Budapest to Sofia
So much to talk about just not enough time to write it all! Here goes..Budapest turned out to be my favourite city on this trip so far. Maybe it was the surprise element but it really is a fantastic place to spend a few days. I, however, was ready to get my bum back on that bicycle and put to test my sexy new Brooks leather saddle I bought.
Starting the day when it’s raining is just rubbish, but I keep reminding myself about the velominati – a set rules passed down between cyclists – where number 9 states “if you’re riding in bad weather, it means you’re a bad ass. Period”. I would need this inspiration in the coming days.
That night I slept in the vineyards of Hungary amongst hundreds of small houses which double up as wine cellars. I couldn’t help but think this would be a huge tourist destination if it was located in Western Europe and not Hungary.
Cycling the Danube is nice, but after a while you begin to crave mountains and the views you’ve deserved from pushing your body to the top. I saw a warm showers host who lived up a hill in Croatia, I immediately contacted and made the diversion.
It was a great decision. There I met Vinko, a young Croatian cyclist who bought a mud hut on top of a hill which he’s currently renovating. We spent a great evening talking, drinking and eating. The next day it was so difficult to leave, but I knew if I didn’t go then I would probably end up staying there far too long helping him out! I hate those tough decisions. Below is the view from the top in a rainy evening but it still looked nice.
Since leaving England no-one has checked my passport, most of the time I had no idea I was leaving and entering a new country. I was missing border crossings, then I got border overload with Hungary – Serbia – Croatia – Serbia all in a couple of days. It was nice to know my passport was still in my bad though.
I only cycled one day in Croatia, but they were the friendliest people I had encountered up until that point in my trip. Waves and car horns are like food for my legs, it’s amazing how a little beep can power you up hills.
I was looking forward to spending some time in Belgrade chilling out, sightseeing and replacing the chain. Little did I know what was waiting for me….
I had a warmshowers host lined up for my 2 nights in Belgrade, unfortunately Martin was working all evening so I had to meet his friend on the other side of town and pick up the key to his apartment. I just love the trust so many people in this community have.
On arrival at the apartment I was greeted by 2 other long distance cyclists, Robin from Germany and Jason from Hastings. My plans for my first alcohol day in recent memory was dashed the moment we said hello!
Jason had the unfortunate event of a killer plastic bag getting stuck in his chain, then ripping off the rear derailleur (the bit that changes gears). By the sounds of it this was a freak event, but his inconvenience was my gain and I convinced them both to wait another day, change their route and then we could all cycle together to Sofia. This was the start of what I’ll call “The Great Belgrade to Sofia Caravan”
The next day we enthusiastically (and slightly hungover) set off from Belgrade. Nothing could stop us and I was absolutely loving cycling with other people. Back home Jason a super keen cyclist, a self confessed MAMIL (middle aged man in Lycra). I can’t imagine what he looks like without skin tight clothing. Being a cyclist he taught Robin and I so much, such as forming a peloton for efficient riding, shouting “are we oooooon” to make sure no man is left behind and using crafty hand gestures to signal potholes, cars and other obstacles. For the first time on this trip cycling became something of a sport instead of a vehicle…. It felt bloody fantastic. Also, in that morning our caravan became 4 with the addition of Chris, a Brit cycling to Istanbul with very little bike knowledge, just like me.
The one issue with so many people is the constant need to stop…. Piss, coffee, wifi, food, waiting for people to catch up…. Everyone had their own internal clock. Not an issue when you have nowhere to be, but it takes some getting used it.
Another slight problem with 4 guys is finding the right route. When we appeared to have taken a wrong turn, this beauty little track could potentially get us back on the right road.
We unanimously decided to take this harmless, but slightly muddy looking track leading into the abyss. Deary me, what a bad decision. After 2 minutes we realised the mud wasn’t as harmless as it appeared, but with typical manly stubbornness we soldered on. After 5 minutes we turned our bikes around and doubled the amount of mud caught in our chain, brakes and panniers to get back to where we began. Back on dry land we started the laborious task of de-mudding our bikes, unfortunately (or fooloshly) for Jason he decided cycling would be the best way to clean his bike…. It wasn’t. The rear derailleur snapped off again, proving the first time this happened 2 days earlier wasn’t such a freak event. The only thing to do was laugh…. And then turn his bike into a single speed, meaning for the next 2 days he only had 1 gear.
We convinced Chris to sack off his plans and join “The Great Belgrade to Sofia Caravan” and that night we were determined to wild camp together. Our decision on where to pitch the tents was made easy when a German speaking policeman showed us a local park. Here we are cooking up a storm.
The next day our troop would become 7, yes 7 cyclists. The new additions were Michi and Andrea both hailing from Switzerland and their super cool host, Aleksa who decided to join them from Belgrade and cycle to his family home 200km away on a shitty mountain bike.
That night Aleksa very kindly invited all 6 of us to stay in his home. His family fed us with delicious food, plied us with super strong Slibovica (home made alcohol everyone drinks) and gave us space to sleep. It was one of those special moments that you only experience through travel.
The next morning I awoke to a room that smelt of 6 filthy cyclists with a mixture of potent Slibovica farts, not good with a hangover. The skies looked ominous and I had my “waterproofs” at the ready.
The skies didn’t lie and the rain came down hard. The quote goes something like this “there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad equipment”. When you’re wearing bright yellow dish washing gloves on your hands, plastic supermarket bags on your feet and a non breathable and non waterproof jacket… Weather can be pretty shit. The driving rain also covers up any blemishes in the crappy roads. Such blemishes include big potholes. I had the misfortune of hitting one of these beauties at a reasonable speed, causing my camera to fly in the air but thankfully, and to my complete surprise I didn’t follow AND my bike rolled away without incident. I was surprised.
So, what do you do when it’s pissing down with rain? You eat cake.
That night we wanted shelter without the displeasure of handing over cash. It wasn’t paradise but we had hot water from a thermal spring and cover from the rain. You could call it mild camping.
The next day would be the penultimate before we arrived in sofia and our group would go it’s separate ways. We chose to take the mountain roads despite people stopping their cars to tell us its too steep, it might be for your 50 year old Yugo son but we’ve got real horse power in our legs .
This is the view from one of the mountains we climbed that day. Notice the better weather, it wouldn’t last for long.
On top of this hill we found the paradise camping spot we were searching for the day before but after only 15km riding, we decided to crack on.
This shepherd had a look on his face like he had just seen 6 aliens beamed from another galaxy, with bikes.
On our way up another hill we came across a hunters lodge, pretty much in the middle of nowhere. We were running low on water so decided to approach the scary looking man with big forearms. He sat us down, took out his bottle of Slibovica and we merrily downed 3 shots while he showed us his gun and danced to Serbian folk music .
I should point out that this liquor is fucking strong and now, back on our bikes, we were all over the place. What we didn’t need was more shots, however a few kilometres down the road we were stopped again and forced to drink more. It was around here that my mind was slightly frazzled and things started falling off my bike, this didn’t help my mental state.
That night we found a nice wild camping spot and cooked one last pasta and sauce together as a group, “The Great Belgrade to Sofia Caravan” was almost over.
After breakfast of porridge, eggs and apples which a passer by had kindly given us, we were back on the main road heading to the border. Main road cycling is shit, but riding them as a group is so much better than solo.
Late in the day as we were approaching Sofia and while waiting for the others to catch up, Jason, Michi and I decided to take our tents out to dry. This proper pissed off mother nature and within minutes a dirty black cloud descended on us and we were piss wet through. Time to get back on the road and into Sofia. This is where we said goodbye, but we’ll all see each other again, that’s how travelling goes…. The world is round.
Plus, coming into Sofia I saw this from the main pedestrian street and it makes me very happy.
I had an unbelievable journey cycling with others and now I’m having an amazing time spending a few days in Sofia with my parents. Life. Is. Good.