Niall's Travel Blog

Monday, July 02, 2007

Sofia to Istanbul

It was a quick hop to Sofia where I hung out with the McKinsey girls Maya and Raya and the cheeky Aussie Raff. The first night we were out I was refused entry into a nightclub because I didn't have any jeans - the bouncer wasn't very appreciative of a cyclist's need to pack light.

Myself and Raff found a climbing wall in Sofia University and tried not to look too silly in front of the students who were incredible.

I got back onto the road again and had one incredible day of tailwinds clocking up about 190km. Above is me taking a rest in the shade - it's a tough life on the road.

I made a quick, 3 hour, detour into Greece to withdraw euros from the ATM. Was pleasantly surprised by a brand new road which cut about 50km out of the journey I had expected to the Turkish border.

A view from the new bridge.

The Greek - Turkish border was, as expected given their long enmity, heavily militarised. I caused a bit of an international incident when a Greek attack dog started chasing me on the bicycle. The Greeks couldn't control it for quite a while, much to the delight of the Turks watching from across no man's land. I got a lot of thumbs up and a warm welcome to Turkey.

I was then plunged into the madness of Edirne, a Turkish border town. A huge mosque, crazy traffic, music blaring and the buzz of commerce were a stark contrast to the quiet of Bulgarian and Greek backcountry.

I cycled on past Edirne, the road is tough with countless undulating hills and valleys. At a small town I am called over for chai and am then invited to stay and fed some delicious Turkish food and copious amounts of chai.

I have an interview with the mayor who finds me a place to stay and I use the floorspace to pull out my maps and decide whether I have enough time to cycle the whole way to Bishkek and get back in time for an unexpectedly early start to work. Unfortunately I don't if I want to go through Tajikistan and decide to try for a train to Tehran.

I keep moving and am delighted to see the sea again for the first time since Italy - I waste no time in stripping down and jumping in.

And, after over a month's travelling and about 2700km I arrive in the ancient city of Istanbul.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Serbia in Photos

A beautiful old car performs his last task in life, a lovely retirment.

The Serbians are a very friendly people, this old farmer starts waving on seeing me coming down the motorway.

The Serbian countryside

In Nis I meet Kika who takes me for a traditional Serbian meal, delicious!

He also gives me a guide around Skull tower, where the heads of Serbs defeated by the Turks in the independece war we plastered into a tower as a warning against further uprisings.

Dragana and Milan invite me to their home where their sister's 21st birthday party is just about to kick off.

DJ Lazar keeps the music flowing while the local rakija brewer presents us with his ambrosia.

The next day, I make merry with the town poets...

...and say goodbye to my Serbian family

2000km clocked up, all good so far

And a beautiful sunset backlights the Orthodox church as I cross into Bulgaria

Border to Belgrade

I cross into Serbia by night, passing Slobomir City – billed “The City of Freedom and Peace” – that looked like a bit of an US and EU funded reconciliation project cum white elephant. It’s a crystal clear night and I stop a while to watch the stars over a bite to eat. I’ve squeezed over a hundred and twenty kilometres out of my legs in a nasty headwind and I am afraid that they’ll refuse to budge tomorrow, my last day before Belgrade – I even briefly consider cycling through the night while they are still warm.

I knock on a door to discover a mini-fiesta celebrating the the birth of the owner’s first child and I enjoy a few beers before sleeping in his absent sister’s chalet, decorated with life drawings.
The headwind continues unabated the next day and I can only manage a paltry fifteen km/h average speed. Sometimes I wonder whether it is better to be going downhill where you struggle against the wind or uphill where you struggle against the slope but the wind is blocked! The slipstream caused by passing trucks also causes some frustrations as you are suddenly jerked forward and then blown back when the truck passes.
The Serbian countryside is quite pleasant when not passing industrial areas and I pick up the trail of Sava river again. After some minor chaos entering Belgrade, I find myself relaxing with fellow travellers at the Three Katz Inn, where I enjoy the rest and city for three nights. I have started using a website called to meet local people (and possibly a place to stay) and my first experience of it is meeting Marko for a coffee, football match on TV and a chat about Irish and Serbian politics and history. Even for Serbian university graduates it's a struggle to find a decently paid job and even harder to get a foreign work visa.

In Belgrade I get some bad news, I need to be in England for a training course on the 8th of July - this means that part of the journey will have to be done by train and I have to pick up my pace on the road to Istanbul. With this in mind I take up my struggle against the wind which seems to be following my direction, during my rest in Belgrade it has changed from Easterly to South Easterly. Having enquired about the enforcement of Serbian motorway law I decide to go for it, and before the toll plaza I slip off my bike, walk through looking unconcerned and use the trucks to block the line of sight between me and the police.
P.S. I'm hoping to do a big update now am going to switch the format to photo based with a few lines for context. Hopefully that will mean it will not only be quicker for you to read but quicker for me to write!

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Detour through Bosnia

In the hazy morning, I pause to warm up at a café - a working man’s place with the typical calendar posters of topless women straddling motorbikes. I ask for some information about the road ahead since there is a gap in my maps and they kindly give me a map of the area. I notice Srbenik in Bosnia Herzegovina, the place of the massacre in 1995 and decide to reroute from the direct road to Serbia, crossing at a border post one hour’s cycle away.

The roads in Bosnia are terrible and, again, remnants of the recent war are omnipresent. People are very friendly and each time I stop to rest, people offer me their house to sleep in. One man asks me to take a photo of his family outside his destroyed house and to give it to newspapers in Ireland so that people will send him money. The conversation goes like this: “Serbians (Over arm throwing motion), Grenade, Boom!” to which I reply with “In Irlanski, Ingliski (Over arm throwing motion), Grenade, Boom!” which reduced them to tears of laughter.

The call to prayers informs me of dusk and I keep cycling for an hour in the dark before pulling up to a farmer’s house and asking to sleep in the garden. They understand what I am saying but put me on the phone to their English-speaking niece just to double check. Tomic, a brother, arrives and we discover that we both speak French and have much to talk about, he having lived in Nice for eight years and having served on peacekeeping missions with the Yugoslav army in francophone D.R. Congo, both places I have spent time in the last six months. They cook me a lovely dinner and the whole family assembles to watch me eat it.

The next day I realise that Srbenik is unfortunately not Srebrenica (which is 200km further south) as I thought and I decide to take the most direct route to Serbia. I have coffee and rakija, a locally brewed whisky, for breakfast and head off. The rakija goes almost immediately to my head and I have to stop after 20 minutes to eat some cereal to dilute the effects. The day is tough going, and I have now accepted the Slavic translation of the English word flat to mean not extremely mountainous rather than the more commonly accepted definition. At a town approaching the border with Serbia, I ask some police for directions to the crossing and after some consultation they give me an escourt for about 5 kilometres, bringing traffic to a crawling pace, before stopping at a fast food restaurant off the road in the direction of the post.

P.S. Just to give you the quick update (as in to this date!), I am actually in Tehran at the minute and, contrary to what the lack of blog updates might suggest, I am still alive! Unfortunately, due to some work commitments, I had to speed up my trip by taking a train from Istanbul to Tehran in order to make it to Central Asia and will be flying back to London on the 5th of July.

Some of the highlights, which will be soon described, include a 21st birthday party in Southern Serbia, tailwinds through Bulgaria, being chased by a pack of dogs (my arch-enemies), a mayoral meeting in small town Turkey, a three day train ride and an unexpected drinking party in the mountains overlooking Tehran.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Beginning of the Balkans

The snow remaining on the mountains and fields makes for some stunning scenery as I leave Ljubljana, making my way towards Zagreb. I follow the course of the mighty Sava river for the day and camp beside a forest stream waking to a beautiful view of the nearby mountains.

I get an early start and it is literally freezing, my tent having been frosted hard during the night. A woman passes me in her car and shakes her head dumbfounded - I must have made for a strange sight cycling with all that luggage in the mist at 6.30 a.m. I make great progress and quickly reach the Croatian border. The guard informs me of the problem that this border post is only open to Croatian and Slovenian citizens but, after politely emphasising that cycling 30km to the next post is a different proposition to driving there, he allows me to pass.

Arriving in Zagreb, I call into the office of the firm I start to work with when my travels finish for a chat, have lunch and move on - conscious of the amount of time spent at Ljubljana. I have a fall on the bike while stopping, not being able to get my cleats unclipped in time to save myself, but thankfully my helmet takes most of the damage and I escape with a cut elbow and damaged pride. I later discover one of the cleats came off but by that time I was too far on to make it worth my while going back. I pull up to a house at dark and am allowed to camp. I wait a while in vain to see if they will come talk to me or ask me inside for some food. Instead I eat some cereal and milk, thinking it rude to light up my cooking stove in their garden, and write and read before falling asleep.

In the morning Anna, the daughter of the household, invites me in for coffee and explains that they were going to ask me in for dinner but thought I was asleep. As I progress through Croatia I start to hit the region that was worst hit by the recent Balkan wars. All buildings not newly refurbished are peppered with bullet holes and EU and US aid placards are placed beside the town name signs. All the men I see working on farms or buildings wear military camouflage, seemingly ready at a minute's notice to report for duty. As if by design to cap off a personal presentation to me of Eastern Croatia's bleakness, it starts to rain and I pull my bike into an abandoned house to cook dinner. It doesn't look like letting up and so I set up camp in what would have been a family's living room thirteen years ago.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Saint Patrick's Festival Comes to Ljubljana

On arrival in Ljubljana I waste no time getting to the important business - where to watch the six nations finale and where to find the greatest concentration of Irish people to celebrate St. Patrick's Day with. To do this I make my way to the Irish embassy and, as well as finding everything I need, I also manage to wangle an invitation to the Ambassador's house for a reception on Monday.

On St. Patrick's Day I head down to the Irish pub where I end up watching the matches with the Ambassador himself and Boris, a Slovenian rugby player who married an Irish woman. He was a huge guy, a near-film stereotype of his name, and the playful punches he gave me on the arm each time Ireland scored added up to quite a bruise.

Unfortunately the French robbed us again of victory but I was able to delay my grieving for a while as I got chatting to a group of NCAD (an art colleg
e in Dublin) Erasmus students who kindly offered me a place in their house. I went out for dinner with them followed by celebrations par excellence - including face-painting, céilidh dancing, an impromptu parade and dancing into the early hours at Metelkova, a lefty hangout based out of two abandoned parking lots.

Waking late the next day, I repacked my bike and cycled to the guys' house, spending some pleasant days there. I tried my best to fix their Yugoslav-era bikes to mixed success and convinced them to come along to the Ambassador's party.

That day a blizzard hit Ljubljana, ruling out any chance of my leaving the next day and also of cycling to the Ambassador's house meaning that I had
to forgo my purist principles and take a taxi to the house which was in the suburbs. The house itself was lovely, boasting a great library and some beautiful Louis le Brocquy prints of Joyce, Beckett and Yeats. At one point during the reception the power cut out and the Ambassador promptly lit up a candle declaring "I bet you didn't know you were being to invited to a candlelit reception". This witticism was met by bellows of laughter from fellow diplomats and shouts of "Brava, Brava!".

r some mingling, the Ambassador opened the floor to singing, explaining he wasn't a singer himself. After an awkward silence I volunteer to sing "Oró Sé do Beath Abhaile", the Ambassador declares that he will accompany me and we pull off the old Irish ballad to the delight of the audience. The reception is capped off by some céilidh dancing led by Boris' wife, who runs an Irish dancing group for Slovenians, and then we make our way back to the capital to finish off the night, and indeed the morning, not getting to bed until 7.30am.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Hospitality and Hills

While leaving Padova an Italian guy cycles up next to me, and on hearing I'm Irish, tells me about his cycle tour through Ireland and wishes me luck for the journey. It seems to rub off as I set a faster pace than ever before, flying around Venice. At a petrol station I stop to top up my water and a group of Italians, after my explaining my exploits, treat me to coffee and broken conversation - at one point a man saying "Albania e Kosovo" and pointed his fingers, gun-like, to his temple before shouting "BANG, BANG!".

For the duration of the day I cycle with the majestic snow capped Alps on my left. At one point a squadron of Italian fighter jets, flying in formation, pass over me before breaking up at the Alps and swerving in and around the peaks. The only downer of the day is that I discover my tyre has buckled under the weight of the panniers and is about to blow out, needing to be replaced.

At dusk I pull into a house driveway, asking to camp in their garden. After some confusion they allow me and later invite me in for a delicious home-cooked meal. We chat afterwards for about two hours, despite the language barrier and they introduce me to their pets - a cat and parrot. After having a shot of a locally brewed lacquer and a welcome shower we say goodnight and my faith in human kindness is reaffirmed - I'm going to do this more often.

The next day I take a detour to the Adriatic, the last sight of sea before Turkey. The combination of Mediterranean and lagoon with small islands on the land side makes for some beautiful cycling, one island even having a full basilica on it - only in Italy.

I cross into Slovenia at an obscure border post and the landscape changes almost immediately, the bare trees and vinyards reminding me of Sardinia. Slovenia's star is obviously on the rise, it's the first recent EU entrant to adopt the euro, there are a lot of new cars on the road and everyone seems to be making improvements to their house - all adding up to a feeling of confidence in the future.

Having been spoilt by flatlands since Lake Garda, I find some of the steeper hills tough going. I camp a mountain pass and come to the house of Boris and Suzana who let me sleep on their couch and again I am treated to food, wine, a shower and information about the road ahead - flat to Ljubljana.

Flat, I can only guess, must be a mistranslation from some Slavic word meaning "steep uphills followed by steep downhills, but on average your altitude stays the same". I struggle with some of the hills (but am showing signs of my fitness improving) and have to brake heavily on some of the downhills, at one point reaching 52km/h - at that speed I would reach Kyrgyzstan in three weeks.

For lunch I cook myself a gorgeous meal. Mozzarella to start, penne pasta with sun dried tomatoes and mozzarella served with fresh baguette and chocolate for dessert. Accompanying wine was Fanta Orange, 2006 vintage. And so, it was with a full belly that I cruise into Ljubljana, ticking over one thousand kilometres.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Pausing in Padova

The main square at Padova, Prata della Valle, is beautiful - a grass park within a circular stream lined by statues of Padovans past. There is also a bustling food market and I treat myself to some gourmet delights. The bike attracts a lot of interest from the bewildered locals and tourists. I try to ask one guy who spoke English, after a lengthy chat, whether I could sleep the night at his but I think he thought I was joking. I spend an hour fruitlessly trying to find accommodation and I start to resign myself to cycling out of the city in darkness as I sit to eat.

A group of American students pass by and I call to them, finding out that they are on a Christian mission and are staying in the local hostel and would be delighted to guide me there. The thought of a shower is too compelling and I decide to go for it. Later, one of the American girls knocks on my door and leaves me an envelope which contains two things: a letter outlining how great she thinks the trip is and €35 which she said she felt she had to give me. I return the money to her and get an early night.

The next day is fantastically relaxing, involving reading in the square, catching up on correspondance and writing in a cafe terrace while drinking coffee and watching Padova pass me by. It's a magnificent lifestyle they lead here, very relaxed and social. After coffee, dinner and a spritz I head back to the hostel where I chat to a Japanese student and American art aficionado over some wine and cheese. I return to my room to that Murphy's Law instance particular to hostels: there will always be a loud snorer sleeping next to you. My unchargeable iPod, whose cable is resting chez Anthony in Bergamo, is sorely missed.