Author Topic: Riding to Istanbul - Advice Please  (Read 1174 times)

JJ

Riding to Istanbul - Advice Please
« on: 31 August, 2021, 05:00:36 pm »
I've had this trip in mind for a few years.  My sister lives out there and I did the trip on a motorbike back in 95.
Now I'm thinking about it more seriously.  #3 offspring has expressed interest in doing it with me after his GCSEs, perhaps as a sponsored fund-raiser for teenage cancer.

I'm thinking in terms of 150km/day and one of 3 broad route options:
  • Holland Germany Czech Hungary Romania, Bulgaria - The route I motorcycled.
    France Switzerland Slovenia Bosnia Serbia Bulgaria - Could be interesting, maybe pick up the Danube for some of it.
    France Italy Greece - probably the easiest but least adventurous option.

Does anyone (silly question) have experience of lightweight touring in the Balkans?  How easy is it to find small cheap hotels and campsites.  How bad are the traffic and roads these days?  Any must-go-this-way advice?

It may yet not happen, especially dependent on his brother's health but at least I may as well start investigating.

Cudzoziemiec

  • Моя планета голубая, я люблю тебя и обнимаю
Re: Riding to Istanbul - Advice Please
« Reply #1 on: 31 August, 2021, 05:17:03 pm »
I think Karla's the person to ask about lightweight touring in the Balkans.

All I know about it comes from books: Tim Moore (The Cyclist Who Went Out in the Cold) found Serbia the friendliest place he visited, and Patrick Leigh-Fermor went up the Rhine and down the Danube, but he was only pretending to head for Istanbul.
Riding a bike through a city is like navigating the collective neural pathways of a vast global mind.

Re: Riding to Istanbul - Advice Please
« Reply #2 on: 31 August, 2021, 06:44:44 pm »
Does anyone (silly question) have experience of lightweight touring in the Balkans?  How easy is it to find small cheap hotels and campsites.  How bad are the traffic and roads these days?  Any must-go-this-way advice?

Pending Karla's infinite wisdom...

Cheap guest houses are generally plentiful, but there are areas where they are not. Either be prepared to cycle on for another 50-100 km or plan ahead by looking at something like Open Streetmap on maps.me - if there are a few shown you can be sure there are plenty more on the ground. Be cautious of the price rating shown on there, $$ might mean €15 for a double or if it's in a popular mountain region it might be a spa resort at €100+ pp. Just rocking up can be tricky. In the ex-Soviet states they will often tell you they're full when they're clearly not. A lot of places have closed down because of covid, but still show as live on Google, etc. But unless you're totally in the middle of nowhere, the chances are that if you stand knocking on a closed guest house one of the locals will appear and help you out.

Campsites I don't normally do, why bother carrying a tent when you can pay €10 to stay in guest house or €20-ish for a hotel. Whether there are any depends on culture of the country, some do camping, others less so. They're worth checking as "camping" normally means a bunch of wooden huts rather than a bit of grass to pitch a tent on.

Traffic & roads. Generally excellent. I feel far safer out here than in the UK. Although they appear to hoon around without a care, the drivers know that round the next bend there might be a random cow or a horse and cart and are well prepared for it. Road quality can be great - minor roads with perfect tarmac and little traffic. But even quite big roads can suddenly become loose gravel or even sand, especially when leaving the last village before a county border. Be prepared for this to slow you down a lot.

Must go advice? That depends on whether you like mountains or not. Czechia and North Italy are both amazing in terms of cycling provision, well signposted traffic free routes all over. Romania is also good in terms of smooth quiet roads and reasonable gradients. Pick your route and I'll give some more specific recommendations. There are some great mountain passes between Netherlands and Turkey.

Covid. I've not crossed any land borders this year, but I've chatted to people who have. It's generally straightforward, but check the current requirements for both non-EU residents and where you will have been the previous 10 days. If a test is required there's normally somewhere to get one nearby, around €25 for an antigen test. You won't currently get into Romania on a bike without an NHS vaccine certificate or similar.
Quote from: tiermat
that's not science, it's semantics.

JJ

Re: Riding to Istanbul - Advice Please
« Reply #3 on: 31 August, 2021, 09:02:58 pm »
Great info already.  Thanks!  We're looking at next year, late July/August because of his exams.  Not ideal weather but I expect we'll get used to the heat and the Covid situation will surely be very different by then.

Some mountains is fine, inevitable even.  I'm more daunted by the huge hot plains of Hungary and Romania if anything.
Serbia sounds interesting with a bit of Danube path thrown in.

I'd forgotten about the wooden tents.  I was debating whether to take bivvy-level camping gear as a fall-back, but if we can find enough guest-houses then ditching that weight could make sense.

arabella

  • no se porque yo no lo se
Re: Riding to Istanbul - Advice Please
« Reply #4 on: 01 September, 2021, 05:26:43 pm »
Top tip I was given about mountains is that donkeys don't like/do steep.
So try and use the routes that locals-with-donkeys would have used, not the brand new roads designed for motor vehicles.
In the dark, all views are the same.

Re: Riding to Istanbul - Advice Please
« Reply #5 on: 02 September, 2021, 05:37:02 am »
From today's news about vaccination rates i Europe: While more than 80 percent of adults have been fully inoculated in Belgium, Denmark and Portugal, and more than 75 percent in countries like Spain and the Netherlands, the figure falls to 45 percent in Latvia, 31 percent in Romania and 20 percent in Bulgaria.

This is the case, but right now infections are low in countries like Czechia, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania. Not so good in the Southern Balkans, but generally better than France, Spain and the UK. That's all likely to change by next month let alone next July.

I'm more daunted by the huge hot plains of Hungary and Romania if anything.
.

The weather is even more uncertain than covid. The continental climate used to be fairly reliable. Not now with climate change. Everywhere I've been the last few years, the locals have said "it's not normally like this". This year it was up to 42 C in N. Macedonia/Kosovo lowlands in June/July, cooler in the mountains. Romania is usually wet in July followed by dry and warm (not too hot) in August and September. For the last couple of weeks it's been mostly below 20 C with heavy downpours.
Quote from: tiermat
that's not science, it's semantics.

Re: Riding to Istanbul - Advice Please
« Reply #6 on: 02 September, 2021, 07:25:19 pm »
I rode there ten years ago now, it was great. I picked a fairly flat route as I didn't set off till September and I was chasing the winter, and I broadly followed the rivers. From Zeebrugge, Antwerp, canals to Maastricht, over to the Rhine, Main, Tauber, Altmuhl and Danube until Serbia. The official Danube cycle route was basically off-road after Bratislava, though it may have improved since.

Apart from a few hills in Germany, it was fairly flat until Serbia. The east got a bit hillier but it was fantastic, limestone valleys that reminded me of home. I got lost in Fruska Gora national park, which was brilliant.

Depends what you want to see and do - the Tauber valley is a popular cycling route (there are two options, Der Klassiker and the hilly one), and it's peppered with hilltop villages that are exactly how you imagine Bavaria to be. Beer festivals, cuckoo clocks, oompah bands etc.

Oh, I took a shortcut across Hungary to skip a meander in the Danube, and someone said I missed one of the best bits as it went through a narrow gorge.

Can't really comment on lodgings, I was mainly wild camping and finding cheap hostels in the cities. The cities are great, I probably should have visited the Tesla Museum while I was on Belgrade, and Plovdiv was a great place, you can feel the centuries beating down upon you.

All a bit vague, I know, but one specific bit of advice is not to ride into Istanbul along the main E80 route coming in from Edirne, it is a mad multi lane carriageway with traffic coming at you from all sides. Among my adventures was nearly getting sideswiped by a BMW (the driver heard me swear at him, stopped in the middle of the road, waved me over, said "Peace!" and offered a fistbump), then getting carried away filtering past cars on a downhill stretch, failing to spot a lump of concrete stuck to the road, and getting some Good Air. Which is not such a good thing on a heavily-loaded tourer. I did have mental images of the frame snapping under me before I landed. Mind you, reaching the Roman wall at dusk was a glorious moment, especially cos they led me down to an actual cyclepath along the Marmaris to Sultanahmet.

Presumably you'll have a GPS rather than a map of Turkey at 1:1 000000 scale :)


Re: Riding to Istanbul - Advice Please
« Reply #7 on: 02 September, 2021, 07:34:55 pm »
I think Karla's the person to ask about lightweight touring in the Balkans.

All I know about it comes from books: Tim Moore (The Cyclist Who Went Out in the Cold) found Serbia the friendliest place he visited, and Patrick Leigh-Fermor went up the Rhine and down the Danube, but he was only pretending to head for Istanbul.

Don't often see Leigh-Fermor mentioned here - nice one!  Cudzo, you stranger, have you ever seen the film "Ill Met By Moonlight" in which he is portrayed by Dirk Bogarde?  L-F lived a real Boys' Own life and is one of my favourite travel writers.

Cudzoziemiec

  • Моя планета голубая, я люблю тебя и обнимаю
Re: Riding to Istanbul - Advice Please
« Reply #8 on: 02 September, 2021, 08:05:10 pm »
I think Karla's the person to ask about lightweight touring in the Balkans.

All I know about it comes from books: Tim Moore (The Cyclist Who Went Out in the Cold) found Serbia the friendliest place he visited, and Patrick Leigh-Fermor went up the Rhine and down the Danube, but he was only pretending to head for Istanbul.

Don't often see Leigh-Fermor mentioned here - nice one!  Cudzo, you stranger, have you ever seen the film "Ill Met By Moonlight" in which he is portrayed by Dirk Bogarde?  L-F lived a real Boys' Own life and is one of my favourite travel writers.
I don't think I have ever seen any film with Dirk Bogarde, at least not knowingly, but I have read his autobiography, A Postilion Struck by Lightning, many many years ago, as for some reason it was on my parents' shelves.

PLF (the Peregrination Liberation Front?) remains one of the few people whose writing I've found genuinely inspirational, though I understand that his actual experiences were quite well embroidered for the books.
Riding a bike through a city is like navigating the collective neural pathways of a vast global mind.

JJ

Re: Riding to Istanbul - Advice Please
« Reply #9 on: 10 September, 2021, 04:06:31 pm »
I've been a bit absent for a few days because #1 son is very poorly but:
The aim would be to have a Big Adventure with #3 after his GCSEs, and maybe to glean some sponsorship on behalf of the Teenage Cancer Trust or Cancer research.

In '95 I motorcycled via Frankfurt, Prague, Budapest, Brasov, Bucharest, Burgas.  Home via Greece Italy France.
In '96 Mrs and I rode the tandem via Bavaria to Prague.

Sounds like some variant of Austria-Serbia-Romania-Bulgaria with bits of Danube path might be good.  I'll take local advice about riding into Istanbul. It would be a shame not to but I value our lives!  Sister is in Gokturk, so we don't absolutely have to.  I'm also not above throwing the bikes on a train for a bit of it it we are running out of time or energy.

I guess I'd better learn some Serbian and some Bulgarian then.

Re: Riding to Istanbul - Advice Please
« Reply #10 on: 10 September, 2021, 08:57:56 pm »
I've read numerous tales of the traffic into Istanbul being very busy, multi-lane highways..I think Anne Wilson(?) in her book 'Mainly by bike' and possibly some other cycle tourists too, were advised of an alternate entry into Instanbul via a ferry - sorry I cannot recall where from exactly.

Re: Riding to Istanbul - Advice Please
« Reply #11 on: 13 September, 2021, 06:35:17 am »
In '95 I motorcycled via Frankfurt, Prague, Budapest, Brasov, Bucharest, Burgas.  Home via Greece Italy France.

You were on a motorbike and crossed the Carpathians at Brașov/Bran rather than the Transfăgărășan? That was an omission :-)

Quote
Sounds like some variant of Austria-Serbia-Romania-Bulgaria with bits of Danube path might be good. 

If you're thinking of following the Danube in the south of Romania, it's like most border areas and pretty uninteresting until the Danube Delta, which won't be on your route.

Although cycling in Romania is fantastic, if you want to take in much of Serbia you won't see the best bits. Less of Serbia would take you to Timișoara, maybe Sibiu, then either the Transalpina or Transfăgărășan (both amazing) before heading across the flatlands to Bulgaria.

Routing further south, there is a shiny new motorway from Niš to the Bulgarian border, which means that the old highway through the gorge is no longer a hairy experience and you're able to experience the fantastic scenery.

Further south still, both Kosovo (accessible from Serbia but not the other way) and N Macedonia are worth considering to experience the distinct cultures and offer excellent cycling. Both are bordered by mountains though.

Quote
I guess I'd better learn some Serbian and some Bulgarian then.

Bulgarian is hard! German is the most useful second language in Serbia, Spanish or Italian in Romania, not sure about Bulgaria. Travel guides will tell you that English is widely spoken by young people, this tends to be true only for cities and tourist areas.
Quote from: tiermat
that's not science, it's semantics.

JJ

Re: Riding to Istanbul - Advice Please
« Reply #12 on: 16 September, 2021, 02:46:07 pm »
You were on a motorbike and crossed the Carpathians at Brașov/Bran rather than the Transfăgărășan? That was an omission :-)

If you're thinking of following the Danube in the south of Romania, it's like most border areas and pretty uninteresting until the Danube Delta, which won't be on your route.

Although cycling in Romania is fantastic, if you want to take in much of Serbia you won't see the best bits. Less of Serbia would take you to Timișoara, maybe Sibiu, then either the Transalpina or Transfăgărășan (both amazing) before heading across the flatlands to Bulgaria.

Routing further south, there is a shiny new motorway from Niš to the Bulgarian border, which means that the old highway through the gorge is no longer a hairy experience and you're able to experience the fantastic scenery.

Further south still, both Kosovo (accessible from Serbia but not the other way) and N Macedonia are worth considering to experience the distinct cultures and offer excellent cycling. Both are bordered by mountains though.

Bulgarian is hard! German is the most useful second language in Serbia, Spanish or Italian in Romania, not sure about Bulgaria. Travel guides will tell you that English is widely spoken by young people, this tends to be true only for cities and tourist areas.

I met up with a friend at Oradea whose interest was researching Transylvanian/German fortified churches.  We stayed with random villagers and had a fascinating time.  It's hard to think back to it but there was no real internet to look up the best route and ask advice, so we were mostly winging it with an out of date road atlas.  I recall queuing up for about 90 minutes in a soviet style shop to buy the only map of Bucharest they had, which was pre-Ceaucescu.

I have enough German to make a bit of conversation, schoolboy-level Spanish and Turkish, and very rudimentary Romanian.  I'll try to get enough Serbian and Bulgarian for please and thank-you "is there a hotel hear here" and "two more beers please".  It would be useful to be able to read place-names too!

Thanks for the route advice.  I'll do some more map-poring.  We'll have to compromise between seeing the nice bits and getting there in the time available