This is my experience with bicycle touring in the Balkans in late Fall with a broken heart and a broken bicycle.
This post has been a long time coming because I still to this day cannot find the right words for it. My original thought was to offer some kind of guide to the places I went, what I ate, what I packed, how I paced myself and so forth. But for some reason, it feels pointless now. Because I knew nothing in the leadup, I still know nothing now that it’s all over, and I really cannot be recommending any of what I did to anyone wanting to start with bicycle touring. Aside for maybe the fact that having a broken heart and being fearless will make you do great (and perhaps stupid) things.
Besides, during the month and a half that I cycled the 3,000km from Istanbul, via Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, and Croatia to Milan, I fully disconnected from any form of online activity, from updating my social media to gathering notes for the greater good of blogging. I was too busy taking in whatever the hell I was putting myself through, absorbing what was thrown at me, the brutal climate change after nearly two years in the heat of South East Asia, and physically trying to keep up with a four-year veteran cyclist who was also a bit of a dick, let’s be honest. But since I’m here writing, here are a few thoughts I gathered nevertheless.
10 thoughts on cycling the Balkans in late Fall
1. THE DIGITAL DETOX WAS MUCH NEEDED
I have been going pretty much balls to the wall with my online work for the last year and have loved every second of it. Seeing my blog take off and my readership double itself every passing month has been one of my biggest professional rewards. However, the few weeks preceding the beginning of my tour, I clearly overworked myself, didn’t sleep much and got myself in a state I had promised to never get into again because of work. Putting my professional life on the back burner to cycle and reconnect with nature and myself was exactly what I needed at that moment in time.
2. I SHOULD HAVE BETTER TRUSTED MYSELF
I tagged along with a person I barely knew as it felt safer to tackle this great big unknown. I was scared of camping in the cold, cycling through mountain passes and sleeping alone in the wild, in places I knew nothing of. The truth is, as two solo riders, we could not come to a compromise, never got on and there were tensions between us the whole way through. I know now that I could have done this whole trip on my own had I been better equipped and, since I relied so heavily on someone else for navigation and shelter, I feel like I don’t fully own this trip.
3. WE WERE MADE TO LIVE IN THE OUTDOORS
For over a month, I was 100% in the outdoors, breathing fresh mountain air, day and night, and it felt amazing. This is what we humans are meant to do.
4. NOT WASHING IS OK! SOMETIMES.
I may look inconspicuous in photos, but I smelled really bad! While I had the luxury of gas station bathrooms and temple showers in South East Asia, the washing options were scarce in freezing Eastern Europe. And when I did find a shower, I generally didn’t have time to wash my clothes at the same time, so I stank no matter what. While this was obviously a challenge, my usually dry and flaky skin really enjoyed the break from soap and got really soft and hydrated. So if you’re up for an experiment, try not washing yourself for 15 days – my personal best! Or don’t…
5. THE COUNTRYSIDE OF EASTERN EUROPE IS NOT VEGAN FRIENDLY
These were the restaurant options: cheeseless pizza (sidenote: they use ketchup instead of tomato sauce in many places), boring tomato and lettuce salads and french fries. Obviously, we did a lot of our own cooking; generally oatmeal for breakfast and a big vegetable and lentil stew for dinner. Lunch was simple, often bread and tahini with fruit.
6. FALL IS A GREAT TIME FOR CYCLING
Besides the obvious fact that fall is a glorious season, we were able to do a lot of foraging. From apples, to grapes, to walnuts, to rosehip, to pears to hazelnuts to nettle, we were able to supplement our diet with things picked along the way. And whatever we bought was always local, fresh and extremely cheap.
7. GOOD EQUIPMENT BUYS CONFIDENCE
My tent was too short and gathered water at both ends where it was in contact with my body, my sleeping bag was only meant to be used in temperature down to 8 degrees Celsius, my waterproof clothes were not really waterproof, I didn’t own my own burner and my shoes started disintegrating after a few weeks. These technical details all contributed to making me not so confident when I found myself alone and I will know better for my next tour.
8. PEOPLE OF THE BALKANS: I FREAKING LOVE YOU
I encountered so much generosity in every Balkan country I visited, from the amazing couple in Istanbul who pretty much saved my life by gearing me up with winter clothes, to the people who gave me free tea, free food and free shelter along the way, to the people who just shared a bit of their life and gladly answered my dozens of questions over a beer. It has been incredible. Thank you.
9. NO COMPANY IS MUCH BETTER THAN BAD COMPANY
I was lazy at distancing myself from a pretty poisonous partnership and I realized that it had impacted how I saw the world for the time it lasted. I look back on photos and realized some of the beauty I was unfortunately blind to because I was too busy getting into arguments. The world is a much more beautiful place explored alone, trust me.
10. CAN WE DO THAT AGAIN?
Despite the many tears shed along the way and the handful of times I felt completely miserable and wished for a warm bath, a cup of tea and a fluffy white bed, once I got all of those things, I wished I was back on the road living the adventure again. Life does begin at the end of our comfort zone and, at the end of the day, good memories aren’t made when you are fully rested and clean as a whistle, quaintly drinking a cup of tea in a warm bed, are they?