Sultan’s trail (part 5): Istanbul & A trip on memory lane

Distance: 252km| Total: 2,004km

After 20 days in the saddle my 2000km journey from the Stephan’s dome in Vienna, via Bratislava, Budapest, Belgrade, Sofia and even a bit of Greece all the way to Istanbul is over and many fantastic memories are made.

It was not easy even though the daily distances between 60-120km are not huge as such. It is the constant moving and getting on the saddle despite sore legs (bum!) or bad weather that is the real challenge. It is a mental test, less so a physical one i think. In the end the route proved shorter than planned, as i stayed away from some of the off-road GPS track to save time and because some parts were just hard with my touring bike and ended up in pushing it.

In any case, it was amazing to travel through this part of europe, catch up with friends, meet many new people and see both nice and not so nice parts of the six countries i crossed. Cycle on!

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Heading south from Edirne

I left it late to leave Edirne (pronounced with a long E). Sleep, breakfast and not feeling in a rush. It was a cold morning. Grey. Looked like rain is on the cards sometime today. There are some 250km left to Istanbul and i figures i give myself three days to cover them.

Today i followed the highway D100 most of the way. Not to appealing judging by traffic passing by, but a good road leading straight to Istanbul. The other plus is the hard shoulder. 2m wide and thus making for a perfect cycle lane. Nice actually with many fields passing by.

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First stop was Havsa late morning. I stopped at a local tea place and found myself soon in the company of two older turkish guys (not that they bothered to ask if they could join ✌️). One was the owner. We talked about my trip and one told me of his son living in Germany. He was there too as Gastarbeiter and thus german was the chosen language. People clearly not happy with what the lira has done though seemingly in the believe the USD had gone up rather than the lira down!?! Maybe just lost in translation.

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After 4 free teas i had to move on to the town of Babeski with a little rain drizzling down. I was hungry and tried the fast food version of Döner. Dont! While cheap (€1 including coke) it was not very tasty at all. Well, fast food. I also managed to fix myself up with a local SIM card even though i understood nothing. People just speak turkish. Not even a hint of english. Much more problematic than in the other countries i have to say. Well, i got my data now. 😁

I moved on to my final destination today – Lüleburgaz some 80km into my day. First up, a place to stay. Since turkey has banned booking.com (well, it still works from abroad or with foreign SIM cards or if you use a browser with hidden VPN like puffin), i now use alternative websites and checked into a nice hotel for less than €20/night. Best to get the details online and then go there. Saved me 30%. Time for a little washing today. My bike gears smells horrible and the roof terrace is an ideal place to hang it all up. 😉

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Culture check: i have been to turkey many times though mainly in Istanbul (a different planet). So far, it feels a bit weird. Not sure why, but it seems like a different world. One thing is the language barrier that i am not used to generally anymore. The turkish language is just very different. The other thing i noticed is the tendency to do things local. Like turksih pizza, electronics, ice cream, kit at, cars at times and not to mention all the imitated clothing etc. Gives it all a bit of a copy taste to me. For me, italian pizza as well as ice cream is just better.

I actually listened to the press conference of the german national team ahead of playing france tomorrow. I think we will get killed and am not on the side of our coach. Mentally the team still needs a complete restart. Well, lets see tomorrow. I hope i am dead wrong.

I spent the evening texting with laura and frances and had some beers while watching turkish soap operas. Strange, but enjoyable. Bedtime…

Cycling to the seaside

The journey to Silivri was uneventful and mainly along the D100 again for the best part of 95km. Up and downhill went hand in hand. The wind picked up though and as you would expect not in the right direction 😐. I was getting closer to the sea.

Late afternoon i had made it and was welcomed with a nice and warm evening. I booked myself into a local hotel (€16 a night for a big room with sea view and breakfast… Cant argue with that).

I spent the evening having food and a few drinks in the seaside restaurants and reminded myself of previous times in Istanbul… By listening to turkish rapper Ceza. Fast this guy!

Istanbul – here i come

It must have been my latest start on the tour other than that rainy morning in Serbia. Only 11:30 or so i was rolling towards Istanbul. A good 70km left to my final destination. Traffic now picked up markedly and the signposts with the remaining km to Istanbul acted as a sort of count down. 60km, 40km, 20km… And suddenly i was in the big city.

Traffic was crazy as i maneuvered towards the blue mosque. About 10km were left when a cycle path (a blue cycle path) made life substantially easier. I stopped at the embankment to take in the scenery – fishermen, large vessels anchored, people taking a stroll.

And then i was done. I made it to sulthanahmet and had my memory picture taken at the blue mosque. I was pretty tired and happy to have arrived. Now time to hang out two days in this fabulous city. My sultans trail was over.

So off to the hostel and dinner with a bunch of other travellers from all over the world.

Istanbul: Conversations

I had no intention to do much sightseeing having been here before. My legs also begged for a rest. But i wanted to catch up with two people i hadn’t seen in a long while.

First up was Lale, who i worked with back at kbw on the eastern European coverage. She had since worked for a london wealth management boutique, done her MBA in paris, worked for credit suisse in wealth management and now runs the office for a turkish AI start-up. We both had our stories to tell about our lives and people we both know. It was fun.

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Second was Hasan. He used to be our local brokerage contact here in Istanbul, but more importantly he is a great guy. I remember well when i came here with aldo to launch turkish banks research, the time in istanbul meeting rooms, clubs and rooftops as well as our trip to ankara… Most notably the road trip back by car. Good times. We headed for a restaurant in taksim and talked for a few hours. Good to see you man. All the best.

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Hair transplant central

The first weird thing i saw was several guys with head bandages near the blue mosque. And i many more i counted after in the streets of Istanbul. Turns out that the city has become a prime destination for hair transplants with costs around GBP1500 vs. GBP12000 in the UK. I guess the weak lira will keep customers coming.

So now off to the airport. Got my bike box sorted albeit i was called back by the good man having paid him with a fake TL50 note apparently… Justice came quickly, as the guy at the airport burger king (yep, sorry) charged me me TL51 but gave it back to me 🤔. So we are square turkey! Time to drop off the bike af home quickly and get ready for the next trip.

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Sultan’s trail (part 4): Enough of Bulgarian mountains – off to Turkey

Distance: 480km |Total: 1,752km

My morning in Kocherinovo started bright and early in order to catch a bus to the monastery. My host told me there is one bus from the village at 7am. Well, it left ten to seven without me. Great i thought, as i was sipping away my coffee at the empty bus stop. But then things came quickly together. A bus to Rila bus station (7.20am) and from there with a smaller bus to the monastery. So here I come…

A visit to Rila Monastery

The monastery is the largest in Bulgaria and probably the most important cultural repository of the country. It was named after its founder, the hermit Ivan od Rila, who lived in a nearby cave in the 10th century. The complex measures 8800qm and reminds me a bit of Montserrat near Barcelona (though transport links for the latter are way superior).

The architecture is pretty impressive and the complex is in a good shape. The museum offers thematic overviews of its own history and overall Bulgarian culture. No fotos allowed.

When i got there i went straight to the church where people were praying and singing. I lit two candles as well to pray for two people close to my heart even though, as a protestant, i am technically in the wrong place (details, details…).

Back to my bike now…

Uphill (UP-UP-UP HILL!) to Bansko

Man i am tired. Twice my route today had me cross mountains. Must have been close to 2000m altitude gain in total. God knows. Feels like 5000 to me anyway.

First up the hills behind Blagoevgrad. All offroad that meant a lot of pushing uphill and incouded a small fall on the downhill bit (not hurt though). My bike is just not made for this kind of stuff. No grip uphill and skidding easy downhill. Leaving that aside, the views were stunning. Loads of goat herders about as well and up top these little things even caused a traffic jam. Well, three madly barking dogs convinced me to stay back anyway.

By 3pm i made it past these hills and had still 26km to go (35ish done). First up lunch that came with a surprise… The guy asked me if i speak spanish. Si señor, a veces 😉 👧🏻. He must have worked in spain for a while and told me about his views on immigration. Must be pretty bad now in germany he said and that he is not a fan of open borders anyway. I guess he joina my old serbian friend with his views. His food was brilliant though. Chicken soup and ‘bob‘ – a white bean & pork dish (the latter is his addition). His wife was probably not with him in Spain for we spoke Russian. Less of a conversation, but helped to make my order easy. I left with a full stomach and compliments for my language skills. Gracias & спасибо to that!

The second hill was better to the extent it was a road. Well, the traffic towards bansko was crazy. Maybe because it was friday and people went for a weekend into the outdoor hub. I don’t care… The way people drive here reminds me of kids games. I have the bigger car and need to go faster. Few slowed down and many blasted right past me.

My bigger worry though was the 10km uphill stretch from the the lunch place. It literally never stopped going up. Maybe 100m flat bit once every 2km. I must have used up my swear word allowance for a month. I mean seriously… Does this hill ever end. Everytime you think it has… It goes right up again. I ended up pushing again. Who cares. My legs were tight and tired from the morning already.

Naturally i missed the train i planned to take to get me back on route, as my visit to Bansko was an extra that has taken me further south than planned. Always wanted to see that bulgarian ski resort that i used to mention in my research as one of the problem spots in the real estate crash in eastern europe in 2008ff. So bansko it was for a night though i opted to get some rest instead of exploring the village. Exhausted!

Off to Dimitrovgrad – the bulgarian one

Today is a rest day on the train. Gets me back to plan having added some 200km by visiting Rila & Bansko that has taken me further south rather than east from samokov. The train is a narrow rail one that slowly moves from village to village with the mountains around Bansko slowly disappearing in the back. Great scenery.

I met a Bulgarian man who used to live in Vienna and hence spoke german pretty well. He was helpful sorting tickets and finding a place for the bike on the train (different to serbia, this train doesnt have a bike compartment). He complained that ruthless excess construction has destroyed much of the charm bansko used to have. I agree. Villages nearby are even worse. Happens when governments just look for a quick buck rather than approving only sustainable development. Next step is to further enlarge the ski area… Something the mountains cant entertain very well, the man thinks.

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I arrived in Dimitrovgrad (same name as the last bigger town on the serbian/bulgarian border) by nightfall, ate and followed another disastrous performance of 🇩🇪 losing 3:0 to 🇳🇱… Good night!!!

Touching Greece & into Turkey

It was a cold and grey morning as i got comfortable in my saddle. However, the road was kind and seemes to have a small tilt downhill all day. 120km were flying past.

It was some 50km to the border. I stopped in the last village and had a basic chat with shopkepper Maria in russian and english. She told me about the immigrants (now held off by a fence) and how hard it is to make a living around here.

My short time in greece (3 hours?) was an enjoyable ride with some good views, but other than a greek coca cola and greek potato chips offered nothing greek. Well, just passing through anyway.

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The greek/turkish border was busy esepcially into greece with the longest car queues yet. Well, i jumped the queues on my bike and was done in a heartbeat.

Soon the minarets of edirne welcomed me to turkey. The town had instantly a different feel. There was life on the street. People. And the sound of the muezzin. A stark contrast to the often deserted villages in bulgaria, serbia and hungary. Well, a look at demographics explains wonders. Fact is, turkey in the middle of en economic melt down has still more action than many of its EU 🇪🇺 conquered neighbors.

Enough for now. Tired after a decent dinner and a long day on the 🚲. But glad i am in turkey now… Home stretch on my way to Istanbul.