Cycling through a village in Bulgaria (Shutterstock: see main credit below)
Blog Words : Freewheeling | 09 August

How to judge a country from the back of a bicycle

Helen Moat reflects on her first impressions of Bulgaria as she cycles through the country on her way to Turkey

It was the colour.

Tangy orange.

Avocado green.

Tomato red.

Sky blue.

Cornfield yellow.

First the blocks of flats on Edirne’s skyline, then the town streets and the wares that spilled out onto the pavements. And finally the people. All filled with colour. We’d crossed the border of Bulgaria into Turkey.

We’d spent a week cycling through rural Bulgaria. Most touring cyclists follow the Black Sea along the twisting coastal road, then head up steeply through the Balkan Mountains – and over the border into Turkey. We had decided to take the flatter route inland through Dobrich, Karnobat, Yambol and Elhovo, a hinterland of sleepy, decaying villages and grey towns of crumbling concrete flats.

We’d stayed in cheap but pleasant park hotels, oases of green in an otherwise colourless landscape. It seemed as if Bulgaria was still slumbering post-communism. No one smiled. Hardly anyone spoke English. No one was interested in the outside world, or so it felt. For the first time on my travels I felt a sense of displacement. I felt invisible.

You don’t get to know a country when you're passing through, even with the slow crank of the bicycle pedals. At best, you garner a series of snapshots; a fleeting collection of first impressions and brief encounters.

There were moments of connection: the Dutch-Bulgarian couple who showed me the house they’d bought from an English man – complete with his music collection and bar (he’d upped sticks and gone home with two suitcases), and the hotel proprietor who gathered fruit from her garden for us. There was the couple in the bike shop who’d enthusiastically repaired our bikes and given us free lights on our departure. But otherwise, we were met with blank, impression-less faces.

So we crossed the border into Turkey with joy and tumbled down into Edirne, the streets lined with old men on wooden chairs, viewing the world; pavements stacked high with the brilliant reds, oranges and greens of fresh fruits and vegetables; cafes buzzing with chatter; the shouts of peddlers selling watermelons and beef tomatoes from carts – and the call to prayer, a noisy clash of notes resounding from mosque to mosque and echoing across the town.

Cycling through Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria, we’d witnessed the slow and gradual transition from West to East, but now in Turkey, the near eastern influences were palpable: the muddle of cultures, the clash of sights and sounds and colours. I loved it.

After the Danube, I’d also missed the touring cyclists who stopped to chat with us or to ride alongside us. They’d melted away around Ion Corvin, west of Constanta in Romania. Then, on the D100, on the road to Istanbul, we finally saw a pannier-leaden cyclist coming in the other direction. We waved excitedly at each other, while the Romanian threw his bike against the side of the road, ran across the four lanes, leaping over the barrier to exchange cycling stories.

“Be very careful cycling into Istanbul,” he warned us. “A German cyclist was killed last month. It might be a good idea to take the bus. The drivers there don’t follow any rules.” I felt excitement and fear at the same time. I’d read so many stories about the perils of cycling into the city, and at the same time I’d dreamed about this moment for so long. Now, we were nearly there.

The Romanian cyclist waved goodbye and disappeared into the smoggy dip of the duel carriageway. We pushed on through the never-ending rises to Luleburgaz and our Couchsurfing host, Ayhan, an agricultural salesman. In the late evening we hit town, meeting up with Ayhan’s agricultural engineering friends… to drink tea and talk about tractors. Back at Ayhan’s flat, he and his twin brother Nurhan rolled meat paste out on crepes and sprinkled it with lemon and a spicy sauce, then covered it with lettuce: a midnight feast.

While the brothers went outside to chat with neighbours and friends, Jamie and I fell into an exhausted sleep. We’d been up since 6am in an attempt to beat the heat. I dozed off, dreaming of Marmara Sea, just over 50 miles away. And beyond that, Istanbul, our end point.

Main image: Cycling through a village in Bulgaria (Shutterstock)

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