Tag Archives: touring

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…

Advertisements

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

IMG_3052

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.

IMG_3088
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

IMG_3098
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.

IMG_3110

IMG_3114

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.

The Adventure Begins

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

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

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

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

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

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

Medusa Head
Medusa Head

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

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

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

the grand bazaar
The Grand Bazaar

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

Hard Labor

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.

Bikes all loaded up
Bikes all loaded up

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.

Gum Creek Courthouse c.1888
Gum Creek Courthouse c.1888

11009754_10206125074831899_1018777503_o

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.

Autumn as we near the end of the day
Autumn as we near the end of the day

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.

Misty fields
Misty fields

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:

– Hiking songs work for riding too

– Coffee actually does fix everything

– Quality coffee is completely relative

– The worst will pass eventually

Autumn’s Bike

As you might guess, in order to ride your bike across Europe you need to have a bike. You could probably do it on any old bike, but being the bike nerd that I am, that was out of the question for us.

We’re going to be spending a lot of time using these bikes so I wanted to make sure everything was just right. For the past 2 years I’ve been an apprentice to Seth Snyder of Snyder Cycles and I decided to build Autumn a bike from scratch rather than get a stock touring bike. Over the past eight months or so I went from a bunch of pieces of metal to this.

IMG_1949.JPG It was unpainted for a while before I powder coated it the color Autumn picked, Winter Mint.

IMG_1950.JPG
This is the first frame I have built and I learned a ton in the process. I went into my apprenticeship with no real metalworking knowledge and now have built an entire bike, and helped to build a bunch of others. Being my first, it has its quirks and it isn’t perfect, but it rides nicely and does what it’s supposed to so I can’t complain. If I were going to do it again it would have room for bigger tires, possibly 650b wheels and no toe overlap, but you live and learn. It’s incredibly satisfying to design and build something from scratch that is useful and will last for a lifetime. This winter I will be working on another similar frame for myself to take on tour.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Here’s some info about the build for those of you who care to know.
The frame is fillet brazed True Temper steel tubing with a 51.5cm top tube, tall head tube, clearance for 35mm tires or 32’s with fenders and internal routing for the chainstay mounted disc brake.The fork is an All City painted to match.

The bike is built with SRAM Apex and TRP Spyre mechanical disc brakes. The cranks are Sugino OX601s geared at 26/40 with an 11-32 cassette for a nice low-end range. The wheels are CR18s with Shimano SLX hubs and 32 spokes laced 3 cross rear and 2 cross front.

Autumn has already logged over 500 miles on the bike since September getting ready for the trip (and it hasn’t fallen apart yet…) There have been and probably still will be a few small changes before we leave (racks, bags, fenders, Brooks saddle, etc), but for the most part this is the bike that will carry her across Europe.

Note from Autumn:

It’s so pretty. I can’t tell you about the technical stuff, but I love this bike. I love that with this bike Haegan has taught me more about bikes than I ever thought I would need to know. I love that he’s showed me how to be a cyclist on this bike, and I think I’m getting better at it. I love that I got see the process of how it was made, every step from the sketches to the final product. I love knowing that this is the bike I’ll be seeing Europe on. What I really love though, is that Haegan made it. The act itself is incredibly flattering and I’m still in a bit of disbelief. I really don’t have words to describe my gratitude, awe, and admiration. He’s a pretty cool guy, with a pretty cool skill. I guess he’s worth keeping around 🙂

IMG_1951.JPG