The next morning JP told me we would be climbing several 450 meter hills over the next three days. 'I thought the coast would be more coasty,' I thought, as panic and dread set in.
When I opened the email that confirmed that I would spend the following academic year split between Bulgaria and Romania, thanks to a Fulbright research grant, I assumed that alone to be the big adventure I craved in my life. But that’s the thing about craving adventure, it’s never satiated.
Three months into living in Bulgaria I shocked even myself when the thought began tumbling around in my head to take a bike ride along a significant portion of the Black Sea coast. The small peanut of an idea slowly snowballed over time as I worked up the courage to map a route.
I spent most of my research time reading about and building digital maps of two Greek colonies situated on the Black Sea coast that are bound together by an ancient alliance: Apollonia Pontica (modern day Sozopol, Bulgaria) and Istros (modern day Histria, Romania). Between these two lie several other Greek colonies worthy of visiting; among them are Tomis, today known as Constanta, and the city I would reside in during my time in Romania.
Throughout the abnormally cold winter months living in Sofia, (coldest winter in 120 years, thank you very much), I knew I had to develop a plan for the upcoming spring when I would move away from my Bulgarian friends to Romania. Planning my move had the added benefit of keeping the darkness of the winter doldrums at bay. I looked up where to buy a bike, checked out the roads that were closest to the coast and didn’t dead end at some point, and watched inspirational sport movies on Netflix. I was set.
Within a week of arriving in Constanta, I had bought a bike and rode it home. My first ride home included a slight detour to the sea in order to hit those arbitrary first seven kilometers that I needed to start off my training. I trained for the next two months straight, slowly working my way up to the 70 kilometers I figured I would need to do per day in order to finish the trek in six days, and meet my friend JP. JP was spending his summers digging at an archaeology site in Deva, Romania, but had also spent a few months biking from some random European city to Deva previously.
This year I convinced him to join me, but he decided that he wanted to experience more of the Black Sea and start his journey from Istanbul. We would meet halfway in Sozopol and bike together the 360 kilometers back to Constanta.
Off to a rough start
It took some planning to get both me and the bike on a bus headed down the Black Sea coast, but with some help from my Romanian friends, we managed to get me there. It took two buses to get to Burgas, and when I arrived, I figured I had several hours left until I needed to meet JP at our designated spot, so I decided to bike the 35 kilometers as a warm up.
I did not plan on the two thunderstorms that hit me with no protection. In fact, I was so muddy and frustrated that I decided to catch a bus that could take me the last five kilometers to Sozopol which means I didn’t even manage to make it to 35 kilometers on my first (fake) day!
I reached the meeting point 40 minutes late and walked around the small town in order to find some sort of shelter from the rain, when a woman shouted at me and asked if I wanted a hostel. I did not want a hostel. I wanted a hotel. With a jacuzzi. But I didn’t have time to respond because she then asked if I was looking for a man with a bike.
“Yes!” I exclaimed, thinking that it really couldn’t be JP. She turned around and opened the door to a hostel where JP was standing. “I guess hostel it is!” I thought, more relieved about finding my biking partner than concerned about the jacuzzi.
I showered to wash all the mud and discomfort I felt away, ready to start the adventure fresh, headed north rather than any further south.
Working through the initial challenges
The next morning JP told me we would be climbing several 450 meter hills over the next three days. “I thought the coast would be more coasty,” I thought, as panic and dread set in. He then asked me, “What’s your goal with all this?”
I surprised myself with the answer, because I needed to do research along the way. I needed to gather GPS data and visit all the archaeology museums, but instead of all the reasonable answers I told him, “I want to push myself further than I think I can go. I want to do something hard that right now I don’t think I can do.” He said, “Okay,” and we set off.
The first two days were difficult. It rained multiple times, my tires stopped moving due to mud accumulation, and we didn’t hit 70 kilometers on either day which means we were already behind. By day two I was walking my bike up the first 450 meter hill, cursing loudly. We only made it 35 kilometers far the day before. We had set up our hammocks at the top of the first hill. It rained on us during the night and we had to quickly move all our things into the tent that we had set up “just in case.”
Finishing on a high
Day three, however, things started to look up. JP told me, “We’re going to make it to Varna today.” We both knew Varna had to be at least 90 kilometers away, so I laughed at him. My mind had already come up with several other options of getting back home, since we weren’t going to make it in the six days we had given ourselves, and the seventh day, I had to be in Brasov for a Fulbright conference.
Day three, though, started with a downhill. I had watched all those inspirational documentaries on Netflix before this trip, but one woman’s story stood out to me more than any other. She is the fastest woman to bike around the world, and she participated in an event where competitors bike across the United States in two to three weeks. She said in this documentary something to the effect of, “You know why we go uphill? We know the downhill is on the other side!” And one cannot fully comprehend the rush that statement describes unless you have flown down a hill yourself. It’s exhilarating.
Starting with the downhill provided me with enough adrenaline to make it up the next 400 meter hill that day. And the one after that. All the way until we finished the 90 kilometers to Varna. That was the point I reached my goal. The day I did something I didn’t think I could do, and I did it with ease.
The next three days were massively challenging and we ended the trip with a 100 kilometer day to get home in time for me to take a train to Brasov, with JP biking on half full tubes, since his tires were about to burst, and through 60-70 km/h winds. But I knew we could do that, because we had already done the impossible. I had already pushed my body past the point that I thought it could go. And it was glorious.
Author - Kate Mower
Kate is a PhD student that can’t get enough of the Balkans. Her research examines the identity of ancient peoples along the Black Sea coast.