Updated: Oct 25, 2018
Reflections on a long cycle ride to Istanbul.
"Chai! Chai!?" the familiar shouts echoed out across the small dusty square. I glanced over to Bruno, my riding companion for the past couple of weeks, we both grinned and shrugged. We hit our brakes and slowly turned our bikes back towards the little cafe. A group of weathered looking men with beaming smiles sat around a table smoking and sipping chai, they pulled up two chairs for us to join them. A language barrier was immediately evident, horribly pronounced Turkish phrases and dodgy sign language were employed, but despite this we managed to have a meaningful interaction with them and all of us learnt about the others lives. This was the second time we had been stopped in just a few short hours, progress through Northern Turkey was slow because it was impossible to reject such sincere offers of kindness.
It was the interactions with the people of Europe that really made this journey so special to me. From old women in Greek villages sharing cake, to talking politics over bottles of wine with German students, being warmly greeted by a whole village in Kosovo, or staying on a tiny farmstead in Albania. I feel as though I now have a far better snapshot of the people and cultures that make up Europe.
Before setting out across Europe I was totally ignorant of the staggering variety of cultures and landscapes within the continent I have grown up in. I thought I had some idea of what lay ahead, yet most of my preconceptions where blown out of the water. The fourteen countries I travelled through showcased extraordinary variety. Western Europe offered beautiful nature and the Alps served up the physical challenge I had been seeking. The pleasure of getting into a trance like rhythm and grinding up a pass for hours, finally reaching the top tired yet triumphant, taking time to soak in the views and rest up, before letting gravity do its thing and plummeting down endless switchbacks towards the valley below was addictive. I sought out one relentless pass after another, loving every second spent in the mountains.
One important lesson that took me a while to learn: Slow down. I set off on my trip at a blistering pace, putting in regular 160km days. The Alps quickly put a stop to those kind of daily distances, but I was still speeding along. Looking back, I don't know what my rush was. Perhaps it was the excitement of being on the road and the sensation of freedom that entailed. But it wasn't until I reached Croatia and the Adriatic Sea that I began to relax the pace. I came to realise that there was no rush, I had no time constraints, any goals were purely self imposed ones. With a slower pace of travel I relaxed into the journey, I saw more, experienced more, met more people, and ultimately became more immersed in each place rather than just rushing through.
The adventure cycling community I found myself a part of was incredible. There was always a feeling of excitement when glimpsing a cyclist loaded with luggage up ahead or coming towards you. Sometimes just stopping for a quick chat, other times riding together for a while or even weeks and quickly forming new friendships. Despite leaving England solo, I would say that for at least half of the ride I was in excellent company. Over the trip I stayed with several Warmshowers (like couchsurfing for cyclists) hosts and was humbled by the hospitality shown to me. My first Warmshowers experience was certainly an unforgettable one; Marco, a larger than life straight talking Croatian, built like a bear and always drinking like a fish, my stay there was certainly interesting. We spent the evenings in his cabin whilst he plied us with strong rakija and regaled us with his stories of business, gangsters, war, love and life.
One of the best things about this journey was the intimate connection to the outdoors that I felt. Travelling by bicycle meant I was fully immersed in nature, exposed to the harsh elements, feeling each time a mountain steepened by a few degrees and judging when to start looking for a camp spot by the suns golden rays dimming on the horizon. As I progressed South I became increasingly drawn to smaller roads, dirt tracks and hiking trails. This time spent in the backcountry made up many of my favourite moments of the trip. It was here that I would see the most spectacular nature. Finding epic camping spots on these more remote routes was never an issue and each evenings site seemed to surpass the last. The locals on these back roads were often the most friendly and welcoming, unused to seeing travellers passing by.
Life on the road is simple. It's possibly the thing I love the most. In a society increasingly full of distractions and pressures, it's refreshing to dial things back and strip life to it's simplest elements. The only concerns each day being water, food and where to sleep meant I was able to focus on simply enjoying the ride and being truly present in the moment. Days melted into one another as I meandered along dirt roads and through sleepy villages. Sleeping out under the stars on a deserted Adriatic beach, washing in an ice cold mountain river, finding wild mint and ripe pommegranates to supplement dinner, living in this way is truly special and something I will be forever grateful for experiencing.