After the last few days in the Rila mountains were defined by rain and the occasional thunderstorm, we crave the sun again. Now, that might make you think of the three pale white boys we aren’t anymore – in fact, we’re all still bearing the marks of the last sunburn. And so, we rolled across the borderline between Bulgaria and Greece with high hopes and wet clothes.
After leaving the last climb on our way to the sea (and a climb, it was) behind, we shot down the mountain. The hard last days are forgotten as we start the descent; 800 meters down, spread onto almost 20 kilometers of smooth tarmac – between steep rock faces and green hills we slithered across the landscape, and down in the valley it’s a whole different setting: instead of the cold mountain air a warm, mediterranian breeze floats around and imposing mountains have become seemingly infinite flatlands. And the smell! It smells like vacation, the typical Mediterranean smell us european kids grew up on, reminding you of the summer holidays, the best time of the year. We’re in Greece! Cool.
Small villages with white houses and sea blue fences, paired with a couple olive trees. This is exactly the way I imagined Greece to be and in fact a pretty accurate image of what awaits us here.
You can’t stop anywhere in Greece for longer than five minutes without being offered something: A couple apples and bananas here, cold water there and one time we get invited for the night by a funny old grandpa. He speaks okay german and shows some weirdly strong disapproval for Quentins name.
Almost 2,500 kilometers on our bikes, and we’ve been thinking about the sea for at least the last 500. The closer we get to the coast – we’re heading for Kavala – the stronger the anticipation gets, but the last couple of kilometers become unexpectedly hard: It seems like someone wants us to really work for our arrival at the sea – not like it’s been easy until here – and that someone throws heavy frontwind at us and one last hill we didn’t expect, depleting our last reserves as we make it to the top. But then, the sea. The salty wind is blowing our still very short hair around, and we let our eyes wander upon this big, dark blue bubble of promise, having finally arrived at the first true vacation spot of our trip. The sea!
Daniel will leave us in a couple of days, but until then we’ll appreciate the sea as much as we can. We find a bay, completely deserted and amazingly beautiful, where we will set up camp for the next couple of days. As postcard-worthy as it is, our almost perfect little bay has one decisive downside: There’s a reason it’s so lonely, namely the impossible road across a steep and rocky mountain path, making a short trip to the next grocery store or the inner city of Kavala (only 10 km away) a half-day adventure, even without baggage. But even that has its upsides, because for the first time since Berlin we get to rest a little, calm down and contemplate.
I guess this is goodbye then
Three little biker boys, ate porridge ‘stead of food
One said „fuck this shit, I’m out“, and left we’re only two.
Three little biker boys, picked fights with some big dudes
As Daniel was knocked out, the three bike boys became the two.
Three little biker boys, thought they were so free.
Until the one guy‘s girlfriend called, now two are left to be.
We can’t enjoy our timeout for too long though, as the two remaining men have to say goodbye to Daniel soon enough and go on to Istanbul, to make more memories, meet a girlfriend and be mildly mauled by many wild dogs. Time is ticking again, and wanderlust has set in.
Post Daniel Era
No half hour after we’ve put Daniel into the bus home, Quentin‘s bike chain rips apart – and guess who’s heading for Thessaloniki right now, the needed tool safely secured in his bags. Yeah, we’re fucked, especially since the internet can’t help us out in this case, and GoogleMaps doesn’t show a single bike shop in the whole city. Gladly, Gmaps is wrong, and I’m able to play the hero and bike around town to get all the parts and tools needed to fix Q’s bike, so the two of us can continue on our journey.
We take a road along the shoreline towards Turkey, and even though it’s stunningly beautiful, everything east of kavala has a spooky and weird feeling to it, because it’s just so …empty. The landscape and nature is amazing, but there are almost no people to be found, and there are weird ruins everywhere. These ruins are mostly pretty new, stemming from building projects that were started, but never finished, for example the thermal baths of potamia, to which there are signs everywhere and even opening times on their website, but the baths themselves are rotting away, having become a ghost town without ever really being used.
The villages seem dead, too. When we head to a camping place marked on a map, located near a tourist beach with a beach bar and all, we are neither able to find the camping place nor the tourists or a beach bar, just a whole lot of nothing.
So, even though the nature itself and specifically the coastline in Greece was spectacular, we didn’t feel like staying any longer (also considering that it’s the most expensive country yet), and so we waste no time crossing the border into Turkey.
It’s late and we’re lying in a bulgarian meadow. A few hours ago we were still in Serbia, unexpectedly one of the most fun countries yet, and now, back in the EU, the birds are singing for us. Within the next days, a lot will happen: Quentin will crash and get injured, Daniel will turn 19 and I’ll become acquainted with Italians.
As we set off for Sofia the next morning, the cuckoo is singing again (or still?), and the sun cuts through the sharp peaks into our narrow valley. Spring made our days in Serbia, and it’s still impressive how green the world can be, the mountain panorama is breathtaking and all this natural space clears my head. I’m ready for a new country.
You can download movies in the Netflix app, and so I was finally able to see a movie that’s been on my watchlist for ages: American Beauty. The setting could not be more different from the one we ride through every day, but the underlying message of the movie is perfectly applicable to my situation: Life is beautiful, if you let it be, and instead of frantically trying to save and store this beauty you should appreciate every small moment of this great, great beauty as it passes by. That might sound absurdly corny – as all awkwardly summed up big concepts do – , but it leaves its mark on me these days, and while the hours fly by and we sweep across the mountains towards Sofia, my mind is free and I enjoy every drop of sweat rolling across my skin during the climb just to be dried by the descent.
Then in a flash, the crash: Suddenly, Quentin is lying on the side of the road, gasping in pain. Daniel came off the tarmac, skidded, and Quentin is bearing the marks: As we patch him up in the burning sun, we all recover from the shock. At least, our first real accident goes by with scratches and bruises and everyone survives.
Just as quickly as we were halted from 30 to 0, I am catapulted out of my dream state. Sofia is a fascinating city, and through my family we get to know someone who can open the gates to its history for us: Emilia, an elderly lady, who welcomes us for dinner, falling in line with the natural hospitality that is still so unfamiliar for us. During our cozy evening, we learn about her design studies in the former GDR, and for the first time we don’t have to explain our travel plans, our route and answer the usual questions („But isn’t there an ocean in-between?“). Instead, we learn about Sofias history and Emilia offers to give us a little tour. On the trail of Serdica, the ancient roman city Sofia is built on, we visit ruins all over the city, from active subway stations to age-old catacombs, here and there refreshing at the hot springs or strolling across the markets.
Needless to say, after these cultural highlights it’s beer’o’clock, and since Bulgaria offers our drink of choice in absurdly big 2-liter bottles, we end up in a lively pedestrian area, where I make friends with two Italians. I won’t go further into the details of our night in Sofia, but a lemon and a long scrap of barrier tape played major roles.
After saying goodbye to Sofia, we head up to the Rila mountains, an imposing range of snow-covered mountains. We’ll only scratch it, but still we climb to our highest point yet (1.3 km over sea level), where a thunderstorm surprises us. The death-defying daredevils that we are, we camp right next to a power line close to the peak. Not that clever, but we survive and are able to celebrate Daniel’s birthday the next morning and, after a long day of biking, evening: We take another risky route (over the tracks across a train bridge) to an extraordinarily beautiful camp spot and end the day with a campfire barbecue on a river island.
I developed a rule of thumb for finding extra nice camp spots: The harder a certain places to reach, the better it is. This rule is confirmed again and again in Bulgaria, starting with the mystic thunderstorm mountaintop, over to the almost tropical stone beach on the river island – situated within a dense jungle and only accessible with the risk of being run over by a train. Even our last night in Bulgaria is movie material; As we climb out of our tents, set up on a lush meadow next to a creek, a herd of goats stares at us. We stare right back, and after we emerge victoriously from this survival staring contest in wild nature, we are able to move off. To Greece!
Out of the EU for the first time, a flimsy feeling at the border for the first time, the first noticeable border in general, our first contact with the police, but not really much of a culture clash.
Whenever we talk about going through Serbia, we get warnings on warnings, most of them a little bit biased: Be careful with the Serbians, keep track of your stuff, don’t be naive, don’t trust what they’re telling you. As soon as you cross the border, you’ll notice the drastic difference!
None of that proves to be true though, and while we are a little intimidated by the border itself, we don’t have any problems inside the country. Serbia is charming and exciting, and not too different from Hungary really – the streets are equally good (or bad), the supermarkets are modern and big, the villages are partly very tidy and clean, partly messy and dilapidated, but all really likable – nothing too out of the ordinary.
Until we come to Belgrade, that is. WOW!
A city that’s hard to put into words. After an exhausting 125km-day with countless hills we arrive in the evening, and Daniel immediately compares it to Istanbul (dunno, never been there). To get an impression of the city, drawing parallels isn’t a bad idea: a lot of the streets remind of Berlin. There’s the beloved Kreuzberg-Schöneberg-atmosphere with lots of nice bars, beer gardens, green alleys and cobblestone streets, reminding us of our city a thousand miles away (quite literally). The city is not beautiful at all, cause unlike the big cities of Budapest, Vienna, Prague and Dresden, Belgrade doesn’t have any of the imposing buildings overlooking the streets. It has something way better: Authenticity. It just feels right. The slightly rainy weather somehow fit the picture, and, for a last comparison, Belgrade had a Bladerunner type “dirty future” vibe. Awesome.
Even though we stay for three nights, we aren’t able to dive into the nightlife of Belgrade, despite multiple recommendations. Oh well, maybe next time.
After powering through from the border to Belgrade in just two days, we’ll take it easy on the ca. 400 km to Sofia.
As we get out of Budapest, still trying to comprehend the impressions of this wonderful city, we haven’t yet seen much of Hungary.
Big cities, while usually impressive on their own, don’t really represent the country they’re in; They’re too big a universe themselves to not develop a different culture and way of life than the rest of the country does.
After leaving the urban and suburban areas of Budapest, we are tired and don’t pay much attention to our surroundings, but we do notice the towns and villages looking poorly and as we‘re looking for a place to sleep, the side roads are a tricky mix between potholes and gravel. As we lay in a park inside our tents, sleepily recapping the day, Hungary has left no lasting impression outside of Budapest. Boy, was that about to change!
The next day, we bike from dusk till dawn, and like a sponge we soak up the smells, the pictures and moments of the ride through the Hungarian countryside. Spring is in full bloom, and from every branch of every tree the buds are sprouting green, the meadows we‘re flying by are a shining blur of colors, white and red patches of flowers on the ground and every gnarly wooden shelter, every run-down village we ride by seems like it came right from the pages of a fairytale book. In the evening, we camp on a riverbank at the Danube and light a big campfire before we watch the stars, and the mystic feeling just doesn’t end. Finally, we’re the young, wild and free fortune seekers from all the books we read as children. We’re the ones songs are written about, and we’re the ones who belong in the movies. It doesn’t feel like power though, not like we’re better than anyone, no: It just feels like we belong here right now.
Next morning, the fourth week of our trip has begun, and we’ve seen and been through a lot in the last 20 days. During a little beer break, we remember our first days in snow and ice, how we woke up in a frozen tent and were biking clothed in layers of winter gear. We think back to the first hosting experiences in Dresden and Prague, and to Quentin’s knee injury, which seems ages ago. We reminisce about the first warm days in Vienna, and about Budapest. And there’s much more to come…
In the evening, we arrive in a small Village close to the Danube, where we have trouble to find the street (and later, the house number) of the place we will be staying in that night: Friends of Quentin‘s parents live here, and after a weird call from their own garden („Hi…um, it’s Quentin and I think I’m standing on your lawn. Not really sure though…”) we are warmly welcomed into the most hospitable household we had ever been in.
Communication is hard, because Sandor and Elisabeth, our hosts, barely speak German and don’t speak English, but when we’re sitting at the dinner table, overwhelmed by great amounts of great food served with self-made schnapps, the atmosphere is relaxed and we learn that conversation is just as good if it’s nonverbal. Body Language is key to the next few hours, and when we step out to our home for the night, a trailer – the schnapps bottle with us, as our hosts insisted – we’re full and happy.
After fixing some bikes for Elisabeth and Sandor’s grandkids on the next day, we take them for a spin and get caught up in a little race through the hot dirt, and when we return, lunch awaits us, schnapps and all. After eating too much traditional chicken soup and including a little challenge (who can take the most drops of a Hungarian hot sauce made from paprika), we say farewell to our hosts, not without accepting sandwiches and 4.5 liters of their schnapps for the way (yeah, liters). And off we go, taking a very swampy route that will lead us to the border into Serbia.
– That’s the sound of us zooming down the last hill into Budapest. The long descent into the beautiful city makes us forget the knee pains and leg cramps a few minutes before and we’re shouting out our glee as we ride into Budapest in a great mood.
(Side note: If you hit a child-sized pothole at 50 km/h and don’t even die, you’re really happy that your heavily packed touring bike is confirmed indestructible)
As we bike across a bridge in the golden hour – aiming for a hostel where we’ll stay the following two nights – a beautifully lit city sparks at us. My gaze wanders across the magnificent parliament building when Quentin discovers a familiar face on the bridge – it’s Jack! Small world…
Budapest amazes me from the first second on, in its own special way. It doesn’t have the imposing, clean appeal of Vienna, neither the charmingly dirty chaos of Berlin, but rather a mysterious Aura, as if the city was still deciding if she wants to unveil her secrets.
After checking into our labyrinth-like hostel, we went out to walk the streets for a while, get a feeling. Even though the controversial election will take place he next Day, the mood on the streets isn’t tense. The pleasant evening air seems to absorb all tension.
The next day we explore Budapest. Definitely worth a visit is the Jewish quarter, and in particular the street where you can find the street food market as well as Szimpla Kert. At the street food market we try Lángos, a hungarian specialty made from fried dough, shaped like pizza and with similar toppings. A couple meters from there, we walk into a backyard and suddenly we’re in the middle of Szimpla Kert, an open multi-floored complex combining bars, cafes and dancefloors into a big chillspace. We’re in awe looking at it, every inch of surface space covered in either art or plant life, and the whole thing, a clearing in the city jungle, brings to mind the picture of a paradisical oasis. Accordingly, the beer is surprisingly cheap and there is immediate consensus among us about where we are gonna spend the night after we finish our city tour.
We don’t want to call it sightseeing, because we’re less about staring vacantly at all the sights in the city guide and more about getting a feel of the city’s spirit, take a dip in the life there. We’re walking a fine line there, because of course we’re also interested in impressive architecture and some special landmarks. Anyways, in the evening we end up in Buda, the hilly quarter of Budapest, from where you have a fascinating view over the whole city. Another point where Budapest shines. While we watch over the (big!) parliament building across the Danube, we have the luxury of enjoying another beautiful sunset.
The next morning, we leave Budapest behind, returning to what has become our everyday life: A firm grip on the handlebar and a leather saddle under ya bum.
A few centimeters after passing the slovakian border, we’re basically standing in the center of Bratislava. And what can you say – after the lasting impression of Vienna, Bratislava just isn’t as …impressive.
The (pretty small) old town is nice, but you could find it like that in almost any european city; the rest of it is neither especially beautiful nor especially ugly, and just not that special at all. The only thing that sticks out to us is a bridge with a modern design that offers really nice resting spaces directly above the Danube next to wide bike and walking lanes.
Now, we have to admit that we don’t stay in Bratislava for long, but when we talk to a local at firstcafe80s, she doesn’t seem too convinced by her own city either. Apparently, even the locals deem their city uninteresting. In the evening we visit the local bike kitchen (a meeting point for bike enthusiasts, often combined with a DYI-workshop) in search of a place for the night, but during a wonderful sunset we decide against bothering a host and for camping in the city park.
After a WiFi-related coffee break, we get out of Bratislava at 4 PM the next day. We don’t expect to bike another 70 kilometers that day, but tailwind makes it possible. The (partly, but more on that later) great Danube Bike Road is a further boost, and even though we take it easy and inspect interesting stuff on our way every once in a while (for example bugs, dolphins (disputed) and a huge sluice), we go to bed (tent) satisfied with our progress.
The next morning we are just about to prepare our delicious porridge breakfast when another bike traveler joins and tells us about his own crazy travel plans. His name‘s Jack, he’s from London and on his way to Hong Kong. We decide to bike together for now; our ways will part at the Hungarian border, but it’s likely we‘ll meet Jack again since our routes match up for a good part.
Even though we have less tailwind and the smooth asphalt of the Danube bike road turns to gravel, we make good progress again that day. We meet other bikers as well, a french couple and two french women, both doing round trips through Europe, and then cross the Danube into Hungary.
„Yo, we’re in Vienna. Get here!“
– way earlier than I’d have thought, Daniel and Vincent arrive in Vienna. After ending that call, I hop onto a train, and about four hours later I see them waiting for me with a welcome-beer at Viennas main station. A truly welcome change after the boring regeneration days in the hostel. ~Q
Of course, our reunification has to be celebrated accordingly, and we waste no time getting to that after we arrive at our hostel. The next day, as we recovered with a park bench breakfast, a Viennese stopped his mountain bike with squealing tires. He’s called Raoul, and while we’re still blinking into the sun, he has already invited us to stay in his student flat for the night.
The weather has been great since we arrived, and for the first time we can comfortably walk around town in shirts and shorts. The rest of the day is spent with running errands and playing skat, sitting in the sun – in front of a laundromat, all the while watching the Viennese, who are happily welcoming the arrival of the warm season with us. Later, we get to Raoul’s apartment, where we have a nice evening with him and his flatmates and end the day with a cozy round of red wine and cards against humanity.
At this point, some observations made in Vienna: Quentin and Daniel are visiting the city for the first time and they’re consequently amazed by the sheer endless amount of old, grande and imposing buildings. I’ve been to Vienna before with my mom, and at every corner I’m reminded of our extensive walks through the city. This is where feelings hit me for the first time: Not really the homesickness Quentin experienced in Prague, but rather nostalgic thoughts of my family, my home, leading up to the big statement: You’re gonna be gone for a long time, Vince. Wow. ~V
On our last day we meet up with Matthias, a friend of Vince’s dad, in front of the Karlskirche, and are promptly invited for a traditional Wiener Schnitzel. After some nice talking, we head out of Vienna to make some distance on the Danube Bike Road, and after a dozen kilometers, we set up camp. We’re back on the road!
We have to leave Quentin behind.
Because of his knee injury, Quentin has to rest for a while, so we have to decide how to continue: Do we all stay in Prague for a yet not defined amount of time, or do we split up and keep going without him, with him taking a train as soon as he’s better to catch up?
It’s a hard decision: On the one hand, of course we don’t want to split up; we’re on this trip together and it feels wrong to leave a man behind. On the other hand, there’s no point in the two of us (Daniel and Vincent) staying in a Prague hostel with Quentin, wasting time and money.
In the end, it’s Quentin’s decision: He feels bad about slowing the group down, and while it’s not his fault and we’re absolutely fine with staying by his side, he just feels pressured by the situation.
So we go. After a doctors visit and a heartfelt goodbye in front of the local Starbucks (free WiFi…), we part ways – Quentin goes to find a cheap hostel in Prague, while Daniel and me get out of town to conquer the czech mountains and make our way to Vienna, where we will all meet up again.
As we make camp about 35 kilometers outside Prague, we know the next few days will be quite hard: First of all, it’s still freezing cold, and the prognosis says it’ll rain for a good part of our route; secondly, our way will lead us across the czech hillside, and while these hills aren’t particularly high, there are lots of them and on our heavily packed bikes it’ll be hard work to make some distance. Lastly, we plan to be in Vienna within 5 days to meet Quentin there, and that means we have to hustle.
Still, we’re in a good mood, and it’s a great feeling to bike again. While it is exhausting, we’re making good progress, and for the first time, the feeling of actually being on a big trip sets in: The landscape is beautiful, and the further we get, the less familiar our surroundings seem. The roads are bad, the people here speak a strange language; we really are in another country, and we got here by bike, and we’re gonna go even further, because this is just the beginning. With these realizations powering us, we fight our way up the hills and fly down on the other side, even setting a new personal speed record of 65 km/h on a particularly steep slope.
In the evenings, we set up camp on hilltops, and after preparing food and the occasional beer or campfire, we sink into deep sleep.
„Would it it be okay if you couldn’t ride a bike in the near future?“ – Her english isn’t perfect, but it’s sufficient for communication. Not that mine’s any better… And the doctors question is hard to misunderstand.
As we arrive in Prague, I’ve been having this stinging pain in my right knee for two days. We decide to rest for two nights (because time heals all wounds), but as I get even worse, waking up with a glowing, swollen knee, we head to a clinic.
The visit is quite weird; while the clinic seems to be professional at first glance, the doctor answers her private phone while doing check-ups to have an extensive conversation with a friend, and since the phone’s already in hand, why not finish the round of Candy Crush?
After finishing, she gives me a first diagnosis: I should take a long break from biking. To find out more, a very friendly receptionist guides me through a shopping center into a building complex looking like my soviet nightmares; Behind barred windows hide cold and simple tunnels, reminding me of a spooky psychiatry. No one here speaks english anymore: In fact, the woman who is supposed to x-ray my leg doesn’t seem to speak at all. No greeting, no goodbye, not one friendly look (Come to think of it, most of the supermarket cashiers we met in the Czech Republic were like that too, but they at least smiled).
After being guided back to the clinic by the talkative receptionist, I am told to come back the next day to see the surgeon. When I do, he does an ultrasound check-up and diagnoses that water has built up in my knee – a reaction to overly heavy usage. That’s good, because nothing’s broken or otherwise seriously harmed, but no one can tell me how long it’s gonna take to heal, and the surgeon’s advice is quite drastic: He suggests to completely quit biking for now. When leaving, the receptionists tells me about him having the same injury a while ago and him playing soccer after a couple days of rest, which makes the situation seem less grim.
Anyways, while I will listen more closely to my body (and especially my knee) in the future, theres no way I’m cancelling my plans and this trip now – if my knee wants a break it’ll get it, but I won’t stop biking for good.
For now, I’m staying in a hostel for four more days while Daniel and Vince power through the Czech Republic to Vienna, where I’ll join them by train. That feels like cheating, but in the current situation it seems to be the best way to go.