3 Countries on 2 Wheels in 24 Hours

Well, maybe it was 26 hours, but it could have been 24 if not for the shopping. I’ll get to that later.

The bike ride was the inspired notion of Kathy (aka Easy Rider) who organized and promoted it. In the end, after some defections, we were six. Besides Kathy, there were Altan (aka K9), Tara (aka Trust Me), Aylin and Laura (no aliases), and me (aka Godfarter).

We started on Saturday morning, May 4th, from Edirne, the principle city in Turkish Thrace. Four of us had rendezvoused the night before at a modest hotel in the center of town while Altan and Aylin joined us the morning of the ride after an early morning drive from Istanbul.

Our excitement was palpable around the breakfast table that Saturday morning. Kathy had led us to expect a great adventure, and we were up for it.

Breakfast consumed, the next order of business was to find bicycles for Tara and Laura who had come without theirs. While we stood around in front of the bike rental business, the steadily rising temperature gave us an indication of the kind of day it would be weather-wise: hot!

It was 10 a.m. by the time the six of us were mounted and heading for the border crossing between Turkey and Greece just a few short kilometers up the road.

Crossing international borders on bicycles is normally fast. Unlike motorists, cyclists can ride up to passport control, get their passports stamped quickly and ride on. Yet, on this occasion we were held up because the officer who examined my passport couldn’t understand why its pages seemed to be out of order. I’ve had additional pages added to my passport twice, and the result puzzles some officials.

The ride-segment through Greece was the longest. We rode along a highway for more than three hours with several stops to rest, examine wildflowers, and wait to regroup. In fact, we rode in two groups of three. Altan, Aylin, and myself made up the vanguard while Kathy, Tara, and Laura followed some minutes behind us. Some ride faster than others. On the bike tours I’ve joined in the past, the line strings out over kilometers.

Greece was a bit monotonous with not much to see in the rolling landscape except fields of new wheat. The only fauna we encountered were a couple of tortoises making their slow progress across the shoulder and a fox that had been struck and crushed by a motor vehicle. As for cars and trucks, there were very few.

Half way through Greece we came to a petrol station with a café where it was good to rest for a few minutes. There we met a friendly Bulgarian cyclist, a young man who had assembled his bike from parts he had scrounged here and there.

Back on the road conditions had changed. Up until then we had been riding easily, cruising along without great effort. Now our route became hillier and a stiff head wind, the bane of every cyclist, had arisen. So by the time we reached the border between Greece and Bulgaria I was feeling tired. I haven’t ridden much lately (Istanbul not being a bike-friendly town), and that day I was carrying an additional fifteen to twenty pounds of necessaries in my panniers. My favorite moment of the day was entering Bulgaria and reading the sign telling me that our destination, the small city of Svilengrad, was only five kilometers ahead.

In Svilengrad I located the Royal Hotel along a pot-holed residential street. As I walked into the lobby, a woman behind the protective glass of the reception cage cried out, “Full, Full”, that word seemingly being the only English she knew.

“No”, I protested, “We have reservations.” The woman made a quick phone call, and I was speaking to a man, presumably the owner, who said that due to a water problem on one of the floors, he had had to cancel our reservations. In another country, we might have expected that a hotelier in similar circumstances would have found us alternative lodging, but this was Bulgaria. Hotels are inexpensive, but they come without much service or many amenities.

Fortunately, we found other accommodations without too much trouble. Svilengrad is not the kind of place tourists flock to. Aylin, who had declared up front that she wanted a single room, found one in the town’s largest hotel, one with a restaurant and a casino. We others found beds in a small place nearby that had no sign and was really a hostel with separate rooms. I shared one of these with Altan. It was large enough but with a steeply slanted ceiling against which I banged my head a couple of times in the dark of night. Neither of us snored, but our beds, hand-made out of lumber and I don’t know what else, emitted loud noises every time we turned over. On the plus side, our beds cost only 12 Lev apiece, which translates to $8.60 or 15 Turkish Lira, the bargain of the century.

Showered and in dry clothes we slowly assembled on the terrace of a restaurant in the town center. There were three of these restaurants so alike in their offerings and décor they seemed struck from the same mold.

On other occasions, Kay and I have spent time in Bulgaria, so we aren’t surprised when the food and service are less than we might hope for. Although the country is now a EU member, it is not a happy place. It is poor, and its people are not optimistic that their lives will improve anytime soon.

Dinner was basic: sausages, French fries and beer served by a sullen young waitress. Afterwards, we strolled along the town center’s main street where we encountered few others, but where we ordered some great-tasting gelato from a curbside stand. Soon it was time to return to one of the sister restaurant terraces for a nightcap and thence to bed.

The following morning, Aylin was the first to arrive for breakfast on the terrace of the restaurant we had left only hours before. The place had a menu with pictures, and we all ordered the Irish breakfast: bacon, sausage, white beans with a red sauce, a fried egg, dry toast, and some canned mushrooms the kitchen staff hadn’t bothered to warm. The tea water was tepid. Nearby, three burly Bulgarian men in good spirits were sharing a large bottle of beer. It was 8:30 a.m. on Sunday.

This is a good time to write a few words about my companions. Aylin, who before this weekend was known only to Altan, is an independent woman who has her own small Internet marketing business. Her expensive bicycle and accessories are those of a serious enthusiast. However, this weekend she suffered from a knee problem that caused her pain, especially on the uphill climbs. She surprised us at breakfast by saying she had gone into her hotel’s casino the night before and watched a group of Turks playing high-stakes poker with faulty knowledge of the game’s rules. Obviously no stranger to gambling, she reported she had offered a quick tutorial to the players.

I’ve known Aylin’s friend Altan for several years. We are both members of the Istanbul chapter of the Hash House Harriers, “the drinking club with a running problem” that is also the source of our nicknames. Altan, in his mid-fifties, is the fittest of our group. He runs marathons and had no trouble riding his lightweight road bike up the most challenging terrain. He did have one curious handicap, though. Perhaps he had never ridden for a long distance because he seemed not to know the benefit of padded bicycle shorts. After a short distance he began to experience a painful tush and finally padded his saddle with a lightweight pullover he had brought along. Altan is as extroverted and Aylin is reserved. He chatted with everyone he encountered and never missed an opportunity to go into every shop we passed and acquire some small item.

Kathy, also a Hash member, who I barely knew before this weekend, had done this same ride before more than once and so was able to plan this one. She knew the terrain and what we could expect to find along the route. She is also a good-hearted woman who offered suggestions and help wherever she could. It was Tara who needed help most. She and Laura had arrived very late on Friday night and could not have been well rested. She also suffered from a bad cough and had a knee problem to boot. We spent the early part of that Sunday morning waiting for a pharmacy to open where Kathy could find some remedy for Tara’s cough.

Altan, Aylin, and Kathy also had to visit Svilengrad’s largest supermarket. Because of Turkey’s high sin tax on liquor, Bulgaria’s low vodka prices were just too attractive to pass up. To my mind, whatever I might save on Bulgarian liquor didn’t outweigh the prospect of the extra weight liquor bottles would add to my panniers, so I passed on the opportunity.

Sunday’s ride back into Edirne in Turkey was shorter by at least fifteen kilometers than Saturday’s. The countryside was also prettier and more interesting. We waved to shepherds, standing in fields with their flocks. While the weather was just as hot as the day before, the wind blew crosswise and seemed milder.

Altan, Aylin, and I had just about finished a delicious Turkish lunch near where we had begun our ride the day before when Kathy and a bedraggled Tara joined us. Laura had split from the group in order to catch a 3 p.m. bus back to Istanbul. The others, all of who had work obligations on Monday morning, left during the afternoon also. My bus didn’t leave until Monday morning, so I returned to the same hotel where I had spent Friday night.

Edirne is an interesting city with a great, long history. It was an early capital of the Ottoman Empire and during Ottoman times was the staging point for the Sultan’s military campaigns into Europe.

Beyazıt II's Külliye
Beyazıt II’s Külliye

Besides the complex of the Sultan Beyazıt II with its medieval hospital (now an interesting museum), the city contains an archeological museum and three extraordinary imperial mosques, including the Selimiye,

Beyazıt II's Külliye

Architect Sinan’s most famous work. Kay and I had explored these historic monuments in the past, so this time I was satisfied to walk around and hang out in cafes and watch the people passing by.

I was fortunate this Sunday because it was the evening of an annual gypsy ritual when the Roma come to town and play their music in restaurants on the main street. On some side streets, men light small bonfires and take turns jumping over the flames in a show of manhood I presume.

Tired from the weekend’s heat and activities, I retired fairly early and fell asleep to the sound of a gypsy band. Monday morning, I rode the ten kilometers to the Otogar and took my bus back to Istanbul, happy to regain the comforts of home.