I look back with great satisfaction on my cycling adventure from Gemert to Istanbul. From April 25 to July 1, I was on the road. Distance wise it was almost a double Sultans Trail. First about 2000 km to get from Gemert via Prague to Vienna. From there to Istanbul was another 2000 km. A journey full of fascinating contradictions.
Religion – atheism
Although I grew up in a Catholic environment in Brabant – including baptism and communion – I was deregistered from the Catholic Church at a certain point. I believe in atheism and humanism. This immediately yields the first contradiction during my journey: as an atheist I visited many churches, cathedrals, mosques and synagogues. During the Sultans Trail you go from Roman Catholic and Protestant Christian via Orthodox Christian to Islam. I find it fascinating and even astonishing to notice that the major religions were and sometimes still are so important and all-determining for so many people. And that they left so many traces. That starts with the many hundreds of statues and crosses along the route. But of course you can’t miss the big places of worship. I am often impressed by the enormous buildings that have been erected for religions in the past. There is a pleasant silence, a nice contrast to the bustle of the city. Because silence is a beautiful sound, my wife once thought. I certainly have respect for the people who still believe in a god. But I can also be very surprised about – even annoyed by – the fact that so much money has been spent on those same buildings. Sometimes a new house of worship had to be bigger, higher or more beautiful than that of a fellow bishop. With – especially in the Christian buildings – even more gold and other bling-bling. That bothers me, because the money could also have been spent on basic necessities of life for the common people. The (former?) wealth of the church versus the poverty among the people, also such a contradiction. Or the divergent religious views that even led to wars.
Seriousness – humor
It could make you feel gloomy if, on such a long journey, you only pay attention to serious, historical or current conflicts in the religious or political field. Fortunately, there were also many light-hearted moments. On my blog istanbulfiets.wordpress.com I occasionally posted collected ‘Smile moments’. There were many. For example, in addition to Jewish and Christian cemeteries, I saw a real cemetery for pets and even a final resting place for hubcaps. While doing that, I even began to see a large pile of logs as a graveyard. In the same row fit a shelf above a breakfast table in a hostel. There were about six old toasters with the accompanying text: ‘In loving memory of those toasters that gave their lives for your breakfast’. Brilliant humour.
Another original monument that made me laugh out loud was in a small Austrian village. The translation of the sign inscription to the Einzelsockenmahnmal reads something like: “Today, show some respect with us for the garment that is most trampled underfoot. Stand still for a minute and remember all the singles who lead a lonely and sad existence in the sock drawer.” Hundreds of single socks hung on clotheslines and rotary dryers. Complete with a laurel wreath of pine branches and even a washing machine. Dry humor surrounding a phenomenon that everyone knows. Delicious!
Together – alone
The Sock Monument is a bridge to the social aspect of the Sultans Trail. It struck me that I met very few cyclists. And – as I experienced it – my solo tour was really a solo tour. By that I mean that I was mostly alone. Because I don’t speak a Slavic language and many local people don’t speak English, German, French or Spanish, it was usually not possible to have a nice chat. Communication was often limited to asking about a supermarket, ordering something in a store or trying to arrange a time to enter the room reserved via Booking. I did miss that social contact with the local population. I have therefore – more than during my bike/running trip to Santiago de Compostela in 2017 – been active on social media and kept in touch with the home front by mail/telephone/WhatsApp. However, those times when there was contact, even with very limited language, were worth gold.
One hot day I was taking a break on a sandy path. A van pulled into the side road and came out moments later. The van stopped, the driver got out, greeted me with “Assalamu alaikum”, handed me a cold bottle of Ayran – a kind of buttermilk – and got back into his car with a greeting. Leaving me stunned. Wow! Elsewhere, a resident spontaneously gave me two apricots. And again another day a car stopped on the other side of the road. The driver inquired about my destination, showed his enormous respect when I mentioned ‘Istanbul’ and spontaneously gave me a bar of chocolate. And when this car was gone, a couple came out of their driveway onto the street with the one-word phrase “Rotterdam” – gesturing to themselves – in an effort to make contact. They had clearly been to or lived in this city, so they felt a bond with that stranger on the bicycle who had pronounced the word Amsterdam. Nice!
Inside – outside
As I saw and/or visited more and more old large buildings over the course of the Trail, I realized that with historical buildings it is the same as with people: it is mainly about the inside, but it is the outside that you see first . Sometimes you leave it at that, sometimes yes go in and you are totally surprised or overwhelmed. In Budapest I happened to pass by the second largest synagogue in the world, which seats 3000 people. I looked up something about it over a cup of coffee and decided to visit it. And even the inside of the building I thought was kind of the outside. You only hear the Jewish story when the guide starts talking. And that in turn evoked memories of Yad Vashem in Israel and of Auschwitz. The inscription Emlékezzünk (= let us remember) on a marble slab calls for the Holocaust not to be forgotten. It makes you quiet. But Jewish people also find comfort in humor. When someone asked the guide whether a rabbi is allowed to work on the Sabbath, he replied dryly: “That’s not work, that’s service. Don’t try to understand Jewish people, it’s impossible.” Moments like that made my journey shine.
Climbing and descending
The contrast ascent and descent is of a completely different nature, but should not be missed in this text. It is a daily occurrence on many routes. Every time I was amazed that you lose speed so quickly uphill. If I was going down a smooth asphalt road at 40 km/h (or more) and I saw a new rise coming, I was often convinced that I would be able to conquer the ‘new bump’ for quite a while without pedaling. Wrong! In no time I was almost silent again. It was a sport to plan the shifting in such a way that I could immediately continue uphill in a low gear. If you have the wrong gears, you have to get off. I like those challenges and noticed that I was getting better and better at thinking ahead. I enjoy that. After all, you have to take pleasure in something…
You could work out many other contrasts around such a two-month trip. Living in the present versus living in the past. Smooth asphalt versus bumpy gravel or porous concrete. Ordinary people versus celebrities and bobos. The enormous bustle of Istanbul versus the wonderful silence of the Hungarian pusztas. Gushing sweat in a blue sky versus condensation on the inside of your poncho in rainy weather. Large hotel beds in chic rooms or an air mattress with sleeping bag in your tractor tent. The wealth of business people in Belgrade and the poverty of Bulgarian Roma who drive past dumpsters in a horse-drawn carriage to get whatever is of any value to them.
I definitely found ‘contradictions’ to be one of the fascinating aspects of a trip like the Sultans Trail. Well go on than, one more: enjoying the Great Big Nothing. I liked not being informed for a while about all current affairs, about all events in the world, about all the tiresome reports in the media about social problems that are (or may not be) important, but which sometimes are overwhelming. How wonderful to hardly get any of that for ten long weeks, and instead only to enjoy all the nature and culture between Gemert and Istanbul.