Cycling in Turkey is a divisive mix of brutal heat, beautiful scenery, terrible drivers, friendly hospitality, ridiculous hill climbs and awesome food. The route across the border from Bulgaria to Turkey took us on a long and humid climb inland through the forested hills. Swerving through potholes and being ambushed by armies of buzzing flies made it a long toil. It was so hot that Ed even tried the “bib short solo” look. Not one for the Morvelo marketing campaign!
However after passing the Turkish frontier (which we did with the minimum of hassle having used the new e-visa system), the road transformed into a swathe of beautifully smooth tarmac with a wide hard shoulder. There was even a map of cycle routes and campsites in the area!
On we went, dipping and climbing through the hills in the sporadic drizzle, until we reached the first village and went in search of some lunch. We had changed our last few pounds of Bulgarian Lev into Lira and assumed this would be plenty for a light snack in the middle of nowhere, as it had been in Bulgaria. At the shop / restaurant in the village a young guy offered for his mother to cook us an omelette and we readily agreed. And here lies the problem with the usually-fantastic Turkish hospitality: occasionally you meet someone who will turn it around to try and cash in. After a nice meal and many friendly smiles and pointing at the map, the guy charged us 20€ for 2 omelettes. We were pretty confident that wasn’t the regular price! It’s a shame that it will make us a little suspicious of hospitality from now on.
After some more long climbs on the highway we reached the town of Kirklareli (as per picture above), which we had anticipated as nothing special but in fact was a great place to stop, mainly for the range of amazing Turkish food on offer. With no campsites but instead a big thunderstorm in the offing we checked into a hotel and then went out to eat one of everything.First stop: an amazing bakery where we had starter of tiramisu, chocolate mousse and of course some fragrant Turkish çay (tea) to wash it down. Then on for water-pastry and cheese bake, flatbreads with spicy lamb, pide (boat-shaped pizzas filled with cheese or mince), Turkish natural yoghurt, Turkish rock cakes, fennel spiced bread rolls and some fruit to finish. A good effort! Kirklareli was also our first real taste of Turkish driving, and we soon realised that for the cyclist it means full alert at all times. Gone are the days of checking the GPS while riding along, or even taking a long swig from the water bottle, because in the meantime you can be sure someone will have honked loudly, pulled round you in a tight overtaking manoeuvre and immediately pulled back across and stopped right in front of you to drop someone off. After Kirklareli the road east diminished to a single carriageway and headed cross country, crossing a series of river valleys which while not huge, were fairly brutal to cross at the perpendicular each time. At Pinarhisar we stopped for a fudge-type snack from a corner shop which was actually made of semolina flour and glucose syrup – it certainly upped the blood sugar. The next town was Vize, marked in yellow on our map meaning it was definitely going to be exciting. It transpired that it had a ruined castle which we duly cycled to, up a very steep hill just as the passing mosque played out it’s ultra loud call to prayer. There was also the “Little Aya Sofya”, a church with some interesting frescos, now converted into a mosque. Back in town we stopped to buy pide, and then water and juice at a shop where the old guy sitting outside rushed off to get his son, who spoke English, so we could have a chat. In the village of Sarfaalen we met some kids wanting pictures taken with Ed’s bike while shouting “Barcelona, Messi, Neymar”! At Saray we debated the likelihood of the campsite shown on the GPS eight miles away actually existing (not super high, based on previous experience). Miraculously though it was indeed there, and the very friendly owners ushered us over for çay and more pointing at the map (no charge this time for anything!). The next morning we continued east heading straight into the gathering clouds of a huge thunderstorm. As the grey giants loomed closer Ed stopped to take some dramatic photographs of a picturesque white mosque while I exchanged sign language about our imminent soaking with a group of ladies hurrying back from working in the fields. With lightning forks flashing all around and an almost continuous rolling boom of thunder the torrent soon arrived and before long we were completely sodden and sprayed white with grit from the road. Stopping to shelter under some trees in a layby we were kindly invited by a chap selling jars of homemade honey to sit out the worst in his car with him while he read the Qur’an. Half an hour later we had exhausted all our avenues of sign language conversation about honey and cycling in the rain, and decided to press on, laden with a little extra weight from a slab of honeycomb as emergency rations. Our next stop was the town of Çatalca where we did the requisite bakery tour for lunch, ate a huge melon and were followed by a pack of small boys intent on poking our tyres and shouting “Whatisyourname? Whatisyourname?” at us. They soon got bored jumping in a nearby fountain and splashing grumpy old men instead! Seeking directions, we stopped to ask at the police station, where the very friendly senior officer proceeded to walk with us through the town centre flanked by two junior officers, to show us the way. That’s the first police escort of the trip bagged!Back on the road we were soon into the seemingly endless outskirts of Istanbul. Here was the view towards the city skyline. The direct roads towards the centre are all multi-lane highways full of honking, swerving cars and trucks and not a good place for a cyclist. We wove our way along a succession of pavements, side roads and occasionally a miraculous cycle lane although these frequently ended abruptly in three lanes of traffic or a fence. We did find a handy Decathlon though where we stopped to replace Ed’s punctured sleeping mat, our disgustingly muddy bike bottles and for me to buy some long shorts to cycle in, as I do feel a little self-conscious in lycra here with most of the women covered up. Apparently its OK for Ed but its just not very manly so the locals will poke fun at him, no change there then!
Finally we reached central Istanbul and felt a rush of adrenalin to be riding past the Aya Sofya and across the Atatürk Bridge at sunset (the adrenalin probably resulting in equal measure from the incredible beauty of this city, the fact that we have made it all the way here on our bikes and the task of trying to avoid the mayhem of cars, trams and buses!). After navigating some steep cobbled streets in Beyoglu we finally checked into a hostel and started to relax. Istanbul really is the most incredible place, and I say that as someone who normally can’t wait to leave a city and get out into the wilderness. This meeting point of Europe and Asia, which throughout the ages has been a crossroads of culture, trade and political power, presents the visitor with a heady mixture of beautiful architecture, interesting history, bustling streetlife and of course delicious food! We were so excited to be back here after our cycle trip last year. We decided to spend three days in the city, relaxing, visiting the sights and preparing for the next stage of the trip. I could have stayed much longer! Rest days always pass too quickly and energetically it seems. Although my state of exhaustion means I should really spend the entire day in bed, that is pretty much impossible, when there’s so much to see and do. We spent hours wandering in and around the centre, visiting the bazaars and sampling some delicious cakes and puddings (the window displays here draw you in – Hafiz Mustafa in particular!). We were keen to revisit the Aya Sofya, having been completely awed by it last year. This beautiful building was finished in 537 AD and to see the immense size of the domed roof and to consider that it has no central supporting columns is to be blown away that the Greek scientists could design such a structure that would remain intact to this day. The paintings and mosaics inside are also very beautiful, a mixture of Christian imagery (originally it was an Orthodox Cathedral) and later Muslim calligraphy (it was converted into a mosque in 1453). The Aya Sofya sits opposite the beautiful Blue Mosque of Sultan Ahmet. In between the two is a park which is particularly scenic at sunset and also a great place for people-watching! Having not really done enough cycling recently we also took the bikes out for a ride to see some more distant mosques and the old city walls of Constantinople. It was strange but rather nice to ride the bikes unloaded for a change and we managed to cover 30km which I’m not sure qualifies it as a rest day in the end! It was also the Turkish presidential election while we were in the city and the guys running our hostel invited us to join them for a celebration meal (which was both home-cooked and vegetarian – winner!). When we asked if they were pleased with Erdogan’s victory one of them explained that he was in fact Erdogan’s nephew! Therefore Ed was relieved he didn’t make any comparisons between the mans uncle and Vladimir Putin as both men seem to enjoy rewriting constitutions to stay in power…..The famous Erdogan himself didn’t drop in to join us though, and in doing so missed out on some excellent chocolate and banana cake.
The hostel called Noah’s had been a friendly stop and it was sad to leave Kocubaba and our other hosts and start out on the road again. At the same time the hospitality shown to us so far and the beauty of this country presented an exciting few days of riding ahead of us.