I had vivid images of how I’d celebrate when I finally saw the Black Sea and I’d settled on the idea that it would be really satisfying and cool to rip my shirt open in a burst of adrenaline. But when the moment came it was a little less dramatic than that; celebrating by yourself is strange, plus it was cold and I don’t have many shirts or money to buy new shirts. Although I suspect the real reason was my fear that I wouldn’t actually be strong enough to rip my shirt and I’d erase all the self-esteem I’d built up over the previous two months. In the end I was content with a deep breath of sea air, a couple of selfies and a cold beer in an Irish pub creatively named ‘Irish Pub’.
It’s hard to believe, but it’s already been three weeks since I completed the ride. I now find myself back in Broome in my old place and sitting in the same spot I sat in during the planning stages of the trip. It’s very cliche, but it honestly feels like I never left. The last three months, while being some of the most memorable of my life, are now a complete blur. Although I’m still having to fight the urge to pick up my phone and check the distance for tomorrow’s ride or a cheap hotel for the next night, and when people speak to me it takes a few seconds to register that it’s English, I do understand, and I am expected to reply rather than nod, smile and revert to hand-gestures. As comforting as it is to be home and to have the security of a job and incoming funds, the thought of getting back into my old routine fills me with a strange sense of emptiness. I’m already trying to work out how long it will be before I can head off somewhere again.
My final morning of cycling in Bulgaria was brief, as the border was literally through the middle of Silistra, so after about ten minutes I found myself in Romania dodging horse-drawn carts and Gypsies (there were nearly as many horse drawn carts as there were cars in rural Romania). With rolling hills, endless vineyards and patches of forrest with golden leaves, the countryside was visually quite stunning, but while riding through this isolated natural beauty the fact that Romania is home to 50 percent of Europe’s wild Bear population kept popping back into my mind, so I didn’t pause too often to take it in. I’d read that this part of the route was going to be most challenging because of the cobbled road surface, but this never eventuated and the recently paved roads were, surprisingly, some of the best quality since Austria, except that they were lined with litter and dead animals. Some of the villages I passed through were genuine slums where the ground had been trampled into mud and hillside caves were a legitimate accomodation option. Speaking of dead animals: having just committed the fatal faux pas of admitting to not loving all dogs in my last entry, I was forced to rethink my thoughts on the matter within minutes of crossing in to the final country of my trip. The dogs in Romania were seriously malnourished and timid – I went from fearing them to sympathising with them. I passed one particularly miserable looking dog as he walked up a hill along the centre line and as trucks passed by within centimetres of him he didn’t even flinch. I spent a few minutes trying to coax him to the side of the road, but every time I moved on he returned to where he had been. He wouldn’t even look up when I tried to call him and his body language suggested he didn’t want any help. That’s when it dawned on me that all the roadkill was more likely suicide than a series of impossibly frequent accidents.
My first night in Romania I ended up in Adamclici, a run-down village that didn’t have a single place to eat but did have a large, modern and seemingly brand new hotel. The hotel was hidden away down some back streets and when I arrived there were two identical BMW X5’s parked out the front. I don’t know a lot about the Romanian mafia, but this place reeked of dodgy business. I walked in the entrance and found a dark, abandoned reception area and rang the bell a few times before a woman appeared in front of me. Obviously I was an inconvenience to her, and she had no qualms making that clear to me, which, as far as I was concerned, provided further evidence that the place wasn’t built with money made in the hospitality industry. She pointed to a plaque on the wall which displayed the price for a night then shrugged her shoulders and turned back to me with a look that said ‘I know you can’t afford that, you scruffy piece of shit’. This process was repeated several times before I showed her some cold, hard Romanian leu and received a key in exchange. It probably goes without saying that I was the only other person staying there, and the walk through the dark hallways to find my room felt like the opening scene of a horror movie.
The next morning I woke before my alarm for the first time on the trip. I got up excitedly and went through the process of repacking my bags and tucking my pants into my socks one last time. Breakfast wasn’t an option in Adamclisi, but I didn’t care because it was the last day and I only had 65 Kilometres to go. I re-stacked my bike and cycled out past what had now turned into three identical X5’s. The cycling was similar to the previous day aside from the final 20 kilometres in to Constanta which were along a busy stretch of highway that, legally, I was probably supposed to avoid. Aside from the clouds parting and the sun shining on me for the first time in a week, the arrival in Constanta was a bit of an anticlimax. Once in the city I wasn’t even sure which direction the Black Sea was in until I finally saw it between two high rises at the end of a street, and when I got there I wasn’t quite sure what to do. I could see straight away that life in Constanta was a world away from the other parts of the country I’d been through; I’ve never seen so many late model European cars, and the people I came across were mostly young, well dressed and spoke english. I made my way to a hotel with a younger woman sitting on the front steps smoking, and without looking up she told me I could park my bike ‘over there’. I obliged, then turned around and asked how she knew I spoke english. She shrugged an ‘I don’t know’ and walked back inside – I’m always curious about what gives this away.
I made the mistake of thinking that the adventure was over by this point and as a result I was massively unprepared for the day I was about to face when I woke the next morning. I had to get back to Sofia where I’d left a bunch of my stuff in the apartment owned by my sister in law’s family, but public transport between Romania and Bulgaria isn’t too regular on a Sunday (I probably should have guessed this would be the case in a strictly orthodox christian part of the world). While I was at the bus station trying to find a way to Bucharest for an overnight train to Sofia, an opportunistic local approached me and told me he could drive me to the Bulgarian border for 200 leu (about 40 Euro). Every instinct was telling me it was a terrible idea and that I shouldn’t trust the guy, but I thought this way might end up quicker and cheaper, so I went for it. We bungy-tied the boot shut with the bike hanging out and headed south. The guy turned out to be decent and along the way he explained how hard it was to get ahead in Romania; how he’s left the country only once and would have to save for another five years to go on holiday again. His dream was to see Barcelona play at Nou Camp one day, something I made a casual decision to do when I happened to be in Barcelona four years ago. Listening to him (and just being in Romania) was another sobering reminder of how good we have it in certain parts of the world, and how much we take for granted. After he dropped me off he told me there was a bus from the Border straight to Varna and then on to Sofia – all I had to do was walk across the border. When I did get across I used google translate to ask the lady at the customs shop about a bus and she confirmed with her own google translate that it came at 1.30pm, but when 2pm came and went I got google out and asked her again and she straight away admitted that sometimes the bus doesn’t come on Sundays. I stared at her and shook my head, then asked google to translate “maybe that would have been useful information two hours ago”. I would have hitched a ride from there but it’s a little difficult with a bike, so I had to take a taxi 100km to Varna and buy a bus ticket there. The bus the driver said I couldn’t take my bike because there was no room but, miraculously, 15 leu created a little extra space and I was finally on my way to Sofia, bike and all.
After a 7 hour bus ride and another taxi trip, which nearly ended in a fight, I was back at the apartment of my sister in law, whose family were kind (brave) enough to let me have free rein. The taxi ride in question involved the driver getting lost and relying on my directions the whole way, then the fare coming in 20 Lev more expensive than quoted and an extra 10 Lev bike-handling fee, which apparently hadn’t existed at the time of the quote. I initially refused to pay but I changed my mind pretty quickly after he unfolded his 7 foot frame from the drivers’ seat and approached me with clenched fists at his side. As you can probably tell I’ve use the term ‘near fight’ very loosely here.
I spent two days in Sofia looking around, getting all my things together and organising to get my bike boxed up for the flight home. My first impression of Sofia two months earlier had been so good that I prepared myself for disappointment upon my return, but once again I immediately picked up a great vibe from the place. For a city of close to two million, Sofia has such a calm, relaxed feel and is full of markets, cobbled streets and Viennese inspired architecture. I was so relieved to have finished my ride, but waking up in Sofia I found that all I wanted to do was get on my bike and go exploring. So I spent the days cycling through the stunning parks surrounding the city and sampling the many coffee shops.
After all the cycling I wanted to do some travelling as a normal tourist before heading home, so I flew to Germany for 10 days to visit some friends before flying back to Sofia to pick up my bike and taking off for the Southern Hemisphere.
Here’s a few stats from the trip for ya!
Total days spent cycling: 50
Total Distance: +/- 4,000km ( my trip computer died for a few days in Germany, so I’m not sure of the exact distance)
Average per day: 80km
Biggest day: 136km – Tata to Budapest, Hungary.
Most physically challenging day: Konstanz – Sigmiragen, Germany.
Average speed: 15.7 km/ph
Max Speed: 61.6 km/ph – racing Maurizio down a hill in Serbia somewhere.
Punctures: 1 – heading in to Belgrade in the rain.
Crashes: 1 – near Dole, France. My front rack collapsed and stopped the front wheel dead. Also I did forget to unclip my shoes and tip over a few times.
Just across the border into Romania – the first of many.
After two months and 4,000km, double figures were comforting!
Aaaand just a little further up the road…
Breakfast on the final day of the ride consisted of Red Bull and stale pastries. Good thing I had nice company and a decent view.
Can’t remember where this was.
The Black Sea! Finally…
My ride to from Constanta to the Bulgarian border Seemed legit.
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Sofia.
Apparently this is the typical breakfast in Sofia. The cheese Banitsa is recommended, the drink definitely is not.
Quick stop off in Groningen (Holland) to visit my good friend Jonathan, and ride some more bikes…
Apparently cycling is popular in the Netherlands.
View from the top of the Bergbahn in Heidelberg!
After putting up with me in Munich and Konstanz, Daria was forced to do it again in Heidelberg. Final meal before starting the long journey back to Sofia and then eventually to Broome.