Tag Archives: food

Germany through Berlin

Crossing into Germany was so understated that we weren’t even sure if we had crossed a border. We had been riding along the Elbe river all morning and continued tot do so all afternoon. It’s a beautiful river lined by tall dark trees, just as I had pictured Germany in my head. We soon learned that it was a holiday, again. Herrentag, or man’s day, is one of the more rambunctious holidays of the year and generally consists of groups of men getting together and filling a wagon  with beer before walking around all day drinking and singing. We saw some pretty decked out wagons, one even had a dartboard and soundsystem. We met another tourist named Klaus and rode with him in the afternoon to a campsite in Dresden. Because of the coming long weekend the campsite was pretty full but luckily mostly of caravans. The caravans everywhere were really common all through Germany. It seems that half the country is caravaning on any given weekend. At the campsite we met Enrico and Samantha who were on a weekend tour through Saxony. We got to chatting with them and they invited us to stay with them in Berlin when we got there!

Is this a border?

Everything is so green!
 We spent the morning of the next day wandering around Dresden which is a really cute little city. The Altstadt, or Old Town, lies on the southern side of the river. It’s  beautiful city which is, unfortunately, mostly reconstructed due to the bombing of the city in the final months of WWII. The standouts for me were the Frauenkirche, Dresden Castle, and Zwinger. The Frauenkirche was closed for the afternoon because of  some sort of rehearsal, but the outside is still very beautiful. The Dresden Castle is now a museum home to many royal artifacts. We especially wanted to go see the Historic Green Vault which is a Baroque treasure room that was open to the public when it was first built, making it one of Europe’s oldest museums. Unfortunately it is very popular and the tickets were sold out for the whole day when we arrived. The building itself is still stunning and we were able to walk around through the courtyards on the inside.

Zwinger was quite cool. The building itself is very ornate and has lots of statues but the garden in the center is the cool part about it. The garden isn’t the biggest we have seen but it was really nice and had some interesting landscaping.

The Castle

Potato and wurst soup

Zwinger

The garden
We crossed over to the Neustadt, New Town, for the afternoon. It is home to the university and has a very college town feel to it. We spent some time in a nice little cafe working on the blog. Autumn ordered an iced coffee, but as we have found there is always a bit of guessing when it comes to ordering things in another country. Apparently in some places in Germany an ice coffee is actually an ice-cream coffee. We spent a little while wandering around and checked out Kunstofpassage, an art installation on the way out. We were tipped off by a friend of Autumn’s that it was a must see and it certainly was.


 The next day was spent continuing north along the Elbe. The Elbe is a wide, murky river lined by beautiful trees, green as far as one can see. We followed the bike path along the bank, no hills, no cars. It made for a very relaxing day.Eventually we turned away from the river to stay north. We picked up another river and rolled into Bad Liebenwerda just as it started to drizzle. As we searched for a place to camp or even a cheap room for rent with no luck the rain started to pick up a bit. Just when we thought we were going to have to camp in some random field by the train tracks we decided to try one more place and asked some firefighters who were taking down stuff from a festival. We were quickly invited to the station to sleep and to attend their annual barbecue! We had a great time hanging out with the guys from the station and chatting with Martin who has been a volunteer at the station for 15 years, since he was 11. We even got to go up in the ladder truck 30 meters in the air!

Our friends at the firestation in Bad Liebenwerda
The next day was pretty uneventful but more really nice riding. We spent the day in and out of the forests on little bike roads. We rode through at a great time of year, everything was green and just starting to bloom. It’s really nice to just be out in the middle of nowhere between cities and just enjoy the countryside. We enjoyed our last day of really being in the country before heading into Berlin and then on to Western Europe.

Through the woods

Ahh we are almost there!
The ride into Berlin was easy considering the massive size of the city. We made our way to our new friends apartment and hung out in another cafe to get a blog post up WOOHOO! One of the first things we noticed as we came into Berlin was the amount of greenspace everywhere. So many parks with big common areas and lots of trees. It makes the city feel a lot less overwhelming and more homey.

Our first day in Berlin was a bit overwhelming at the start. The city is so big and is divided up into 12 boroughs each with it’s own feel. We started our day off in  the center (Mitte) to see a few of the most famous landmarks. The Brandenburg Tor which is considered the symbol of Berlin is right in the center and we could see the line showing where the wall cut of access to it from the eastern side of the city.We spent a while just wandering around the center admiring the historic buildings.

Brandenburg Tor
   After spending some time in Mitte we caught a train towards Kruezberg and Friedrichshain to see something a bit less touristy. We really liked this area, much less overwhelming and felt like a place where people really lived. I think that one of the nicest parts about living in Berlin has to be all the public greenspace. There were tons of people hanging out with friends by the river or in Volkspark as well as jogging, rollerblading, riding bikes and playing beach volleyball.

Autumn enjoys some pizza

Scary swans by the river
We also went and was the East Side Gallery which is a very cool public art installation on parts of the former wall. A lot of it has been defaced by graffiti which is sad but what remains is really cool. It includes murals by artists from around the world about the period of change and hope following the fall of the wall.


 Our next day we revisited Mitte with some specific thing we wanted to see. Even though it can be a crazy tourist trap, we had to go see Checkpoint Charlie. This is one of the crossing pints of the wall that was manned by US military. They actually had a really cool free exhibit with history about the wall and Cold War Berlin. We learned a lot. From there we saw a large remaining section of the wall that has been preserved.

A section of the wall

Checkpoint Charlie
 We walked along the line that the wall used to follow to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe which is  an eerie installation of 2711 concrete slabs ranging in height from 8 inches to 15 feet. Walking through them is very disconcerting. (which was the idea of the installation, there is no symbolism only the goal to make the viewer feel uncomfortable) We went to the attached information center which gives a detailed and horifying account of the events leading up to the holocaust and the practices of the Nazi regime. I think one of the more powerful exhibits was a collection of victims last letters and postcards sent to loved ones. The one that really stuck with me was that of a 12 year old girl to her father

Dear Father!

I amsaying goodbye to you before I die. We would so love to live, but they won’t let us and we will die. I am so scared of this death, because the small children are thrown alive into the pit. Goodbye forever. I kiss you tenderly.

Yours J.

The memorial is haunting and makes you feel the weight of the history by reinforcing the fact that each of these 6 million victims had a story, a history, and a family.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
We spent the evening making curried turkey (oops we don’t read German very well…) with our awesome hosts Enrico and Samantha who we had met earlier in the week at a campsite. We had a great time staying with them and hope to see them again someday!

Saying goodbye to our hosts, Enrico and Samantha
The next day we said goodbye to our hosts and set out to find Knopke’s Currywurst for lunch (we had tried previously and ended up at the wrong place. The currywurst was not as curry flavored as we had expected but was still good.

Currywurst
We spent the afternoon in Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg again just walking around.We were a bit late getting back to the apartment to grab our stuff and trying to catch our bus was really stressful. We made it with 2 minutes to spare and luckily were able to convince the driver that our bikes really would fit. The bus ride was pretty uneventful and we woke up at 6 am on the other side of the country.

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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!
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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…

The Strug-a Bus

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.

Lots of large new buildings and construction in Skopje
A newer eastern orthodox church, the largest in the city

Our tour group

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.

All we do is eat

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.

#groupselfie

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.

The views in Ohrid were not bad

Cool boardwalk along the lake
Tranquil
Sveti Jovan Kaneo

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.

Sliding down was fun

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)

Delicious

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.

A not so great picture of us with Tobi

The next morning it was sunny and beautiful as we headed north out of Tirana…

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

Sofia

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.

Mountains getting closer
Autumn as we approach the hotel

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.

Alexander Nevskey Cathedral at night
Our Free Sofia Tour group

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.

The Sofia Synagogue
The chandelier
The Sofia Synagogue interior

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.

“Can we go in already, I’m cold”

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.

Enjoying a Duner sandwhich

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.

Boian explaining some cyrillic

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.

Awesome salad

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 🙂

Delicious
With our great hosts, Milena and Boian
The menu was overwhelming

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.

“I love old stuff!”
Pretty sure these were for making pizza
4th Century church
derp.

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.

yum.
moar yum.

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.

No problem, hasta la vista baby!

March 13-16, 2015

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.

So many trucks

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!

Good Bye Turkey!

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.

Tiny, adorable, cat that we couldn’t take with us

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.

Yummy bulgur food
Yummy bulgur food
All set up, but soon to be taken down

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.

The picture doesn’t convey the discomfort

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.

Rolling into Plovdiv

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.

Oh, look! Ancient ruins right in the middle of town

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.

Alex Foods, you have created the perfect food.

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.

Cool graffiti at the base of the Tepe
Not a bad view

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.

Roman Theater
You can walk around and sit on it!

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.

Ruins at the top of the Tepe
Derp.
Autumn being afraid of heights
That thing in the corner used to be a watchtower
Haegan not being afraid of heights
Haegan not being afraid of heights

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.

Neat painting in the house
Neat painting in the house
Intricate woodwork
Intricate 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.

Look how fancy we are

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.

Bulgarian beer, not sure what the name is exactly
Bulgarian beer, not sure what the name is exactly

Turkish Delightful

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).

We really liked Turkish food

 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.

Dinner with Mustafa’s friends

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.

So. Much. Food.

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.  

9:30? Perfect time for coffee!

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. 

Right across the street from the hotel.

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. 

Looking dorky in front of old stuff, our specialty.

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.

Always making weird faces
Ceiling of the platform
Flooding all around the rivers, a regular occurrence
In the bunkers
Leading down to a bunker for soliders
They were all sunk very low into the hillside
You can see Greece and Bulgaria in this picture. And two weird teenagers…
All men in Turkey have to serve in the military for at least 6 months. (unless you pay to get out of the obligation)

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. 

Dorky.
Dorky.
The ceiling of the platform
The ceiling of the platform

 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. 

The bunkers
The bunkers
They were all sunk deep into the hillside
They were all sunk deep into the hillside
Leading down to a bunker
Leading down to a bunker
If you are a Turkish man you must serve in the army for at least 6 months
If you are a Turkish man you must serve in the army for at least 6 months
In this photo you can see Greece and Bulgaria. And two weird teenagers...
In this photo you can see Greece and Bulgaria. And two weird teenagers…
Ottoman Sugar


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. 
 

Ottoman Sugar
Ottoman Sugar

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.