One Week with Ann Wilson
The book was just the inspiration Ann needed to start making plans to quit her job and pay the bills while she was away. In the summer of 2009 she set off on her big adventure, riding through Europe and towards the Middle East.
Tragically, Ann’s custom-built touring bike was stolen in Bulgaria (despite being kept in a locked room) so this weekly diary describes the first days on her replacement bike Sofi as she continues through Bulgaria and on to Turkey, as well as wonderful hospitality and riding in the rain. If you like this excerpt, you can follow Ann’s travels through her journal Through Europe and Beyond.
Day 1 – Potholes and local guides
The rush-hour traffic was heavy in the direction of Plovdiv but I sailed along with no problems. Around 8 miles out of Sofia the traffic thinned and I veered off, to join the quieter old road. The road at Vakerel was really bad – full of potholes with cars weaving around them, including a police car. New bike going extremely well but the chain came off a few times. Probably my fault, having got used to the twist-grip gears on the first bike.
Thought I’d reached Kostenets but it was a village before it. A nice, friendly woman directed me to a hotel which looked OK but expensive at 40 lev. I then realised I had no cash so I’d have to carry on to Kostenets anyway.
A few miles from Kostenets, I was corralled by 3 young boys on bikes who decided it would be great fun to race me. They spoke a few words of English but were basically bored and I was something new to distract them. They weren’t unpleasant but still a flaming nuisance as I had digs to find and they were slowing me down. We hit the town and they were intent on showing me where to go – I just could not shake them off. When they stopped to speak to one of their mothers, I was faintly reassured that they WOULD actually escort me to a hotel, so off we went in convoy – then another youngster tagged on and I began to wonder if I’d strayed off course somehow to Hamelin. But, true to their word, they took me first to an ATM and then to a smashing hotel, cheap and clean with wi-fi – 20 lev, less than a tenner. I sent my guides off with a big thank you (I had to send them off, otherwise they’d be with me now!).
Day 2 – Flat tires in the rain
Today was the first truly wet day I’ve had to cycle in, since leaving England – but I didn’t care. The new bike was going very well and if anything is a more comfortable ride than the old one. The gel seat is certainly more rear-friendly and the handlebars, although butterfly again, are a different and better shape.
4 miles out of Kostenets, my enjoyment was shattered when I had my first puncture of the trip. The back tyre was completely flat. I wheeled over to a lay-by, removed the tyre and found a shard of glass poking through it. No worries, I had two spare tubes. Only trouble was, they both had valve bases that were wider than the one I’d taken out and I couldn’t seat the tyre rim properly. Not only that, in the course of my attempts, I bent the valve on the first spare. The only next option was to mend the puncture, but now I’m cursing myself because I’ve left myself with Fanta in my water bottles and the pan which could have been used as a vessel, is with the stove in Sofia. There’s no water within reach to look for the hole. Lots of spitting ensued and then I pumped the tyre up again and saw the hole blowing the dust on the ground. Brilliant! – sticky patch applied. I’d been there a good hour by then, when a car drew up and a man jumped out with his wife and daughter. The father not only managed to seat the first tyre with my spare tube, but he took the wheel off to a bike repair shop to get it pumped up because like me, he couldn’t get the hang of my fancy pump. Another big thank you to a kind Bulgarian family. I set off with two half-inflated tubes filling my bags.
Thankfully, the bike shop was easy to find. It was manned by three young lads and I and showed them the tube I’d patched with the idea of getting them to deflate it so I could pack it. Lots of confusion ensued when they wanted to pump air into it and I wanted them to take air out of it. In the end, one lad took the tube from me and filled it with air. By then I’m saying “Well, how am I going to carry that now?” when he shows me not one but two more holes that I’d missed. Five minutes later he came back with the tube patched and deflated it for folding. Next, I showed them the one with the bent valve – not a problem.
Off they went, straightened the valve and after checking it has no holes, folded that tube as well. I also asked them about the pump and they seemed to say that it should be good for both types of valve. Obviously user error. What’s more, they wouldn’t take any money from me. How’s that for service?
I carried on in the pouring rain and decided to stop at a café and put my waterproof jacket on and my contacts in, as I’ve been carrying an unused 40-day supply with me for 3 months, exactly for rainy days. It was a bit of a struggle in the facilities available but I got them in, although the left one didn’t feel quite right. No matter, I thought, it’ll settle. Arrived at Pazardzhik and toured the three hotels and then went back to the first – a slightly faded establishment which had obviously bathed in glory in its former years. Sneaking the bike upstairs wasn’t really an option but the lady on reception said I could park it behind the fabulous sweeping staircase. When I explained I was nervous because I’d had a bike stolen in Sofia, she recognised me from the TV news item and couldn’t do enough for me – helping me with my bags up to my room on the second floor, offering me an umbrella when I went out to the shop and providing me with old newspapers to stuff my wet shoes with. Once in my room I discovered that the left contact lens had folded into the side of my eye – no wonder I was having trouble!
A great day, when my adversity brought out the best in the Bulgarians.
Day 3 – Where am I again?
Plovdiv was easy to get into but a nightmare to get out. A scarcity of route signs and street names kept me retracing my tracks and bouncing around cobbled streets. It didn’t help when a bus driver came so close to me at a set of lights that he caught my elbow as I set off and threw me off balance. I managed to right myself but not without catching the back of my calf on a pedal which resulted in a nasty graze and a bruise the size of my palm. Anyway, there was some consolation when I found the right road pointing to Svilengrad, because there was an OMV garage on the corner. This chain has a Viva restaurant with pictures on the menu so I know what I’m getting, and they serve a very nice light meal. I’ve used them a few times.
My next stop, Parvomay had one hotel which was a little less than grand and I went to sleep with mosquitoes in the room and a dead flea which I’d squashed.
Day 4 – Mosquito attack
Today saw me cycling towards Harmanli for my last night in Bulgaria via a town called Haskovo which I detoured into and quickly sped out. Huge high rise blocks in bad repair covered the skyline and I felt sorry for the people who had to live there. No beauty to soothe their souls.
A few miles on and ‘Oh -no!’ ANOTHER puncture! I’m hoping this is just a coincidence and not a sign that my tyres are not up to the job. If it happens again, soon, I’ll have to think about replacing them. Fortunately I was close to some sort of engineering-come-farm buildings and a group of men came to my aid. The main thing was that they had a compressor, so I had no anxieties about using the pump (although I know I’m only putting off the inevitable). Again, they wouldn’t take any money for helping, so it was ‘goodbye and thank you, thank you’.
The terrain was fairly hilly approaching Harmanli but Sofi was going well and I didn’t get off once, AND I was rewarded for my efforts by a 2-mile downhill into the town.
As I checked into the hotel (a much nicer one this time) I felt a large bump on my face below my left eye, then another, and another. What on earth did I look like? When I went to my room and looked in the mirror, my face was covered in mosquito bites from the night before.
Day 5 – The lucky £10 note
My face looked worse if anything today and my eye had swollen. What a mess! Still, it didn’t affect my legs so off I went.
Another 20 miles or so and I was within sight of the Turkish border after a very pleasant ride along a well-surfaced road with hardly any traffic. Along the way, I heard a loud whistle and turned to see three smiling truck drivers, one of them with his arms held out towards me – that made my day.
Getting into Turkey would have been a tad more difficult if it hadn’t been for a stroke of luck.
I approached the border with 23lev in my purse and the hope that the visa (which I’d convinced myself was £30) officials would be able to take plastic. I didn’t want to draw out £30-worth of Bulgarian lev, in case that wasn’t acceptable and I’d have to change it again in Turkey, further devaluing the money with a second commission to pay. When I got to the point of paying up, the good news was that it was only £10, but that was it, – 10 British pounds OR 15 Euros – nothing else was acceptable. I’d factored in having to cycle back to the nearest bank if necessary, but then I had a brainwave! I left the UK with a £10 note and decided to hang on to it ‘just in case’. In case what? – I had no idea, but there it was, in the bottom of one of my panniers in a spare purse I carry. So I waved my tenner and sailed across the border under a clear blue Turkish sky.
The road to Edirne was not too busy and easy to follow. The climate has become noticeably warmer but I’ve ditched my (outer) shorts for now, in favour of my short-longs as I’m in a Muslim country and don’t need any more reasons to be stared at. Along the way, I saw a 3-foot snake slither across the road but it disappeared before I had time to photograph it.
Whilst in Sofia, I’d been rather alarmed at the number of stray dogs that roam the city and decided after all to invest in a Dog Dazer, the electronic gadget that emits a high-frequency sound which only dogs (and cats) can hear and find very unpleasant. I’ve been frightened by dogs a few times in the previous Balkan countries, where people seem to keep a guard dog on their property as a matter of course, so I tested it in the city on a number of strays and it worked every time. Of course, between Sofia and Turkey, I’d hardly seen sight of any dogs but here, on the way to Edirne, a veritable pack of hounds came bounding out at me ready for the chase. I have found that facing up to a dog does work most of the time and by the time I stopped to get the DD out, they’d backed off. I gave it a shot anyway, just to show them not to mess with me.
I arrived in Edirne and found the cheapest hotel I could. At least there were no mosquitoes and I didn’t SEE any fleas….
Day 6 – Getting off the beaten track
I set off to travel south to Gelibolu on the north coast of the Marmara Sea and from there to cross by ferry to Lapseki, make my way east along the south coast and then by ferry again to Istanbul.
Throughout this route, I followed a main road which is being upgraded to dual carriageway. The landscape was one of rolling hills and the road runs fairly straight along its length. Most of the time, it ran alongside the new half but occasionally there were stretches open in both directions. The hills weren’t too steep, but boy, did it go on and on and on, mainly because I could see it stretching out in front of me for miles.
Halfway to Ozunkopru I thought I’d divert to a small village to find something to eat but I caused such a stir that I retraced my tracks and carried on. This was a village that was definitely not on the tourist trail. Young children embarrassed themselves by saying “Hello” to me and were then shocked when I said “Hello” back. I asked someone if there was a restaurant and was directed to a butcher’s shop! Not much help.
Ozunkopru was a different story. A very busy town with a market on and lots of places to buy food. When I asked a couple of women where the Post Office was, one of them indicated that I follow her and then took me through the streets via her house where she dropped off her shopping and then zig-zagged to the Post Office. Such a warm lady, she led me by the hand when it was very crowded and we cheek-to-cheeked when she left me.
Day 7 – That’s Pansion, not Pension
I caught the ferry to Lepsaki this morning and was pounced upon by a perfume seller who wanted to practise his English. I got the full nine-yards about his personal life and an invitation to come and stay with him when I next visit Turkey
As I cycled along, I was getting many pips and waves from drivers of cars and trucks. Some of them were the road builders as they passed up and down, going about their work. On one long stretch, I’d stopped halfway up a hill for a couple of minutes rest, when one of the road trucks pulled up in front of me. I was wondering was going to happen next, when the co-driver got out waving his arms and talking to me, gesturing that I should grab hold of the back of the truck to hitch a lift. I was fairly sure that my puny arms wouldn’t take the strain of me and my loaded bike so I laughed and said “thanks but no thanks”.
A little later, I was putting my chain back on yet again when a friendly young Turkish couple on a motorbike stopped to ask me about my journey. We had a long chat and they gave me advice about ferry options to Istanbul.
Biga was a little like Serbia as far as finding a hotel was concerned. I couldn’t see any signs and ended up knocking on the door of a ‘Pansion’ which turned out to be a students residence. One of the students kindly escorted me to a hotel with a non-too obvious sign. As I’d arrived late I hadn’t quite weighed up the place when I entered so did a bit of bargaining over the phone with an english-speaking manager, getting the price reduced by 10 Turkish Lira.
Afterwards, I realised it was actually a rather nice hotel, even though it only had 2-stars. It was an old establishment in a row of houses with a courtyard in the middle of the property and a restaurant on the terrace. Just shows what a little bargaining can get you.
Read more about Ann’s adventures in her journal, Through Europe and Beyond. All pictures on this page are courtesy of Ann Wilson.