The ride into Skopje was long and difficult, and it did not help that I had just started to come down with whatever Autumn had just gotten over. The day after we arrived in Skopje and a good few after I was pretty under the weather. Shanti Hostel in Skopje was really cool, we liked it a lot. As soon as we arrived, soaked and exhausted, the host offered to do our laundry and dry it, and offered us some pasta he had just made. It made the end of the day a lot easier. While we were there a lot of Peace Corps people from all over the USA were in town for the weekend. It was cool to hear about their experience, especially since they have spent so much time in Macedonia. The next morning after breakfast we headed out on the walking tour of the city. We have been doing a lot of these free walking tours and they have usually been quite good. This one was cool as well but with a cold, the 3 hour length was a bit much for me.
I was exhausted and ready to relax by the end. We went to a little restaurant and got soup and kofte and Tavče gravče which was really good.
Afterwards we saw a little burrito place and, because they are one of the things we have really missed, decided to get a second lunch. It wasn’t quite a tex mex burrito but it wasn’t bad. Back at the hostel I spent the rest of the afternoon working on the bikes, they had a rough few days in the rain and needed some cleaning and attention. That evening we went out to a little bar with our new friends Eyrk and Ola from Poland.
It’s been great meeting new people at hostels and getting to hear about where they are from and the trips they are doing. We decided that we had to see Ohrid, Macedonia because everyone said it was great. The next morning we planned to take the bus there, stay a night and then another bus to Tirana, Albania before resuming by bike; the buses mostly because it was a bit out of the way and the roads weren’t supposed to be very good. In the morning, predictably enough, we managed to miss the first bus so we went back to the hostel and walked around the city a bit before catching the later bus. As we found out from one of the Peace Corps volunteers a day before, there is some superstition in Macedonia about the crosswind and cold, so buses tend not to have more than one window open. Our bus was really warm, which coupled with probably a slight fever didn’t make for the most pleasant trip. When we got to Ohrid we found that a German girl named Teresa was also coming from Skopje and looking for a hostel, we told her where we were staying and ended up meeting her again there. Once we got to Sunny Lake Hostel I took a little nap to try and fight off the cold and Autumn went to get soup fixings. She tried to go to the green market but it was mostly closed for the day and the one lady selling potatoes was trying to give her 15 potatoes when she only wanted 4 and didn’t see to understand. The kitchen at the hostel seemed to be the main room to congregate in. We met Tobi from Germany, Adam from Isreal, and Jake from Australia while we were cooking soup which we had enough of to share. By the time we were done with soup a few girls from Poland were teaching us all how to make perogi. Cooking and beer in a tiny crowded kitchen, it was a lot of fun. On our full day in Ohrid we wandered around the city along the water and to a few churches. Ohrid is truely gorgeous. The lake is incredible and surrounded by huge mountains on all sides. We went to a tiny church on a cliff with paintings dating back to the 13th century called Sveti Jovan Kaneo and from there walked up the hill to a slightly newer monastery, St. Clement and Panteleimon.
We checked out the green market which was now open and picked up some veggies for dinner. Most of the people at the hostel headed out that day so that night we hung out with Teresa and made buttermilk biscuits to show her some southern style cooking. She was a little shocked by how much butter we needed. We shared some biscuits with a few travelers while watching part of a Macedonian film called Before the Rain which gave us a bit of insight into the not so long ago conflicts in the region.
In the morning we took a short ride down the road to Struga to catch our bus. After having all the taxi drivers try to convince us we wouldn’t be able to take our bikes on the bus we got on the bus and rode to Tirana. It was a fairly long drive and again too hot on the bus. We didn’t get a stamp coming into Albania which was kind of a bummer. Along the way we also tried ˝”exotic” flavored Fanta which was pretty good. We arrived at The Tirana Backpackers Hostel by early afternoon. The hostel was really cool, lots of open space, orange trees growing in the backyard/bar area. And our friend Tobi from Ohrid was there and building a tree-house. We had some fresh oranges and I helped a bit with tree-house building before we headed out to see some of the city. One of the cool things we saw was this huge pyramid built by the last dictator of Albania and intended to become a museum about him, that is until democracy happened. It did make for a fun slide though and almost burned a hole right through my pants.
In the morning we wandered around he city some more and then went to the historical museum which was really cool. They had everything from prehistoric pottery and jewelry from the area all the way up to the fight for democracy in the 90’s. It was shocking to see the exhibit of the personal items of people gunned down trying to escape the country as recently as 25 years ago. Along the whole trip we have seen just how tumultuous the history of this area has been. A lot of these countries have changed dramatically even within my lifetime.
After our history for the day we got a great lunch (hard to go wrong with grilled meat and yogurt sauce it seems)
Then we just lazed around the hostel for a few hours. There was a group of french art students at the hostel collaborating with some local Albanian students to do an art installation and they were going to be having a bonfire. The bonfire didn’t end up happening but Autumn, Tobi, and I went over an hung out with them for a while. Afterwards we spent at least an hour gathering ingredients to make pancakes and in the process bought a half kilo of butter. We ate pancakes talked and drank cheap wine. Not a bad night.
The next morning it was sunny and beautiful as we headed north out of Tirana…
We really hate that we have to write this, but yesterday some of our bags were ripped open and some things were stolen. It’s nothing we can’t manage without for a little while but most are things that we will need to replace fairly soon like Autumn’s cycling shoes. As many of you may know our budget for the trip is fairly tight and having to replace stuff is a fairly large setback. As much as we don’t want to ask, if you’ve enjoyed reading the blog and want to help out a small donation of $5 or $10 would incredibly helpful in replacing the important stuff. You can donate through the PayPal button on the sidebar.
As always, thanks so much to everyone following along for your support the whole trip. It really means a lot to us to be able to share with everyone and hear back from you in comments.
In other news: Albania has been beautiful and we’ve really enjoyed our few days here. Here’s some pictures from a cool castle we visited in Lezhë
We’re on to Montenegro today and will be on the coast soon! The weather is looking up and we’re really excited for what is to come.
Autumn: It took two days to ride to Sofia. The first was long one 110 km (68 miles) to a motel on the side of the highway. It was flat, with mountains all around us. The mountains continued to astound us as we got closer and closer.
The roads weren’t too bad, a few were very bumpy due to a road repair technique I’m calling “tar confetti”. I hate it. We arrived at the motel, which was so much more. It had a bar/cafe, a restaurant, a fast food restaurant, a clothing store, a shoe store, a perfume store, and if you couldn’t find what you need among those options, there was a grocery store that had everything. Hunting knives, Mexican beer, lamps, and lots of Flintstones snacks… sounds kinda like a bar Stefon would recommend, but it’s not.
We got an early start the next morning to ride our last 65 km (40 miles) into Sofia. Despite the shorter distance, it was rough day riding. The roads were in much worse condition, with potholes that resembled craters, and water all over the roads from melting snow. Going down a rather steep hill, I accidentally cut in front of Haegan to avoid a pothole, which caused water to spray in his face, and he hit a huge pothole. He got a flat, and then realized the pothole put a big dent in his rim. Not good. He got a new tube in but realized his rim was pretty much ruined. This kinda put a damper on the rest of the day. After a spat getting into the city, we arrived at Hostel Mostel and got settled into our room. We went on the Free Tour of Sofia, and absolutely loved it. Despite the cold weather, the tour was engaging and very well done.
A friend of ours put us in touch with Milena who used to live in the US. We met her after the tour to get dinner and made plans to meet up the next day. The next day was Haegan’s birthday, pretty cool to get to celebrate your birthday in Sofia I think. It would have been a little more fun had the weather been nicer, wet snow had us cold and soaked after a morning of touring around. We were still able to see some really neat sites around Sofia.
Haegan (with bits from Autumn): It was a bit surreal to spend my birthday in Bulgaria, not somewhere I ever would have expected to have a birthday but it was a really good day nonetheless. We some some really cool stuff. Learned a lot, and had a great meal with great people. We first visited the St Nedelya Church which happened to be in the midst of prayer when we entered which was quite cool because Eastern Orthdox churches have a very different feel when full of people and with candles burning all around. After listening for a few minutes we headed out and went to try to go into a church located in and underpass. When we got there we were told that it was closed and would be open the next day. The Mosque was also closed. We were 1 for 3. We decided to head over to the Sofia Synangogue and give that a try. When we got there it was open. The Sofia Synagogue is one of only a few, and the largest at that, Sephardi Synagogues in Eastern Europe. While the outside of the synagogue isn’t all that spectacular, the inside is incredible. Overhead there is a magnificent chandelier and the paint and marble is beautifully detailed.
Next we walked through the “Ladies Market” a large open air fruit and vegetable market. We would have spent a bit longer wandering around the market, but it was about one degree Celsius and snowing. The snow wasn’t sticking, but instead melting once it hit a surface. We were wet and cold, but were determined to see the sites of Sofia. As a last site before the wet snow got the best of us we set out to find the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral which took us a bit longer to find than it should have. By the time we found it we were cold and wet and glad to be inside.
But it was certainly worth the walk. As impressive as it is from the outside the inside is equally so. Almost every surface is covering in colorful paintings of Bible stories or intricate stone carvings. Pictures aren’t allowed inside Orthodox churches, but imagine byzantine style paintings of every saint and every character in the bible. The icons, pictures of the saints, are often adorned with etched metal coverings to protect them from people kissing and touching them in prayer. Overhead huge domes covered in stories support large chandeliers with complex designs. We spent a while just walking around soaking in all the art. After the cathedral we decided we were done with being outside for the day, it was just too gross out. We walked over to the indoor central market to warm up and get lunch. We had more chicken Düner sandwiches, but not even close to as good as Alex Foods.
I even got a little mini cake in celebration. A bit after we finished eating Milena and her husband Boian met us and we drove over to the National Museum of Military History. The museum was fascinating because you can see about 3000 years of military history of the area in one building. They had everything from Thracian artifacts to modern weapons and a little bit of everything in between. Our great tour guide walked us through the many stages Bulgaria has been though, which is a lot. Because of the strategic location of the country it was a part of many empires and home to a lot of war. Boian knows a lot about the history of Bulgaria and was able to answer a lot of questions and point out some really cool artifacts in the museum. What we found most interesting was to hear about world history from an entirely new perspective. World War I and II were especially neat to hear about because we got to see a side that would likely never be taught in a school in the US.
After the museum we went to a traditional Bulgarian dinner for my birthday. We started off with a salad full of all sorts of different stuff.
Fresh fruits and veggies are a big part of Bulgarian food, and although it’s not the best time of year for produce everything was really good. However Milena and Boian said we need to try a Bulgarian tomato in season as it will be the best we have ever had. We also had some great flatbread drenched in butter and garlic which we really liked. For dinner I got something that roughly translated to “beef for the connoisseur” and Autumn got a chicken skewer that came on what was basically a sword. All the food was incredible and we had a great evening talking with our great hosts, hopefully they can visit us in the states soon 🙂
The next day didn’t involve nearly as much sightseeing or exciting things but was very good for other reasons. We had breakfast with our new friends from the hostel, Jannik and Frauke from Germany, and worked on the blog for most of the morning. In the afternoon we set out to find a bike shop and see about making my rear wheel a little bit better. The rim was really bent and had a big flat spot in it causing it to not be very round anymore. I was hoping to true it a bit and improve it slightly to get some more mileage out of it while I figured out how to get a new rim. After the first two shops being a bust we found our way to Fix to Ride, which looked promising but didn’t appear to be open. We took a guess that they were out to lunch and went to do the same ourselves. After we got lunch the door was open! We went in and talked to George who was happy to let me use some tools and try to fix it. I got it a little better but realized it was really a hopeless cause. When I inquired about picking up some tubes George said they didn’t have them but could order them for the next day. That got me thinking. He said he could get a rim for the next day too so we started looking for one that would work. After searching for a while with no luck, all seemed out of stock, he went in the back and pulled out a rim that he had. It was the right diameter and would work! He said it would be no problem for me to hang out and rebuild my wheel. So while Autumn walked around I spent most of the afternoon rebuilding my wheel. I don’t know that it is the best wheel I have ever built, but it is pretty good and should work just fine for a long time. On top of all that George charged me just 35 leva for the new rim and using his space for 3 hours, I was very grateful. We ordered some tubes and a few other bits for the next day and headed back to the hostel. We spent the rest of the afternoon hanging around the hostel with a few women from the US travelling through Sofia from Istanbul: Jill, Harimah, and Olivia. Later we had free pasta and beer at the hostel for dinner with Jannik, Frauke, and Salam, who grew up in Morocco. We decided to go out to the nightly pub crawl with everyone from the hostel at 10. The first bar was the “American” themed Road 66 which was kind of funny. It had all sorts of random “American” decor that didn’t really go together. In celebration of my birthday we did some tequila shots which we had to be taught about how to do. We met some other cool people from the hostel and heard about peoples travels past and present. Autumn and I made it to the second bar but didn’t stay long. It was 1:00 am and we were exhausted. The next day consisted of seeing some more sights with people from the hostel. We went out with Jannik, Frauke, Salam, and Colin who is from the UK. The weather could not have been more different from the rainy snow a few days before. The sun was out it was warm and everyone was loving it. We went to the mosque, the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral again and a little Roman church built in the 4th century, the little one in the underpass was still closed. The 4th century church is surrounded by old ruins and was really cool to see. The inside was fairly simple but it was striking to be in a church that people have been worshiping at for over a thousand years.
Jannik and Frauke had a train to catch so we said goodbye and then the rest of us headed to lunch. We found a great little spot with a patio in the sun, which was really all we cared about. We had a great view of the mountains and the food was really good as well.
Our favorite part about staying at hostels has been the people you meet there. Everyone seems to be on some sort of incredible trip or has stories to tell. The conversation is never dull. That night we went out to a bar with some more new friends: Emeline, Etienne, and Titouan from France who are studying in Istanbul and Zoe and Lucy from Germany who were headed to Turkey. We talked about all sorts of interesting stuff and had a great time. We didn’t stay out too late as we had a long day planned the next day, towards the Rila Monastary, but that’s a whole nother story.
Haegan: Even though we didn’t have a long day planned, we decided to try to get on the road early on the way out of Edirne, seeing as we had to cross an international border. The weather was nice and we rolled out of Edirne and headed towards the border. As we started getting close to the border the right lane was full of parked truck after parked truck. We got in the left lane and continued. Soon we had been riding past parked semi’s for over a kilometer when it dawned on us that they must all be lined up waiting to go across the border. The drivers were all just hanging out, it seemed to be a pretty normal thing for them. Some were sitting with their feet out the window drinking coffee, others sitting and talking on the guardrail. We even saw a vendor with a cart going around selling coffee and tea to the drivers. After about 3 kilometers and what must have been at least 300 or more trucks we were at the beginning of the border crossing.
There are a lot of little windows to go through. We snapped a picture on the way out, got two new stamps in our passports and were in Bulgaria!
We were pretty disappointed that there was no “Welcome to Bulgaria” sign anywhere, I feel that is something that should be at any border crossing. We continued on through the very nice Bulgarian countryside and through Svilengrad along the E8 towards Biser where we planned to camp for the night. A few kilometers outside Biser we ran into the tiniest, most runty kitten you can imagine on the side of the road. Autumn was really close to bringing it with us in her handlebar bag. It chased after us for a few hundred meters as we road off, mewing at us the whole way.
We arrived at the campsite in Biser only to find that it was closed for the winter. Apparently the website I looked at had the info wrong, so we headed into town to see where we might be able to set up camp. Biser is very small and very quiet. It’s a bit eerie because aside from an old man or two walking around we didn’t see anyone on our way into the center (if you can really even call it that) of town. We saw that there was a school and a church and thought we could ask if we might be able to camp at one of them. Everything looked empty but we could hear some faint music coming from up the road so we followed it and found a little store/bar with a few people in it, all chain smoking. An old man motioned to us to sit down so we did and he started talking to us in Bulgarian. We tried to explain that we didn’t speak any Bulgarian but we’ve realized that telling someone you don’t speak a language does not stop them from continuing to try to talk to you in that language as if you should understand. The only two things he said that I understood were “no problem” and “hasta la vista baby” which are not particularly useful for conversation. He had a lot to say to us and kept talking and talking even though it was clear that we had no idea what he was saying every now and then he would reach over the table and grab my hand. Eventually he started talking about Christ I think and grabbing his heart. He gave us some plastic coins that I have in my handlebar bag. Not really sure what the significance is though… Using our phones again we were able to communicate to the lady working there that we were riding across Bulgaria and needed somewhere to camp. We asked about the school or the church and they said to wait while the guy working there (Valco as we found out his name was) made a few phone calls. Possibly the funniest part of this whole ordeal was when this little old lady with a cane came in and after our friend “hasta la vista” guy said something to her she hit him on the back with her cane. She looked and walked like she must have been at least 100 and looked like the classic stereotypical old eastern european lady. Eventually they asked if we spoke Spanish which Autumn does fairly well and not too long after the Priest’s son showed up and he and Autumn talked some in Spanish. It was a bit bizarre to be in the smallest town you can imagine middle-of-nowhere Bulgaria and speaking Spanish. The kid said that his dad would come open up the church soon. Not long after they realized we couldn’t stay in the church but Valco assured us “no problem” we could set up the tent at the school. He walked us down there and unlocked the gate and we got the tent and everything set up and started to cook ourselves some bulgur.
While we were cooking, kids were zooming back and forth on mopeds and doing doughnuts in the dirt street. As we were sitting down to eat another man showed up and started talking at us in Bulgarian. The only thing we understood at first was something something police. At first this had us a little worried as he was motioning that we should pack up our things. Where were we going to sleep. We got him to type what he meant into the translator on my phone and eventually figured out that it wasn’t so bad after all. Valco showed up and after a while it became clear that they were concerned that it was going to rain so they had found us a place to sleep in a house. Great! we packed up our gear and followed Valco as he drove across the town to an old somewhat abandoned looking farmhouse. There were horses and some other animals outside but in the house it didn’t really look like anyone lived there. It was mostly empty with a thick layer of dust on most surfaces but it did seem like a farmhand might stay over every now and again. They told us “no problem” we could sleep here and put our bikes inside. We thanked Valco and his friend profusely and then they left. We finished our food and were just starting to think about going to sleep and that it was going to be cold when we heard someone coming up the stairs. Valco was back with another guy and a bunch of firewood. They proceeded to build us a fire in the woodstove, “no problem, no problem” and they were gone again. We set up and slept on the floor by the stove very comfortably until about 4 am when we were woken up by footsteps and saw someone walking out of the room. We both freaked out just a little bit. Someone walking around the room at 4 am? that seemed a little weird, but we decided not to worry about it and figured it was probably just a farmhand using the bathroom. We arent really sure who it was or why they were there but that stands as our best guess, someone doing early morning work on the farm had to pee. We got up at 8 or so and headed back to the bar/convenience store/cafe/only business in the whole town to get coffee, which the guy there insisted on giving us no charge. We waited around a bit hoping Valco would show up so we could thank him again but didn’t see him. Eventually we told the other guy working there that we wanted to thank Valco and he called him to come down. He told us “no problem” once again. We got him to write down his address for us so that we can send him something when we get home. It’s all in cyrillic so we have no idea what it says but hopefully we will be able to send something as a thank you. We said ciao which Valco also knew and rolled off in the dreary rain towards Haskovo.
The riding that day was pretty miserable. 50 km in the cold rain is never fun.
By the time we arrived in Haskovo we couldn’t feel our hands and our legs and feet were soaked. (our rain jackets did quite a good job however) We arrived where we thought the hotel was and the building was empty. Not what you want to see when you’re halfway frozen. We decided to find somewhere to warm up and regroup before figuring out the hotel situation. We found a little diner and went in. Autumn got some rice with chicken (which apparently is a traditional Bulgarian dish) and we both ordered coffee. We soon discovered that the norm for coffee in Bulgaria is a double shot of espresso, not exactly the nescafe we had become used to in Turkey. As the feeling was coming back into our hands the waitress saw Autumn sitting there shivering and brought her over a jacket to warm up. I ordered some lunch and the waitress gave us some tea because we looked cold. After just sitting and warming up for a while we figured out that we were looking in the wrong spot for the hotel and decided to go find it. We tried to return the jacket to the waitress but she insisted Autumn take it to the hotel with her. We got into the hotel which was ok, but not as nice as the last few places we had payed to stay at. But hey, it was dry. The next day the bad weather had passed quicker than expected and we had a nice dry ride into Plovdiv. We stayed in the Gramophone Hostel in Plovdiv for the two nights we were there which was really nice and surprisingly empty.
Autumn: The ride to Plovdiv was awesome. It was the first day of riding that was pleasantly uneventful. We rode into Plovdiv and were immediately struck by a house on a hill that was very close to the tunnel we rode through. The rocks on the hill were tied up, they looked as though the cables were the only thing keeping them on top of the hill.
Someone on couchsurfing told us about Gramophone Hostel so we decided to check it out. Gramophone is known mostly as musical venue, it used to house performers when they came to Plovdiv to perform. A little while back they added more rooms and turned it into a hostel with a joined bar and outdoor stage. It was pretty neat and the guy working there was very friendly. We were the only ones staying at the hostel, I guess Plovdiv is not a popular spring break destination. We got a bit cleaned up and then started to wander around Plovdiv. The hostel is in this pedestrian area with lots of shops, a few fast food restaurants, and quite a few cafe/bars. A few casinos too, those seem to be very popular in Bulgaria. Right in the middle of the pedestrian/shopping area is the Roman Stadium. It was built during the 2nd century AD, and a lot of it is still intact.
After wandering around the stadium and the area they’ve built around it (which is very cool: you’re walking along and see a giant hole in the path, in that hole is the stadium), we decided to go find some food. Earlier I had seen a kid with a giant pancake with stuff inside so I wanted to find that. Haegan got a chicken kebap which has thinly sliced chicken, tomato, onion, lettuce, pickles, yogurt, and fries. All in a wrap. He loved it. He loved it so much that I’m still hearing about how the design of the wrap and its contents are perfect. I had one too the next day and I have to say it was definitely very good.
I found the pancake place and was completely overwhelmed by the menu. It’s one thing to walk into a fast food place and not know the language on the menu… it’s another when you walk in and you don’t the alphabet on the menu, especially when there are over 200 options. I was completely overwhelmed and the staff could see my look of confusion so they pointed to me a small menu on English next to the register. I’m indecisive, so even that menu was overwhelming. I got a pancake with salami, mushrooms, and pickles and decided I needed to come back the next morning for breakfast. It was dark by then and we continued to wander around. Haegan found these rocks behind the shopping area and discovered there were paths leading up them. I don’t know why, but I’ve always been terrified of walking or climbing up, or even just on, rocks. My fear doesn’t really make sense, I know my chances of falling and actually hurting myself are slim, but it still scares me. I wouldn’t call it a phobia… but I’ll admit it’s probably close. Despite this, I followed him up a semi-maintained path of stairs and rocks to the top where we had a fantastic view of the whole city. I didn’t love the climb up but I loved the view, it was so neat to see the whole city lit up.
We were hungry after climbing so we went to find more fast food. Bulgaria has little stores that display pizza in the window. You just point to the slice you want, they grab it for you and you’re on your way. Window pizza, best thing ever, besides chicken kepab of course. Bulgaria is getting a lot of points for fast food.
The next morning we went to a little cafe at the mosque close to our hotel. I decided to order a latte because I now know that if I just order coffee, I’ll get straight espresso. I love coffee, and espresso, but I’m not that serious. It came in a neat glass with a straw, the glass I liked, the straw seemed like a bad idea. After coffee and tea we went to get pancakes, which were much better as breakfast food (go figure). We went to find the Roman Theater first, but stopped at two churches along the way. Bulgaria is Eastern Orthodox so their churches are set up differently from the ones we’re accustomed to seeing. People sit in pews on the sides of the church, facing the center. The back wall has beautiful portraits of Mary, Jesus, and many saints. The walls and ceiling have pictures depicting stories from the Bible. The churches are stunning and unfortunately you can’t take pictures inside. I’m excited to see more of these in Sofia. After the two churches we got to the stadium, got our tickets, and then were let into the theater. I was astounded at the lack of security. The theater is about 1800 years old and the entrance to get in is blocked only by a small rope and a sign that says you need to have a ticket to enter. After that you’re let free to roam around the ancient theater, there are no metal detectors or guards or anything. We were the only ones at the theater, no other tourists. We played around with the acoustics of the theaters and walked around on the stage and in the seats. It was crazy to think we were sitting where people sat hundreds and hundreds of years ago.
The theater and the churches we were at earlier are part of Old Town. Throughout old town there are plaques on most of the houses that tell about a politician or merchant who built the house and lived there. Each house is historic and has something unique about it, and in most them there is a museum about Plovdiv’s history. It’s a neat idea and liked reading all the plaques about each house. A lot of places were either closed on Mondays or just not open at all. We realized later that Plovdiv is in the process of making the city more tourist friendly because in 2019 they will be the European Capital of Culture. I’m guessing most of the work they’re doing is new so not everything was up and running. It was still neat to walk about the Old City. We went to another church, Church of St. Constantine and Helena. This one was my favorite of the three we saw that day, the colors were so rich and all the paintings were breathtaking. We continued to wander around and found some ruins on the edge of one of the hills. Plovdiv has six hills called tepes. It used to have seven but they destroyed the smallest one a while ago. Haegan and I were climbing on of the tepes the night before but hadn’t realized what it was. The Old City is built on one of the tepes and the ruins were at the edge of the tepe, there used to be a watch tower there. We wandered around the ruins and then just sat enjoying the view of the entire city, this time from the other side of town.
We headed back into the main part of the city and stopped at another one of the house museums. This one had displays of modern Bulgarian art. The guy running the museum let us in for free because the museum hadn’t been finished. Old Bulgarian houses in the Old Town are typically very symmetrical, the rooms and staircases all mirror each other. The ceilings and banisters had beautiful woodwork.
After walking around the house a bit we talked to the man running the museum a bit more. He is so passionate about the house and some of the art in it. We walked around a bit more and found another church on another tepe, which we wandered around and enjoyed some apples.
The rest of afternoon was fairly uneventful, we got in a little spat, made up, saw some Peruvians performing pop songs in stereotypical “native american” style (this was probably one of the most bizarre things we’d seen), and then found pizza and had fancy dessert.
After walking around and talking a bit longer (and witnessing a freaky cat interaction), we went to the bar right below our hostel. The night before we tried Rakia as a welcome from the hostel. We didn’t want to do that again because Rakia is disgusting. So I got a Bulgarian beer, Haegan got a cider and we played foosball for a while.
After a rough first few days we were feeling a little bit down on Turkey. It wasn’t easy riding, our maps didn’t show us what the roads were actually like, and we were exhausted from riding in the wind. We decided that we needed to find a place to stay for the night. We made a Couchsurfing profile and sent out a few requests for places to stay. We quickly got a response from Mustafa, who lives in Çorlu. Even with the late notice, he said he would be happy to host us. After our difficult ride into Çorlu (which you can read about here) we met up with Mustafa. We walked back to his apartment got changed into some clean clothes and he took us to a shopping center to get some quick food. We went to a fast food-ish restaurant to get Iskender which we both thought was delicious, but Mustafa said was only so-so as far as Iskender goes. Sorry for the lack of photos of food, we are trying but always end up eating it before remembering to take a picture. We’re improving though. We had a great night talking with Mustafa over coffee back at his house. He offered to let us stay with him a second night and we decided a rest day would be a good idea after the last few days. The next day we didn’t do very much. Slept in until noon, showered did laundry, etc. We did wander out for another delicious Turkish meal of tavuk şiş (chicken skewer) and pilav üstü döner (thinly sliced beef over Turkish rice) and tried acili ezme (which we think is the Turkish equivalent of salsa).
Most Turkish food we had has been grilled or cooked the way gyro meat is cooked, on a vertical broiler, and often served with spicy grilled peppers (which I, Haegan, love), Turkish rice (which is one of Autumn’s favorites), and bread. We began to search for a possible bus or train to Edirne which is right by the Turkish-Bulgarian border, but were thwarted by our lack of Turkish, the website’s lack of information, and the fact that all train service to Edirne has been momentarily cancelled due to construction. It was quite frustrating. That night when Mustafa got home from work he informed us that he had solved our bus problems. There are tons of buses in Turkey, but almost no timetables online. We could take a 2 hour bus to Edirne departing every 30 minutes from just 2 km down the road. Mustafa had told some of his friends that we were staying with him and, baffled by the fact that we were riding our bikes across Turkey, they wanted to come meet us. We went up the street to a restaurant and met three of his friends, Özay, another Mustafa, and Şükrü. None of them knew more than a few English phrases so Mustafa acted as translator all night.
They had a lot of questions for us, especially Şükrü, so we did our best to answer through Mustafa. It made us really wish that we knew more Turkish so that we could get to know them better, but we still had a good time, lots of laughter. They ordered food for us and soon we were eating. First we had more acili ezme with flatbread and something kind of like cheese dip. Şükrü also insisted that we try mercimek köftesi which was ok I thought but Autumn did not like at all. We also tried this strange red cabbage drink that Özay recommended. Neither of us really liked it. Cabbage juice and spices just don’t make for a drink I like. Then, after we had already eaten quite a bit, they brought out the main course. Three huge platters of lenger kebap, a combination of many different kinds of kebap. Doner, tavuk, adana, şiş köfte, and a type of köfte coated in ground lentils and fried (think corndog), to name just a few. Şükrü told us we couldn’t leave until we finished the whole platter. We tried our best, but couldn’t quite do it.
Needless to say it was all delicious, and we were stuffed. After dinner we had çay, a tea that is incredibly popular in Turkey. After that we walked over to a cafe in the downtown area to get coffee (you might be starting to notice a Turkish theme here…) Autumn got a real Turkish coffee which is very strong and I had some more çay. It was explained to us that Greeks will often claim that they invented “Turkish” coffee but that we shouldn’t listen to them, it is indeed Turkish. We also met up with some more of Mustafa’s friends at the cafe. Pembe and Ayşen who both went to university in Edirne. Ayşen spoke remarkably good English for someone who had only been studying for a year, and Pembe had recently started an English class. Once they asked, Autumn and I realized we both needed to slow down a little bit because we naturally talk pretty fast. We talked with them and showed everyone on our phones where in the United States we lived and they told us about Turkey and Edirne and about life in Turkey.
After coffee we walked to a club that usually plays live music but being that it was kind of late and a Tuesday night Mustafa’s friends had to go home to get some sleep. So Autumn, Mustafa, and I went in and listened to the DJ’s there. It was an interesting mix of remixed traditional Turkish music, dubstep/electronic and bits and pieces of American music, which Autumn and I found rather amusing. After an hour or so we headed back to Mustafa’s place to get to sleep. We talked for a bit about traveling and then said our goodbyes as Mustafa would be headed to work before we were up. We had a great time staying with Mustafa and are really happy to have gotten to know him!
Getting to Edirne ended up being remarkably simple. We packed up, rolled a few km down the road to the Otogar, stopping to grab more delicious Turkish pastries on the way, and got on one of the mid-sized buses. Cramming all our gear and bikes into the cargo space, which was no easy feat, but we managed. After a few stops at other Otogars to pick up more passengers we arrived at the Edirne Otogar, a few km outside the city. In our rush to get off the cramped bus (Autumn’s knees hit the seat in front of her and she is only 5’ 3.5” on a good day) we forgot to grab the bungee cords that hold Autumn’s sleeping bag and bedroll onto the bike. So Autumn went to find some halat (rope). She ended up on the phone with someone at the Edirne city center station who spoke English and said they would send us some on the next shuttle in 45 minutes. So we sat and waited, mad at ourselves for forgetting things, but happy with the kindness of the people we have been encountering. I decided to go get a cup of corn from a vendor (yummy and buttery) and as I crossed back to where we were waiting, I happened to see the ticket taker from our bus. I got him to come over with me to the bus and found the forgotten bungee cords! We were back in business. We got on the D-100, which is not nearly as bad in the daytime, and headed towards the city. After a few km of nice riding a car pulled over in front of us. The man who was helping Autumn at the station got out and gave us some bungee cords. We had forgotten to tell him we found ours, and he had driven 2 or 3 km to bring us some! We were once again humbled by people’s willingness to go out of their way to be helpful. Even though we didn’t need them we decided to keep the bungee cords as a sort of symbol of the hospitality we received in Turkey, and they are now decoratively wrapped around Autumn’s bags.
We stayed at the Tashan Hotel in Edirne for the two nights we were there, and it was lovely. The hotel used to be housing for employees of the Üç Şerefeli Mosque across the street.
It has a great little courtyard and our room had a nice view out over the busy little street below. As soon as we got there Emre, the manager, invited us to sit down and have coffee. (Nescafé is the staple coffee in Turkey) He told us about a few of the many great sites to see in Edirne and we talked a bit about how overwhelming Istanbul can be. While we had been on the bus Pembe had gotten in touch with a friend of hers in Edirne named Hakan to see about us meeting up with him and getting a bit of a tour. After we unpacked and relaxed a bit we went out to get dinner with Hakan and his girlfriend. After dinner we walked around to look at a few of the mosques all lit up at night and ducked inside the Selimiye Mosque for a few minutes before prayer started. The mosques are amazing at night, the minarets glowing in the dark. The Selimiye Mosque is considered one of the best examples of Ottoman style and was designed by Mimar Sinan, one of the greatest Ottoman architects. It is considered his masterpiece. We agreed with Hakan to meet up at 10:00 the next morning for a tour around the city. As we found out over dinner Hakan is actually a professional tour guide and owner of Edirne Tourism. When Hakan arrived we were talking with Emre and he invited Hakan to join us for another cup of coffee (I had already had 2 cups of çay with breakfast, try to keep count) They talked for a bit in Turkish, very quickly I might add, and we headed off to see Edirne with Hakan. Our first stop was the ruins of an old Ottoman tower and even older city walls dating back to Adrianople, about 2000 years ago. Inside the wall are three pottery oven pits of around the same age. It’s incredible to stand next to something and know that what you are seeing has been seen by people for 2000 years. The other incredible thing about these ruins are the fact that they are just sitting right in the middle of a city. Just go through a little gate and you’re walking among ancient ruins.
After the ruins we caught a bus across town to the Complex of Sultan Bayezid II Health Museum, which is a part of the Trakya University. The complex was built in 1488 and housed a mosque, and a soup kitchen, but more importantly one of the most significant hospitals and medical schools of the time. Over time the hospital became focused on psychiatry. As early as the 1500’s the hospital was using sensory therapy including music, water sounds and aromatics to treat patients with mental illness as well as using occupational therapy. Pretty forward thinking for a time when bleeding people as a cure was common in Europe. The complex has now been restored and turned into a health museum about the time period. The different rooms contain realistic dioramas and decor to show how they were used. We toured around both the hospital and medical school for a while before getting another coffee with a professor of Hakan’s on the way out. I could write pages about each of the places we saw but I’ll try to keep it reasonable and let the pictures do some of the work.
Next we walked by a Greek synagogue that we couldn’t go in because it is in the process of being restored.
We walked out to the edge of town to check out the old bridges across two of the three rivers around Edirne and saw where the sultans would go to watch the sunrise.
At both bridges the water was quite high and covering the road at the bridge, Hakan explained this happens regularly in the spring because of a dam that is let out up river. We had to hitch a ride through the giant puddles both ways. We met up with Hakan’s business partner and friend, Tolga, and drove up to the hill overlooking Edirne to go to the Balkans War Museum. The bunkers from the war are now an exhibit showcasing artifacts from the war as well as photos and and strategic information.
Later, Hakan and Tolga took us to meet their friend who works at Arslanzade, a local candy store where they make stuff like marzipan, cookies, turkish delight, and lots more. While we waited for Recep we were offered tea and coffee again, to which we obliged and also tried a few of their products including some authentic turkish delight. After coffee we got to go downstairs to see where they make everything. Recep told us that they make up to 150,000 boxes of candy every day! We even got to taste a fresh batch of cookies as they came out of the oven. On our way out Recep gave us a few boxes to fortify us while we ride which we are eating as I write this! We headed from there to The Old Mosque. The Old Mosque is a fairly small mosque as Ottoman mosques go, but of all the ones we have seen it is my favorite. Inside there is large calligraphy on the walls over 8 feet high and the ceiling paintings are some of the most intricate we have seen. The 9 domed mosque is very colorful and everywhere you look is amazing art and craftsmanship.
After all that it was time to get some lunch (sorry, forgot the pictures) but we got chicken doner sandwiches with spicy peppers that were wonderful. We also tried Ayran which is a drink that is basically watery yogurt, it was ok. After lunch we walked by The Old Mosque Bazaar where Hakan seemed to know everyone. One of the vendors outside gave us Ottoman sugar which is melted colored sugar wrapped around a stick and rubbed in lemon juice. I liked those a lot.
After walking through the bazaar Hakan and Tolga had to head to a meeting so we said our goodbyes and thanked them for the amazing tour. It was a pretty non-stop day so we just wandered around, bought some snacks and wrote a few postcards before being invited to eat homemade lentil soup with Emre and his girlfriend. A great example of the wonderful hospitality we have found in Turkey: Emre said we should just try it, but then insisted on me “trying” three full bowls with bread and cheese.
Although we had a rough start, we thoroughly enjoyed our time in Turkey. It may not be the best place to start your first bike tour, but the amazingly generous people and awe-inspiring history made it well worth it. A special thank you to our hosts who made our time in Turkey so memorable. We’re excited to come back someday and explore the rest if the country. Know that if you ever have a chance to come to the states, you have a place to stay.
Note from Autumn: First, I’m 5’4″ on any day, even if Haegan doesn’t believe me.
It was my idea to start the trip in Istanbul, and when we’re riding those miserable days I seriously regretted pushing for Istanbul. Once we got to Çorlu though, as Haegan said, it all became worth it because they people we met were so great. I loved the history of Edirne, and I loved the conversations we had with each of our hosts.
Yesterday we got back from our first real loaded trip. We packed up all our gear that we’ll have for the next 5 months and rode 60 miles out to Hard Labor Creek State Park. (Autumn would like to add that it was indeed hard labor.) The first day went pretty well. After a little bit of panic in the morning of thinking we wouldn’t able to fit everything, we got everything packed up and hit the road by 11 am.
It was pretty cold at the start but once we got going the temperature was okay. As usual, the roads getting out of the city were busy, and made for less than ideal riding, but eventually the roads mellowed out and became a lot more scenic.
With our late start and lower than anticipated speeds due to how much weight we had on the bikes, we arrived a bit after dark and had just enough time to get everything set up before the rain began.
The campsite was nice and very empty (I guess we’re the only ones dumb enough to go camping in late February with a forecast for rain the next day). We settled in and fell asleep to the sound of rain on the tent.
When we woke up it was wet and cold outside. It had rained all night but we were nice and dry in the tent. We broke camp and headed out. It was not raining hard, almost more of a heavy mist than rain but at 33 degrees on a bike you get cold pretty fast and within the first half hour, even with thick gloves, our hands were frozen. We had to stop somewhere to thaw out. 10 miles in we reached Social Circle and stopped to get coffee and warm up a little, unsure of how we could possibly deal with the current conditions all the way home. We texted my mom to see about meeting her in Lithonia, another 30 miles from Social Circle so as to save ourselves at least one hour of suffering. After all, 60 miles is well more than we are planning on riding on a typical day of our trip, especially with the weather we were riding in. We sat at Buckeyes restaurant for at least 30 or 40 minutes drinking coffee and eating johnny cakes until we could feel our hands again and then headed out. It was immediately better, as if that stop was all we needed. The small town hospitality and slightly warmer temperatures turned our whole day around.
A bit after we left my mom called saying she was on her way to meet us, which we weren’t expecting at the time. She thought with the bad weather that was rolling in and the fact that we leave in 8 days, it wasn’t worth risking getting sick riding in the cold. So we only ended up riding about 22 miles total before getting picked up in Covington, but we made it through the worst of it and felt as if we certainly could have finished the day.
Despite the somewhat miserable conditions and a few challenges the test run went really well and showed us that we’re ready for this trip. Sure there will be a lot of hard days ahead of us, but we can manage just fine.
Note from Autumn:
I felt as though I had been cruelly pushed back 6 months. Back to when I had no idea what riding for extended periods of time was like, when riding 40 miles made my whole body ache. It seemed a little unfair. I didn’t train all those months simply to be back at the place I started. I guess though, that when you add an extra 25 pounds (or possibly more) all at once, everything gets a whole lot more difficult. Then on day two, throw in some rain, near freezing temperatures, and an unwelcome visit from mother nature… I was about as miserable as I’ve ever been riding.
However, it is reassuring to know that we will never have days quite as bad as day two. We have rest days built in and we will ride longer days when it’s nice, giving us more flexibility when we need a day off. And really, after the coffee break Haegan mentioned (Folgers has never tasted so good), it really wasn’t all that bad. Here is what I have to add to my list of things I have learned:
We’re getting close to actually leaving on this trip and there is a lot left to do. For starters I have to build myself a touring bike. I know in my head exactly how it will be down to every millimeter and every part, but it doesn’t exist yet, which two months out isn’t the most reassuring thing. But now that this will be my second frame I have a lot more confidence in the fact that I can get it done. After all, I have done it all before. We’ve finally got most of our stuff together for the trip which is good, just a few odds and ends to pick up. It’s still a good bit of work to get done in under 60 days but I think we will both manage.
It’s only now that I’ve really started to grasp how big of an undertaking it is to go from having never done any touring before to trekking through all of Europe in one go. There’s a lot to research and learning just on the touring side of things, but there’s also so much that goes into planning any trip of this length. Where do we go? How do we get there? What will it cost? Will we have enough time? There are a lot of question we’ve figured out and still more piling up yet to be answered.
So far our two biggest aspects of planning have been the route and legal stuff. Early in our planning we found out that our time in most of Europe is limited to just 90 days so we had to adjust our plan accordingly. At the time it seemed like a big problem, but it’s actually ended up being a pretty good thing. Having the limit to our time in Europe is letting us add a lot of other cool stuff to the trip by starting in Turkey and ending in Morocco. As soon as I started looking at what to see in Istanbul I realized that spending some of our time outside of Western Europe is going to be awesome. The more I look into it the more excited I get about the first leg of our trip. However, the time limit does make the planning bit more complex. Autumn has done an amazing job of figuring out how to get us through 12 countries stopping in 20 cities all in 90 days. You can check out the plan here. Leave us a comment or shoot us an email if you have any tips or know anyone along the way! It’s going to be a whirlwind of riding and trains but it looks like we’re going to make it.
I’ve also been thinking a lot about how different this trip is going to be from anything we’ve ever done. It’s a kind of abrupt transition from high school seniors to fending for ourselves in Europe. Moving out of your parents house is kind of a big deal, and moving into a tent in Europe isn’t going to make that transition much easier, but it will make it more exciting! I’m a little nervous about taking on full responsibility for my life but its going to happen sooner or later so why not all at once, right?
Note from Autumn:
We both knew it would happen, and we were right. Once we rung in the New Year (on opposite coasts), this trip suddenly became very close, and very tangible. I can’t say enough how excited I am, and now a little anxious too. A few weeks ago I spent an entire afternoon finalizing our tentative plans through the Schengen Zone. There’s a lot less biking than what would be ideal, but we both want to see as much of Europe as we can and still be alive when we reach Morocco.
As we start to really get into the planning we’ll posting more about training, preparation, packing lists, and thoughts on everything leading up until the trip.