BORDERING CULTURES

It is not the first time we have been amazed at how an arbitrary border between nations changes daily habits of life. Bulgaria was for 500 years part of the Ottoman Empire, and the Turkish influence is of course still strong. Many villages in the south-east corner are still Muslim and strongly Turkish in culture – our bit of Turkish language has been useful in this region. But others seem to resent Turkish customs intruding on the ancient and rich Bulgarian culture.

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Orthodox church beside a mosque.

Even so there were so many small things that we found different within a few ks of the border crossings (plural as we went through a tiny corner of Greece between Turkey and Bulgaria).

Friendliness
Turkish people are super friendly and sociable. Bulgarians are much more cautious, perhaps because of their political history. Many rarely smile or laugh and often come across as a bit grim. This isn’t helped by the fact that they shake their head when agreeing – which is very confusing for us. But when you get to know them they are warm, helpful and interested in visitors to their country.

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Friendliness is always on the menu in Turkey.

We do miss the wonderful Turkish tradition of sharing endless cups of çay (Tea)

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Shepherds in Turkey called to us daily to share tea with them.

Roads
Bulgarian roads tend to be in much worse condition. The lack of a road verge on main roads worried us, especially as truck drivers are just as impatient. Turkish main roads are wide and smooth, with often little traffic. Perhaps too much is invested in roads there rather than, say, in education.

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The Bulgarian Greek border, where the road verge ended.

Women
The first restaurant we went to in Bulgaria amazed us as it was full of women and families. We had become used to other customers always being 95 or 100 percent male. And no headscarves in sight. A few days later, in some rural villages in the southeast the headscarves and long gowns were again evident.

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Many women in southern Bulgaria wear head scarves.

Coffee and tea
It is really weird that within a few kilometres everyone stops drinking tea. Instead coffee, including Lavazza coffee, appears on the shelves of even the smallest village shop and the menus of every tiny eating place. At the first town we stopped at in Bulgaria we had the best latte we have had for months. It is now hard to find black tea, although herbal tea is everywhere.

Eating and drinking
Meals are similar so far, but there are a lot more choices of salads in Bulgaria, and good fruit is easy to buy, cheap and delicious. This would be partly due to it being later in Spring with more foods in season.

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First restaurant in Bulgaria, great salads and beer.

Bread
Immediately we missed the huge baskets of free, tasty (white) bread supplied with all meals in Turkey. In Bulgaria you pay for your bread by the slice, and very often it has been quite stale – something no self-respecting Turk would countenance. On the other hand it is easier to get good heavy wholemeal bread here.

Alcohol
Immediately across the border alcohol is available everywhere, and people (men) seem to drink beer like the Turkish drink tea. A bit like Australia??

Churches and Mosques
Bulgarians are 80% Orthodox Christians. Simple but beautiful small churches are dotted around the countryside instead of the mosques we have become accustomed to.

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Icons in an Orthodox chapel.

Nevertheless some villages in the southeast only have mosques, whilst others proudly show their mosque and church side by side.

The painting of icons is a highly valued Bulgarian art genre and many churches, whilst austere on the outside, are richly decorated with paintings inside.

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Fresco paintings Rila Monastery

The light
The light in Bulgaria is softer and more diffuse. It is like being in a Turner or French Impressionist painting.

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Gentle light over Trigrad, Bulgaria.

Turkish sunlight was much clearer and more direct, like Australia.

Horses and donkeys
Immediately we crossed the border we came across donkey carts rather than the small Turkish ponies.

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Turkish poneys were important on farms

However further into the countryside horses reappeared, but were now strongly built, handsome animals that wouldn’t be out of place in a show ring.

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Horses everywhere in Bulgaria.

Toilets
We really miss the bum wash we have become used to since leaving Australia. Varying from the super automated button control to hoses or buckets, they certainly save on paper usage. All gone at the Bulgarian border, and we are back to toilets just like at home.

Prices
Bulgaria is so cheap and food and accommodation excellent quality. About 30 percent cheaper than Turkey.

And the winner is…
We love them both! And appreciate how resilient regional cultures are, and how strongly people defend and create their own heritage and customs.

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CYCLING TURKEY – CENTRAL ANATOLIA

We left Kapadokya to head for the Black Sea but never made it. A change of priorities and plans made us decide to spend time on the Anatolian plateau and then head for the Bulgarian border.

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imageAndy working out which way to go!

And what a great decision it turned out to be! We already thought Turks were friendly but this area would win any mateship contest hands down.

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imageFriendliness is the normal in Turkey.

It took three days to get to Ankara, the first two of which were winding through tiny villages which rarely saw bike tourers.

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imageVillages every 20km.

We were stopped and given homemade lemon Turkish delight and cups of çay (Tea)

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imageSheperds like to share tea.

Shepherds called us into their camp to give us çay and spicy sour cherry juice (And I married off all of my sisters to them, including you Sue. Our little bit of language goes a long way!)

And Ankara was made really special by our wonderful Warm Showers hosts Bama and Deniz. Two very talented and principled young people, both with PHDs in IT engineering, who will go far (and are good mountain bikers as well).

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Ankara is a bit of a dull city – made the capital in 1923 it has grown too fast and with little planning to have character. But it has a great old quarter and good universities.

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imageNew in amongst the old in Ankara.

We headed north from there for a couple of days, again on tiny roads through lovely villages, snow capped peaks all around, to watch Bama and Deniz compete in a National MTB orienteering competition.

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imageArmed Police at MTB event!

It was lots of fun, especially as we were invited back to spend the night with them and their friends at a mountain house nearby.

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imageDinner with the MTBO crew.

The next couple of days we followed an amazing back route on our Pocket Earth app which led us along rivers and valleys, up mountains and along ridges, till we eventually caught a ferry across the Marmara Sea to just west of central Istanbul. We met lots of interesting people and ate lots of great food on the way.

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imageTea at the mosque, we made their day!

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imageFood is everywhere.

From the port we kept going west, leaving beautiful Istanbul behind.
Battling Istanbul traffic in the late afternoon was awful. After about 20k we stopped outside a cafe to plan where to sleep. We clearly looked as ragged as we felt because a waiter came out and said a customer wanted to buy us çay. Tahsin was a 35 year old builder from Trabzon on the Black Sea, and had a nephew with him who spoke good English. We learned about his up and coming wedding and approved of the photos of his bride (chosen by his mother – an arranged marriage). He was thoroughly modern and informed but also very committed to his culture and traditions. Anyway he insisted on buying us dinner and we found a really lovely room in the hotel next door. Bliss!

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imageSometimes we were overtaken.

It took another couple of days to reach the border. We were expecting a boring ride but it was a really interesting and different part of Turkey. We camped the first night in a picnic area where the couple managing it insisted on giving us soup and salad as well as lots of tea.

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imageEdirne Mosque.

The two towns we stayed at, Kirklareli and Edirne, were both very interesting and attractive, and we had the best possible Warm Showers hosts (Selçuk and Ede in Kirklareli and the whole mob from Trakia Bicycle Shop in Edirne).

Trakya Bikeshop Gang

imageTrakya Bikeshop Gang.

Turkey is friendly, colourful place particularly with the loud electioneering and joyful music constantly in the background.

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imageElectioneering in full swing.

And then we were in Greece, sad to leave all the friends we made in Turkey. (And less than two hours later were in Bulgaria, but that is another story).

Capadocia

At sunrise we watch a man ploughing his hillside field slowly and laboriously with a horse-drawn hand plough. Above his head are floating close to 100 hot air balloons filled with tourists from all over the world. And all around is one of the most unusual landscapes imaginable, straight out of a Disneyland fairy tale except it is real and ancient.

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Working the fields.


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Such are the contrasts of Kapadokya (Capadoccia) on the high plateau in the middle of Turkey. Just as it’s landscape is layered (volcanic tuff weathering at different rates to form wierd and graphic shapes), socially it has a very recent and in part still existing ancient farming lifestyle overlaid but not buried by an enthusiastic, somewhat tattered and battered tourism infrastructure. Somehow it all works to make an extraordinary place.

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Latest farming equipment.

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Living in a cone!

It is a monument to human endeavour. For over a thousand years people have been digging out dwellings in the cliffs and rock formations (think Coober Pedy but on a huge scale and much prettier).

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Weird formations.

There are churches and houses, granaries and wineries, olive oil presses and toilets all underground. One place we visited, Kaymakli, had 5000 rooms in 8 floors, joined by subterranean passages and ventilated by shafts.  Some areas were permanent villages, others monasteries and hermit dwellings, and others retreated to in times of war or persecution.

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Cave Church

Most were begun by Christians (largely Greeks) who were all sent to Greece in the population exchanges of the early 1920s. There are churches everywhere, many featuring the Maltese cross rather than the more usual Christian cross used today.

The landscape is so unusual it takes a while to get over the feeling that you are in a theme park. We are here in a glorious time with honey scented flowers everywhere. Watching over the region is a 4000m volcano, permanently covered in thick snow and contrasting with the arid rocky land. This and another nearby volcano were the source of the tuff millions of years ago.

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Pigeon Valley, so called due to numerous cotes.

Between the rocks farmers eke out a living growing grape vines and vegetables. Many have turned to tourism to make a living but there are still hundreds of tiny fields tucked into available corners. Starting from the 18th century farmers kept pigeons (with pigeon cotes dug out of the rock) as a source of rich fertiliser for the poor soil.  Some bee hives were also dug into the rock faces.
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Every village has a different character, and all are full of character. We cycled on some tiny back roads and tracks along the valleys away from tourists where workshops, potato storage and other farming implements were all stored in underground dug outs.

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Tunnel along the valley floor.

Mediterranean Blues

The blue-est sea you have ever seen. Even when you swim in it your skin looks blue, and not just from the ice-cold water. Turkey’s western Mediterranean coast is simply beautiful, as long as you bypass the few nightmarish concrete resort towns beloved by British and other Europeans.
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We had sensational warm weather and clear blue skies, which made the frequent views of snowy mountains even more magical. The hills were killers but the downhill runs were glorious and the rolling coast-hugging bits about as close to heaven as you could get.
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In a few of the big valleys there are more glasshouses than we have ever seen anywhere. Hectares and hectares, completely filling the valleys, looking like thick ice from a distance. Turkey produces most of its own food and is a major exporter of veges and fruit, and this is where it happens. Frustratingly it is near impossible to buy decent fruit and vegetables in shops. People grow their own or buy from the neighbour and distribution systems either don’t exist or are dysfunctional.
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Suddenly there are other bike tourers on the road, from Germany, France and Holland primarily. Some have come from Iran which has to be on a future itinerary as everyone raves about it.

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In Antalya we had our first successful connection with a ‘Warm Showers’ host. Levent Akdogan and his older brother Bülent have separate apartments in a lovely apartment block, and with their family and friends ensured we had a wonderful two days. Warm Shower hosts, like couch surfing but for cycle tourers, are not meant to provide more than a bed. But the Akdogan’s could not do enough for us, from sharing lovely meals to taking us on guided tours of Antalya. It is a pleasantly modern city with an old Roman heart and an 15k long beach.

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We also met a lovely young woman called Candan, a law student and a warm and bubbly personality.
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A highlight was our first experience of a Hamam or turkish bath, which has been a part of Turkish tradition since Roman times. The Hamam itself is a hot rock bench on which you lie to sweat profusely. This is followed by a strong scrub and soapy massage (I also had a coffee-grounds massage as an extra), then a soapy wash and hair wash by the masseur. (As in Japan men and women are separated but unlike Japan where it is compulsory to be naked, bather bottoms are required here). This is followed or preceded by a steam sauna and cold jacuzzi and shower. It costs about $20 for the basic works. The scrub and massage were very nice but I cringed at all the dead skin that was sloughed off!
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The other more organised remains of humans was represented at the Antalya Museum. The museum was excellent, with a superbly presented range of ancient marble sculptures showing the development of styles through Hellenist, Lycian and Roman eras. The beauty of ancient drapery looking more like silk than marble was to be marvelled at. The number of excellent statues on display awesome.
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Friends, Food and lots of Views

It is always dangerous to stop at a bicycle shop: you never know what might happen. We were heading south through Fethiye intent on getting o the Lycian coast to camp when we saw Likia2Teker (Lycian 2 wheels) bike shop. Not only did we get needed parts, a nifty saddle bag each and some advice from Aykut Demir, the owner, about back roads to take, but we also signed up to a local three day riding event starting the next day.

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Day 1 group enjoyed the pleasure's of spring

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Green Valley. There was plenty of chat time on these rides

And it was great fun.  The first day about 25 of us followed back roads and some dirt tracks to Yesilvadi (Green Valley), a pretty river valley in the hills north of town. Lunch of bread, olives, cheeses and salads was at a magical outdoor restaurant on a bend in the river. (41k)

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Lots of great food was always not far away

Day 2 was a steep dirt road climb through native pine forests to Yesilümülü (place of green grapes); a beautiful area still dominated by snow capped peaks even though the day was sunny. Lunch was equally good; pide and salad this time. The downhill run on good seal was pretty awesome. (44k)

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Lots of hills day 2

Day 3 was a very spectacular coastal ride south to the abandoned former Greek village of Karaköy (black village). It would have been a sizeable village pre 1923 (when Greek residents of Turkey were sent back to Greece, and vice versa). However it has been thoroughly raided for useful building materials and is crumbling away. Two former Greek churches still stand.
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Laurie and I left the group after a huge lunch of grilled chicken and salads, as we were continuing south.

The very best thing about the three days was the friends we made. About half the group were Turkish from as far away as Istanbul and Ankara, and the others were British expats retired and living in or near Fethiye. And some others, such as Manfred, a German who fell in love and married a Turkish woman 20 years ago.  Lots of laughs, attempts at understanding each other’s languages, Ilker’s great guitar playing and singing, and of course shared meals made for a very social event.

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Group on day three

Faralya to Patara

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Faralya to Patara 58km and 2000mts climbing.

Well what a fantastic day of riding! We started with an hour of steep climbing up a small sealed road fron Faralya to Kirme where we stopped for a cup of apple tea. It was then a couple more hours of climbing with a bit of walking on a steep dirt track up the mountainside. The views in every direction were extraordinary. It was amazing looking back down the valleys with craggy rocks and trees in every direction. The road we had just ridden twisting from side to side, a huge snowy peak with graceful paragliders launching, massive gorges dropping down to a bright blue sea, cypress forests hiding tiny little cottages and stone buildings.
We stopped for lunch at a small house with a deck looking out over a vast view of sea and peninsulas to the south. The nice lady made us fried breads with cheese and spinach, salty yogurt drink, her olives, tomatoes and cucumber. Contented, we rolled down stopping frequently to ogle the amazing views. The little road continued down a picturesque valley of wheat fields , olive groves and the warm sun and wind beat on our backs. We cut through an area that was full of plastic hot houses growing mostly tomatoes and beans. We stopped for the evening in Patara, camping outside the camel bar.

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Spring in Turkey

Ahh – spring in the Northern Hemisphere. With all of her adolescent temperamentalism, she is still a beautiful thing. Every hour the fig trees have brighter leaves and bigger fruit. The wildflowers – we counted eight different species in one square metre – are more exuberant every day, with the crimson poppies scattered amongst the yellows and blues like bursts of fireworks. It only takes one day of blissful lazy warmth for one to forgive the cruel headwinds she hurls at us regularly, with or without rain and hail.

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Dilek Peninsula

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Assos

The Aegean Sea is as blue as the postcards show. It is a strange thing to hear on the ABC news that migrants are drowning just a few miles from us in their attempt to get to the safety of Greece. Nothing but concern for them here – no mention of the word illegal…

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Akbük

Our experiences over the past three weeks since leaving Istanbul have been wonderful:

THE PEOPLE

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A lot of cultures pride themselves on being friendly but the Turks take it another step – maybe to do with being Muslim? Examples include:

Waking up one freezing morning to the lady from a nearby, very poor farmhouse making a campfire for us outside our tent to keep us warm

Being invited in by shopkeepers for tea and a chat (even with not much language in common)

Being invited to dinner with the family by the hotel owner – no payment accepted

Gifts of food!

Not accepting payment for letting us camp in restaurant back yards in rural areas.
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One thing that’s hard to get used to is being stared at a lot, especially by the men sitting in the tea houses in every village.
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Goatherds and shepherds are still an important part of Turkish life.. On country roads there are many more herds of animals than vehicles. Usually around 20 to 30 animals are taken roadside grazing by a man (no women) who seems to know each one intimately and have complete command of them. They group together and wait for the command to cross the road for example.

THE LANDSCAPE

Wild and spectacular rather than soft and pretty in this part of western Turkey. Villages are often attractive, very old with cobblestone streets and crumbling stone houses, but big towns tend to be pretty ugly – although a lot better than other parts of Asia.
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It is pretty cool to see the eastern islands of Greece just a big swim away!  The coastline is hilly, dropping into a clear, dark blue sea (or dark grey on cloudy days). The landscape is rocky and undulating, with lots of olive groves.

FAVOURITE PLACES

An 800m ascent over 11k on a rough track with our laden bikes hurt, but finding a green glade to pitch our tent with views over the mountains and sea to Greece wasn’t a bad reward. A clear (freezing) mountain stream enabled us to wash and cook in luxury. (Dilek Peninsula)

Bergama, where we stayed in a Pansiyon (B&B) that was a converted very old Ottoman house.
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From our pillow we could see the sun rise over the ancient Acropolis. Breakfast was seriously fit for a sultan – almond cake, omelette, olives, four types of cheese, homemade jams…

Taking the Google Maps walk option from Bergama (the ancient Pergamom) to Ephesus. Up and up the small road went, became dirt, then even narrower. Shepherds on the mountainside clearly thought we were mad. So did we when we finally got to the top of a huge climb to see our (now very rough) track going down down down, then up up up into the distance… We found a village where we could buy bread and tomatoes, and a pretty, sheltered field to camp in and had a perfect evening. Did we say the views were amazing?