England to Istanbul: Adventure Isn’t Just for Professionals

You don’t need to be a professional to indulge in a spot of adventure travel. Sometimes it’s as simple as deciding you fancy riding a bicycle from England to Istanbul. At least, that’s how I got started back in 2011.

ExplorersWeb covers elite endurance athletes, explorers, adventurers and mountaineers; so there’s no denying my cycle ride pales into insignificance when stacked up against the efforts of the Killian Jornets or Mike Horns of the world. However, if you are ill-prepared enough, you can make even simple “expeditions” significantly more challenging.

One night in the pub, I made the decision to cycle across Europe and confidently assured everyone present that I’d easily be able to do it. The next morning presented me with a hangover and a tough decision: swallow my pride or cycle to Istanbul. I decided on the latter, which presented further problems. It had been about 10 years since I’d ridden a bike and at least 3 years since I’d done any serious exercise.

Buying a bike was easy enough. I walked into a store and asked for the cheapest model that might get me across Europe. I emerged with a simple hybrid without all the bells and whistles. (OK, I admit there was one bell.) I had not made my choice solely based on price. I figured that a simple bicycle would minimize mechanical issues. In a pinch, I could always dump it and buy another cheap bike. I had never even fixed a puncture before, so the last thing I wanted was to be worrying about faulty disc brakes or damaged suspension.

Next, I went about borrowing the other bits of kit I’d need: rack mounts, panniers, a multi-tool, a tent, some cooking equipment and a map of Hungary. Pleased with my haul, I decided to head out more or less straight away. Why waste time and kilometres on training rides if they didn’t take me closer to Istanbul? This was a mistake.

Waiting for the ferry at Dover. I hadn’t thought that a kick-stand might be useful, and my packing could kindly be described as unorthodox. I swear the basketball is essential kit. Photo: Martin Walsh

France was brutal. The campsites where I’d planned to stay were all closed for the winter, and my legs had all the power of microwaved jelly. My first days saw me crawl along the France-Belgium border at a snail’s pace. When I couldn’t find cheap accommodation, I wild camped, waiting until sundown to pitch my tent in farmer’s fields and shivering the night away in all my clothes. I already regretted some of my packing choices. Two sets of clothes were not nearly enough, and three books but no maps (except for Hungary) now seemed a little silly. Still, I soldiered on with my GCSE French and a willingness to get lost repeatedly.

France, of course, had its very Gallic moments. In Charleville-Mezieres, I asked in French for directions and was told, “I don’t speak English,” in perfect English. There were the usual hardships: Somewhere near Nancy, my back-rack detached completely from my bike while doing 25kmph. Approaching Strasbourg, I was chased by three rottweilers and probably suffered a minor heart-attack while escaping.

I rolled into Germany, disheartened and in a sorry state. But things soon picked up. The weather had begun to improve, and finally, my legs had accepted nine hours of exercise as the new normal. My kilometres per day gradually ticked up, admittedly from an embarrassingly low base. Even navigating got easier. As long as I followed the mighty Danube, I knew I’d be heading in the right direction. Along the way, Germans plied me with bratwurst and beer.

Southern Germany is a cyclist’s dream. Photo: Martin Walsh

I passed through Austria, Slovakia and Hungary in beautiful weather. By now, I was flying along. I had learnt the importance of taking on as many calories as my body could handle and had fine-tuned my packing somewhat, ditching my books and filling the space with high-energy snacks.

Feeling rather pleased with myself, I arrived in Serbia, only to be deflated by days of headwinds and rain. It was here that I met my first long-distance cyclist, a German man riding an old Dutch bike, replete with butterfly handlebars and zero gears. As luck would have it, he was heading the same way. More machine than man, he duly put me to shame climbing the steep roads through the Iron Gates of the Danube.

Stopping for a photo near the Iron Gates, a deep gorge on the Danube river. Photo: Martin Walsh

Cycling with company is much easier. I discovered the joys of slipstreaming, tucking in behind another rider to avoid wind resistance. However, it was the mental boost that proved most important. After I had gained some basic fitness, by far the most difficult aspect of my journey had been the solitude, so the camaraderie was very welcome.

In Bulgaria, we left the Danube behind and rode for the Black Sea. En route, we survived the chaos of Worker’s Day, a national holiday that seemed to involve everyone drinking copious quantities of rakia (fruit brandy) and then driving their cars around at high speed. In blazing sunshine, we then crossed into Turkey through the Strandzha Mountains and enjoyed a two-day ride to the edge of Istanbul.

A city of over 15 million, Istanbul is not a great place to cycle into. We weaved through heavy traffic for some 20km before we reached the Golden Horn. Grubby and dishevelled, I was relieved to have finished.

My finish line, in the shadow of the Blue Mosque. Photo: Martin Walsh

It takes under four hours to fly from London to Istanbul. It took me nearly 50 days by bike. But despite my many miscalculations and mistakes, I don’t think I’d change anything about the trip.

I did opt to take the plane back, though.