As a cyclist you get used to people telling you to be careful because the drivers in their country/state/city are particularly dangerous. Mostly it turns out to be not much different from anywhere else but coming into Istanbul I finally thought that maybe this time they were right. Eventually I left the road and headed down to the waterside and followed a bike path, slower but a significantly reduced chance of dying under a bus so overall a good trade off I guess.
And so it was that I arrived safely in Istanbul. Overall the riding has been great, particularly from the Alps onwards and on through the Balkans. Socially, I have to say that I really missed the open, friendly bar culture of the US trip. Whilst I usually managed to engineer a conversation in the evening it's much harder work in the more closed, conservative European table culture. France, Holland, Albania and Bulgaria were the exceptions most conducive to bar based conversation.
If I were to do the trip again I would probably reroute the first week and got through France, Switzerland and northern Italy into Slovenia as Belgium and Germany were not hugely exciting. Obviously I won't do it again, there are so many new places to go, but if you're thinking of a similar trip that would be my recommendation.
Today started with some dull roads out of Edirne but things soon perked up and most of the rest of the day was spent on lovely gravel and sandy trails thorough Turkish farmland and villages as I wended my way towards the coast on a shorter than usual day as I start to run out of road in the run in to Istanbul.
There's a little block of bars in Tekirdag but all of them were pretty much empty so I chatted to a couple of barmen.
This was a fairly straightforward day across the largely flat farmland of central Bulgaria taking me over the border into Turkey towards the end of the day.
A quiet evening was spent enjoying Turkish food but missing the bars of Bulgaria.
All the real climbing is done now but what today lacked in variations in altitude it made up for in variations in terrain; including gravel, mud, some hike-a-bike across a wheat field, expressways, backroads and cycle paths as I came into Plovdiv. It's harvest time on the Bulgarian plain and lots of farmers were stacking grapes by the roadside.
Drinks were at the rather splendid Art Club Nylon and Club Fargo where discussion was variously of the decline of Bulgarian football and ...... craziness.
It was under dark clouds and warnings both of rain and that if I cycled outside the city without a yellow safety vest I would get hassled by the police plus advice to ride on the wrong side of the road so that I could more easily take avoiding action that I set out for Sofia. Luckily, only the prediction of rain came true on a much shorter ride than normal in order to visit Sofia.
In the evening, after sitting in a fancy cocktail bar drinking a splendid cocktail but cursing European table culture I made the wise decision to move on to Dek, a basement dive bar where the drinks were simpler but both the conversation and the shots were free flowing. There was much discussion of politics, Putin, the EU, the Russian mafia and Bulgarian corruption.
This was what increasingly seems like a common balkan day: climbing all morning out of the capital of one country to a mountain top border crossing and then plunging down to a town in the next country. The Macedonian countryside is alternately pretty or post-apocalyptic with packs of dogs roaming open rubbish dumps and fly tipping everywhere.
In Kyustendil, a random town on the way to Sofia, conversation was unfortunately somewhat limited by the language barrier.
Riding out of Bulqize I left the fierce Albanian mountains and continued into Macedonia, climbing through the morning before descending down towards Skopje. Skopje is pretty small, within a couple of miles of my destination in the city centre I was still in the countryside watching some kids playing in the road with a dead snake they had found.
Skopje was quiet on a Monday night, so I chatted to the barman about life in London and Skopje.
Any long tour has one day where everything kind of falls apart and this was that day.
It was not without it's joys along the way, though. At about 9.30 in the morning, a few miles out of Tirana, I was cycling along a half built unsurfaced highway in a river valley with very loud dub/techno coming from a massive sound system erected in the dried up river bed by some dreadlocked Albanian hippies echoing off the canyon walls whilst a cavalcade of tatty but official looking cars came down the rock and gravel road towards me. Welcome to the Albanian countryside. The day was full of old ladies pushing wheelbarrows of turf down mountain passes and men on ponies with chainsaws strapped to their saddles.
Cycling-wise, it could have gone better. The road over the mountain gradually got worse and worse until it became loose rock on a steep gradient, unrideable with the tyres I had and I ended up basically carrying the bike up a mountain, too committed to turn back. This obviously put me way behind schedule and I bailed at the small town of Bulqize.
The Montenegran coast is also beautiful and the morning was spent pleasantly riding down the coast before cutting inland towards the Albanian border. Albania is immediately more rugged and post soviet in feeling with rural roads traversed by old school farm vehicles and highways flanked by new buildings alternating with half finished or abandoned shells. Then all that was left was the joys of Tirana rush hour traffic as I came into the capital.
Tirana itself has the fancy bars, restaurants and coffee shops of any modern city, clustered together in the area that used to be the area of communist decadence where the party leaders lived and the public were not allowed. Now it is the centre of capitalist decadence. A splendid evening was spent at Radio Bar discussing the nomadic life and the joys of adventure.
Crossing back into Croatia I proceeded down what is the most picturesque and also most developed part of the Croatian coast. The views really were splendid. In the afternoon I crossed into Montenegro and after a sharp climb descended into Budva.
Budva has a small old town full of bars including the splendid Casper Bar where to a soundtrack of Pharoah Sanders and the like I discussed Balkan history, friendship, adventure and the necessary compromises of travel when done with others.