Overjoyed to have made it! Overlooking the mighty Bosphorus as I write – it was dark when I walked into the city on Tuesday but I plan to take a plunge later to celebrate. Water likely to be a bit parky and polluted but it has to be done!
Europe. Tick. North America. Tick.
Two continents clocked up and what an adventure it’s been. Thanks so much to you all for joining me. Even more blarney than usual these last days but much to report including titans and hobbits, ancient Thrace, Spartacus, faith, family, friendship, show stopping architecture, terrific Turks and, er, Sexiest Foot of the Year 2019…
Day 409 to 412
Call me Bilbo!
I swear the longer this walk goes on the locals get taller and I get shorter. I’ve even started to sprout hobbit-like hair from my nose, ears and toes.
In Serbia I felt positively Lilliputian so towering were its citizens. The Serbs recently won both the men’s and women’s European volleyball championships – volleyball being the ultimate sport for the lanky. The Dutch are officially the world’s tallest people but the Serbs must be hot on their heels.
The Bulgarians are often hulking too, like friendly Ned, a guide at the 3rd century Thracian tombs at Aleksandrovo, where I camped a couple of days ago, after a 18 miler, overlooking the purple hills at dusk.
Ned explained that much of Bulgaria had once been part of ancient Thrace and was where the legendary slave leader, Spartacus, is thought to have been born in 111BC.
No-one is sure though as the Thracians have no written history – everything passed down in songs and stories. But Bulgarians still like to claim Spartacus, who led the first slave revolt against the Romans, as one of their own.
I hiked out of Bulgaria yesterday via a tiny swathe of Greece, and today hope to reach the Turkish border at Edirne, some 20 miles from where I’m now camped in a lovely, leaf strewn park in the Greek village of Ptelea, rain pattering on my tent, some red jackels howling in the distance.
I will miss Bulgaria, a land of clashing contradictions. Only recently some Bulgarian football fans chanted racial abuse at England players during a match in Sofia.
On the plus side, the Bulgarian manager, who tried to deny the vile behaviour, was later forced to resign by the Bulgarian president.
In World War II Bulgaria sided with Hitler but, despite this, famously managed to save and protect almost its entire Jewish population.
Life, especially in villages, can still be a struggle for many and litter is rife but the local people have mostly treated me with huge kindness, some of which I’ll never forget.
And now Istanbul beckons, I can almost smell the Bosphorus, the European leg is nearly over…
Day 413 to 415
Hello Turkey! Two days, two borders.
After a brief foray into Greece – cotton fields, misty hills, red jackels, joyous locals and a camp in a park – I reached the Turkish border.
Dad was on my mind on Remembrance Sunday, as he often is on this day.
Last year at this time, early in my world walk, I’d reached the Arizona mountains and attended a Veterans’ Service, during which the Pastor had asked for a show of hands for different conflicts.
Lots of Korea, Vietnam and Gulf War veterans but, poignantly, not one from World War II.
Dad joined the navy in 1945, aged 18, fresh out of school. Thank you, Dad, and all in the Armed Forces, living and dead, who put their lives on the line for others.
Thinking of my late Mum too, during yesterday’s 27 km hike from Edirne’s Limon Hostel (a snip at £7) to Havsa, as it is her birthday on Nov 13.
Mum was a champion walker, loved to cover miles and miles with her many dogs.
Even when Alzheimer’s took her short term memory, she still would strike out for the fields, getting lost, but her love of walking undimmed. I’ve often felt her with me as I walk the world, a benign talisman. Bless you, Mum.
Recently I had another walking companion. Fresh over the Turkish border, my way lit by an opal, fullish moon, somebody shot out from a fringing hedge, and fell in beside me.
After the initial shock, I saw that he was no more than a kid, late teens, roughly the same as my daughter. This was Vally, an Afghan refugee.
Vally only had a tiny backpack. He was a Hazara, a minority group, who had suffered terribly under the Taliban and ISIS. He hoped to hustle into Greece early tomorrow. He was friendly, upbeat, polite, scared.
All I could do was let him use Koko to charge his phone, give him a little money and food, and then he was off into the night…Good luck and God Speed, Vally.
This quote, seen in a hostel, is for lost family and friends and anyone you care about:
And you can’t help but worry for them, love them, want for them – those who go on down the close, foetid galleries of time and space without you.
Day 416 to 418
Sorry, couldn’t resist, unlikely to win Sexiest Foot of the Year 2019.
Homer wrote in The Odyssey that the time to be most vigilant is at the end of a journey.
He’s probably right. Now I’m near the end of my European leg, roughly 100 miles from Istanbul, I’ve been tiring, taking my eye off the ball.
Indeed, the blister on my wrinkly, troll-like foot, could easily have been avoided, but as I haven’t had any blisters since the first week of the walk over a year ago, I just ignored it. Fool.
But, in the big scheme of things, it’s just a blister, and a very minor one. I’ve been so lucky otherwise with my health, not really any injuries or sickness while on the road.
I know my body is tired now and will be delighted to have an ‘end of continent’ pitstop in Istanbul, where I will try and secure a Russian visa. Koko is flagging too and making a few more creaks and wheezes than usual, in need of an MOT. I’m so grateful to her, bar a few cracked axels and punctures, she’s been magnificent.
Loving Turkey so far. I’m writing this at dawn from my tent by the side of a gas station in Vakilar. Unlike other European countries, where I walked mostly trails and minor roads, I’m now on a main road with a decent hard shoulder. Istanbul is like an alluring, swirly planet in my imagination, its gravity pulling me in. I just want to get there now.
So far small town Turkey has charmed me with its cups of sweet tea; its pomegranates the size of croquet balls; its miniarets, shooting skyward like gorgeous, streamlined rockets; its teeming, chaotic markets; its haunting and frequent calls of the muezzin; its honking, waving, cheerful truckers; its cheap as chips hostels (the Bahar in Babaeski cost a princely 30 Turkish lira, about £4 a night) and the perky owner, Yusur, helped me lug Koko up the stairs; its tasty, soft as clouds bread; its many fake, plyboard police cars with painted policeman and flashing lights (for traffic control); its rich history and its kind, welcoming people.
Ok, cheerio, got a tent to pack up and a blister to lance. Thanks for reading.
Day 418 to 421
What a cracker of a camp spot! Snuck in behind some bushes, overlooking the Sea of Marmara, the heart of Istanbul now 60 km away and a lighthouse flashing in the distance like a Siren temptress.
Didi, Ramazam and the lovely team at Dimama Bakery in Selimpasa let me pitch my tent here after a 19 miler from Camp Karadayi yesterday.
There, I’d met a wonderfully wild bunch of Turks, who, after I’d set up my tent, invited me over for freshly caught sardines, raki and some hearty singing. Cheers Alp, Ahmet and Master Chef!
The traffic has been getting busier as I walk east but mercifully Highway 100 has a huge hard shoulder – and myriad hawkers flogging thirst-slaking melons – so I’ve been able to march happily on, drowning out the thrum of trucks with odd splurges of Springsteen.
Istanbul is about the size of London and as sprawly, its suburbs like the concentric rings on a tree trunk, well spaced on the outskirts but much denser towards the core. Not the most beautiful stretch to hike but the local people have been magnificent.
Take three nights ago when I walked into the suburban town of Corlu. On my map a church was marked, not so common in a largely Muslim country but it looked like a good place to camp/stay. When I rocked up it transpired the church was actually a mosque.
Two locals saw me and took me to a Muslim college hostel next door, which housed theological and technical students.
They introduced me to Ramadam and Farouk, the boss, who, without knowing anything about me other than that I was a scruffy foreigner with a baby buggy, immediately put his hand on my shoulder and said: ‘You are our guest, do not worry, come and eat with us.’ I had a slap up meal in the student canteen and slept that night in a dorm with some jolly Kurdish students.
This type of kindness always astonishes me. I’m not religious but I’ve always been deeply moved when taken in, no questions asked, whether by Christians in Texas or Sikhs in the Punjab and now Muslims in Turkey.
Faith at its most non judgemental, trusting, God is love, best.
The sun is coming up, Istanbul beckons…
Day 422 to Day 424
Istanbul! Constantinople! Byzantium! What a mind popping, stunner of a city: the end of Europe, the start of Asia (or Russia in my case).
Cheers Turkey, or Sherife, as they say here. Your people have been so kind.
And cheers Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, Germany, France, England, Wales and Ireland. Thank you for hosting Koko and I, letting us follow your wild, diverse contours and stay in your fields and farms, gardens, campsites, cafes, barns, hills, houses, hostels and haystacks.
The penultimate day was a 32 km hike to Avilcar, deep in the Istanbul burbs.
Much of it was traffic chocked, oatmeal-hued, but, on a world walk, you have to take whatever the road throws at you. Yet, for all that, I had a wonderful time.
En route I bumped into Gul (meaning smile in Turkish) and what a smile she has. Gul was doing a 4km walk for exercise but ended up accompanying me for 12kms.
Half Turkish, with Bulgarian and Romany blood, she was a fascinating walking companion – the miles flew by.
Later I was joined by Ahmed, a friend of Nur, who had kindly offered to put me up with his family in Avilcar.
Ahmed is a web designer who rarely exercises and after leading me to Nur’s flat, through 10 km of some of the busiest roads of the trip during rush hour, he was toasted. But what a fellow! Despite limping like a wounded penguin, he refused to quit.
The next day, generous, joke cracking Nur, who has run several marathons and used to round up his grandfather’s goats as a child, yomped with me the remaining 35 km to the heart of Istanbul.
What a place to rock up after pilgrimaging across Europe – the bonfires and fishermen lining the Bosphorus (the iconic, ship-peppered stretch of water separating Europe from Asia); the soaring miniarets of the Blue Mosque and ancient, elegant dome of Hagia Sophia; the gossipy hawkers, the wood smoke, the muezzin’s chants and strum of the saz. Stories swirling, history everywhere.
Istanbul! Two continents walked now. Thanks so much for joining me.
A thousand thanks to Ned in Aleksandrovo and Matt, Sky at Aleksandrovo Camping, to Dmitri and all the gang in Ptalea, Greece, to all the jolly Kurds at the Limon Hostel in Edirne, and Vally for inspiration, to Sev and Yusur in Babaeski, to the super team at Valikar Gas Station (great camp spot!), to super generous Ramadan, Farouk, Alp and all at the student quarters in Corlu and to Alp, Master Chef and all the wild campers at Karadayi and lovely Didi and the team at Dimama Bakery for letting me camp at Salimpasa and to Gul for walking with me and Nur and Ahmed for putting me up and hiking those last incredible miles into the heart of Istanbul. And to all at the Antique Hostel, the only hostel to accept Koko!
If I’d stopped everytime I’d been offered a cup of tea in Turkey, I’d still be at the border now! Hospitality is in the blood here. Tasekur Ederim, you amazing Turks!
Christmas not far away now, if anyone can spare a few bob for any of the three fantastic charities I’m walking for, it’s always hugely appreciated.
If you’ve made it this far, many thanks for reading. Until next time, good luck and Keep On Keeping On.