the mountains with snow and deep valleys. The total climb was about 25 km (15 miles), all with spectacular views of surrounding mountains. 

We stopped for lunch at a restaurant at the top of our climb (we didn’t realize this when we stopped though). We tried some homemade sausage, fries, and bread, all delicious. After our lunch we started down the mountain we had just climbed. The views kept getting better and better. Once we were in the valley, we could look back at the mountain we had just been on, which was a neat feeling. IMG_3048

We made it to Samokov where we stayed a little guest house. We made dinner at the guest house and prepared for the next day. We were a little worried because there was still a lot of snow and the route Haegan found seemed a little unreliable as the last bit of it looked like a hiking trail. After a lot of back and forth, we decided to take a longer route that we knew would be clear. We left Samokov early and rode at a pretty decent pace, it was mostly downhill. The incredible views continued. 

Eventually, we weren’t going downhill anymore, we were climbing. It wasn’t too steep, but after 68 km (42 miles) of riding already it felt a lot more difficult than the climbing the day before. The last 20 km were all uphill, and I was totally exhausted by the end. The two consecutive days of climbing certainly took a lot out of me, but I kept thinking about Dr. Suess’ Oh the Places You’ll Go. I kept thinking of passages from the book and how accurately they applied for this trip. The one I remembered especially was, “Kid, you’ll move mountains”. In my head though, I was thinking more “climb”. Just thinking about the book kept me going though. I thought about my dad reading it me when I was little and the very powerful message the book has. Doing great/cool/powerful/awesome things can be tough, but they’re possible. Ninety eight and three quarters percent guaranteed. Riding through Turkey was tough, but with that challenge we were able to meet some wonderful people and ended up loving Turkey. I never thought I’d be speaking Spanish in Bulgaria, but that also ended up being a great experience and now one of my favorite stories. And now we were climbing mountains, carrying all of our stuff, and seeing the mountains in their full glory. 

We had a delicious dinner at the hotel, I had local trout and “butter stewed” potatoes. It was probably one of the best meals I’ve had so far. I’m not exactly sure how to butter stew potatoes, but I intend on finding out. I want to have those potatoes again. Haegan had a Bulgarian stew, baked in a clay pot, which he enjoyed. Lots of the stews have egg on top, which is kinda growing on him.

Stew with egg.
Stew with egg.
Delicious.
Delicious.

The next morning we walked up to the Rila Monastery. It’s a beautiful old Monastery, started in 927 and named after Saint Ivan of Rila. We walked around the church, hands down the most colorful church I’ve ever seen, and the museum. We couldn’t take pictures inside the church or the museum, but outside the church there are paintings similar to the ones inside the church.

Outside the church
Outside the church
Inside the monastery
Inside the monastery
Bell tower
Bell tower
Images from outside the church. The paintings inside the church are similar.
Images from outside the church. The paintings inside the church are similar.

The museum had artifacts from the entire history of the monastery. We were most impressed by Rafail’s Cross. The cross is about two and half feet tall, and has over 100 religious scenes from the Bible. The artistry of the cross is absolutely incredible, each image is so intricate and delicate. We couldn’t take pictures so here’s one I found on the internet:

from: http://bgtourinfo.net/rila/images/monastery_29.jpg
from: http://bgtourinfo.net/rila/images/monastery_29.jpg

The monastery was beautiful, and so was the ride to get there. We were constantly stopping to take in the views, there seemed to be a new breathtaking view each time we turned. It’s humbling to know that the mountains here have been inspiring people for thousands of years.  I think there is something innately human that causes us to stand in wonder of nature. It doesn’t matter where we come from, how old we are, or what generation we were born, we have been and always will be astounded by what we cannot possibly create.IMG_3051

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After going to the monastery, we walked back to the hotel and started our journey to Macedonia. When we were riding to Rila, my chest had started to hurt a little bit, more so when I took deep breaths. As we headed to Macedonia my chest was hurting again and my throat was sore. I figured I could tough it out though, especially since most of the riding was going to be downhill. We didn’t get very far before the pain in my chest got to be too much. We decided to stop for the day in Blagoevgrad, just short of the border. We went to a pharmacy to get cough medicine and lozenges. Grocery stores in Europe don’t carry over the counter medicines, so you have to go to a pharmacy for everything. The pharmacist didn’t speak English so we played a desperate game of charades to get cough medicine. It ended up working out fine and we spent the next day resting. Being sick caused a bit of homesickness, especially when I wasn’t sure what was wrong with me. We managed it though, Haegan took good care of me 🙂

We left to cross the border into Macedonia on March 26th. The first 20 km (13 miles) was all climbing and we passed the time by practicing Spanish. Haegan knows a bit, and I know a decent amount… but I don’t remember a lot of the rules, I just know what sounds right. Our conversations were quite humorous, especially since we often had to find round about ways of sayings things due to our limited vocabulary. I think we both got a little better, and laughed more going up that mountain than any other so far.

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One of the incredible views from our climb up the mountain to the border.
This guy popped out of the ditch when we stopped for a break and then made laps around us as we continued slowly up the mountain.
This guy popped out of the ditch when we stopped for a break and then made laps around us as we continued slowly up the mountain.

At the top of the mountain we crossed the border, got a super classy photo with the welcome sign, and continued down the mountain. We descended for a while and ended up in Delcevo, our original stopping point for the day. We sat down for coffee and soon after two other cyclists pulled in. They joined us for coffee and told us all about their touring adventures. Alessandro is currently touring from China to Italy, and Hera is riding back from China to the Netherlands. It was so great to talk with people who have so much experience touring. Haegan and I decided to continue farther as it was still early in the day, the weather was beautiful, and we still felt good. We headed out separately from Alessandro and Hera but met again later on and rode together for the rest of the day. It started raining the last part of the ride and we found a cheap motel in Kochevo, Macedonia.IMG_3095

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Yay touring friends!
Once we crossed the border we descended for the rest of the day, which was nice after mostly climbing the last two days.
Once we crossed the border we descended for the rest of the day, which was nice after mostly climbing the last two days.

The forecast was for rain the next two days. We had about 120 km (75 miles) to Skopje. Our choices were to either split up the riding, two days in the rain. Or, we could just go for it and make it in one long day. We decided the later, and made a reservation for a hostel to motivate ourselves to go all the way. Skopje or bust.

It wasn’t raining too badly when we started. We made good time for the first 50 km and met up with Hera and Alessandro again. We got lunch all together and continued separately afterwards. The rain was frustrating, especially since after about 30 km water started coming in the sleeves of my jacket. By 60 km we were both totally soaked and pretty uncomfortable. The views were great though. Macedonia is an incredibly beautiful country. The day before we had been riding through rocky cliffs with lakes in the valleys, and in the rain we passed green farm fields and eventually reached more mountains.

I apologize for the lack of photos of the mountains. Because it was grey and rainy most of the days we were riding in the mountains it was difficult to get good photos. Even if it had been good weather, it’s difficult to capture the grandness of the mountains, especially when they were completely surrounding us.

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What wasn’t so beautiful was the number of squashed frogs on the road. I only mention this because there were so so many. About 60 km in we started keeping track of how many dead frogs we saw… it became a sort of game. No pictures of the frogs, I’m not that morbid.

At around 80 km we started climbing again. It was a maddening climb. It felt as though we were in an endless loop. We would be climbing what appeared to be a small hill, and it looked like once you turned left around the hill, there would be a descent. Instead, it was just another seemingly small hill with another taunting turn. We could never see the next hill, and it seemed like this pattern continued six or seven times. To make it worse, the road turned to a strange loose gravel. It looked as though they had tried to fix the potholes by just throwing gravel on the road. It all got to be a little much for me at this point and it took some effort to get my confidence back to make it all the way to Skopje.

The gravel roads continued as we climbed to the top and had a great view of the valley completely filled with fog. We started descending on the gravel on a very windy road. The rain had washed out the gravel in the potholes so now we were going down a fairly steep road, on gravel, trying to avoid potholes, and making very sharp turns. It was a long descent, and my arms were a bit sore from gripping my brakes tightly the whole way down.IMG_3119

Once we were down the hill we were about 20 km away from Skopje and we were so ready to be done. As we rode the final miles into Skopje I thought about how grateful I am to be traveling with Haegan. I couldn’t imagine a better travel companion, and that’s a nice thing to realize 3 weeks into a five month trip. We made to the hostel after 8 hours on the bikes, tired, soaked, and exhausted. We happily ate leftover pasta and went right to bed.

FINAL FROG COUNT

Haegan: 5

Autumn: 30

Total dead: 34

Total live: 1

NotIstanbul, Turkey

Haegan: The first few days after we left Istanbul were a really mixed bag. We saw some cool stuff but a lot of it was very stressful and difficult. We hadn’t planned as well as we should have and didn’t know exactly what riding in Turkey was going to be like. One of our biggest issues was with getting started late and ending up riding or trying to find somewhere to stay after dark. But at this point we have learned a lot about what we need to do in the future to prevent more of the really hard days we had to deal with. Turkey is not the easiest country to do your first real days of touring in, but we survived and things can only go up from here. We hope.

Autumn:

Saturday, March 7, 2015

We left Istanbul after spending just one full day in the city. Although we didn’t stay long, we both felt it was enough. The history of the city is amazing but being there is very overwhelming. It makes New York City seem calm and organized. In the morning we took a ferry over to the Asian side of Istanbul and toured around for a few hours to see a bit more before we left. It was a slightly calmer than the Old City and fewer people spoke English. It was fun to wander around the streets and look in all the shops. We got lunch at little cafeteria style restaurant where we accidently tried liver. When we were selecting our food Haegan asked about a dish that looked like little pieces of beef and potato. The man pointed just below his rib cage to indicate the type of meat and before I could warn Haegan, he popped the piece of liver in his mouth. Oops. I knew I didn’t like liver but felt obligated to try because it was being offered. We ended up ordering a dish that had kofte (spiced Turkish meatball) with mashed potatoes and melted cheese. It was sitting in a pool of grease and sounded amazing.

Kofte with mashed potatos

t was, but only for a few bites. We were both overwhelmed by the density of the dish and only ate half. After lunch we headed back to our hostel to pack up our bags. After packing up and saying goodbye to the folks at the hostel, we made our way to the bridge to cross over to the new city.

I did not realize until we were leaving the hostel that Haegan was planning to ride through the city. I refused to ride from the hostel to the bridge as the streets were cobblestones, steep, and not at all straight. We walked our bikes through the crowded streets and I started to panic as I realized that eventually I would have to get on my bike and ride through the busy streets. Before getting on the bridge we got on our bikes and I nearly broke down. The car came so close and there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the traffic. We missed our turn for the bridge and had to backtrack to walk across the bridge. There were many people fishing from the bridge and most had pretty full buckets of fish. Once we crossed the bridge I felt okay getting on the road, but still nervous. Once we started riding I realized that I really had nothing to worry about. It was so crowded that the cars were barely moving, and because driving in Istanbul is nuts, the drivers are much more aware of what’s happening around them. So it wasn’t bad. We made it out the city and rode along the coast. It was pretty windy but the ocean was nice and I was feeling a lot better about riding. Sometime when we were riding along the coast Haegan realized we left our towels at the hostel. It was silly oversight and annoying because they were nice quick drying towels. Lost item number one of our trip. It started getting dark and we decided to buy some groceries for our dinner that night. We stopped at a little market and Haegan went to the ATM to get cash. He realized that his debit card was gone. We tried to figure out where it had gone and could only conclude that it had fallen out of his pocket at some point. (Fastforward a bit: we never found the card but it has been cancelled, no funds were lost.) So, lost item number two. Thankfully I still had my card so we were still able to get cash and buy groceries. It was very dark by this point so we decided to start looking for a place to camp. We passed a bunch of places that looked like country clubs, and we decided that if we couldn’t find a place to camp we would come back and ask the staff at the club. We came to an aquaduct and noticed a fire station across the road. We had read in blogs that other people touring would ask at police stations and other public service building so we decided to give it a try. One of the firemen spoke English but he had just moved to the area so he didn’t know where we could camp. He told us to go to the market up the street and ask there, they might be able to help us. We didn’t find the market but we did find a high end bike shop where the owner directed us to a public forest. The forest was just down the road from the shop. The guards at the forest did not speak English but we managed to communicate with translation apps on our phones. The told us that camping was normally prohibited but they would let us camp in one of the picnic areas. We were very grateful and began to set up camp. I would like to note here that once we left Istanbul we noticed it was pretty windy. We figured it was from the ocean, the water looked pretty choppy. The wind continued even as we left the coast but it wasn’t terribly strong. When we were setting up the tent we started to really noticed the wind as it was difficult the set up the tent and our helmets kept getting blown off the table. Haegan got started on dinner and he realized that a few of the things he bought weren’t what he thought. The rice was actually long grain bulgur (apparently Turks love bulgur based on the number of varieties in the store – we checked later) and the “zucchini” was actually a cucumber. So we had an interesting meal of unidentified grain (we weren’t sure what it was at the time), red peppers, onion, and salt and pepper courtesy of Lufthansa Airlines. Camping food at its finest. While we were making dinner and eating, a group of cats started gathering around our table. It was dark so I’m not sure of the total, but I think there were at least six cats hanging around our table. I guess stray cats aren’t just in Istanbul. We cleaned up and headed to bed. The tent was noisy from the wind but we were both exhausted and slept soundly.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

I set our the alarm for 7:30, and that ended up being a smart move. Around 7:45 we heard a voice and footsteps around our tent. The night before when Haegan was talking to the guards I wondered if there would any miscommunication about our camping in the picnic area. Turns out there was. We couldn’t understand the man walking around our tent but we could imagine he was telling us we weren’t supposed to be camping. We got up as quickly as we could as started packing up. One of the guards from the night before came to the site and watched as we packed everything up. Neither of the guards were mean or impatient, they were actually very nice about the whole thing and we were just happy to have had a place to sleep. In our packing we discovered our tent bag was missing, it must have blown away in the wind. Lost item number three. Getting kicked out of the site got us an earlier start than we had planned but in retrospect, that was probably for the best. As we rode out we got to see the forest, it was beautiful and had tons of picnic tables. We found out later that Turkish people absolutely love picnics, but apparently aren’t so enthusiastic about camping. We went into town and found a cafe with pastries and coffee. The owner didn’t speak a lot of English but we had no problem communicating with him. Haegan got another simit (thin sesame bagel), and I got a croissant type pasty with sesames on top. It was amazing. We also had coffee, which we’ve found in Turkey that normal coffee is usually Nescafe… and it’s awesome. Haegan, who isn’t much a coffee drinker, likes it especially. We sat and Haegan figured out the route while I watched Turkish music videos. It was a tough job. We left around 9:30 and got started on our route which we hoped would take us to Çatalca, Turkey. We passed at least 5 or 6 areas that were just for picnics, table after table, some even had little huts. We figured that if all 15 million people in Istanbul decided to go on a picnic on the same weekend, there’d be space. After the picnic areas we came to a modern suburban area, which was nice because it had a bike lane. We came to another aquaduct and passed underneath.

We rode parallel to a highway and at one point were very close to what looked like a giant pit for trash. We figured it was probably one of Istanbul’s dumps. It smelled horrible. As we continued to ride through the area towards Çatalca, we realized that Istanbul has sucked all the resources from the surrounding area. We named this area Not Istanbul. It’s not a very scenic area, there is a lot of trash, a lot of fields, and a lot of trucks. Not long after we passed the dump, we were passed by a few trucks. I started counting after a while and in a span of about 10 minutes we were passed by at least 15 trucks. They were big dump trucks and we figured they were all heading to the same place. We rode among the trucks and noticed that they were turning around to get in line to enter the dumping/loading area. It was complete chaos. The trucks were two wide on each side and turned around pretty much wherever and whenever they could with little warning. Thankfully everyone was going slowly so Haegan and I quickly weaved our way out the mess. Normally, something like that would have made me very nervous, but because we just ended up in the middle without knowing what was happening, I didn’t have time to be nervous. I just had to focus on getting out without getting squashed. I know it sounds very scary (sorry Mum and Dad) but it truly wasn’t all that bad, just bizarre.

After the trucks we rode through a small city and after we found ourselves surrounded by farm fields. In the distance we could see many wind turbines and could still feel a pretty strong wind. It was nothing we couldn’t manage, just a little frustrating at times and made hills even more difficult. We were heading to Nakkas, a small town we saw on the map that we thought about spending the night or maybe just to get some food. The views were nice, although grey, and the wind remained constant. When I stopped to eat an orange (which was absolutely amazing), a woman stopped and talked to us. She only spoke Turkish so the only thing we were really able to tell her was that we were Americans and we were headed to Nakkas. She seemed very nice and I wished we could have been able to talk more with her. It’s been kind of strange to say I’m from America. Once we got to Turkey though we realized that people did not understand if we said we were from the United States, but quickly understood if we said we’re from America. Anyway, we kept riding ended up on the a dirt road and then found ourselves in Nakkas. Going from Istanbul to Nakkas was bizarre. It felt as though we were in a totally undeveloped country. It was a tiny farming village with shepherds and carts full of animal innards. So we left pretty quickly after indicating we were going to Çatalca, some boys pointed the direction we should go. After leaving Nakkas is when the wind started to get really bad. As we rode up a long hill there were gusts of wind that move me across the road into the other lane. The wind was strong enough to move me, my bike, and all my stuff, about 170 pounds in all, over about 6 feet. I was using all my strength to not end up in the oncoming lane. Haegan figures the gusts were about 35 miles an hour. So I got off my bike and walked. Even though walking on the side of the road was not super safe, it was better than losing control of my bike. Eventually we turned and had a nice tail wind for a while. About a mile out of Çatalca, I started to bonk. I had no energy left and we had climb a pretty steep hill before entering Çatalca. Fortunately, at the top of the hill there was a pizza place, which was exactly what we needed. I felt much better after the pizza (we didn’t know what we ordered but it was delicious). There were no hotels in Çatalca so while we were at the pizza place we booked a hotel in Kamburgaz, Turkey about 10 miles away, on the coast. This was a little daunting for me. Ten miles isn’t far, especially on a bike, but we had already ridden nearly 40 long, hilly and windy miles. My legs were tired and I was ready to be off my bike. We started off and found ourselves on a pretty worn road with nice farmhouses. The wind wasn’t as bad anymore. We both started getting a little worried that the hotel we had booked was scam because we couldn’t see any sign of a coast. The roads on the map were barely existent dirt roads and the street signs were either missing or didn’t match our map. The coast finally came into view and we made one of our last turns. We turned onto a dirt road and had the wind blowing to our left. The dirt road was deeply rutted and the wind made it very difficult for me to keep my balance. After a gust of wind that caused me to lose my balance, I had to stop. I had kept pretty good spirits until this point when I finally broke down. We had been on the road for nearly 6 hours, the wind was absolutely ridiculous, and the road was near impossible to ride on. I don’t know how many times said “absurd”, but it was a lot, and at this point the absurdity of the day beat me. Haegan calmed me down enough start riding again and not long after we made it to Kumburgaz. I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited to see the ocean.

We made to the hotel, which was very nice for the amount we paid for it. After a shower and clean clothes I felt much better, though very tired. Despite being so tired we got to talk with both our families and made plans for the next day. We reorganized our stuff and inhaled a giant plate of spaghetti, chicken kebab, and a basket of bread. We decided to ride to Çorlu the next day after finding someone to stay with on CouchSurfing.
Monday, March 9, 2015
We woke still tired and went down to get breakfast in the hotel restaurant (no extra charge). We went back to our room and slept a little longer, which was a bad idea looking back. Something we definitely need to work on is getting started on our bikes earlier. I’ll tell you more in a bit. I went to the market down the street to get snacks for the day. I picked out a few candy bars I’d never seen before and some oranges. When I was in the market I noticed the huge selection rice and bulgur and many types of cheeses. Oreos and Snickers are very popular in Turkey which I found interesting. Haegan and I got started on our bikes and were going at decent pace in the very beginning. We rode parallel to the D.100 which is a trunk road (a small highway). A few times we got lost in residential areas but we weren’t too worried because we didn’t have far to go to get to Çorlu. We got Silivri in good time and found ourselves in a medium sized pop up market. We parked our bikes and immediately an old man came up and tried to talk to us. A little while after a boy about six or seven years old came up and looked at our bikes. I told him we were American and responded with, “Ah! American!” and laughed. His response tickled me and I once again wished I knew Turkish. We walked our bikes through the market and then rode through Silivri. It was riding through Silivri that I realized that the chaos of the cities that had scared me before was now slightly comforting. After riding in the middle of nowhere for most the day before I welcomed the random and chaotic city streets. After Silivri is when things started going downhill (not literally). Haegan was doing his best with navigation but the map rarely matched the actual streets. We came to a residential area where the map showed a road that would take us to the coast. The road seemed to just be a path made by trucks for construction. We found a dirt road that looked like it might take us near the coast. It was deeply rutted and I had to walk most of it.  nce we got to the end, we met a guard who told us we had to go back. Apparently the road was private property and so was the neighborhood at the end of it. I was getting a little frustrated but I knew Haegan was doing his best. Getting off track a few times set us back significantly with time and the navigation never really got much easier. We crossed over the highway to start moving north of the coast. We ended up on another dirt road, this one uphill with more wind. Not as bad as the day before, but still an added challenge. Still tired from the day before, and discouraged, I broke down much sooner. I was frustrated that navigation was so difficult, that we kept running into rutted dirt roads, we were not going to make it to Çorlu before dark, and we were truly in the middle of nowhere.  n one of the dirt roads Haegan hit a loose section of gravel and fell. When that happened I really started to get nervous. He’s supposed to be the steady one, he’s stronger and much better at riding. I started to realize that if something happened while we were riding out there, we’d be in big trouble. I kept running the emergency number through my head, it became a little chant as we rode. We realized that best chance for getting to Çorlu was to ride on the D.100. It’s not a terribly busy highway, there are stoplights every once and a while, but it’s still a highway with buses and trucks and many of them don’t give a lot of space. When got on the D.100 my nerves caused me to pick up the pace and I was going at a good speed until I started to bonk. We barely ate that day, second bad decision after waking up late. We stopped at gas station and I ate the rest of our crackers. My biking gloves had caused me to lose feeling in my right thumb and I was started to get cold. We got back on the highway and suddenly all my energy was gone. I couldn’t stop crying and Haegan had to keep insisting I pick up the pace so we could get off the highway. It was bad, probably the most miserable I’ve ever been riding. My entire body hurt and it upset me that Haegan kept telling me to go faster when I felt I was going as fast as I could. I was also scared. Every truck or bus that passed too close caused me to panic. Even at the time though I could tell he was very stressed and just wanted us to be able to get off the D.100 as soon as we could. About two miles before Çorlu I noticed Haegan’s bags were falling off his bike. We pulled off and he realized his bag had broke. It was now impossible for him to go over any bump without his bags falling off the rear rack. We finally got off the D.100 and found ourselves at a four way stop, with no stop signs or lights. This is probably the best example of Turkish roads to explain the complete chaos of riding in the city. It was bizarre to watch as no one was hit, there were no accidents. It also made it completely impossible to go where we needed to go. After a bit of maneuvering, we made it through. We got to the Çorlu city center and found Mustafa, who had kindly offered to host us on CouchSurfing. We seriously lucked out. After the death march to Çorlu, Mustafa took us for dinner, gave us a place to sleep, and taught us some Turkish. We’ll tell you more about Mustafa and our stay with him in the next post.

The Adventure Begins

Autumn: We did it! We made it to Istanbul! Our adventure has finally begun after months of anticipation. Both our flights went smoothly, we had no problems with our hour long layover in Frankfurt. We even had time to scope out the airport Haribo selection. We had no luck sleeping on our first flight but managed in a short nap on the flight to Istanbul. Once we got to the airport the chaos began with trying to find the right passport control station. It was pretty simple getting to the baggage claim, but we had a quite a time getting all four of our boxes. Haegan’s box broke and he thought he’d lost one of his shoes. Thankfully all pieces were present and intact when we opened the boxes. We had tough time with the carts, first finding carts and then getting new carts when our first was taken when we weren’t paying attention. Once we got outside the first thing that hit me was the number of people smoking. It seemed as though every person waiting for a taxi was smoking, something I am not used to in the States. Haegan assembled the bikes in good time the taxi waiting area. We loaded up the bikes and set out in search of the tram. We managed to get on the right tram but got off a stop too late. We redirected ourselves, but when it came to train line change, we decided to walk instead of ride. Rush hour had begun and we realized there was no way we would be able to fit with our bikes on the tram. The decision to walk was a good idea, the actual walking was a little difficult. We walked nearly two miles uphill through pedestrian (and vehicle) packed sidewalks with our 50-60 pound loaded bikes. Once we got to the hostel we were warmly greeted by the staff and other travelers. We got settled and then ventured out to find food. Once we walked out of the hostel we realized just how close to Hagia Sofia the hostel is. We ate at what seemed like the Turkish equivalent of a diner, it was fairly similar to Mediterranean food. After dinner we were completely exhausted, but managed to stay up a few more hours to get adjusted to the time change. I was thinking today about doing things like navigating the trains is much more of a process here because we don’t know the language. It is not impossible, or really even that difficult, it just takes more time and concentration, and it’s lot easier to mess up. Overall, yesterday went pretty smoothly and I’m so glad to be here. Starting in Istanbul was definitely jumping in the deep end, but we’ve had a great time.

Haegan: Day one of crazy sightseeing. So much to see, so little time (and money). I’ll try to do a quick recap of the whole day. We got breakfast at the hostel (bread, dried apricot, and apricot for me) and set off to see as much as we possibly could. We started off with (what else but) the Hagia Sofia (30 turkish lira) or Ayasophia as it is also known. It’s everything you would expect and then some.

The Hagia Sophia
The Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia from the balcony level
Hagia Sophia from the balcony level

1700 years of history makes for a pretty amazing place. We saw ruins of the second church (of three) from the mid 400’s as well as the current Hagia Sophia and the tombs in the same complex. I don’t really know how to put it into words. The artistry and the engineering are both incredible. The main dome is over 56 meters across and standing in the main prayer area the building is overwhelming. There is so much space and so much happening visually that it takes a long time to take it all in. The mosaics in every building we went to see are amazing: thousands of tiles making up murals that once stood over 10 feet high. Although a lot hasn’t survived the 100’s of years, an amazing amount has and the preservation efforts have kept the mosques bright and colorful. In the same complex there were four or five tombs of sultans and other royalty, each with their own feel and tons of great artwork. All of the buildings constructed by sultans have a similar domed roof style and lots of arches/intricate masonry work. After that we decided to grab some food. We had bagels from a street vendor for one turkish lira I got a thin crispy seasame bagel and Autumn got a bagel with nutella for two turkish lira (40 cents and 80 cents) and then went to a little restaurant to grab some kotfe which are like meatballs, they were served with rice, vegetables, and some garnish. They were quite tasty. At the restaurant we met a guy from Texas with his girlfriend from Prague and chatted a bit about our trips. He gave a great overview along with a map of what they were doing while they are here which prompted us to add a few things to the day’s plans. Fortified we set off again. First the Blue Mosque: It was a little different because the Hagia Sofia is a museum, but the Blue Mosque is an active mosque. That means people are in and out five times a day with the call to prayer. During prayer it is closed to the public and because it is an active mosque there are fewer visitors, and a few more rules. All it meant for us was that Autumn had to cover her head and we had to remove our shoes before entering.

stained glass in the blue mosque
Stained glass in the Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque was about the close for prayer when we got in so we didn’t stay very long but similar impressions to the Hagia Sofia but without in-progress restoration as everything was already in great shape because the Blue Mosque is in much newer (early 1600s…hardly new). From the Blue Mosque we headed straight to the Basilica Cistern. There’s a fairly small and unassuming building where you buy tickets, 20 turkish lira each, and go through a metal detector before heading down the stairs. As we found out, a cistern is a holding place for water brought in via aquaduct. This cistern was built for the Great Palace of Constantinople in the 6th century. It’s dark with ilumination coming only from lights the bottoms of the columns. Along with the two foot deep water on the bottom it has a very cool eerie feel to it. The cistern was built from recycled columns from other buildings so they are kind of random and different from one another. At one end there are two Medusa heads supporting two columns, one sideways and other upside down.

Medusa Head
Medusa Head

There is also a column called Hen’s Eye with eyes and tears carved into it, supposedly to recognize the slaves who died in the building of the cistern. From there we caught a tram (a light rail system runs through the streets of Istanbul) to the Suleymaine Mosque. All the public transit we’ve been on the has been awesome, every 5-7 minutes and only costs 4 turkish lira (about $1.60) but the downside is they are always packed! No space to even breathe. The Suleymaine Mosque is visited by fewer tourists than the Blue Mosque but equally if not more intricate and beautiful. I really liked the fact that is was less busy and with no line to get in. They layout was remarkably similar.

Another intricate dome
Another intricate dome
Autumn checking out the mosque
Autumn checking out the mosque
The Suleymaine Mosque
The Suleymaine Mosque

We decided to squeeze one more site into our already full day and set off in search of the Grand Bazaar. After wandering through small, steep, winding roads that we are now becoming used to, we got to the area outside the Bazaar which is packed with shops, some only about 5 square feet of space for the shopkeeper to occupy, goods spilling out everywhere. We saw hundreds of fabric shops with anything you can think of and then ended up on a whole street of lingerie before finding our way into the Baazar. Imagine a mall in a building over 500 years old. The inside is just as hilly as the streets outside and even more packed. People are smoking everywhere and some parts are pretty dimly lit. It was overwhelming to say the least.

the grand bazaar
The Grand Bazaar

We finished the day up with some awesome Turkish pizza from around the corner from our hostel. While I’ve been writing this post we met some cool people staying at the hostel, au pairs from Austria and Peace Corps members from Moldova here in their time off. In the first two, days here a few things have stood out to me. One was seeing police standing around with fully automatic weapons, Autumn pointed out how many cats are always wandering in the streets here, and realizing how different it is to be somewhere with a very different language. Getting used to not understanding much of anything said around you and not being able to read most signs is pretty strange. One thing that has made the whole experience so much easier is how kind everyone has been. Even though sometimes people have no idea what we are saying and we are just as confused, people have been very helpful. After someone took our luggage cart when we looked away, an airport attendant got us two new ones for free. When we got lost on the trains a nice man explained in the English he knew how to get where we needed to go and the security at the train stations let us take our bikes on board even though they weren’t really supposed to. So far it’s been amazing and I can speak for us both in saying it has been a great way to start the trip.

Slowly Getting Faster

Unlike Haegan, I’m very new to cycling. That being said, it’s kind of crazy I agreed to do this trip mostly by bike. It’s only after riding more regularly that I have realized this. I used to have blind confidence that I could a bike through Europe for 5 months with 20 pounds of stuff attached to my bike. My confidence is no longer so blind, and although it has been a challenge, I am starting to see myself getting stronger and more comfortable on the bike.

Starting in October I’ve been following a training schedule that Haegan came up with for me. It’s taken me a little bit to get used to riding every day, but I’ve adjusted to it and am really starting to enjoy it. We kicked off my training by spending a week in Tennessee riding every day. Riding in Tennessee was great because the roads are long and open and much more scenic than Atlanta, a nice change. I hit some of my highest and lowest points on the bike during that week. At times I felt so exhausted I didn’t think I would finish the ride. At other times I was so elated I couldn’t stop laughing. My biggest accomplishment though was riding 63 miles in one day. I have never felt less human than I did after that ride, but it was inspiring to realize that I can ride that far, and that it will only get easier. The week in Tennessee made the trip feel real. I now have a sense of what I’m working towards, and that is perhaps the biggest motivator.

While in Tennessee I discovered that while being able to ride long distances is important, it is equally important to be comfortable and confident on my bike. I also discovered that of the two, I struggle more with the latter. A few weeks before we went to Tennessee we had gone on a trail ride the morning after it had rained. I slipped and fell three times, each time becoming less confident in my ability to handle my bike. It wasn’t until Haegan set up a mini cross course that I realized how scared of my bike I’d become. Going down small hills and seeing inconsistencies in the ground caused me to panic. I knew I had nothing to fear, I’d fallen in the grass plenty of times. I was still convinced that any loss of balance would cause my bike to hurl me into the ground. Eventually, I got it. Haegan helped me rediscover my ability to put my foot on the ground, an act that magically stopped me from falling. He also showed me that if I lost my balance for a second, I could easily shift my weight to regain control. This all may sound silly, but in my panic I had forgotten the simple stuff. At the end of that day, I rode the cross course for 30 minutes, each lap faster than the last, and on my last lap I finally conquered the narrow, steep hill I had been running up before. I couldn’t stop smiling after that, especially thinking of how the day had started. I found my confidence again, and although riding off road still intimidates me, I have a better sense of the control I have.

It’s been about a month since the Tennessee trip, and training has been good. At times difficult to start, and sometimes it’s just boring. Sometimes though, I can really tell it has paid off. Last Friday, Haegan and I rode 47 miles. The last 10 or so miles were cold with light rain, weather we were not dressed for. I didn’t feel exhausted, I had enough energy to go longer, and it was my fastest ride to date. This was a huge accomplishment for me. The first time I rode 45 miles I could barely move by the end. Everything hurt and I rode only fast enough to keep balanced. During the training week in Tennessee I rode 45 miles for the second time, and although it was better than the first, I definitely hit the wall a few times. So last Friday, I finally started feeling like I was really making progress, like biking 45 miles three days in a row won’t kill me. That’s a pretty good feeling. That ride also allowed me to admit that the previous 45 mile rides were hard, painful, and not all that fun. In an effort to keep myself motivated, I didn’t want to think negatively at the time. This is not all to say that I’ve reached my goal, but that it’s starting to get easier and whole lot more fun.

So, on my ride today, I was thinking about what I’ve learned in my not so literally fast paced three months of riding. There are a lot, but here are a few:

Going on rides without food is always a bad idea.                                              I like hills alright, but I hate wind.                                                                     Yelling is fun and helps pushing through a tough bit.                        Singing out loud (and loudly) while riding is surprisingly difficult and so satisfying.

I think the most important thing I’ve learned so far though is that progress is slow. I’m not a patient person by nature, which is probably why I’ve never been very successful at any other sports until cycling. Having someone to ride with is more helpful than any equipment or weather or route. I probably wouldn’t have starting riding without Haegan, at least not this early, and I probably wouldn’t have gotten this far without him. Sometimes I just need someone to tell me that I am in fact making progress, or someone to tell how miserable I am, or how fantastic I feel. Most all it’s nice to have company. With someone to talk to, the hard parts are easier and the easy parts are more fun.


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Note from Haegan:

I know that going from hardly riding a bike to touring across Europe in less than a year sounds like a lot, but Autumn’s going to have no problems. She’s made so much progress in just the past 3 months that I have no doubts that she’ll be ready to go come March. For me, it’s awesome to be able to share something that I enjoy doing so much with someone who I enjoy being around so much. It’s pretty ideal. Since I won’t be racing next year and don’t have the structured training that I’ve been so used to for the past 3 years. Instead of doing workouts, I’m planning them, but seeing the progress Autumn is making is almost as rewarding as making it myself. It’s cool to watch someone go through basically the same process I went through when I started riding and it’s amazing to see, from the outside, how quickly the “slow progress” really happens. I’m excited to have someone to ride with me all winter and I can tell that Autumn will be ready in no time.