I cycled across Europe to Istanbul – and learned to live in the moment

On this epic slow ride following the Rhine and Danube rivers, our writer ‘turned the pedals and waited for the world to unfold’

I emerged from the belly of the ferry in Rotterdam, blinking like a newborn. I wobbled off on my bicycle with my teenage son, unused to the weight of my panniers – unused to cycling at all, actually – and definitely not fit. My end goal was Istanbul, more than 3,000 miles away, and I wondered if I would ever make it. But I had a cunning plan: I would cycle the flat river valleys of the Rhine and Danube, and by the time I reached the Balkans, I’d have cycled myself into fitness. Or so I hoped.

rotterdam to istanbul cycling route
rotterdam to istanbul cycling route Photograph: PR

Cycling along the Dutch canals, I was filled with anxiety. What if my bicycle broke down in the middle of nowhere? What about the aggressive dogs that roamed the streets of eastern Europe? And the pickpockets? How would I manage the hills away from the valley plains? What if my sit-up-and-beg bike was too heavy? Asher, our Couchsurfing host in Dordrecht on our first night, echoed my fear. “Helen, this is a bicycle to cross town on, not a continent.” My Dutch bike, which I’d affectionately named Gertrude, was rechristened “The Tank”.

But as we continued along the Rhine and Danube, something shifted inside me. The anxiety that had forced me to leave my job – and had been the impetus for this journey – was falling away. I no longer worried about the “might-bes” and tuned into the moment. Along the Rhine, the riverbanks were bursting with wildflowers and the sky was filled with birdsong. I sensed my bird-loving father – ailing back home – with me on the journey. I felt his presence in the gentle two-note call of the cuckoo floating on the air, the bubbling song of the skylark on upland meadows and the comical chimney-top storks’ nests lining Danube villages.

The further south and east we travelled, the more joyful I felt. There was something wonderful about turning the pedals and waiting for the world to unfold. We spun through meadows of ox-eye, viper’s bugloss and, yellow rattle, and poppy-splashed barley fields. We bumped along cobbled streets of rainbow-painted towns. Back in the countryside, a grass snake slithered across our path and a fawn ran out in front of our bikes. We saw an enormous carp rise from the Danube as we ate our butterbrot. The rivers were healing me.

Helen cycling across the border into Bulgaria
Helen cycling across the border into Bulgaria Photograph: Helen Moat

In Vienna, where the march of the Ottoman Empire had been halted, an Austrian friend warned me of the dangers of eastern Europe. “It’s not like here” – words I’d heard the length of the Rhine.

But the further we cycled into the backwaters of eastern Europe, the more kindness we experienced. In Bratislava, a passing cyclist took half an hour out of his day to show us the way. In Hungary, Zita housed us and fed us to bursting point, pouring cherries into our hands as we left. In Serbia, Sashka and her family gave up the top floor of their house for us. In Romania, a smallholder rushed out of his garden to offer us beef tomatoes. In Turkey, we were entertained by a table of mustachioed, tea-drinking farmers. It wasn’t just the rivers and their birdsong that were healing me, it was the kindness of strangers.

The writer’s son at the Black Sea.
The writer’s son at the Black Sea. Photograph: Helen Moat

When we reached the Sea of Marmora in Turkey, I knew we could make it. We had survived the heat of a blistering summer, the hills of the Balkans, broken spokes and mosquito attacks. Then we were there, in the city of golden mosques and wheeling seagulls, where the cries of Bospor, Bospor, Bospor on the ferry landing were drowned out by the call to prayer, echoing around Istanbul’s hills in fugue-like waves.

Istanbul sunset over bosphorus
Istanbul made a glorious final goal. Photograph: Xavier Arnau/Getty Images

As we were waiting for our flight home, a message pinged on my phone: my father was dying. I had felt his presence throughout the journey and now he was leaving us. As his journey was coming to an end, so was mine.

From the plane, as I looked at the curved thread of horizon between sea and sky, I knew somewhere out there, between the greys tinged with colour, birds were taking wing. I felt the pull of the line between the visible and the invisible and I yearned to be travelling with my bike again.

Since then, there have been other slow journeys, but in lockdown I’m connecting more intimately with the earth beneath my feet and the poetry of the sky. I’m learning to be still, to listen carefully to the songs of the birds. These are my father’s gifts.

Helen Moat is author of A Time of Birds (£9.99, Saraband)

Helen Moat

The GuardianTramp

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