Sunday, October 22, 2006

Istanbul, Day 6.

Parting Words.

Ha ha. You know, for a long time I had been thinking, to make a last post full of all these Zen-like koans that I thought up while riding along the backroads of Europe. Say, things along the lines of:

1. Uphills always end.
2. If you can, follow the river.
3. When things get seriously tough, there's no shame in taking the train.
4. Local wisdom has its merits....sometimes.

etc. etc. and other suchlike droplets of rather, in hindsight, questionable "wisdom". ;P. But then, back to normal life in huge, cosmopolitan end of your journey city, I realized that those things which seem to you so brilliant while you're busily pedalling like mad up some tough uphill on asphalt on a hot day, are actually, in reality, rather trite, in the end. So, and lucky for you, I will be sparing you those, and will not tell you. :)

Nor will I tell you, what it is I did once I arrived here in beautiful Istanbul, Gateway to the East, Pearl of the Orient, City of the World's Desire: the people I met, the colors I saw, the smells of spices that seduce your senses when you walk through the bazaars, the thousands of years of history detailed in its world-class museums, the awe and wonder of its architecture, the life, the veritable life, in its streets, its people, and children.

Nor even describe to you, that I deliberately did not cross the bridge to the other side of the Bosphorus with my bike, but did explore mainland Asia a few days later (bragging rights are important, you see) in a rather odd combination of foot, tram and ferry.

That, you see, is part of a different adventure.

What I will tell you is the answer to the question everyone has asked me throughout the start and end of this trip, from inside the airplane from Heathrow to Lisbon, through little villages in Spain, to border guards in formerly communist countries, to anonymous posts on web forums and email, the question, namely, of:

"How did you manage?"


The answer, in fact, is quite simple:

One kilometer at a time.

Ha ha, you know, when I was passing by the fish markets in the harbor arriving in Istanbul, and then on to Sultanhamet, the bright and colorful city center, I was hit by a such sudden burst of energy, that I even thought: heck, were it not because I'm required to be back in Vienna by the 25th, I would've continued on pedalling!

{sigh} :). Oh well.


There's always next summer! :D.

Monday, October 16, 2006


Trip dist: 119 kms. Time: 8 hrs, 15 min. Tot dist: 7,633 kms.

Full circle.

So, what's the first thing one does, the night before the very last ride on a long bike trip from the Atlantic to the Bosphorus?

Why, one goes to buy socks, of course (my old Lisbon ones badly needed replacing). :D.

For only 1 Turkish Lira (about 50 cents!) one gets some really beautiful, almost fluorescent orange socks in the downtown of Çorlu. So brightly colored, it can't be anything but good luck, right? And I that I had thought that my Lisbon blue and green striped European socks were pretty wild already....

The ride today was pretty hilly/flat (mesa-type climbing, you know, climb, go flat for a while, descend, at infinitum) and uneventful (though I did get to see--barely--a little bit of the Sea of Marmara!) until approximately 35 kms from Istanbul, where it suddenly turned into pure chaos. The traffic was unbelievable and at one point there is this maneuver you have to do, where, if you're riding on the right side shoulder of the road (and if you're on a bike on this crazy highway, you should), you then have to cross over to the left for three lanes and stick around there for a while, with crazy cars weaving every-which way as you try to do this at a comparatively snail pace, and trucks blowing smog right into your face and honking, and then, after about 700 meters or so, you then have to repeat this little trick in the opposite direction, in order to catch the correct turnoff to the city. So you cross left, three lanes, then ride a bit, then cross three lanes back.

Very stressful, that was. I just had to stop and take a break after that (also because that came right after a very tough and long climb, I guess). I also didn't have an Istanbul city map (I didn't have a Turkey map either, but I figured since I was only going to ride here 3 days it didn't matter), and if the city was anything like the road 35 kms before, I would most definitely be needing it. I bought one at the gas station where I stopped to rest, and at which point the guys at the station entreated me not to continue on the D-100 (the big 6 lane highway I was on) into Istanbul, but to follow the coastal road instead.

"Much flatter and no traffic!" the attendant had said.

"And how many more kilometers will that add? It looks like at least 15 from the map!" said I.

"Yes, no, only 6, but no traffic!" said the attendant.

O.K. Remember? Flat and longer is ALWAYS better than short and hilly. So I took this road.

I should start mistrusting local wisdom, though. First off, this highway took me all over the Istanbul suburbs, including a rather exciting ride right south of the Airport, where I was right on the path of approaching planes. Talk about stressful, when you see this huge bird shadow approaching you from the right, then you hear the horrible noise and look up, to see the steel belly of this huge Lufthansa Boeing that is landing just behind. Yikes.

Secondly, no traffic? Are they nuts?!? I was on a 4 lane avenue pretty much as soon as I came within 10 kms of the city! And, no shoulders, I was smack-a-dab in the middle of a lane (for you Boston folks: imagine a bit like driving along Storrow drive or Memorial drive, on a bike), travelling, again, comparatively like a lame mollusk, and cars swerving (while honking loudly) to avoid me.

Thirdly, no hills? Er....not in the suburbs. Granted, they were not as high as the ones I had had to climb on the D-100, but they were many, one after the other, as if I were on a roller coaster.

Fourthly, I got into the city late: the suburb promenade had taken almost 2 hours (I got lost a couple of times, too), it was not 6 extra kilometers, but 16 by my odometer, and then what with the swerving and not being able to tell exactly which way I was going (new big city at night) I headed for the sidewalk near the park flanking the docks (and what beautiful views of the harbor!). By this time it had started to rain, and traversing to and from the sidewalk/bike paths on the park flanking the harbor obbligated me (partly, too, because I didn't see it, being dark) to ride through some pretty thick clay-mud. It was hilarious, when I finally figured out how to get out of that muck mess, I had mud covering my tires 2 centimeters thick. The first thing I thought? "Oh, man! Now no hotel is going to take me!" :)

The solution: ride through as many puddles as possible. That worked, after about half-an-hour. The tires were clean but the brakes, of course, were covered up so much you couldn't even tell my bike was equipped with some.

But, I made it, in the end (after asking some soldiers with machine guns the way when I got lost in a huge park near Sultanhamet, the city center. It was amazing how non-chalantly they handled them: pointing every-which way, sometimes even at me, as they changed them from one shoulder to the other, then realizing how I was looking at them eyes wide and mouth popped open, they became formal again and started handling them properly. I rather suspect, then, that the guns weren't loaded. At least, I hope so). Ha ha. Not bad for a little more than seven-thousand, five-hundred kilometers, eh? :)

I ended up in a beautiful hotel with great views of the city and the harbor in their rooftop terrace. It didn't seem too expensive, and had a nice, spacious bathroom, whose shower I without hesistation quickly jumped in upon arriving.

Sunday, October 15, 2006


Trip dist: 118 kms. Trip time: 7 hrs, 23 min. Tot dist: 7,514 kms.

Conquers the World.

Heh, that map above? Those are the countries I've visited (you can make your own here). Not just the places where I hung out at the airports, mind you, but actually spent some time looking around in. Cool, huh? (And nevermind also, that all things considered, I haven't really done much travelling--the site says I've only seen 10% of the world, in terms of number of countries visited). Though looking at that does seem a little....localized, huh? A bit like an epidemic spreading, maybe?


The ride today to Çorlu was not particularly exciting (I had said goodbye to Françoise and Peter this morning as they wanted to stay in Kırklareli for a while before heading to Edirne, opposite in direction from me) . Pretty much like Jasper warned me, except that unlike him I actually had the wind in favor all the way to Babaeski, but as the road turned East (I was heading pretty much straight South before) the wind was hitting me on the diagonal, a bit against, and rather strongly. To Babaeski it was easy going 23 kms/hr. Then afterwards as I said there was a lot of winds, and quite a bit of up and down elevation, so it was slower going. Landscape, too, was a bit on the boring side, though I did pass by at least 15 textile factories, which was kind of mind-tickling. {shrug}.

Turkey takes very good care of its infrastructure. Its roads, even the old ones that have been since replaced by the motorway, are wide and smooth and kept in good repair (there are constantly sections being fixed, and the fixed section that I saw was as smooth as oil on steel or water on ice); all the cities/villages I passed by, though poor, had freshly painted houses, lawns mowed. I didn't see this even in Berlin. {shrug}.

Arriving into Çorlu, again, there was LOTS of commerce (see for instance the ads on the buildings), the city center is full of people doing...of all things...buying and selling, with the hustle and bustle and sounds that that produces.

However, there is something I don't get: if there is so much economic activity, as evidenced by an active (a highly active!) market, why does it seem that people here are still so poor?

Something....doesn't quite jive with A. Smith: I need to quickly find me a good book of Turkish history (Gurçan, any suggestions?)....

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Малко Търново(Malko Tarnovo)-Kırklareli.

Trip dist: 55 kms. Trip time: 4 hrs, 32 mins. Tot dist: 7,395 kms.

You know what the first thing anyone shouted to me was, as soon as I crossed into Turkey proper, when I was rolling by a little town not too far away from the border?


How nice, huh? :D

Anyway, there was a bit of a climb this morning, because the border (I learned posteriorly, thanks to Jesper, who after apologizing profusely for having lost me on the road to Burgas sent me an email this evening detailing all aspects of the ride all the way from Burgas to Babaeski and Lüleburgaz half way from the border to Istanbul, including things like: "after 30 kms from the 2nd hill after the border, there is downhill with strong headwinds for 15 kms, then the turnoff to city of Babaeski, but watch out for the three mean dogs about 3 kms off Kırklareli, they are very big and don't run away when you throw stones at them", and other very helpful details like that--with other precious gems like: "taking the road inland from Burgas to Malko Tarnovo is very tiring and very steep!" included--, because it was a little bit like having someone watching over you ahead of you, and telling you "careful with this" or "watch out for that", so it was nice knowing what to expect from here on to Istanbul) is actually at elevation 650 m. The climb up there wasn't too bad, but although it started out sunny early morning, I didn't leave until past 11, because I needed to change the brakes on the bike, as the old ones, which had been agonizing since the Carpathians, had basically died (no brakepad left, basically!) on the descent from the mountains to Nessebar, and I had heard (on the web) that there were some pretty steep descents into Kırklareli. What this long story means, actually, is that I arrived to the border with weather that was very cloudy and cold (it had just started raining by the time I left the hotel, and by the time I arrived to the border I was pretty much soaking), compounded by very wet clothes, high winds, and the altitude, made it so that I started shivering when standing, and had to even take out my winter jacket and ride with that for a while.

The Turkish border guards were very friendly, though. One of them upon seeing this offered to turn the heater on in the little cabin and asked if I wanted to come inside to warm up for a bit.

Anyway, the landscape changed almost as suddenly as I crossed the border. In Bulgaria it was mountainous and full of leafy forests, but within a kilometer or two into Turkey it was replaced by pines and much rockier mountains. Another thing that immediately changed past the border, a nice change, by the way, was that all those potholes from that bad low-traffic back road in Bulgaria were suddenly gone.

Another neat thing that happened was that not long after the border I ran into Françoise and Peter, the two Belgian cyclists that were also at Malko Tarnovo last night, in my same hotel, where I ran into them and made their acquaintance. They are a middle-aged couple who have been cycling from their home in Brussels, about 50 kms at a time, for about 3000 kms now. They had set out at 8 a.m. this morning, and now here they were, Françoise admiring the landscape while Peter finished changing the brakes on his bike, as well!

Good thing he did, too, because the web people were quite right: The descent 10 kms before Kırklareli was the fastest ever, allowing my record speed of 70.5 kms/hr for about a few seconds at the bottom of the hill, and would've been faster, had the road surface not been so bumpy (no potholes, but the asphalt was not perfectly smooth). Very exhilarating, (and a bit scary--silly mind always thinks things like--"imagine, if you fell right now without a helmet"-type scenarios which tend to ruin the fun!) that was. For a bit after that it was also kind of cool: you're riding in a ridge and the wind was in favor, a very strong gale that literally pushed you up the ascents at 20 kms/hr without you even having to pedal at all!

Anyway, on the windless ascents Peter and Françoise tended to go slow, (they had not been privy to the Catalan Antonio's advice--"On the uphills, use the preceding downhill to your advantage!"), even pushwalking the bike at times, so I ended up waiting at the top a bit more impatiently than I imagine Jesper must've done when he put up with me in Bulgaria (and that is probably why the time above is so high given the kilometer count). So, I guess, and especially given that wonderful road advice he then emailed me with, I forgave him, in the end. ;P

Françoise, Peter and I arrived into Kırklareli just as the evening call to prayer was floating out of the characteristic, needle-like minarets. Here in Turkey they are much more melodic, happier, even, than I remember them in Morocco (they seem to use the makams--which, by the way, I first encountered, long story, back when I was around 10 years old--a little more, for instance, while in Morocco they tend to be a little more monotonous). People are, indeed, very friendly here. As we came into the city center, kids followed us, asking questions constantly, wanting to know everything, but only managing: "What's your name?" in English, product, no doubt, of first lesson first year elementary school class. It was amazing, though, how versatile the phrase became in their hands, elliciting all sorts of responses, incluiding information on where Françoise and Peter were from, and how far we had travelled that day.

You know, Kırklareli, for such a small town, is bursting with activity: lots of commerce, the city center is teeming with people, a very lively town that gave us such a happy welcome into this new country.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Бургас(Burgas)-Созопол(Sozopol)-Царево(Tsarevo)-Малко Търново(Malko Tarnovo).

Trip dist: 128 kms. Trip time: 9 hrs, 22 mins. Tot dist: 7,340 kms.

Right. So there are two routes to Malko Tarnovo. One, 64 kms long, through the mountains, reportedly (according to accounts on web from people who have cycled this before--and there are not that many) up to 11% grade at some points, the other, 124 kms long, through the coast.

I chose the coast.

It is good, sometimes, to pay heed to local wisdom. Additionally, if the last 37 kms from Nessebar to Burgas were any indication, one can pedal along this more than twice as fast, so even over twice the distance, the coastal road should get you there sooner. Furthermore, I have , uh...laboriously learned over the past 7,000 kms (some, in rather piercing lessons along the Sierra de Guadarrama, the Puerto de Contreras, the Siegtaler Radweg, and the Elbe Radweg), that gradual ascents are ALWAYS better than short steep ones, even if they do add an extra dozen of kilometers or two. So, all kosher now, right? Are you sure you're making the right decision, Elisa? Considered all possibilities? Anything you assumed incorrectly, any information you forgot to take into account?

You know, the ride along the coast was breathtakingly beautiful. The turnoff to the mountains was only 20 kms away from Burgas, and the highway followed it naturally. I had to make a deliberate effort, to get off it and find a way to backtrack, once I figured, 800 meters into the turnoff, that I was heading in that direction instead of towards the coast.

But the coast turned out not to be flat. Remember lesson learned only on the very 1st day of cycling: wishing that the pretty road were the right one does not make it so! There were just as many uphills and downhills hugging the coast as they were on the first 80 kms from Varna to Nessebar. Ah, how we fool ourselves into believing the magic of wishful thinking! By the time I arrived in Tsarevo (over 70 kms and more than 4 hours later), a pleasant little roadsign cheerily announced to me that my previous efforts over 74 kms of rocky coasts had saved me a grand total of...18 kms. The next 54 kms to Malko Tarnovo, you see, were inland, over mountains.

Those 54 kilometers took forever. I had thought there would be one ascent, a tough one, and that would be it, but no, it was one, after another, after another. For those of you folks in Mexico: do you remember the old road that goes from Guadalajara to Puerto Vallarta, that makes any small child seasick, from the curves and ascents and descents? That's what this part of the road was like. And what's more, as soon as I took the turnoff to Malko Tarnovo, potholes appeared on the previously perfect road like holes on Swiss cheese. There was no way to pedal faster than 10 kms/hr even on the rare flat sections. I could not ride on the shoulder: the best bet was to try to ride in the middle. For this, I was lucky, this road had basically NO traffic whatsoever. Given the state of the road, though, I wasn't too surprised.

The effect of this, of course, is that it makes for a very lonely ride. You're in the middle of nowhere, in a country thousands of kilometers from home and family, in a potholed, treacherous, difficult uphill road that sees little transit, with the occasional car parked randomly along the side of the road, trees all around, with the occasional (always male!) parked car owner staring as you pass by. A bit eerie.

But to make a long story short, the other effect of this, not so unexpectedly, I supose, in hindsight, was that by 7 p.m. dusk falling and nighttime approaching vertiginously FAST, I was still 15 kms from Malko Tarnovo.

This, of course, not a big deal on a flat, highly transitted road.

Here, I was still climbing uphill (5-6 kms/hr, at best!), there was no transit and the road was not illuminated by passing cars (let alone road lamps, it was a minor, potholed road, remember?).

Darkness falls faster in the mountains than on flat ground. Between dusk (7 p.m., here) and the time I could no longer see very well, only 20 minutes passed. I was still climbing. I pedalled faster.

I saw something small and white move into the road from behind the bushes just to the right of me. The sound, of course, evidenced a small animal, but you know, when you find yourself in such situations, senses made more acute by the unfamiliarity and potential danger, your mind ends up working overtime. And since there's not really all that much to think about when you're busy just pedalling as fast as you can, it...likes to take some divagations into the realm of the fantastic.

You know what is the first thing I thought when I saw and heard that white fluffy thing, a skunk, in fact, moving towards the road in front of me? It was not, of course: "Oh, look, a skunk, how cute!", but rather:

"HOLY SH&^%T!! A ghost!"

Ha ha ha. :)

By now, the darkness was complete. I took out my little 4 white LED headlamp, parting gift from a good friend in California, which I had never had occasion to use before now (thanks Wendy, you saved my life!). Even at high setting, the light only illuminated 1 meter ahead of me. In the meantime, it got cold, I realized as my breath condensed in the cold night air. I started riding again.

And again, the mind works overtime: "What if Malko Tarnovo is not 15 kms away at all, but farther? And I that wanted to make it to Kırklareli today! Maybe I should've taken the other road after all! But shucks, now I'm here, and if Malko Tarnovo is not there, what do I do? Do I camp? Holy scripes! Another ghost! Oh, no, just a white sheet hanging off that old bus stop. It looks rather eerie. I guess I could sleep in a place like that in an emergency...oh no, nevermind. It is probably full of spiders. I HATE spiders. Shucks, the only reason I can't camp open air here is that I hate the idea of having some insect crawl on me. I guess I could just try to sleep like the horses. Stand under a tree, and just wait for morning."

And then, of course, the bargaining starts. No atheists in foxholes, remember?

"Oh, man, if You let me out alive of this one, I promise I'll never do anything as stupid again."


"Oh, God, please, please, please let there be a hotel in Malko Tarnovo."

or the classic:

"Oh God, please let the roadsigns be wrong, and let Malko Tarnovo be only 2 kms away instead of 9..."

etc. etc. etc.

Great ride, that was.

I guess since you're reading this it is clear that I made it to Malko Tarnovo eventually. At 9 p.m., in fact, but in spite of it being a very small village there were a lot of people walking about, which was a good thing, because no matter how hard I tried, I could find no hotels in this little town. Local rumor had it that there was one "near the hospital", somewhere, but though I could see the hospital, the hotel was nowhere in sight.

I went to a little grocery shop next to the hospital building to ask again.

"Hello, is there something I can help you with?" said a tall rosy-cheeked gentleman in his early 30s, in perfect English.

"Yes, I heard there's a hotel nearby?" said I.

"Yes," he grinned sheepishly, "in the hospital!"

"O.K., but where? I cannot see the signs."

The lady from the shop indicated something in Bulgarian.

I did not understand.

The gentleman smiled again, and said: "Here, I'll take you. You're lucky, you know," he added shyly, "I'm the only person in Malko Tarnovo that speaks English!". He said something to the woman at the shop, who appeared to be his mother or aunt, and after indicating that he would go with me, to which the woman assented in a relieved manner, for she appeared concerned that I couldn't find a place to stay, walked me over across the street.

The hotel was indeed in the hospital.

"After the government change, you see, the hospital was privatized. But no one in Malko Tarnovo wanted to come here, so they made it into a hotel instead."

Weird, huh?

Turok, my new friend, showed me inside, translated for me while I arranged a room (a double with a very clean private bath and shower, only 11 Euros), carried my bags and bike in-between short conversations about where each of us was from ("You come all the way from Lisbon? Wow! I am from Burgas. You were there this morning? More wow! You're a strong woman! How do you manage? Oh, yes, I'm in Malko Tarnovo because this is where I was born, but now I live in Burgas....thank you, yes, it is a nice city, glad you liked it, did you know there are two other cyclists here today at the hotel?" etc), and before parting gave me his cell phone number, in case I needed anything or got lost in city center. "Please," he had said,"call me if you run into trouble. Do not worry about the hour." And with that, a mild-mannered smile, and a small nod, he disappeared.

You know, I have said it once before and I'll say it again: never in Europe have I encoutered people more considerate, caring, and amiable than in Bulgaria. Turok even went out of his way, not concerned about any wasted time, to make sure I was settled in and safe, with such a gentle manner, a pleasant, sweet and cheerful demeanor that made me think:

Were I in complete, unrestrained freedom to choose my next closest and beloved friend, I would make sure he were Bulgarian.

Thursday, October 12, 2006


Took a rest day today. Ran errands, phone calls to U.S. and Mexico, etc.

It was a pretty day, it would've been nice for riding, but my legs are sore for the first time in the whole trip (yeah, can you believe it? first time in over 6 months of cycling!), no doubt from the effort of trying to match Jesper's faster/stronger pedalling.

I can't figure out which route to take to the border: inland, or through the coast? Locals say "take the coast", but the map says that is twice as long. Still, if on the uphills I do 7 kms/hr, and at the coast I do 20, it would take less time through the coast and I would probably end up less tired...I don't know.

Also, should I cycle all the way to Kırklareli (in Turkey), or should I stop at Малко Търново (Malko Tarnovo), last town before the border, in Bulgaria? I don't know! My maps are not good and the people on the web who've cycled this before do not make things clear on their websites.

You know the algorithm's engineer default decision mechanism for these kinds of situations, right? :D. I'll probably end up just tossing a coin tomorrow morning right before departure....

Wednesday, October 11, 2006


Visited the little fishermantown of Nessebar, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, today. Nessebar is kind of cool because it is in a little island made into a penninsula by a bridge connecting it to the mainland, a bit like Sirmione is in Lake Garda in Italy. Nessebar was inscribed in the World Heritag list for its importance as an ancient Thracian settlement, and its also its preserved ruins from the Byzantine era.

Nessebar is so tiny, though, and has become so flooded with tourists (today it was cold, and it is also off season, so there were not as many as I'm sure there are in the summer, judging from the abundance of shops and restaurants concentrated in an area less than half a kilometer square), that it feels a little bit like walking into a Disneyland "Byzantinetown" type of thing, and in reality, the size and the state of the ruins and even the shops wasn't really enough to hold my attention for more than a few hours.

Even their archaeology museum, with its single room, was disappointing (especially for the admissions price). For such a well-preserved city, they sure have very few artifacts on display. Apparently, sadly, the main draw here for visitors seem to be the tourist knick-knack souvenir shops, which I quickly ran away from not too long after arriving.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006


Trip dist: 137 kms. Trip time: 9 hrs, 12 min. Tot dist: 7,212 kms.

Uuuygh, what a tiring ride. It was all completely uphill all the way up to 10 kms before Nessebar, very slow going, 6-10 kms/hr at best, but luckily, very much downhill after that, with wind in favor, so that the 40 or so kms from Nessebar to Burgas went by in less than 90 minutes (just in time to catch nightfall inside the city).

At midday I took a little pause in Obzor, where the highway was passing so close to the ocean, I couldn't help but stop, take my shoes off, and walk along the beach for a while as the wind combed my hair sideways. The agitated and cold, frothy tourmaline waters of the Black Sea reminded me a bit of Half Moon Bay, and brought unexpectedly with the waves, some rather......melancholy memories.

I fled my broodings soon afterwards (it does not do to dwell on such things for more than 5 minutes at a time, no matter how much you long for the beauty/honeyed part of bittersweet), and continued my lonely ride to Burgas (Jesper pedals faster, and for the past two days, I only met him at the top of the hills, where we chatted for a while, and then I lagged behind again. Today, as I said, was mostly uphill).

I had first lost Jesper, you see, shortly after coming out of Varna, on the very first ascent up a bridge only 2 kms outside the city. Up until today, he always waited at the top of the ascent for me to catch up, or sometimes even a few kilometers ahead, but this time, I did not catch up to him after 20, 30, 40, 50 kilometers, through my lonely melancholy stroll at the beach of Obzor, and eventually even all the way to Burgas....

..but mostly, though, I think....because I didn't really want to.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Варна (Varna).

I wanted to stay here a for a day to catch up on small errands (bank, phone calls to U.S., etc) given that Varna is a respectably-sized city with lots of comforts (internet, laundry, etc), as well as one of the most well-known Bulgarian Black Sea cities. I wanted to visit the beach, too (it's been a while since that last toe-dipping in Montpellier!), and see the largest Archaeology Museum in Bulgaria, containing no less than 36 roomfuls of Thracian artifacts (as you know, Bulgaria was first settled by these Indo-European peoples).

I was once more, therefore, expecting to part ways with Jesper, since he's pedalling much faster (it is a bit of an effort catching up to him while riding) and as I mentioned before he's said to me several times in the past that he wants to cycle fairly uninterruptedly (i.e. without stopping for rest days), at least until Istanbul. But as it turns out, when I knocked on his door to deliver my goodbyes this morning, he said that he had gotten some sort of scratch on his foot while riding yesterday, so he decided to stay in Varna while it healed instead.

Uh huh. ;P

But at least that was lucky, for it means I get a riding companion to Burgas tomorrow, and possibly, even, into Turkey, where everyone I meet keeps recommending I do not ride alone.

Anyway, the Archaeology museum was closed (I had forgotten it was a Monday), so I went down to the beach, which was desolate and cold, in spite of all the restaurants and town fair-like amusement locales that were, though closed, still standing by the sand. It wasn't hard to imagine that this place would be absolutely packed in the summer, but as it was, today, it was a bit depressing.

So I returned to the hotel, where I happened to catch the men's team foil World Championships in Torino on TV (how cool is that? I wish TV stations in the U.S. would broadcast my beloved sport every once in a while. It is truly a lot of fun to watch!): France vs. Germany, which France, of course, won.

I then headed to visit the Cathedral of Varna, which was nice, and then leisurely strolled about the center, where I ran into Jesper, and hung out with him for a bit before sharing a lovely dinner.

Quite a relaxing, pleasant day, it was.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Шумен (Shumen)-Варна (Varna).

Trip dist: 99 kms. Trip time: 7 hrs, 12 mins. Tot dist: 7,075 kms.

Celebrations VII/Black Sea, here I come!.

Ha ha. Today I shamelessly rode on the A2 (a motorway!) with Jesper. The locals said it was no problem for bikes and it was a nice road, with wide shoulders that even allowed for some good side-by-side riding at times, which made things far less lonely.

It should've been an easy ride: there's a 400 m net elevation loss between Shumen and Varna, but as it happens we constantly had the wind against and towards the end there were even some hills. We also got rained on: got completely wet, and then got dry not because of the sun (which not for an instant made an appearance throughout the day), but due to the strong wind, which, as I said, was relentlessly against us, for pretty much all of the journey.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Шумен (Shumen).

Today I wanted to go to Madara, only 17 kms away, to see the rock paintings of the Rider, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, because it is supposedly a very fine example of Medieval art.

I was therefore prepared to say goodbye to Jesper yesterday, for given his time constraints he was planning on cycling on through Bulgaria without stopping, pretty much, except that upon arriving to the hotel at Shumen last night, he realized that he had left his passport at Russe. This was a rather interesting development because, while I arranged for my room quietly at the hotel for the night, he was left dealing with the very inexperienced receptionist, who spoke little English, and upon finding out that this strange bearded European had no passport, she promptly called the police.

Anyway, eventually (and I mean after a loong time of discussing/negotiating/arguing/getting nowhere/getting somewhere/then nowhere again/and general wheeling and dealing) things settled down a bit, for Jesper had both a copy of the passport and a driver's license, and not only that, the police was very nonchalant, told the receptionist to call the hostel at Russe where Jesper had left the passport, and upon confirmation that it was there and it was indeed the number written on the copy, he was allowed to stay the night at the hotel, police's orders, so the receptionist had no choice but to oblige, even though from the embarassment and the veritable big mess of things she had made, she really didn't want to.

But today, of course, Jesper had to go back to Russe to fetch it, which meant, that I would have one more day of cycling company tomorrow, which pleased me.

Anyway, back to Madara. I decided last night to instead go to visit the more interesting Thracian Tomb of Sveshtari (also a UNESCO World Heritage Site), which was not all that much farther away, because if you think about it, this one rock painting of a horseman is probably not all that less faded than the paintings at Ivanovo, and seeing tombs of long dead people is a lot more fun, right?

When I got to the bus/train station, though (it was 10 a.m.), it turned out that the train or bus to the nearest village to the tomb, Isperih (Sveshtari is too small to be served by public transport), left at 5:30 p.m. or 2:30 p.m., too late for me to then trek the 5 kms to Svestari and make it back to Shumen before nightfall, which kind of sucked, because by then I had also already missed the bus to Madara, as well.

So I stayed in Shumen, strolled about town and basically just rested, though next time, it wouldn't do too bad to visit Bulgaria by car.


Friday, October 06, 2006

Pyce(Russe)-Car Kalojan-Разград(Razgrad)-Шумен(Shumen)

Trip dist: 118 kms. Trip time: 7 hrs, 58 mins. Tot dist: 6,976 kms.


Started out the cloudy day climbing the deceptively flat ride to Shumen. It was very deceptive because you're actually climbing up and down some mesas: you climb, then it flattens out for several kilometers, then it descends, and you climb again to some flat sections, and on and on and on for the whole ride, so while it looks kind of flat, and you're thinking: "Cool! Fast ride today!", in reality, it takes forever (as evidenced above).

Anyway, a nice thing happened shortly after I left Russe. I was up climbing one of the slopes, when here comes some Caucasian guy pedalling faster, and passing me with a silent, broad smile. The first thing I looked at was his bicycle: he was carrying the panniers indicative of long-distance cycling. Now, no one cycles in Bulgaria unless they're headed for Istanbul, so I immediately called: "Where are you going?"

"Turkey!" he replied.

"Where?" said I.

At this point he stopped (success!!). I caught up, and we started chatting. He's biking through Turkey, to Iran, and as far East as he can manage in his month or so of vacation. But today, he's headed to Shumen (exactly where I'm headed!). Jesper is Swedish, a psychiatry nurse, and we're pretty close in age. Cool, huh?

So we rode together (or more or less together, he was faster on the uphills, so he pressed ahead and then he waited for me at the top) all the way to Shumen, through some very strange weather with a deep mist and dry landscapes, straight out of the "Twilight Zone."

Still, it was good to finally find some "same-way-headed" company, after all these months of solitude.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Иваново (Ivanovo).

"Where ticket train?"

Wow. The Bulgarians are incredibly nice. I've got a very bad phrasebook (three pages at the end of the Lonely Planet guidebook instead of the usual actual phrasebook--could not get it sent from the U.S. this time), but it is surprising, what you can accomplish using just nouns.

For instance:

"Where can I buy a ticket to the train that goes to Ivanovo?"


"къде билет влак Иваново?" ("Kade bilet vlak Ivanovo?")

or literally:

"Where ticket train Ivanovo?"

At which the Bulgarians smile, chuckle to one another remarking, no doubt, that I'm a foreigner, and who can understand how funny they speak, but then they put their hand on my shoulder and fatherly lead me to the ticket office, laugh with and explain to the clerk that I can't speak Bulgarian, then the lady at the ticket office extraordinarily helpful, patiently writes times and prices down, and when the ticket is printed (it is all in Cyrillic), points to the place in the ticket where it says the time of departure and the price and waits patiently again as I examine my coins and slowly choose the correct ones to pay, saying encouraging words like "Da!" (yes) whenever I pick the right ones.

I like these Bulgarians. The ticket lady at the bus station, too, before I found the train station telling me not only the bus schedules but the train ones too, and not only the ones to Ivanovo but something like 10 other neighboring towns, was very kindly also.

Anyway, headed over to teeny weeny town of Ivanovo because that's where the famous Rock Painted Churches, a UNESCO WHS, are. Getting to them requires you to trek 3 kms into a gorge from the plains where Ivanovo is, and today was rather hot. But it wasn't too bad: I found some interesting, deeply hued berries, which were kind of cool, and I must confess a lot more interesting than the churches themselves, whose paintings were rather faded, and therefore not particularly exciting.

The train ride back to Russe was, again, very friendly. Being the only foreigner in Ivanovo, I attracted a lot of attention: people knew I was a stranger and followed me with curious eyes and wide smiles, but without daring to intrude in my solitude.

I purchased a train ticket, on which the train time was written 2:20 p.m., at the guidance of a train attendant, at around 3:00 p.m. According to the signs on the ticket office, the next train would be at 4 p.m. Since I figured I couldn't ask much in Bulgarian, and this country probably worked a bit like Mexico, where things were often, shall we say, inexact, I simply bought a can of pear juice at the nearby snack shop and sat on a bench by the rails to wait.

At 3:30 a train arrived. I stayed put, not expecting my train until 4.

However, the Ivanovo locals had been watching me since I had arrived, and were, unobtrusively, taking care of me. An older woman turned to me, touched me on the arm, pointed to the train, and said: "Russe, vlak!" to me, and made signs for me to follow her and hop on.

I guess this was the 2:20 train, which had been delayed. But I thought it was nice how the locals, without my even asking, made sure I got to where I wanted. In small towns everyone knows everything about everyone, especially strangers.

And then, on the train, another older woman approached my compartment, said something in Bulgarian, which I assumed was along the lines of "Is this seat free?", to which I assented only. She then started a conversation, asked a small-talk question, which I tried to explain, that I did not understand. "Ne razbirem, turist!" I figured, would do the trick.

She smiled, clapped her hands, and was quiet for a minute or two.

But then a long conversation followed, that lasted throughout the train ride. She found out I was from Mexico, I found out she had an older son in England, she found out I had a brother named Carlos (and did you know, by the way, what the word for "brother" is in Bulgarian? It is brat, which I found very...evocative. ;P), I found out she had also a daughter, and Varna, apparently, was a place I should not forget to visit.

In-between, other things were said.

I of course, did not understand most of them, nor when I spoke, do I think, did she.

What I did understand though, was when she said: "Aaah, Elisa, Elisa, Elisa!", opened up her arms wide, and then drew both her hands to her heart, and smiled, saying something else.

To which I answered: "I too, am very happy to have talked to you, for Bulgaria, and its people, are among the most beautiful things I have encountered so far in my travels."

Wednesday, October 04, 2006


Trip dist: 84 kms. Trip time: 5 hrs, 5 min. Tot dist: 6,859 kms.

This morning I hapily set out from chaotic, noisy, dusty Bucharest towards the border. I soon encountered that old friend, the Danube.

Did you know that the Danube passes through no less than 10 countries? It is, in fact, the longest river in Europe. It would be cool, to take a boat and ride it from its source in Germany to its destination at the Danube Delta (UNESCO World Heritage Site, by the way) into the Black Sea. It really does pass through some very neat cities, as I've happened to find out first hand.

As soon as I crossed the border, the change was immediate: all the dust and dirt suddenly ceased, even though the traffic was as disorderly as back in Romania. The border guards were friendly and even when telling you that photographs were forbidden they still did it in a very calm, happy, nonchalant way, as if things didn't matter, but still without allowing you to get away with things, simply repeating calmly what you were and were not supposed to do, which was very much unlike in the rest of Europe, where even in the borders that will soon be vanishing (Germany-Czech Republic, or Austria-Slovakia), both sides seem more uptight.

Anyway, the Bulgarians seem like a friendly bunch. The border guard at Russe chatted quite amusingly at length with me ("You're going to Istanbul via Varna? There's a more direct route, you know". "The one full of mountains, you mean?" said I. "Ah," he smiled. "Of course, you're on a bike, I momentarily forgot."), but the very first thing, the first question he asked when he found out I'd been biking all the way from Lisbon was, as he leaned out of his little cabin window to look at my bike and panniers more closely and then pointed at my bags: "What do you have in there? I mean, what do you eat? What do you drink? How do you do it? Does it all fit in there?", which I thought was amusing, and a question I had up to then not heard before.

I got a bit lost at the outskirts of Russe. It gets a bit tricky trying to read all the signs in cyrillic, and also if you consider that even if you could read them you'd still not understand the language. So it took some asking around to find city center, but people were most helpful, and very curious and interested to help a foreigner. Some of them, even, would have long smiling conversations in Bulgarian with me, they didn't seem to mind that I did not understand.


Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Bucharest, Day 3.

Oh, boy. This morning I started the day with a screaming match with the Youth Hostel receptionist/manager over some laundry/pressing which cost 30 Euros (remember, the average monthly wage here is supposedly only 55 Euros!).

You see, the hostel's washing machine was broken, as I was informed two days ago when I arrived. Laundry facilities were the first thing I asked about upon changing hotels, and they claimed that the machine would be fixed "by Monday".

This was, of course, not so. I guess Romania, in these kinds of things, operates a bit like the famous Mexican "mañana", which never literally means "tomorrow", but actually means: "sometime within the next week, or month, maybe." (and the maybe is the key word, the one you really want to remember, the one that gives "mañana" its true meaning).

So seeing how I had to do laundry quite urgently, and the laundromat two streets away recommended by the hostel was actually only dry clean and pressing, no simple wash and dry, and therefore rather expensive (especially considering I had a full week's worth of clothes to do), I had asked the manager, yesterday, for a good place to do it.

She didn't know.

I asked "Could you look it up in the yellow pages for me, please? I'm not good in Romanian."

She said sure, looked for things, but apparently found only dry cleaners.

"Do laundromats not exist here in Bucharest?"

"Well, there are none listed here."

Strange. I looked dejected.

She then brightly offered: "If you like, we can send your stuff to our laundromat, where we send our linens. I'm sure they wouldn't mind doing your load as well."

"Wonderful," I had said. "How much do you think it would cost?"

She had no idea.

"O.K. but I just want wash and dry, no pressing or dry cleaning."

"Yes," said she.

"No pressing or dry cleaning, because for that I can just go to that place round the corner, the one you recommended to me when I asked you earlier."

"Yes." she said again.

O.K., yesterday I give them my clothes.

Today they come here dry-cleaned and pressed.

The bill? 110 Lei (about 30 Euros).

Are they insane???

Not even in the U.S. would a dry-cleaning bill run me that expensive!

I refused to pay. I explicitly said, twice, I did not want dry cleaning.

Their linens returned just washed and dried.

Why were my clothes pressed?

The lady at the hostel started screaming: "What, we press this for you and now you don't want to pay? Someone has to pay the laundromat!"

"It won't be me, I got a service I did not ask for. In fact, I got a service I explicitly did not ask for," said I.

More screaming: "In Romania it is like this, there are no laundromats, only dry cleaners."

I said I did not think that was true.

Yes it was.

Was it really?

"Yes, it is. In Romania it is like this."

"But I explicitly told you: no dry cleaning. You said yes."


"I'm not paying."

[By the way, the more she is screaming, the more calmly and quietly I am repeating the same thing. This throws her to despair. She repeats the same thing over and over again, "this is the way things are in Romania". I let her finish, eventually there is a lull in the conversation.]

"O.K. May I speak now?" said I.

"Yes, you may speak now." says she.

"Yesterday morning, when you offered to send my stuff to your laundromat..."


I let her finish.

"May I speak again please? I already heard what you had to say, you keep repeating the same thing."


Oh! Classic exercise in psychology. One will repeat the same thing until they're convinced that the other party understands. O.K. So I had to show her I understood.

"Yes, I understand. In Romania there are no laundromats, only dry cleaners. O.K., I got it."

"GOOD!" she said.

"But, now that I listened and understood, will you listen to what I have to say?"

She protested a bit, but finally let me speak.

"When I asked you where I could get my laundry done, I explicitly said I did not want it dry cleaned nor pressed. I did this twice, and you know I did, because you even recommended your laundromat after I told you that the one at the corner only did pressing. You knew full well I did not want it pressed, and you understood. If you knew that in Romania they only dry clean and press, not just laundry, then you, as a local in good faith, should've told me so before offering to send it to your laundry, which you made me believe would only do laundry, not pressing."


"You tried to help me, but in the end the place where you sent my clothes did not do what I asked, nor, probably what you asked either. They provided a service I did not ask for. I will not pay for this. If anything, you should at least pay half, because it is just as much your fault that I got this unwanted service, as anyone else's."


"I don't care about the clothes. You keep them, if you want. The point is, I'm not paying 30 Euros for a service I did not ask for." And I made motions towards the door (I had already decided to switch to a hotel last night, after the snoring, and had arranged for new rooms--closer to city center--early this morning, so my bags were already packed and waiting by the door, I was just waiting for the laundry to come back so that I could leave the stupid hostel).


I was so exhausted by now, I just had to then. But I left the place shaking with anger.

That's it. No more youth hostels for me. I'm sick of the snoring, the 3 a.m. drunken partying, the messy showers. By this point and after all the mountains of dust I've had to endure, I deserve (and can afford) some luxury.

Good that I had arranged a different hotel already. With its quiet, single room, TV, private bath and shower, it was a peaceful refuge, from this very confusing peoples.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Bucharest, Day 2.

Uuugh. Stupid hostel has 12 beds in one room. I'm in a roomful of guys, in the basement, near the showers. Which means that the musty, damp smell caused by the location is exacerbated by the "male" smell of youthful hormonal travellers.


Compound this problem, with the interminable snoring.

I had to move to the living room upstairs, to get just 3 hours of sleep last night.

Today I saw the Parliament building. With a floor area of 350,000 m², it is supposed to be the 2nd largest building in the world after the Pentagon. Very impressive.

I was very tired after walking there from the hostel. So then I just walked back and rested.

Bucharest doesn't really have all that many sights that interest me, you see.


Sunday, October 01, 2006

Bucharest, Day 1.

As expected, the first thing I did this morning was change hotels. The Gara de Nord area is not particularly interesting and it is rather far from city center. Lonely Planet recommends a certain "Hostel Helga", promising free internet and laundry, but as you know the guide is several years out of date and the hostel now is actually called "Central Hostel". It is actually in a nice, quiet residential area about 3 kms from the actual city center, near the Belgian embassy, so it wasn't too bad.

Today I didn't do much. Strolled a bit about the center, getting used to where things were relative to the hostel, rested a bit, not much else.

I'm mostly very tired from the things of yesterday. The incredulity, the wonder, mostly, at having narrowly escaped things: the dogs, the collapsing off the bike out of hypoglycemia, the...motel. The whole transaction-based human interactions, too (I'm going to generalize a lot here, so please don't get offended if you think this does not apply), which I had never really gotten quite used to in the U.S., where they seem to be a common, matter of course occurrence, and thus not a thing to even notice, rather took me by surprise here. I guess I was used to the poverty in the "Latin-American" variety: people don't have much but they will offer you everything. Here, people don't have much, but they will try to get everything from you instead, it seems: you have to constantly be on your guard here. In the U.S. (I'm generalizing, of course), you know people only seek you if they're getting some sort of even mild selfish benefit as a side-effect. But here, it almost seems like you have to be on your guard not to have something torn off you, like you have to defend everything you have tooth and nail; relax a bit, and they will furiously clutch at you, no pretenses, even, to preserve some semblance of politeness, no effort, even, at deceit, at charm, at fooling or seducing you into giving up what they want, but blatantly grabbing as if it were for the taking.

Thinking like this put me, unsurprisingly, in a very bad and melancholy mood.