We left Budapest on a high. It was an easy ride out of the city, weaving along the river and later skirting a beautiful lake bordered by pretty wooden houses. The sky had been gradually darkening all day but we were making good pace and seemed to be avoiding the looming storm. Foolishly, we pushed on after an icecream stop at a sheltered restaurant. Suddenly the storm hit and the skies opened. We ran for cover in a wooden shelter by the lake but felt vulnerable crouched under its feeble roof watching the rain pelt the lake and hearing the rumbles of thunder overhead. Tim ran to knock on some nearby houses and ask for shelter. This was to be a dangerous decision on his behalf.
We were enthusiastically greeted by three men drinking homemade wine under an awning in their garden. Despite their lack of English and ours of Hungarian we managed to communicate effectively enough and spent an amusing hour with them making jokes about the storm, their bellies, the wine... Ah, the wine. It was homemade and stored in plastic coke bottles. Despite our protests, glasses were thrust upon us and we were engaged in many toasts to our new friendship. Whilst I managed to sip a small amount and pour out the rest surreptitiously, Tim enthusiastically put away a glass or two of the stuff before the storm abated and we said our goodbyes.
The next stretch along a sodden flood dike and shin deep grass. Soaking, we stopped in a village and knocked on the door of a small guest house. We were greeted by a French cycle tourer, Hélène, who told us we had to call the number on the door and speak to the owner in German to book a room. Somehow this worked and we stayed in a little bedroom filled with family portraits and strange nicknacks. We ate with Hélène at the restaurant across the road where we met some very drunk and entertaining local men who worked patrolling the Hungarian borders. They told us that 40% of the police force is deployed in this, in an effort to deter forced migrants from entering the country. Again we were reminded of our privileged position, crossing effortlessly across borders for the purpose of an extended holiday. We are very aware that the route we are currently taking is the reverse of many people who are fleeing war and persecution in their countries.
The next morning Tim was unwell. We pushed on 10km before he had to rest by the side of the road in the small town of Solt. We walked our bikes back up the hill to a guesthouse owned by Kati and Bela, a warm Hungarian couple. Kati had worked as a teacher locally and Bela ran an MOT service next door. We were to spend the next eight days here as Tim became more sick, pretty much unable to leave his bed with stomach cramps that intensified at night. We still don't know exactly what happened, but we are certain that the homemade wine played a role.
Despite the unfortunate circumstances of our stay, it was a happy one. Kati and Bela checked in on Tim every day, took us to the doctors and drove us over an hour to the nearest hospital. They invited us into their living room to watch the Euros and fed us stew, chocolates, cherries and (for me) their delicious apricot palinko. Importantly, they taught us that cheers in Hungarian (egészségére) sounds dangerously close to the Hungarian for "I have a large bottom!" They were fantastic company and conversation, telling us stories of how they met and their life in Solt. They also told us that Tim had become something of a celebrity in Solt, acquiring the nickname 'the English Patient' amongst their friends and neighbours. The kindness they showed us was mirrored by the men building an extension on their house who brought us tea with healing properties and even performed Reiki to help speed up Tim's recovery. Kati and Bela were our surrogate parents for the week and we cannot thank them enough.
Finally recovered (or just about) we set back off on our way. Hungary continued to make for a beautiful country to cycle through, with gardens filled with cherry trees and roses. It was also notable for the barking dogs everywhere (little house alarm systems, their bark was always worse than their bite!) The local people we met continued to impress us with their generosity. One man saw us cycling and invited us for a beer with his family (and offered some homegrown herbs that would have made our bikes wobble!). Another couple offered their garden when we couldn't find a campsite. When we emerged from putting up the tent they had rustled up an amazing spread of cheeses, fruits and bread for our dinner.
Do not accept wine from these men
Farewell to Kati and Bela
We crossed the Danube again by ferry boat and rode through Mohacs, where a battle between Hungary and the Ottoman Turks in 1526 marked the end of Hungary's independence and 160 years of Turkish occupation. Soon after passing an old Iron Curtain watchtower we crossed the border at Udvar into Croatia. The weather was bleak. The history of the areas we passed was both visible and felt. Stopping at the small town of Batina we saw a huge Soviet memorial statue on the hill commemorating the town's defeat of the Soviet army and German soldiers in 1944. The town's new bridge served as a quieter reminder of the extensive bombing inflicted during the Yugoslav Civil War. 1279 people are buried in a mass grave upon the hill.
That night we stayed at a picturesque campsite at Suza, with complementary wine from the owner and Czech vodka from another young couple camping there. The next day the ride was stunning, through a national park with sightings of wild boar, eagles and a snake. Our cycling experience fluctuated sharply between vibrant towns with bustling squares and cafes and stark reminders of the war - bullet ridden abandoned buildings, eerily quiet rural towns and a memorial to Croat survivors of Serbian concentration camps. Cycling into Vukovar, these jarring elements coalesced. The city was on the front line of the Yugoslav war and was completely destroyed during 87 days of shelling. The memories are evident: bullet riddled semi destroyed buildings; untouched ruins; a written-off port; and a shell-marked water tower left battered as a reminder of the conflict. Talking to local people we learnt something of the extent of the ethnic divisions that exist today. Yet the city is also vibrant and modern, with a smattering of new buildings and street cafes.
water tower, Vukovar
Croatia, pretty stunning
After battling our first hills and 37 degree heat, we crossed into Serbia. A long day on the bikes brought us into Novi Sad late that evening. We had two rest days here and stayed with a group of bike couriers called 'Eko Kurir'. These friendly smiley people live communally in two adjacent houses with a veg garden, chickens and bike servicing shed. It was impossible not to relax. Novi Sad was an amazing. We visited a bizarre 'beach resort' on the Danube (cocktail bars, hotdog stands and David Guetta blaring from the stereo system), the cobbled Chinatown district (with no links, culinary or otherwise, to China), and the trendy outdoor bars along the peninsula. Back at Eko Kurir HQ we spent the evening watching football with a 52 year-old, long-maned, spliff-toking smiley guy who spoke no English but spent a good while non-verbally communicating to us the design for his patented cardboard beach ashtrays.
The next morning he sprung awake alarmingly early to prepare us his speciality breakfast of burek dipped in yoghurt. Delicious. We left the city via one of its new bridges (all three of the city's bridges were destroyed in NATO bombing raids in 1999), past the Petrovaradin fortress - host to the annual EXIT festival. As we cycled along we stopped to buy some bananas instead of the chocolates and icecreams we usually shovelled in our faces during long rides. Alas no shops seemed to stock them. Disappointed and banana-less we rode on. Until a car pulled up and a hand emerged dangling a bag full of bananas! Another customer at the shop had overheard our plight and taken it upon himself to track down some bananas. Refusing our money he drove back off from whence he came as we stared on in disbelief.
We were caught in another storm later that day and finding shelter in a restaurant met a German man called Jergen who cycled on with us into Belgrade, completing our first 100 km day. Cycling into Belgrade where the Danube met the River Sava the nightlife was unmissable. Disco boats moored on the banks jostled for space. It was a Sunday night but everywhere people were out on the street. We took a rest day and joined a walking tour with the amazing city guide Tamara. Belgrade's history is rich and varied, fought over in 115 battles and destroyed 44 times (supposedly!)
The next day was hot and largely followed flood dykes strewn with grazing cows and goats. Plodding along in our saddles, two French cyclists caught up with us. Lea and Florent are cycling around Europe for nine months learning about and promoting sustainable initiatives. It was great to finally meet some cycle buddies and we decided to travel on together. Being in a group also made us feel braver when wild camping and we found some fantastic spots, including a garden of a restaurant at Ram, looking out over the sleepy Danube and up at the towering Ottoman fortress above.
The next day four became five as a Swiss-German tourer, Martin, pulled over as we were eating lunch. Martin is travelling for two years around the world and had only set off one month ago. As we all set off together we had our first glimpse of Iron Gates gorges and the Carpathian mountains. This stretch of the Danube cycle path is bordered on either side by both Serbia and Romania and is known for its beauty. We wound past Golubac castle which perches at the Iron Gates entrance and followed the gorge to a riverside camping spot and a round of beers with our new companions.
The following days were breathtaking. The route took us through valleys and hamlets, past castles, cliffs, mountains and rock carvings, always with a view of the Danube river as it widened and narrowed through the gorges. At the town of Donji Milanovic our joy was punctuated by news of Brexit. Personally, we felt deeply saddened. Having travelled through Europe meeting so many welcoming people it was upsetting to think that we were further distancing ourselves from the continent. Worse was the way the campaigns played out, as political elites preyed on individual fears. The unknown and unplanned repercussions will likely hit the most vulnerable the hardest. With that news, a storm came in alongside a strong headwind, knocking out the power supply in the town. We had to retreat back and find a guesthouse where we stayed the night and cooked by torchlight.
Happy to find cycling friends
Nearing the gorges
Setting up camp on the Danube
The Iron Gates gorges
Our next bridge crossing took us into Romania and the five of us took turns to set the pace in our first peloton pedalling experience! We stayed at an eery abandoned campsite before bidding farewell to Lea and Florent as they headed north toward the Baltics. The next days were long road cycling stints, until we dropped back down the the Danube to camp at an arts centre (that resembled more of a hippy commune). We pitched our tents, swam and drank local wines. We spent an evening watching England's humiliating defeat by Iceland whilst feasting on local food prepared by the arts centre staff, who joined us for wine and chatted about Romania's chequered history. Our time in Romania was short but the welcome from the people we met overwhelmed us.
Travelling with Martin certainly sped us up and had some long gruelling days into Bulgaria. There were rewards, including the most beautiful wild camping spot of the trip. Stopping for supplies (beer) at the small village of Stoianovo we asked if there was anywhere to buy bread or to camp. No problem! A man parked nearby thrust a loaf of fresh bread into our hands and another signalled for us to follow him in his car to a clearing by a beautiful lake where we washed and made a campfire (Martin, the ex-scout, was proving useful) and listened to the chorus of toads singing away in the background.
Bulgaria brought our first mountain, 1000 metres of seemingly never ending winding road. Not easy in the heat with the pannier bags dragging us down but the descent was a winding path with stunning views at each turn and a beer and chips at the bottom.
Sofia served as a great place to rest and recharge, we splashed out on a place for the three of us to do laundry and sit about. We also took in the city sights, including a metro station featuring ancient Roman ruins unearthed during its construction - they still want ahead building the station but preserved the ruins, so you can check them out whilst on your commute!
Mountainous route, Bulgaria
Perfect wild camping spot
One of Bulgaria's many fountains
I went ahead on a bus to Istanbul to fly home for an interview. Tim and Martin pushed on down an amazing downhill stretch toward Plovdiv (beautiful). They met a Bulgarian born engineer from London who kept bees in the Bulgarian countryside and shared his homemade sherry. Continuing on the fairly busy 8 road they made it to the Turkey border within four days. The border crossing was a little nervewracking but also exciting due to the overwhelming realisation that we had travelled across mainland Europe and were really far from home, heading into the first country with a truly distinctive change of culture.
The Turkish adventure began with a stop in Erdine with a Warm Showers host and his housemates, eating kebabs and drinking overpriced Efes in front of the Euros out on the balcony. The next night’s sleep was at an incredible wild camping spot on an ex-military site overlooking a town. The sounds of prayer calls echoed around the valley as night fell. The cycle ride toward Istanbul was challenging. The infamous “flat” road in fact consisted of constant ups and down. In combination with the strong headwinds it made for a gruelling cycle. The scenery wasn't too distracting, endless petrol stations, corn and sunflower fields and trucks chugging past. Approaching Istanbul on a Sunday evening, at the end of a public holiday, in rush hour, made for a truly terrifying four hours of cycling. For the most part the road offered no hard shoulder for cyclists, just an unforgiving iron girder to the right. Finally arrived safely in Istanbul, it was a relief to be greeted by Warm Showers host Omar, who showed us the best places to eat and enjoy hammam (Turkish baths) over the next few days.
Istanbul is one hell of a city, boasting a splendid location, nestled in the glistening waters of the Bosphorus strait. We spent some time getting lost in its myriad side streets with chai sellers at each corner, before visiting the magnificent Ayasofya basilica and wandering around the peaceful Gulhane park. We were struck by the increased police presence following the Atatürk airport attacks (Jess flew from this airport and there were at least five security checks before you reached the departure lounge). Our bed and breakfast host Samed told us he had many cancellations after the terrorist attacks and that lots of businesses were folding in Istanbul, without the safety net of government support payments.
We had our most magical tourist day in Istanbul. Omar took the three of us on a cruise on the Bosphorus (seeing Istanbul from the water was incredible). As we passed under the Bosphorus bridge we noticed a Turkish military submarine gliding slowly beneath it, commenting on the strangeness of this. Little did we realise what was to come that night! After the cruise Omar showed us his favourite mosque, Süleymaniye Camii, and a courtyard chai house where we smoked a nargile. After a late evening pide and some boza (a drink made of fermented millet) we said a sad goodbye to our new friend and headed back for our last night's sleep in Istanbul. And an unexpected one at that.
Spot the cyclists
A submarine glides under the Bosphorus bridge
Martin's excited for chai
We said farewell to Martin around 10.30pm and returned to our bedsit. Around half an hour later we were watching the news and learnt that there was a military coup underway - but it was in Ankara. We kept watching. Uh-oh wait, it was in Istanbul too. They had closed off the Bosphorus bridge, which we had sailed under that afternoon, with tanks. The traffic was at a standstill. Glued to the television we learnt that the military was also at Taksim square - a short walk from where we were. We felt strange. What was going on? What would happen next? We walked out onto the street. Throngs of people were walking past and cars and buses were speeding by, redirected from the bridge. Nobody looked that concerned, the majority were on their mobile phones. We asked some young men who were sat on the kirb, they smiled and said ‘don’t worry, politics!’ and shrugged their shoulders. We went back inside and watched the developments on the news. Then we heard the prayer call from the mosque across the street. This was strange -it wasn’t at the usual time. Soon after there were more throngs of people outside, but this time they were going the other way, toward the square. Erdogan was away at the coast and in his absence he had sent a text urging people to go out and challenge the military. Some of the mosques, again at his request, were encouraging them to do so by putting out prayer calls.
There wasn’t any advice on the foreign office website, social media was blocked and our devices were incompatible with any apps to override this. Our sisters had both messaged us and told us to call our embassy. We skyped the embassy and told them we were in Istanbul. ‘Who told you to call?’ ‘My sister.’ ‘Check our website.’ ‘There’s nothing there.’ ‘Check it later then.’ Well, at least we knew old BoJo was in charge now. We were in safe hands.
It was early in the morning by now, so we tried to sleep. Not that easy hearing the sounds of gunshots and helicopters. I started to drift off whilst Tim followed the news and listened to jet planes now flying low ahead. Suddenly we heard an explosion and leapt from the bed. Then a second. We ran to the bathroom and shut ourselves in, in case the windows shattered in the bedroom. The news was reporting everything minutes after we heard it. Two explosions in Istanbul. It wasn’t long before we found out that the explosions were actually sonic booms from the jets. Phew. Still, we didn’t get much sleep that night, lying on the cramped bathroom floor. We skyped Tim's friend Dan which helped keep us in good spirits and followed the news until we heard that Erdogan had landed in Istanbul. That meant game over for the coup attempt.
The next day everything felt quiet. Our street looked just the same apart from the Turkish flags that now hung from many of the buildings. The foreign office website was saying we should stay put, but asking around it seemed that we were safe to go. Martin had already caught a boat south. We didn’t want to linger in Istanbul any longer so we hopped on our bikes and cycled to the ferry crossing. The roads were quiet and the shops were closed. The ferry was nearly empty and free of charge. We reached the Asian side of Istanbul and pedalled out through hilly suburbs and onto the long stretch of motorway out of the city. So many people were driving along with massive flags draped from their vehicles, honking their horns and shouting out of their windows. We didn’t share in their celebratory mood, having heard of the violence on both sides, the lives lost the night before, and Erdogan’s swift steps to reinstate his democracy, including talk of reintroducing the death penalty to punish the coup plotters. Eventually, feeling edgy and tired, we decided to leave the main road on the outskirts of Istanbul and take a longer quieter route toward the coast. That night we gave up on our attempts to wild camp and found a small bungalow at a resort with a pool. It felt a world away from the events by Taksim square and we slept eleven hours straight.