When the Spanish cyclists told us earlier about the constant headwind on their way from Istanbul to Sofia, I was hoping for a quick and easy 300 kilometer run from the Turkish border to Istanbul. It became different. We decide to take a minor detour through Greece to avoid the heavy traffic from Bulgaria into Edirne. At the Greek border, we meet a Swiss cyclist on his way home. When we left, it was high noon, the sun was burning and the wind softly blew in our faces. No traffic on this new and wide motorway, and no shadow either. Soft roll the hills up and down the dry country. No wells, all villages are bypassed. We are happy to find at least a gas station with industry food. The border town is more vivid, luckily, and the Turkish border patrol is taking it easy on us. Stamp, we are off the EU now!
An old woman rejects our money when we buy some tomatoes from her shelf. We don't even know yet how to say "Thank you". Just when we spot the first lean minarets, some kids cycle along with us. One of them, Armagan, speaks some English. He and his cousin kindly lead us over ancient stone bridges and cobblestone alleys into the old center of Edirne, and deal with the hotel manager for us. There is a 500 year old caravansary near the bazaar that still emits the old flair, even though it serves as five star hotel nowadays. The first floor of the buildings in the shopping streets is made from wood here and there, and aged over decades.
Sundown, minarets in the sky, a muezzin is singing. Veiled women on the streets. Men greet each other with a little slow bow and the right hand to the heart. We have arrived in the Orient! Not far away the Selimiye mosque is located – a masterpiece of ancient architecture. We can enter after taking off our shoes – luckily no scarf is required for Kathrin. The style of the decorations inside is simply beautiful and many windows make it a bright and light place indeed, compared to the somewhat dark Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia. The floor is covered by a thick carpet. Children play between the worshipers. It feels so peaceful!
It takes us three days and a hundred hills to the outskirts of Istanbul. We get up very early, because by 10 AM the road already melts in the sun, as well as our spirits. Sunflower and wheat fields, shepherds with their flocks, few traffic. Villages here and there with old men sitting in cafes, greeting us friendly. They neither drink nor eat from sunrise until sunset for it is the Ramadan month, and we are happy to get some food anyway. Water we get from the big marble square shaped wells with the little overlapping roof. Up and down leads us the silver band on towards Istanbul. The outskirts of Kirklareli and Saray are big building sites. Dozens of uniform modern apartment blocks are being erected. Uprising economy or another big bubble boom, my head is wondering. One day we find a shady picnic area just after a big hill at lunchtime. Stove out, we cook and eat and sleep till 3PM. Next to us, some guys gather for a little barbecue. What a treat!
60 kilometers cycling through oak and pine forests for a change, yet another 1000 elevation meters in the burning sun. Just on top of a long ascend, a young cyclist stops by, and invites us for lunch at his grannies house in the next village. Erhan is here on summer vacation, and self-selected bicycle training. His granny has a winning smile. She serves us fried peppers and fresh melon from her garden, and spoils Kathrins bicycle Freddy with a bunch of nice flowers.
Exhausted from a long cycling day and without a reasonable hotel available, we have our first beer in Turkey at a gas station outside Cacalta. With that kind of painkiller in the blood, the busy highway to the Marmara coast doesn't bother us anymore. We reach Büyükcecmece by sunset. The Sea, after three months cycling! We have a stroll on the crowded beach promenade with its restaurants and all sort of makeshift shops. The young Turks like this place a lot, and the vibes are very kind. The dress code for the women ranges from western style to fully veiled, right beside each other. And we spoil ourselves with a nargile, the Turkish water pipe tonight.
There is still 50 kilometers to go to the Old town of Istanbul. Partly we can cycle on beautiful beach promenades, partly on busy highways with desolate or non-existing bike tracks through new apartment block districts and industrial areas. Many smelly creeks lead into the sea, and an armada of mighty cargo ships occupies the Bosporus. We decide not to swim.
Late in the afternoon we arrive at the remains of the ancient Theodosian walls. 12 meters hight and 5 meters thick, they were erected in the 5th century to defend the city and the Byzantine empire. The mighty walls survived the heavy artillery of the Ottoman siege in 1432, but not the Byzantine empire. The contrast of thick white limestone layers and thin red brick layers is still magnificent, even after 1500 years.
Just in time for the evening prayer we arrive with our bikes on the Sultan Ahmet Square between the ancient Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. The 3D sound of muezzins singing from minarets around us and the evening light are a great reward for the long journey!