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Jof's World Tour: Turkish Delight

Trip miles so far 5,269

By Jon Newey

Having made it all the way across Europe from the Wild Atlantic Coast to the Black Sea I decide to rest for a couple of days in Constanta. One morning I take Tigger for a spin to see Istria, the ruins of a Roman city 60Km to the north, recommended to me by the two Polish bikers that I met previously at Muddy Camp. The ruins are slightly remote, far out in the Romanian countryside. As I ride along I can see wheat-fields on all sides spreading to the horizon, thousands and thousands of acres. Occasionally I see a combine-harvester working its way across a small patch. They’ll need an army of harvesters to harvest this lot. There are huge grain silos by the roadside every now and then and trucks full of grain lumbering about like huge bees round a hive.

Istria is interesting. Most of the ruins are only knee-high but there are some parts that are more substantial. The city was first built by the Greeks, then rebuilt a couple of times by the Romans, so there are recycled bits of stone with incongruous carvings built into the ruins here and there. The place reminds me of Vinderlander on Hadrian’s Wall in the UK, a fact that brings home to me how big and uniquely homogenous the Roman Empire was 2,000 years ago. A hoopoe visits me as I sit and sketch (thanks for the identification work Chris/Pete!)

Back in Constanta I stroll down to the beach. I’m not really a beach person. I’m keeping my pale skin covered up with long sleeves and long trousers and my sun hat firmly on my head to cover the bald patch. My biker boots complete the ‘not-beach-ready’ image. The beach is full of sunbathers, volleyball players, beach-parties and school parties. It is Romania’s only beach and is very popular in the hot weather. Looking out to sea I can see a long line of ships on the horizon, heading in and out of the Bosphorus at Istanbul. I stop at a pavement café for an evening meal of pasta to make a change from the all-pizza diet….

Next morning it’s time to move on. The buffet breakfast is good. I pack Tigger, fiddle with the sat-nav and we’re off. Today we’re going to cross the border into Bulgaria. The first part of the day is spent on the motorway heading west towards Bucharest. As we get near to the city Garmin tries to take me onto a bypass that hasn’t yet been completed. That’s the second time Garmin has done that to me in Romania. It takes a while of listening to "When possible, make a U-turn" repeated in my headset before Garmin finally relents and takes me where I need to go on roads that are manifestly real. Before long we have turned south, Bucharest is behind us, and not long afterwards we’re approaching the border.

The border between Bulgaria and Romania lies along the middle of the River Danube. Both countries are part of the EU but neither is part of the Schengen area, so the border here is the full monty, a proper paperwork and customs workout. The border formalities all happen on the Bulgarian side of the river after I’ve crossed the majestic Danube Bridge. The border control area is pretty chaotic. Tigger’s temperature gauge reads 37.5 degrees, there’s no shade and I’m in my full biker gear. None-the-less, after an hour of waiting I’m waved through, sweating, passport stamped in/out, vehicle registration checked and hey-presto I’m in Bulgaria.

Tonight’s destination is an interesting one, a significant biker landmark: I’m going to the Motocamp Bulgaria site at Idilevo. Motocamp is a well-known base for European adventure bikers. Idilevo is a tiny village and the Motocamp is just about the only activity there. At the gate Ivo lets me in and directs me to park Tigger in amongst the other bikes already there. Tigger is tucked in next to a BMW GS1250 with UK plates on it. The GS belongs to David who is from Grantown-on-Spey. We greet each other a bit like Stanley and Livingston meeting in the African jungle. David is on his way north to Romania having already made his way here through Montenegro, Albania and Kosovo. I’m heading in the opposite direction so we swap stories for a while and I hand David my leftover Romanian Leus. The wad of notes adds up to about £3.52. Don’t spend it all at once….

The live-wire at the camp this evening is Violetta, better known on the Interweb as “Holy-Moto”. She’s a force of nature to be sure. She has just completed a celebrated round the world trip riding on her Harley Fat-boy, whom she calls Boris [UK readers can insert their own jokes here….]. Violetta’s home is the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, and she’s just ridden here from Athens, a 2-day ride, apparently, having shipped Boris by airfreight to Athens from Toronto. My ears prick up at that – Toronto, eh? - and I get what info I can from her about her Toronto-based shipping agents. It’s difficult to get a word in edgeways, though, because she’s a popular girl and is constantly engaged in five conversations at once in five different languages. And then suddenly she’s gone, off to a press interview, a book launch and who knows what else*.

I pitch my tent, the only ‘adventurer’ brave enough to do so – the rest of them opt for beds in the dorm - and then head up to the bar. There’s an honesty tab and there’s lasagne for dinner. A German biker called Andreas arrives on his V-Strom 1000 and he’s full of stories and laughs. “Let me tell you about the time I broke my shoulder in a crash in Albania…” He’s on his way home from a tour of Turkey, Georgia and Armenia. He’s a couple of years older than me but he’s an old hand and as tough as old boots. David and I share more stories over a few beers. We both want to pay a visit to the Buzludzha monument which is about an hour’s ride away from here so we decide to ride there together in the morning.

It rains in the night but by 10am the warmth of the morning sun has dried my tent so I get it all packed away and David and I set off for Buzludzha. The monument sits on top of a mountain at around 1,400m. The road up to it is a series of twisty hairpins with a road surface that gets gradually worse and worse until we’re standing on the foot-pegs weaving our way through the obstacles as the road climbs higher. And then we’re at the top.

The Buzludzha monument looms over us in all its brutalist concrete glory. It was built to commemorate the first meeting of the Bulgarian communist party and when completed it was filled with dramatic mosaics depicting scenes from Bulgarian folklore (Google it, it’s interesting). It was finished in 1981. The communist regime fell in 1990. Since then Buzludzha has fallen into dereliction. The roof is gone, the mosaics are gone and what’s left of the building is covered in graffiti. Apparently there is now a plan to restore it but I can’t see that happening. As far as I can tell there’s no appetite now in Bulgaria for celebrating anything about the communist era. David and I agree that it's a wee bit more dramatic than the hut on the top of Ben Nevis....

A couple of Czech bikers arrive looking hard as nails, on their way home from a week or two in Georgia. David and I saddle up and scramble/ride our way back down to the main road. From here David is heading north and I’m heading south so we say our goodbyes and promise to meet up again back in Scotland. For me the road leads south to Plovdiv which is a couple of hours away.

The Bulgarian countryside is quite different from the countryside in Romania. The small towns here are a bit downbeat – Bulgaria’s population has dropped from 9million to 6million since joining the EU and the effect on small villages is apparent - but the towns are not as shoddy as the small towns in Romania. In Bulgaria they do look like people care about them. The Bulgarian countryside looks like people care about it too. There are no piles of rusty steel or fly-tipped concrete. Instead, there are trees and rose-bushes and pleasant roadside café stops.

Before long I’m in Plovdiv at the front door of my ABnB. My host, Radostina, spots me from her balcony and comes out to greet me. There’s a self-contained studio apartment for me and a locked, gated courtyard for Tigger. Perfect. What’s even better is that the apartment is on a quiet cobbled street just five minutes walk from the old town centre. Plovdiv is a terrific city. I take the opportunity of a free walking tour guided by Pavel (free but donations are expected, of course).

Pavel takes a group of us through the current town centre, shows us where the Roman stadium is, mostly buried but partly exposed under the main shopping street. He takes us through the Kaballa, once a low-rent shanty town but now a high-rent area of craft shops, bistros and pavement cafes. He takes us to the ‘old town’ where the streets are lined with

pretentious villas in 18th century Bulgarian Revivalist architectural styles. Finally, he takes us to the Roman theatre which was apparently only found and excavated after a man started digging a hole in his back garden in which to bury his wife. Plovdiv has 6,000 years of continuous occupation, so Pavel has to talk fast to get it all out in a 2-hour tour!

The only other Brit on Pavel’s tour is a young girl – mid 20’s - from Kent called Leanne. She’s backpacking eastern Europe by train and bus and has just endured a 9-hour train ride from Bucharest. We compare our styles of travel and chat about the pros and cons. I have the advantage of being able to go where I please, following random signs to castles and monasteries whenever I see fit, but Leanne has the advantage of a wider selection of accommodation because unlike me she doesn’t have to take Tigger’s needs into account.

I thoroughly enjoy my time in Plovdiv. The city has a relaxed ‘chilled’ vibe that I didn’t quite find in Romania. There are hipsters and backpackers. There’s a Hikers Hostel. There are no stray dogs. If you haven’t been you should go.

All good things must come to an end, though, and after a couple of relaxed days in Plovdiv I’m moving on again. This time I’m heading for the border with Turkey. For me this is the big one. EU-based bikers take this border crossing in their stride, but Brexit has ensured that for me it is going to be a real test of endurance. Things start well with a motorway dash across the east of Bulgaria in perfect sunny weather. Temperatures start to climb as I approach the border but I’m ready for it, wearing the minimum amount of clothing under my biker gear and paying close attention to any patches of shade I can get into.

Stamping me out of Bulgaria is straightforward, just a cursory check on my passport and vehicle registration docs. Then there’s a ‘duty free’ area where I use the ATM to get some Turkish cash (I opt for a 100 Lira withdrawal and only later realise that this is less than £3.50). The problems start as I approach the Turkish side of things. Bikers based in the EU all have Turkey included on their standard ‘green card’ insurance policies, but my post-Brexit insurance policy doesn’t include Turkey so I need to buy additional insurance here at the border. I’m directed to the UMAT insurance counter. I’m the only person there and within five minutes I’ve paid 27 euros for a statutory minimum 3-month insurance certificate. I paid in Euros because they would only accept cash and my 100 Turkish Lira didn’t cut it. I’ve been told that if you buy the same insurance at the Greece/Turkey border they charge you ten times as much.

The problems start when I have to take my freshly-printed insurance documents to the police control point at the next counter, to get them double-checked and registered on the police computer system. At this counter there’s a huge throng of impatient people and the throng moves forward only very, very slowly. It takes two hours before I get to the front, then five minutes to get my papers approved. Some poor souls get to the front only to be told that they need to go away and come back and re-join the throng at the back! Luckily that doesn’t happen to me. So, three hours after I leave Bulgaria Tigger and I ride free into Turkey, the 14th country of this tour so far.

Our destination today is the Turkish town of Corlu, a couple of hours away. There’s nothing in Corlu that I want to see, it is just a convenient stopping place where I have found an ABnB with secure parking. In fact it is very secure. The apartment is in a condominium on a walled, gated site with a security guard at the entrance. I think Tigger will be OK here. The apartment is on the second floor and it is really nice. So nice that I stay in all evening, only popping out to buy some food to cook for myself. On a bookshelf I find a copy of Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ in English. What were the chances? It makes good bedtime reading. I must get myself a copy when I get home.

I have a great ride planned for the next day. I load Tigger and we give a cheery wave to the security guard as we leave. On the advice of other bikers at Motocamp I’m avoiding Istanbul because it is too busy and complicated and no fun for bikers, apparently. So we’re heading south, across the sea of Marmara towards the ancient town of Assos. Initially the route takes us onto some wide motorway stretches. The road is a bit boring to ride but it helps to munch a few uninteresting miles and the service stations are new and spotless and worth the toll fee on their own. Around noon we turn off onto the coast road that runs down the Gallipoli peninsula towards the ferry port at Kilidulbahir. The final stretch of road hugs the coast and snakes around the headlands, occasionally cutting through in long tunnels. The ferry is waiting when we arrive, we pay our 45 Lira fee (just over £1) and ride straight on. The stretch of water we’re about to cross is the Dardanelles Strait, one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. Every ship that goes through the Bosphorus on its way to or from the Black Sea has to come through here.

A Turkish biker pulls up beside me on the ferry. He’s loaded up with camping gear so I ask him where he’s going. He speaks no English, so a long, slow conversation ensues with both of us using Google Translate. He offers to buy me tea. His bike is unfamiliar to me. He says it is a Bajaj Dominator 400 but he wants to trade it for an Africa Twin. He’s a machine operator form Istanbul, he says, on a two-week tour. He’s never been out of Turkey and he asks me if it is easy to travel in other countries. I tell him yes, it is and that he should try it. The crossing takes 20 minutes and when the ferry docks in Canakkale we bump fists and go our separate ways. It is simple, brief exchanges like this that can make solo travel such a rich and rewarding experience.

From Canakkale Tigger and I have more motorways to take us further south towards the Edremit Gulf. Turning off the motorway as we near our destination we are immediately thrown onto a switchback mountain road made of broken lumpy tarmac. It leads us through the countryside, through some narrow streets in a maze-like village, and then down, down, down towards the sea. The views are spectacular but I dare not look at them because the road requires my full attention. At the bottom we turn onto the coast road which meanders past beaches, hotels and cafes by the dozen.

The hotel I have booked is at the ‘economic’ end of the spectrum, but I am greeted warmly by the owner, Ahmet, and am given my own little cabin with my own bathroom and my own veranda where Tigger can park right outside. I plan to be here for two days and it will do just fine. Dinner is available in the next-door restaurant, beer can be bought in the market next door to that and breakfast is included in the price of the room. Ahmet tells me he is actually a civil engineer, but the recession in Turkey just now means he can’t find work so the holiday business is a new venture for him. I feel for him. Turkey’s economy is quite bad just now. Inflation is running at 40% and the value of the Turkish Lira is in freefall. I’m aware of the impact. I used an ATM to get more cash on the way here and the huge wad of Lira notes in my pocket is worth hardly anything compared to Euros or Pounds. Apparently the average salary in Turkey equates to just £2,900 per annum right now. Tourist Dollars are king here.

And now I pause. Over the past few days I have been mulling over my plan for the following few weeks. Today I have made a momentous decision about the direction of the trip. Sorry to disappoint, but I’ve decided that I’m not going any further east than here. Turkey is a vast country. It is hot and it is complex. It would be another 1,000 miles from here to the border with Georgia and if I do that then I would have to do another 1,000 miles to get back again. With temperatures rising every day as we move into July, I simply don’t have the fight left in me for that. It might be a different story if this was a one-way trip, but I have to go there and back again, and that would be tough. So, after a couple of days here in Assos I will turn Tigger’s front wheel westwards and northwards and head back towards countries that I understand better, and where the weather is a little cooler and more bearable. From here it is a simple day’s ride up to the border with Greece, so that’s where I’ll head next.

Before that, though, I need to make the most of my time in the Assos region. There are two main attractions for me here. The ancient ruins of Assos itself are just along the road and I’m only a short distance from the ruins of ancient Troy. I head for Troy first, Taking Tigger for another baggage-less day-trip. The ruins of Troy are a big tourist attraction. There’s a museum, a guided walkway and display boards in multiple languages. I pay 200 Lira to get in through a modern turnstile. I was sort-of hoping they would hide me inside a horse and drag me inside – I think they are missing a trick there! The ruins have been excavated for a century or more and most of the good stuff is now in a museum in Berlin, apparently. There were nine different cities built one on top of another. There is history and there are legends. The stories of Odysseus, Heracles, Aeneas, Helen and Paris all resound here in the epics of Homer and Virgil (the Aeneid was compulsory reading in Latin classes at my school back in the day – I wonder if it still is).

From Troy I buzz back to Assos. Here the ruins are perched high up on a hillside with panoramic views from the Acropolis at the top. I sit under an olive tree to sketch the Temple of Athena. Most of the good stuff from here is in the Louvre in Paris, apparently. In Assos village (modern-day Berhamkale) I stop in a café for my first proper Turkish coffee. I like my coffee thick and strong. I think I have reached coffee Nirvana here. Finally I take Tigger on a twisty coast road back to my little cabin.

Tomorrow I’ll be up early, ready to head back into the Euro-zone, ready for a 280Km ride, a border crossing and another new language and alphabet. Bring it on Greece! Let’s see what you’ve got!

*You can follow Violetta’s exploits at

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