Vail Daily travel: A 10,000-kilometer summer
Vail, CO Colorado
Editor’s note: This is the 10th and final installment of Matthew Cull’s series about his cycling journey through Iceland and eastern Europe. Cull has cycled through 50 countries on six continents. Visit his website at http://www.matthewjkcull.com or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
My cycle journey through Eastern Europe continued its east and south oscillation from Belgrade, Serbia, as it coursed towards Istanbul. I continued parallel to my recurring companion of the last few weeks, the Danube River. The river soon entered one of its most spectacular sections, along the Serbian, Romanian border, as it cuts a trench through the tailbone of the Carpathian Mountains. I took a step back in time as I crossed into Romania. The quiet road wound along the river below steep forested slopes transected by long limestone bluffs. The river narrowed to a few hundred meters as it squeezed through the “Iron Gate.” Near vertical sides rose into heavy gray skies. The gradient then relaxed, and I came out onto a broad featureless plain.
I cycled through a string of villages that lined the road for miles at a time. Local folks drove horse carts, rode bicycles, tended clusters of geese and turkeys, and sat on benches in front of their homes watching the world go by. They lived a simple agrarian lifestyle that much of Europe has quickly forgotten. But what they lacked in modernity they made up for in warmth. I cycled with a continual cross communication of waves, nods, smiles, high fives, and hellos in two languages, in a warmth that I didn’t find in any other country, besides Serbia, so far on the journey.
Indeed, up until Serbia, Eastern Europe was a sea of stony faces and cold response. Of course there has been exceptions, and three cases of wonderful spontaneous hospitality, but mostly it seemed as though smiling or waving at strangers never entered their minds. In Serbia the standard of living may have slid but the human psyche has taken an upswing. It’s curious how the folks with the least have the most to offer.
I crossed the Danube one last time, this by ferry, and got off in Bulgaria. I didn’t see the sun for three days in Romania and it took four in Bulgaria before it showed its face. The land was smothered in a thick, gray, depressing, pall that only Europe can produce. And this was aggravated by the Balkan love of smoldering fires, torching fields and coal burning stoves. I cut across the Danube plain and rose into the foothills of the Stara Planina, a low mellow range that cuts east west across Bulgaria.
I stopped in Velike Tarnovo, a town strung out along the ridges above a deeply meandering river. I took walks to hilltop villages, a monastery, and an impressive fortress on a hill within the bend of the river.
With the sun finally out, I bolted. I crossed the spine of the Stara Planina, climbing the worst road of the journey, not much more than a mess of rocks, but had the most exhilarating descent, down a narrow paved road into a steep narrow valley. I crossed brown grass plains and wooded hills and passed into Greece. My time in Greece was short and dictated by a nasty road that crossed directly into Turkey. Thirty six kilometers later I passed into Turkey. I also crossed into the world of Islam.
In Edirne, slender imposing minarets rose from huge domed mosques that stood in stoic grace surrounded by the chaos of rain soaked streets. After three months of impressive, but usually over-decorated churches, the mosques were beautiful and refreshingly simplistic. They held the power of conviction and the prowess of ingenuity.
Outside, the Turks were the antithesis of northeast Europeans: vibrant, friendly, outgoing and helpful. I got directions from drivers at traffic lights, had coffee at the local police station, slept upstairs in the local community house when it rained, and created great interest whereever I went. Yet their friendly nature didn’t carry over to their driving or their weather and both spurred me on to be done. I wound into the maelstrom of Istanbul in pouring rain and had to remind myself that it is the journey, not the destination.
Overlooking the Bosphorus to Asia my journey through Eastern Europe is complete. Long, complex and involved, it offered a diorama of sights, experiences and emotions, as any good adventure should. Since leaving Vail in May I have passed through 16 countries, 15 languages, 14 currencies, three alphabets and 32 degrees of latitude. I have cranked 9,883 kilometers on the bike and 974 kilometers on foot. But in the end the numbers are just for fun, the red line I draw on the map just a representation of the experiences, the insights, the people met, and the places explored, both outside and within. I get to relive past journeys and conjure the journeys of the future. There is always another red line.