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I cycled 5000 km from Wales (UK) to Istanbul (Turkey) during the autumn of 2012, riding about 50 miles a day through 13 countries, camping wild at night, hostelling and staying with Servas friends.
Lots of generous people sponsored me and over £ 8000 has been raised for Cyclists Fighting Cancer.
Here are some photos that I took along the way.
Click on the photos to enlarge them...
454 km / 284 miles, 10 days, solo
The first few days were tough as I was still recovering from the radiotherapy I'd had 5 days earlier - I should have waited longer before setting off! Anyway, I conked out on the third day and spent 24 hours recovering in the Bristol Royal Infirmary.
The photos show Dolgoch youth hostel, where I spent the first night, and the delightful Brecon and Monmouth Canal towpath. Never mind the rain!
Thankfully I got fitter each day and managed to reach Harwich in good time to catch my ferry to Holland.
I followed the Grand Union Canal into London, where the Olympics were in full swing, and stopped to visit the fascinating Neasden Hindu Temple. The muddy Essex coastline was peaceful and strangely beautiful.
296 km / 185 miles, 4 days, solo
Dutch cycling facilities are legendary, so cycling across the Netherlands was easy. Everybody cycles on sensible bicycles, wearing everyday clothes, with not a helmet to be seen anywhere. Electric bikes are popular, old grannies cycling at speeds that left me panting. But the Dutch have rules for everything - like no wild camping anywhere - so I had to pay as much as 20 euros to pitch my diddy tent in big, commercial campsites!
I enjoyed a rest day in Delft with my Servas host, Hans. The 'new' church was built as recently as 1381 and the 'hill' in the middle of the town must be at least a metre high!
817 km / 511 miles, 13 days, solo
After 3 days cycling along the Mittelland canal towpath against an east wind with Wim from the Netherlands, I arrived in Hannover a day ahead of schedule and was spoilt rotten by Servas friends Doris and Hans-Werner. They took me to a music/food festival the first evening, to an amazing open-air production of Shakespere's Midsummer Night's Dream the second, and to live jazz on my last day there. In the town hall a model of Hannover, as flattened by the British during World War II, was a moving reminder of just how awful war must be for ordinary, innocent people caught up in conflicts not of their making.
I nearly aborted my trip in Hildersheim due to severe sciatic pain, but a quick call to my friendly UK doctor solved the problem. I rested in the youth hostel for 3 days and took the opportunity to have my pannier bags expertly strengthened by Herr Temel, the local cobler. And I enjoyed watching children participating in a wonderfully organised summer-holiday 'Olympia Camp'.
The beautifully preserved towns along the edge of Germany's Harz hills are a delight to cycle through, but don't eat at the 'Saroya' indian restaurant in Weissandt-Golzau unless you can cope with cracked crockery, a dead fly in your rice and glass in your curry - I had all three! The fabric of the former East Germany is slowly catching up with the West, but some of the minor roads were quite a challenge to cycle along!
583 km / 364 miles, 10 days, solo
I approached Prague along rough roads and tracks next to the river Labe and was kindly guided around the edge of the city by Denis, a fellow-cyclist whom I met at a lowly bar. Prague is a lovely old city where I enjoyed the hospitality of IVS friend Ladislav and his wife Ivana.
Then it rained for 2 days and nights as I continued south through such lovely towns as Telč and Jihlava, where I relaxed in Pavla and Lucá's warm house for a few days. They took me to a delightful Czech tea-house where I was given a bewildering choice of 155 different teas from around the World.
My 2 days in the formerly militarised zone of the Czech-Austrian border were very interesting. I examined a section of the barbed-wire 'Iron Curtain' fence, originally electrified at 10,000 volts, and the lines of concrete gun-emplacements that stretched over 7,000 km between West and East Europe between 1951 and 1989. Some of the villages in the 5 km evacuated zone are now being reinhabited.
341 km / 213 miles, 12 days, solo
With several days to spare, I turned west and cycled with Oleksiy, from the Ukraine, through some wonderful scenery along the river Danube. But disaster struck in Melk, after turning back towards Vienna, in a posh campsite where I'd decided to treat myself to a bit of luxury for a change - someone stole all my bags and everything in them from my parked bike. Fortunately I had my valuables with me and, bizarely, the thief returned all my medicines in the middle of the night (without these, I'd have been forced to return to the UK). My stolen belongings cost over 1000 euros to replace in Vienna, but 'small print' allowed my travel insurers to wriggle out of paying up.
My wife, Di, flew in to join me for a few days in Vienna and we stayed with Bernhard, a Servas host who took us to some fascinating places that we would never have found on our own. He took us canoeing on the Danube and we sampled fresh grape juice, before it began fermenting into wine, in a nearby farm. We had a wonderful few days togther.
217 km / 136 miles, 2 days, solo
For once a strong wind was behind me as I sailed along beside Slovakia's huge Danube reservoir / flood control / hydro-electric scheme, reaching Bratislava in record time. After a comfortable night in a youth hostel, the next day saw me cycling past patriotic statues in the towns and pole wells in the fields, reminders of life during recent Soviet times.
616 km / 385 miles, 11 days, with Lewis
The carefree groups of young cyclists that I shared the Danube cycle path with, gave way to horrendous traffic as I approached Budapest, but local cyclists Susanna and Andrew kindly guided me along safe routes into the city. However central Budapest was enjoying a car-free day, and I managed to test-ride the extraordinary 'Stringbike' (its pedalling action feels like just like an Oval EGGring!). Budapest has some beautiful buildings and its thermal baths provide the perfect way for a weary cyclist to soothe his aching limbs!
My friend Lewis joined me in Budapest to cycle the last leg of my journey to Istanbul. We enjoyed the generous hospitality of Anna, Adam and their delightful little daugthers Emma and Lily, before cycling round the northern edge of Lake Balaton, Hungary's favourite resort, followed by gentle hills and rolling countryside to the city of Pecs. Here we stayed with Servas hosts Zita, Bence and András and witnessed the local harvest festival, where listening to the city orchestra playing Barber's 'Adagio for Strings' in the magnificent surroundings of the main square was a truly moving experience.
We left Hungary along some delightful minor roads next to the Danube, and we shared them with horses and carts, other bicycles and a homemade car!
588 km / 368 miles, 9 days, with Lewis
I just had to visit Sremska Mitrovica because that was where my Mum and Dad fell in love whilst on an international workcamp in 1948 (I arrived 2 years later!). The station was one of the few places which hadn't altered much since then. In Belgrade, we stayed with Manie, who visited us in Wales as a teenager many years ago, her husband Igor and their children Sofia and Oliver. They prepared some delicious local foods for us and it was interesting to be able to discuss some of the issues surrounding the break-up of the former Yugoslavia.
The Ðerdap (Iron Gate) is the breathtaking gorge (134 km long) through which the Danube cuts through the Carpathian mountains. We spent 2 days cycling along the Serbian side, looking across to Romania, and every corner exposed yet another spectacular view. We camped precariously on a footpath high above the river.
3 km / 2 miles, 1 hour, with Lewis
The Croatian border loops across a Serbian road at one point, forcing us to negotiate 2 border crossings in less than an hour - first from Serbia into Croatia, and then from Croatia back into Serbia. The border guards forbade us from taking any photos.
229 km / 143 miles, 3 days, with Lewis
We crossed the Iron Gate dam into Romania. The south-western part of the country reminded me of Africa, the people making the most of their meagre lots in similar fashions. Most of the shelves in a large supermaket in Drobeta-Turnu Severin were empty. But it was lovely to cycle along roads with as many horses and carts as there were cars.
495 km / 309 miles, 7 days, with Lewis
We finally said goodbye to the Danube at the Orjahovo ferry crossing into Bulgaria. Rusty Cyrillic road signs provided an interesting challenge as we navigated our route south. We managed to make ourselves understood in village shops and bars, despite Bulgarians nodding their heads for 'no' and shaking them for 'yes'!
Frequent water spouts mean that safe drinking water is easy to find in this part of the World, but we were suprised to find this remote rustic bar in the middle of nowhere. We crossed the Balkan mountains at the Izvor Pass - an exhilarating, but strenuous, 45 km of some really wonderful mountain scenery. And Lewis managed to get across despite feeling weak from a violent tummy bug.
348 km / 218 miles, 6 days, with Lewis
We passed into Turkey through the intimidating border post at Lesovo - fortunately we'd been warned that we'd have to pay for our visas with British ten pound notes. The weather turned stormy and wild dogs bothered us so, wimps that we are, we spent the first 2 nights in hotels. Fortunately Turkish people are very friendly, Turkish towns are full of interest and Turkish food is delicious! But it took us a few days to get used to the periodic wailing from the minarets of village mosques.
Storms, steep hills and a tummy bug made the last 4 days tough ones for me. We saw the Black Sea at Kiyikoy, where the Imam allowed me to sleep in the mosque for an hour, but the town itself was disappointing. We approached Istanbul on a feast day and cattle were being ritually slaughtered in every village we passed through.
We approached Istanbul along muddy tracks, stopping frequently to remove clay from our tyres, and finally risked our lives for the last 30 km on busy roads with heavy traffic and crazy drivers. I celebrated my arrival with an invigorating Turkish bath, my masseur scubbing away 3 months of cycletouring grime and leaving me cleaner than I can ever remember.
Di flew in to meet me in Istanbul and we enjoyed a few days sightseeing together before returning home across Europe by train.
© Di + Chris Bell