Helen Moat addresses the elephant in the room: Is she crazy for trying to cycle from the UK to Istanbul?
“I’m cycling to Istanbul.”
Most friends were too polite to say what they were thinking when I sheepishly admitted to my plan – but the look of incomprehension on their faces said it all.
Only my brother understood. “It will be an amazing trip,” he said. “There’s nothing like cycling. It’s faster than walking so that you can cover a decent amount of ground in a day, but it’s slow enough to take everything in. You get all the smells, sights and sounds that you miss when you are travelling by car.”
I knew exactly what he meant from our three day trip through England. But, unlike my brother who’s been an enthusiastic cyclist all his life, I had never gone more than a few miles on my bike – and at a very leisurely pace. Was I mad to even consider cycling to Istanbul?
The easy beginning through the Netherlands and on to the Rhine was encouraging. We ate up the miles fairly painlessly, and with my son Jamie’s first-class map-reading (using the Rhein-Radweg Bikeline books and his mobile) we negotiated towns and villages without any problems. Yes, we could make it.
Just outside Emmerich we met two men from the Alsace cycling on e-bikes and laden down with the best equipment along with their printed Google maps neatly displayed on the handlebars.
“You’re going through East Europe? Ein Risiko – es gibt eine Frage der Sicherheit – there’s the question of your safety. It’s not like France or Germany, you know.” And so the questions started again. We had read about opportunist theft in countries like Romania and Bulgaria. But was this prejudice rather than fact? We’d have to wait and see.
Then between Duisburg and Cologne the first of the summer storms set in. It took an agonisingly long time to reach Dusseldorf as I struggled against 30mph gusts of winds. Jamie tried to remain patient. Just outside Cologne, hailstones clobbered us as I tried to message friends in the Eifel west of the Rhine with frozen fingers. It was the first time I asked myself, What am I doing?
As we restarted our journey just south of Bonn, wonderfully refreshed after being entertained and spoiled by German friends, the sun came out. We made our way through the narrow squeeze of the Rhine littered with romantic castles and timber-frame houses and churches that lined the banks of the Rhine. I was beginning to love this trip, although I knew it wouldn’t always be sunshine – literally or figuratively. That I had to accept.
The Rhine was flat, flat, flat. It wasn’t difficult to eat up 50 or 60 miles in a day. But there were hills beyond the Rhine. The first warning of reality came after Bingen when we left the river to cycle over to the holiday home of English friends via the Wine Route.
The German word for vineyard is ‘Weinberg’ – a wine mountain. The clue was in the name. At first we cycled round the vineyards and on through sleepy villages of cobbled courtyards hidden behind large oak doors, and under arches of vines that draped the streets. Then the hills started in earnest: wave after wave of ‘Weinberge’. Just as I thought we’d reached the last hill, there would be another one. It was exhausting. How would I survive Bulgaria and Turkey?
After two days relaxing in our friends’ holiday home, we were surprisingly ready to hit the Rheinweg again. We joined the river at Spreyer, sneakily missing out on the notorious industrial stretch around Mainz. Maybe the ‘Weinberge’ had been worth it.
The Rhine changed again here in character. We’d left the drama and romance of the Mittelrhein behind, but this tamer area of woodland and dirt track following the sweeping curves of the river had its own charm. We passed a nest of five baby storks and stopped to watch them being fed by their mother.
We sensed the transition of north to south: the accents grew thicker and the crickets began to throb. We were greeted with our first ‘Gruess Gott’ rather than ‘Guten Tag’, a true sign that we were in the south. The mountains of the Black Forest grew closer. As we cycled from spring into summer, north into south, the sun grew hotter, the Rhine bluer and the sky clearer.
But then south of Kehl and Strasbourg we were brought to a sudden stop – the path had been flooded by the Rhine. We’d made such good progress. Were we going to have to retrace our steps for miles? Just as we considered turning around, another cyclist came in the opposite direction.
“Einfach durchlaufen,” he shouted. “Just wade through”. I looked at the ‘river’ in front of us. It looked deep. But the German unceremoniously took off his socks and shoes and stripped down to his underwear, then waded through the water with his bike.
Seeing the water had only come above his knees, we removed our panniers and rolled up our trousers (too British to strip off) to wheel the bikes through the water before returning for our belongings. By this stage there was quite a gathering of German cyclists, all laughing and exchanging cycling stories. It was good to have a proper chat beyond a quick ‘Guten Tag.’
By the time we reached Basel and one of my oldest friends, Manuela, we felt elated. We could do this, couldn’t we? As we sat out in the back garden late into the evening, enjoying a barbecue and a glass or two of Prosecco, I felt good, really good – but I knew the real challenges are still to come as we cross to the Danube and head further east.