“I’m going to Greece,” I told Nicolas over the kitchen table of our hostel in Sofia.
He reacted with less surprise than you might expect from a man whose travelling companion had spent the last month obsessing about finding the most direct way to Istanbul. But then, this was a day when my plans for the next four months had unravelled spectacularly, and I had passed the morning saying increasingly outlandish things like: “I’m going to Uzbekistan” and “Do you think they will sell Crusti Choc Garlic Flavoured Bagel Bites in Kyrgyzstan?”
I decided to go to Greece after, and probably because, my plans for the next four months had unravelled spectacularly when I discovered I couldn’t get an Iranian visa. Iran was our gateway to the Far East – without it we could only get as far as the Caspian Sea. I broke the news to Miranda, who had been looking forward to Iran perhaps above all on this trip; who had no visa issues thanks to her Irish passport; who was in the process of packing a pannier of clothes for the Indian summer; and whose birthday it was. Miranda is a diamond of a human being. I said I thought we had a remote chance of being able to follow the old Spice Route into China instead and she said, gamely: “We’re going to need a new map.”
In the mood for reckless decision-making and with time to spare before I was due to meet Miranda in Istanbul I decided that I didn’t feel like following a long, straight highway for days through Bulgaria into Turkey, and instead that I would detour through Greece to the coast. So I was surprised to find myself almost immediately on a long, straight highway that climbed out of Sofia then fell down over long straight plains. This can’t possibly be legal, I thought, as lorries passed me at 120kph. But I had the whole hard shoulder and, apart from the odd cheery wave or salute from a driver, no one paid me any attention. I had rather got into the spirit of it as I flew down a long descent and the Rila mountains strode out ahead of me when I realised: there’s absolutely no shade on this motorway.
Nicolas and I had cycled in 40 degree heat before, and I was descending now with little effort, and it wasn’t due to be much more than 36 degrees, so why did I feel so peculiar? As it got hotter and the sun beat down the road made small climbs over ridges in the valley and I started to panic: there was nothing on this plain, just motorway, just unsheltered asphalt striding on and on and on to the horizon in a heat shimmer. It was hours before I found a turnoff, by which point I felt dreadful. But there was nothing here: no shops, no petrol stations, just car rental shops and carparks and I started to really seriously think through how I would call an ambulance when I saw a man rolling down clear plastic sheets on a little hut.
I staggered over to him and in an excess of national understatement I didn’t say, help I think I have heatstroke, I said, “gosh it’s hot.” He hesitated before wondering what I wanted. “Large coke,” I managed, fighting waves of nausea. He handed it over and refused to take any money for it. I sat under the air conditioner and, after a while, half aware of movement around me, I realised: this guy had been closing his shop, he was about to go home, he had reopened for me. Maybe I really did look as bad as I felt. I finished the Coke and apologised for holding him up but he didn’t complain, just said: “water?” and pressed bottles of free cold mineral water into my hands.
I went outside and went and lay down in the grass under a tree. It is hard, when you feel ill on your own in a foreign country, not to panic. So I lay in the shade and breathed deeply and poured some water over my head and remembered that I was in a town in Bulgaria, not on the moon, and that if the worst came to the worst there were people everywhere who would help me. Of course, the worst rarely comes to the worst, and soon I felt well enough to scan Google Maps for a hotel. It would be the first time I checked into a hotel on this trip under my own steam, but I thought air con and a staffed reception was a better idea than dragging my bike behind a hedge and trying to sleep there.
I decided to take things easy the next day, following my narrow brush with certain death (only kidding, hi mum and dad! hi Granny!) My route followed the highway for a few more km and then was due to turn east into a valley, which ran into another valley that dropped all the way down to the sea. So I was surprised, when I turned into the valley in the early evening, to discover that the road started climbing. I wild camped in a bower to the side of the road, and the next morning found myself straining against the pedals to carry on. I pulled over and called up the relief map, a misnomer if there ever was one because they have never once given me any relief whatsoever. I looked at the map, then at the little stream babbling away smugly to my right, then back at the map. As it transpired I wasn’t following a valley at all: I was following a river as it climbed to its mountain source, 1200m up.
I spent the next three hours fantasising about being eaten by bears and WhatsApping my supportive friends about how badly I wanted to be eaten by a bear. It was hot, and two months following the stately Rhine and the Danube had not primed my legs for hour after hour of climbing. But, somehow, lunchtime found me summit-ting the mountain next to a sign pointing the way to a ski chalet. Actually, more accurately, lunchtime found me facedown in a bowl of potato wedges with one hand wrapped around an ice cold Bulgarian beer.
The next day I set off downhill, passing hot springs of mineral water that promised to cure – or cause? – various ailments, anticipating a rewarding rumble down into Greece. Alas, a mighty headwind had risen from the Aegean and was channelled through the valley towards me, forcing me to pedal almost has hard to get downhill as I had to get uphill. But Greece was on the horizon and I pushed on, crossing the border in the late afternoon. In a final insult, Bulgaria and Greece had installed a hill between their two border checkpoints. Cycling between the exit control for one country and the entry control for another is some of the most fun you have on a cycle tour because you are inevitably the only person doing it, and you always have the outlying feeling that someone might try and sniper you if you hang around too long, which added a frisson of excitement to this particular climb.
I crossed into Greece near Kato, to the astonishment of the border guards. “Drama is about 50km away,” the passport control officer advised me. “Less than that when I’m around,” I said, portentously, and dipped down into a plain, wildcamping among scrub and listening to shepherds chatter to their flocks.
I am not a beach holiday person, but the lure of the sea woke me early the next morning. I realised that hitting the Aegean, just 70km away, meant I would have crossed a whole continent on my bike – from the Dutch port near Rotterdam to Kavala in Greece. And after a steep climb into a hilltop village the road turned sharp down and I finally, finally had my descent: a full 40km shooting down towards the sea.
But I had another goal to check off before I reached the coast, one more stop before the sea: somewhere on this vast plain in northern Greece was the remains of one of the most important cities of the ancient world, Philipi (spoiler alert: I am writing this from Turkey, where you cannot access Wikipedia, so any and all facts reported here are entirely based on hunches). Its strategic location made it a powerhouse in the early years of the millennium (probably); Paul the apostle visited it in the 1st century, baptising the first European convert to Christianity in the river outside the city walls. Her name was Lydia, and it was to a small guesthouse called Lydia’s that I took myself that afternoon. I thought that the name was a gimmick until I peered out of my bedroom window and noticed that the garden was full of strange bits of rock: the guesthouse adjoined Lydia’s Baptistry, which was itself built on the site where tradition holds that Christianity was introduced to the West.
My decision to ride my unloaded bike around the archaeological site just down the road met with surprisingly little opposition, and I pedalled back to my hotel with my love of old pieces of rock fully sated as the sun started to set. I snuck out onto the balcony to cook pasta on my stove that night and the smoke rose into the air and away over the river and the baptistery. It was a place of remarkable beginnings; but for me, as the sun set the wisps of cloud on fire, it felt like a place of endings – the end of the first part of my trip, and the end of Europe.