Croatia To Turkey by Bike (Part 1)

Cycling Bay of Kotor by Rhiannon Davies

Last winter, I adopted Turkey (and more specifically Antalya) as my new home. However, not quite ready to brave the summer heat I headed back to the UK for a couple of months for a little reprieve.

I spent two months working at various music festivals across the UK, before the final one located in Pula, northern Croatia. Deciding to take this opportunity to take the scenic route back, I joined my brother and his girlfriend for a 2,000 kilometer stage of their round the world tour. I took my trusty steed on the plane and met them there after my festival work had finished. Together we spent six weeks cycling through Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia and Greece before finally landing on Turkish shores in Dikili via a ferry from the Aegean island of Lesbos.

Cycling across southeastern Europe provided a lot of interesting experiences along with incredibly beautiful scenery, but it’s fair to say that it was Turkey that we were looking forward to the most and which rewarded us with the best stories to regale. It was also here that we felt we had the greatest insights into the nature of a country and its people.

To bike or not to bike

Being a keen cyclist, I had been looking forward to cycling in Turkey for a long time, but I must admit, I was slightly concerned about whether the reality would match up to fantasy. When I told Turkish friends about my plans to cycle-tour in Turkey, most of them thought I was crazy and warned me of the dangers I would face, asking me to reconsider. However, when I spoke to a few cyclists passing through Antalya who had some Turkish pedal-powered miles under their belts, they told me the opposite. Far from the dangers of discourteous drivers and poorly maintained roads, most spoke with shiny eyes of joys of the wide verges and the friendliness with which they were met. It was the latter camp whom I decided to listen to.

This is not to say that cycle-touring in Turkey was without dangers. Dogs were often a problem, being chased by a pack of kangal dogs, protecting their flock of sheep, really tests the legs — it’s amazing how fast you can pedal with adrenaline coursing through you. We learnt quite quickly after a few hairy moments, that “flight” was not the best way to deal with these situations. Instead, we dismounted together, walking slowly, talking to the dogs and threatening to throw an imaginary stone if they still dared to venture too close.

The biggest threat to cyclists is close encounters with the numerous motorized vehicles we are forced to reluctantly share our roads with. Yet, this is not unique to Turkey and I feel more at risk cycling around cities in the UK than I did here. In general, we found that Turks would give us a wide berth and often a little warning beep to let us know they were approaching. This was assisted by the fabled wide verges we been told about by other cycle-tourers. It was true at least on the main, recently surfaced routes. The verges were more than wide enough to give us plenty of space to ride comfortably in, reminiscent of the cycle-paths of Western Europe.

The road surfaces themselves were very good on the main roads, less so on the secondary ones that we usually chose to take. But the lack of traffic travelling at high speeds more than made up for this fact, and so it was these smaller roads, sometimes just dirt tracks that we chose to take. On some routes we wouldn’t see a soul all day, passing through woodlands and past vineyards instead. Consequently when we did bump into someone, their surprise at finding three foreigners (on bikes!) in their homeland quickly gave way to hospitality and offers of tea, food or somewhere to rest.

Cycle-touring, in my opinion is the optimum way to travel if you wish to see a different side to a country, one that most tourists will not see. Admittedly, it is not for everyone. However, it should also not be as daunting a prospect as people think. You need a bicycle of course and a few other essential items, but once you have these, the world really is your oyster. Since buying my bike two years ago, I have cycled in 11 different countries in Europe. In total we spent two weeks cycling the 600 kilometers between Dikili on the Aegean coast to Antalya on the Mediterranean. Not only was it our favorite country to travel in, but it was also by far the cheapest. We spent TL 700 between three of us in 13 days, which is a startlingly low amount, especially considering the fact that we ate one meal out on most days.

Seeing the sights of real Turkey

Too often I find that traditional sightseeing in Turkey can be rather spoiled by vast busloads of other tourists turning up at the same time, clogging roads and walkways. Amplified commentaries in various different languages, along with the constant flash of hundreds of cameras, provide the ambience, creating a less-than-perfect experience. These factors combined with the rising cost of entry to such attractions can be rather off-putting for those prone to frustration and unwilling to shell out for the privilege. As such, on a recent two-week cycle-tour in Turkey, despite visiting the historic sites of both Pergamom and Pamukkale, I didn’t pay to enter either, wishing instead to spend my time (and limited money) on seeing the sights of the real Turkey.

So, what were these sights that we found preferable to exploring the ruins of ancient cities? They were much more modest, without the fanfare of historical importance or demands on our purse strings. We saw red peppers drying in the autumn sun, a 20-strong queue of tractors waiting in line to get their beets weighed, starlings flocking making patterns over the mountains, shepherds tending their sheep, men milking cows and women picking the October harvest of olives, grapes, peppers and eggplants.

What we witnessed more than anything was the kindness of complete strangers to foreigners in their homeland. This is not news, of course. One of the reasons so many foreign people fall in love with this country and choose to relocate their lives here is due to the famed hospitality they receive. However, living in the incredibly touristy center of Antalya, it is an element that is too often diluted by the many touts and hawkers whose livelihoods depend on profiting from foreigners and consequently are a little less generous.

Knowing a bit of the language helped us a lot. We were able to get past just the basics and find out more about the people we met, without having to rely on their English skills, which were rather few and far between in rural areas. However, I don’t think that any of those we met would have been any less friendly or helpful had we not had much more than a “merhaba.” The language of kindness is international, and it’s not hard to figure out what someone holding a glass of tea in your direction might mean.

 

First published in Today’s Zaman – November 27 2012

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