Vienna to Istanbul – September, 1985
“Someday, let’s ride from Shannon, Ireland to Istanbul,” I said to Sally on some previous bike trip through Europe. She liked the idea. “Wouldn’t it be great to experience the subtle day-to-day changes as we go? What countries would we pass through?” “Well, Ireland, England, France, maybe Belgium or Holland, Germany, and Austria…then I’m not sure.” How long would that take?” “I don’t know—at least a couple of months.” “Oh.” The shortest _expression can mean so much. We realized the difficulties—our time constraints and future commitments. So we would eventually have to do it in sections, and our curiosity compelled us toward the least known section first—Vienna to Istanbul.
The Planning and Equipment
We decided to take three weeks. This resulted in our averaging about 65 miles per day. We rode everyday, sometimes as little as 30 miles, and other days we went 100 plus. We got visas for Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria without too much trouble. We also got some basic travel brochures and maps from their respective tourist offices. Using various guidebooks, we laid out a basic route to visit the most interesting areas and cities while still advancing toward Istanbul. Actual choices of roads were left flexible since we had no advanced information on their conditions or traffic levels. We slept in hotels and ate in restaurants for dinner. For lunch, we usually bought supplies at grocery stores or from fruit vendors, while breakfast was usually included with the room.
We were warned that the eastern bloc countries have different sized bikes, and they carried no spare parts for our type bikes. This was true. Once, near Bucharest, did we see a local rider on a western bike, a Gitane. So when I gouged my tire riding out of Vienna and had a flat, I bought an extra tire to carry with us.
East European Peoples
We hear about eastern European countries and we think of a monolithic bloc with a homogeneous Slavic population. Rather, the Hungarians, Romanians and Bulgarians are as diverse as any populations in Europe.
The Hungarians, self-described as middle Europeans, are blond, blocky and round faced. They are related to both the Finns and Estonians, two far-flung but related peoples. We met a Finnish girl in Eger, Hungary who confirmed that she was able to communicate a little in the Hungarian language.
The Romanians are dark and very proud to be Latin. They are related to the Italians, going to great lengths to establish cultural ties with the ancient Romans. Their attitudes were Latin. Add to this a system of no incentives and the result is indifferent services throughout the country.
Throughout our trip, but especially in Romania, we encountered bands of Gypsies still living their Nomadic life even without these socialist systems. We always looked for places to hear their spirited music, led by talented Gypsy violin virtuosos. In September, these bands worked as itinerate workers. We always knew when we were hearing a group of Gypsies in the fields because we could hear them. These spirited people are forever noisy—arguing, yelling, cursing, laughing.
Also in Romania, especially in Transylvania and the northwestern districts, the peasants lived, dressed and worked in 19th century ways. They lived at a subsistence level, dressed in traditional costumes and worked with hand tools, donkeys and oxen. It was a fascinating trip through a 100 year time-warp.
The Bulgarians are the stereotypical eastern European Slavs, basically a southern extension of the Russians. They are not only related to the Slavic Russians but truly view them as brothers and saviors; after all, the Russians have expelled both the Turks and the Nazis from Bulgaria in this century. We saw lots of Russian tourists and Russian flags.
Finally, our greatest misconception was the Turks. Sally and I, 16 years before, had traveled through all of Turkey as well as Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria on our way overland to India (not on bikes). We then referred to them as “the terrible Turks,” being wary of their menacing manner, especially toward European women, and their reputation for thievery. Sally’s contingency plans to abandon her riding shorts for long pants proved to be unnecessary. The Turks, at least the European Turks, seemed changed. Even though there was a lot of horn honking, whistling, waving and clinched first salutes, we welcomed it as a spirited departure from the reticence of the eastern bloc peoples. Over the last 16 years, the Turks have become more influenced by the West. Many of the Turks now work in Europe, especially in Germany. In fact, the roads, particularly at the Bulgarian border, were gorged with the turns returning to Europe after their summer vacations. The fundamentalist Islam fervor of Iran seems to have pushed Turkey to look west and, of course, there is the omnipresent western influence of movies, TV and music. In fact, while in Istanbul, we started investigating southern Turkey for a future bike trip.
Language and Communication
In Hungary, they use the Latin alphabet so you can pronounce names and words, but the language was derived totally separately from Latin, and there are absolutely no familiar word stems.
Sally and I were riding along the Danube in the area just northwest of Budapest called the Danube bend. About 25 miles from Budapest, we crossed a bridge to a long, narrow island in the river to seek refuge from the heavy traffic. Here the traffic was nil and we had a great ride to the other end of the island. On the map I thought I saw a bridge so we could get back to the main road, but in reality there was none. Through exclusive use of sign language and pointing at our map, we got directions with little difficulty from four separate people to an obscure, little ferry for pedestrians only. They also took bikes. We were amazed how easily we communicated our needs.
Again in Hungary, in Eger we stayed with a family instead of at a hotel. When we arrived at the apartment, a young neighbor boy spotted us and sought out the 13 year old who lived there. His mother wasn’t home but he showed us the room, understood our needs, took care of them, and explained with no words that his mother was working and would be home at 5 p.m. Sure enough she was.
In Romania, the language is Latin based so that many words are distinguishable. That helped a lot. However, throughout Romania, except for Bucharest, the menus were never written. Also the choices were very limited. On our first night in Romania, in the pretty city of Oradea, we went into a restaurant and asked for the menu. There was no menu. The waiter spoke a little German and Sally asked what was available. He said, “leber.” We didn’t know what we were getting, but it was the specialty of the house since it was the only thing they served. It turned out to be liver. It was okay for me, but Sally is a vegetarian by preference. However, being hungry, she ate it—reluctantly. We determined that we just had to be flexible eaters.
The next night, at a restaurant in Huedin, the scene was reenacted. The waiter said “leber.” Sally slumped down in her chair and said, “No, not leber, anything but leber.” She looked at me and pleaded, “Please, no leber.” The waiter was a resourceful man, so he took us into the kitchen where we pointed out what we wanted. From then on, if we were stumped as to what to have, we just took the waiter to the kitchen and pointed at what we wanted. Sally happily ate lots and lots of potatoes.
Bulgarian is a Slovak language using the eastern alphabet. In the hotels, sometimes English and often German or French were spoken. On the main roads, directions and city names were listed on the signs, secondarily, in the western alphabet. On the back roads, we had no such luck. We were constantly trying to determine if the city name on the road sign was the same as the westernized name on our map.
You must realize that I am talking in relative terms when I say Hungary and Bulgaria are prosperous. When Sally and I arrived in Turkey, we stayed in Edirne. Having spent almost three weeks in eastern bloc countries, we were amazed at the displays in the grocery shops because they looked so copious and fresh.
Hungary is “prosperous.” The state run farming is on a huge scale. The government allows small-scale private plots which are carefully tended and produce beautiful fruits and vegetables. We also were initially impressed with the houses which were the equivalent of French houses. Later, however, we learned the difference in the number of people who live in these houses. In Hungary, there were usually three generations under the roof and sometimes four due to a chronic shortage of housing.
Everyone agreed that the economy of Romania is in a shambles, but the cause of this was disputed. An English speaking Bulgarian we met later thought it was because Romania had taken an independent path and turned to the west for economic help and debt. Others obviously blamed the system itself. Many outsiders blame their demagogic, omnipotent leader, Nicolae Ceausescu.
The Transylvanian countryside was characterized by small, private subsistence farms. The shelves in all the stores were pathetically bare. We had old canned pears and spinach for lunch one day. There was nothing else available. The cities were marginally better. Frequently, we were asked for American cigarettes which are actually used as an alternative form of money by the Romanians to barter for goods and services.
Bulgaria was surprisingly well off. All aspects were superior to Romania and on a par with Hungary. A proud Bulgarian stated that they were now #1 in eastern Europe. He might have been right. This same man was quick to point out to me what he considered the advantages of the socialistic system: (1) the crises are taken out of the economy and (2) there is no unemployment. In Turkey, for all their problems with foreign debt, the free market economy seemed vibrant in comparison.
Before we left, the Hungarian tourist office seemed enthusiastic about biking in their country. The others only said it could be done. A biking friend of mine asked me before we left, “Has anyone ever done that before?” I said I didn’t know. But I was sure some people had done it.
As we passed into Hungary, wondering if we were a novelty there, two bikers waved and passed us going out of Hungary. We needed information, but they passed us too quickly on a downhill for us to hail them. About 30 minutes later, two more bikers were coming at us, and this time we stopped them. So much for being a novelty. They were West Germans and we were able to get good information from them. They informed us that Hungary was a hot bed for European bike touring. They predicted good secondary roads, friendly people, good prices, nice climate, lots of bike tourists, excellent food, hotels and campgrounds. They were right. They also said that they felt that Romania was economically a disaster, and not safe for bikers. This hearsay information was half right. The economy was in trouble, but we never felt threatened either because of traffic or thievery. The hotels and restaurants were generally stark, dirty and over priced.
In Bulgaria, there were modern, though uninspiring tourist hotels available in most cities. We had choices of excellent food and the menu occasionally was in English but always at least in French or German.
We only stayed in Edirne and Istanbul in Turkey where all facilities were good, reasonably priced and available.
The Hungarian roads were excellent. The primary roads, which we occasionally had to use, had fairly heavy traffic so we generally used the secondary road system which was extensive, quiet and good. This is one of the reasons why Hungary is a popular bicycling area for Europeans. We often encountered other bike tourists on these back roads and sometimes rode with them. We met lots of Dutch, West German and East German riders. The roads into and out of Budapest were congested. On our way out of Budapest, we found a bike path, but it was so deteriorated that we chose to ride on the road in spite of the traffic. Hungary is generally flat but there are some hills in the Danube bend area and around Eger.
Things changed radically upon crossing into Romania. The roads were poor. We rode on the main roads since there were either no secondary roads or they were in terrible shape. The traffic was generally light except around the cities. Additionally, the traffic, especially the trucks, sullied our air with low-grade fuel exhaust as it passed. There were times in the cities when we suffered through a combination of black clouds of exhaust and bumpy cobblestones. There were times of exhilaration as we rode winding roads through the Transylvanian mountains sharing the “National Highway” with only horse drawn carts. After we crossed into Romania, we never again saw another bike tourist for the entire trip. Romania is mountainous and we went over a couple passes.
In Bulgaria, everything improved including the roads. The traffic level was higher but we were able to find good secondary roads. As mentioned earlier, the road signs were difficult to decipher but we got by. Fortunately on a day when there were no alternate roads available, it was a national holiday and the traffic (especially the trucks) was light.
When I say Vienna to Istanbul, I actually mean Vienna to Edirne out of Vienna, where we found rideable roads but into Istanbul the traffic was too treacherous. We ended up on a bus to the outskirts of Istanbul.
Expenses and Money Exchange
These are the lands of the controlled economy. Above and beyond everything else, we came away with a greater appreciation of the free market system. Hungary has determined to raise hard western currencies through tourism. Their official money exchange rate is realistic. Therefore, there is no black market and prices are reasonable for food, shelter, and other consumer goods.
In Romania, the official exchange rate was 11 KEU = $1. The black market rate was 50 LEI = $1. So a 550 LEI dinner or hotel was either a cheap $11.000 or an expensive $50.00 depending on how you changed your money. Because of this huge discrepancy, there were checks and systems to force you to change money officially. For example, the banks issue an exchange slip which then must be shown to any hotel which in turn enters the room costs on this slip. The hotel costs can’t exceed the amount the bank has changed. As you can imagine, when you have multiple transactions with different banks and hotels, these slips were a total mess and no border guard would ever be able to decipher them.
We arrived at the Bulgarian border in the afternoon, but the sun set before we rode into Ruse, the nearby border city. The Bulgarians had developed a new system of incentives to lure tourists, but far be it from them to simply exchange money freely and thereby offer good facilities at reasonable prices cutting out the red tape. There was an official rate: 1.30 LEV = $1 and a tourist rate was $1.80 LEV = $1. Then there were the new incentives where, if you prepare your hotels at the border, you received bonus “talons” which were good for food purchased at the hotels. We tried to figure out where we would stay, then prepare the hotel so that we would get meals with these talons. The transaction was complex, my brain was on vacation and the clerk only knew no English, so I got some talons, some tourist rate exchange, some hotel reservations and was totally confused. I think it was a good deal. Underlying this whole scheme was a black market rate of 3 LEV = $1. By and large, the border bonuses resulted in good value for both food and shelter.
At a hotel in Ruse, Bulgaria, the two $20 bills I presented for official exchange were refused as counterfeit. The clerk inspected each bill with a magnifying glass. I’ve never had a bank or shop refuse a banknote before. Either there are a lot more bogus American bills than realized, or this Bulgarian banker was overly diligent. At least in Turkey you go to a bank, get the fair exchange rate, and find the free market prices very reasonable. It just took all the fun out of it.
Government Restrictions and Officials
Originally, we were going to bike through the southern part of Czechoslovakia, but we gave up because of the difficulties in obtaining visas. The closest we came to Czechoslovakia was drinking one of their famous pilsner beers in Estergom, Hungary while watching the sunset over the Danube with Czechoslovakia in the background.
As you would suspect, Hungarian visas were easily obtainable. Romania and Bulgaria made it a little more complicated. At the borders, customs was time consuming (at least two hours), and even though being on bikes, we went right to the front of the line.
In Romania, there was only one product advertised—their leader, Ceausescu. We were able to get the gist of the political, sloganeering. “Ceausescu, leader, Caeusescu, the patriot, Caeusescu, the hero, Caeusescu, the socialist.” In reality, it should have read, Caeusescu, the demagogue.”
Another preconception we have of Eastern Europe is that there are secret police following you around. You can conjure up a great image of Sally and I riding down some highway with some huge secret agent in a trench coat and dark glasses pedaling after us.
This was not the case, but they definitely take their police work more seriously than we do. In a northern town in Romania called Alba Julia, Sally took a photo showing a line of people in front of a bread shop. Granted, there were socio-economic overtones in this photo, but a serious well-starched military officer still surprised us when he apprehended us and confiscated the camera. He spoke no English but figured out that we were staying at the hotel in town, so he led us down the main street toward the hotel with his two machine gun toting subordinates behind us. Initially we were worried, but then we realized that although the officer was serious, his young subordinates were snickering at their superior’s overzealousness. At the hotel, the receptionist acted as the interpreter. Apparently, the officer thought we were taking pictures of him, but we explained that we were photographing the bread shop. He accepted this explanation and left. We then asked the clerk about the incident and she answered, “What problem? There’s no problem. You’re mistaken.” We then went out into the street again but paranoia set in. We thought that the police might search our room, so we went to our room and slipped a match into the door crack so we could tell later if somebody had entered our room. Thank God for old James Bond movies. Nobody broke into our room, but here was a sense of police control and overpowering bureaucracy.
The currency controls, the visas, the border hassles and some strange laws kept us perplexed. For example, we usually wanted to enjoy the outside cafes in Romania but the rules regarding when they were open or closed were impossible. We would finally find seats but then it would close. An hour later, we would walk by and the place would be open but empty. We just took our chances.
The notorious Turkish jails were not in evidence, but a Turk we met in Istanbul informed us that the jails of “the midnight express” do exist.
Finally, in regard to government control, I met a Dutch couple in Istanbul in a van who told me they were going to India. I asked how they could get there and they said they were waiting for their Iranian visa. “Can you get one?” I asked. “I’m not American,” he said. “Europeans can get transit visas through Iran. The European truckers form convoys and drive straight through so we would go with them.” I expressed my amazement, then recalled my geography and asked, “But how do you get through Afghanistan?” He said, “We don’t go through Afghanistan. We take the southern route directly into Pakistan.” Then he elaborated, “Actually, I could get an Afghanistan visa a lot easier than an Iranian visa.” “But there’s a war going on,” I said. “I know,” he said. “They’ll let you in but we’ll go around it.”
We landed in Vienna in a cold rainstorm. The weather generally improved as we went east and we left Istanbul in warm sunshine. Western Europe is generally colder and wetter than Eastern Europe. After reaching Hungary, we usually rode in warm (75-80) sunshine. We got rained on a couple of times, but the weather was comparable to Wisconsin in September.
After we crossed over the Bulgarian range and headed further south, we no longer had to put on sweaters at night. The days were perfect in Turkey in mid-September.
We thought the day-to-day changes we had experienced were subtle. When we crossed over the borders, the differences were dramatic. When we entered Hungary, the farm fields were the first things we noticed. The collective farms are huge. There’s a feeling of relative prosperity. The people are open and proud. A humble Hungarian fruit vendor gave me some pears. When I tried to pay for them, she would not accept payment.
In Romania, we entered the rural northwest. This was like a trip through another century, let alone another country. The economy was a disaster. The people were dark and small. The facilities were poorly run and dirty.
At the Bulgarian border, when I put my foot up on an outside bench to tie my shoe, the guard reprimanded me for dirtying the bench. This was a definite change. The hours we spent at the border dealing with customs were the same. We were surprised by the vibrant economy and excellent facilities of this Slovak people.
The Turks were spirited and more westernized than I had anticipated. Istanbul was the highlight of our trip and the free market economy was much appreciated.
When we left Vienna, we rode past St. Stephen’s Cathedral. This classic Gothic structure symbolized Western Europe. Along with way, the architecture became more eastern and Byzantine. The Turkish Empire, which extended all the way into Hungary in the last century, left behind occasional harbingers of Turkey. As we headed east, a minerette of a former mosque was seen in Eger, Hungary. But later, in Bucharest, Romania, the feeling in the city was again western European.
When we rode into Edirne, in Turkey, we rode to the center of the city where it’s huge central mosque symbolized for us our arrival in the east.
Now it’s on to Ireland.