I’ve not been blogging as much about the walking this time. It seems uninteresting to me, as if I’ve said it all before. I wake up, I cross land on foot, I sleep. I’ve described all this in many different ways, in my first journey blog, in my subsequent book. Stride, trudge, stomp, plod. There are a limited number of ways to describe a repetitive motion.
And yet, it’s a major part of this journey. I’m not just crossing Europe and sharing my experiences, I’m doing it on foot. All the taxing parts of the previous journey are still there, the daily pain and tiredness, the ache of muscles under strain, the difficulty of dropping into deep sleep, the worry about injury. The happiness is there too, that comes of knowing that I’m journeying under my own power, of looking back at my route and seeing how far I’ve come, of feeling my body strengthen, honing my resilience and capability, my steely focus, my ability to always get up after a rest and keep on going, pushing myself ever onwards.
I thought I’d try and condense my walking into the snapshot of a day, give you an overall impression of how life is, mostly talking about now, in the transition between winter and spring.
Mostly I’m camping, mostly I wake up in a tent, face squashed against pillow that has been carefully positioned on top of scrunched fleece and pushed against the rucksack that I’ve brought into the tent end, giving me a support to rest my head against, stop everything falling off the head of my inflatable sleeping mat. My sleeping bag is carefully tucked away from my face to stop damp edges brushing against my face, wet from the condensation my breath created overnight.
It’s still cold at nights, not the coldness of December/January where every movement required consideration of my body temperature and safety but the kind of cold that is freshening and bracing. There’s frost on the inside and outside of my tent but I can sit barefoot for a few precious minutes in the dreamy moments of beginning movement.
I generally sit up in bed and eat a banana, take a few sips of water. Over winter the banana would be semi frozen, the water full of ice, but now they’re both merely unpleasantly chilled. The banana is good immediate energy, I’ll have a proper breakfast in a couple of hours. It’s somewhere between 7 and 8am.
I pack the tent away slowly, taking off the outer layer and shaking off the frost crystals as much as I can, hanging it in a tree to drip as the sun hits it. I’ll pack it separately to the tent inner, hopefully remember to spread it out to dry in the sun later when I take a break. Everything has an allocated space in my rucksack, pillow and inner sleeping bag first, then main sleeping bag, then food bag on top. Sleeping mat, bivvy bag and waterproof are in the back pocket. Tent slots into one outside pocket, water bottle into the other. I’ve still got my winter sleeping kit, that would keep me alive (but not deeply sleeping) in temperatures down to minus 18. Very soon I’m going to post home my thick sleeping bag and mat, exchange them for my lighter weight 3 season alternatives, there will be much more space in my bag, it will weigh less too and I’m excited for that to happen.
I stretched a little as I woke up, lying on my back and flopping my knees from side to side, pushing my pelvis up into the air and twisting my hips to loosen out my back. Once the tent is packed away and before I lace my boots tightly I stretch some more, holding each position to a count of 20, repeating each one a couple of times.
Rucksack heaved on, first up on my knee and then swung onto my back. The last thing I do before I walk away is to take a photograph of the flattened grass, the dry leaves where all else is wet, the melted patch of snow, the mark remaining to show where I spent a night. I usually say thank you as I leave, thank you for a peaceful night, thank you for holding me in safety, thank you for letting me make this place my bed, I’m not sure but it feels nice. I wouldn’t say thank you to a bedroom, there’s nothing alive in there, no trees or plants whose presence I invaded.
I tried to do this journey with paper maps but I’ve had to give up and rely on my GPS. It’s OK, perhaps doesn’t show everything but most mapping will never be as clear and intensive as UK OS maps; I appreciate the British history of footpath regulation. I don’t tend to try tracks on the off chance, they may lead somewhere useful or I may find myself fighting through close growing trees or across freshly ploughed fields, wasting hours of time and energy. I’m not walking in touristic places, there are no footpaths or trails. So I resort to road, a lot, the small country roads that are sometimes just cracked and pitted tarmac or pressed earth, a car every 20 minutes.
Few handfuls of nuts as I walk along. My ideal situation is to have camped within an hours walk of a village. I’m never much further than that anyway, villages appear pretty regularly here, every 10km or so. In all three countries I’ve walked through so far there are no houses outside villages, back in the UK there are houses everywhere, scattered throughout the countryside, same with pubs. Here it’s village surrounded by agriculture or forest, no isolated houses.
It’s the same in Bulgaria as in Romania, usually one shop and one bar per village, sometimes the both combined, sometimes the settlement is big enough for two or three shops, maybe even with clothes hanging on one wall as well as the food for sale.
However empty the streets are, I usually find a crowd of men in the bar. It’s always faintly intimidating to walk in there, to be stared at both blatantly and subtly. There’s a darkness to the room, clothing is usually black, stubble abounds, people are shabby. I’m not in rich places, nobody dresses for socialising, nobody does their hair. These are bars where the pensioners spend a half day, gossiping and teasing the friends they’ve spent their entire lives seeing, where the younger unemployed guys hang out, pretending they have something to do, where the men home from work abroad go and catch up, where the working men go for an hour break. People come and go, groups hunch together at small tables, cigarette smoke fills the air, a television sings folk songs or drones the rolling news cycle.
I drink a coffee, eat a packet of salty crisps. If I’ve found the right secluded seat I’ll charge my phone, even take my boots off and wiggle my toes under the table.
Sometimes there’s conversation, as much as I can manage, people always want to know what I’m doing there but it depends how curious they are as to whether they actually ask me or just stare when I’m not looking. Maybe I’ll call the crisps breakfast, sneak a tangerine out of my bag to go with it, or I’ll buy a packaged croissant too. That plus the nuts and fruit will see me through until lunchtime.
I’ll look in the shop, see what variations of new food might be in there. I’m trying to keep less and less food in my rucksack, getting it down to about 2 meals at a time. It’s nice to buy something in each village I pass, gives me a good chance for some conversation, something unexpected to happen, practice my language acquisition. Just a couple of carrots maybe, if I’m lucky enough to find a shop that sells fresh veg, or a packet of nuts to top up the constant mix I have going. A fresh yoghurt.
Walk again until around midday. Try and find a nice quiet place with something I can lean back against, the wall of an empty house, a bus shelter, a tree. Out of the wind so I don’t get cold too quickly. Put on an extra layer as soon as I stop walking to conserve body heat, maybe a hat too. Take off boots.
Over the winter I’d try and eat about 1pm, then would have to make camp or be in my tent by 4.30pm as darkness fell. Now I can stretch the day longer, make space for two breaks, one early lunch and one later in the afternoon with the luxury of an hour or two more walking time before sunset.
Lunch could consist of many things – tuna and oats, cheese on crackers, salami, bread, fresh tomatoes, cucumber, carrots, a tin of meat and potatoes, a tin of beans and sausages, the occasional avocado. In Ukraine, before it got cold, I would make instant mashed potato. In Romania there was zacusca and tocana, both jars of preserved tomatoey vegetables, tocana with added rice. In Bulgaria there are jars of tomato and pepper puree that I can add oats and water into. A single serving of fresh yoghurt that I add a spoonful of jam into. Banana, tangerine, apple. A small sugary thing to finish – maybe Turkish delight or a chocolate bar.
My step counter usually shows that I’ve used between 600 and 900 calories a day; add in the extra weight that I’m carrying on my back, the calories burnt to keep me warm in cold weather, and I aim to eat 3000 calories a day. I don’t usually manage it, but fortunately I have plenty of fat reserves to take up the slack!
Take some time to lie back, stare at the view, maybe send some phone messages. I have a struggle with my use of my phone. It’s essential to me for communication and feeling connected to home and people I love. But it’s too easy to switch off to my immediate location and blank my brain by staring at social media for a while. I’m trying to consciously use it less, to have breaks where I just rest, absorb the stillness of my surroundings.
Not too long though, it’s always time to get walking again, after 45 minutes or an hour. There is always more walking to do. Stretch first though, ease out calves and thighs, twist my torso from side to side, swing my arms.
By this time of the day I’ve usually worked out a rough target for the days end. I don’t want to end up walking into a village as sun sets, or worse, a big town. So I must either pass all the way through or camp before the houses begin. It usually means a strong push to get miles done in the afternoon.
Maybe I’ll see deer, sometimes early in the mornings or late afternoon in remote fields. I like it when I’m walking somewhere and birds flutter away from the track, it means nothing human has passed there for a while. I see hares, not rabbits, bursting from nearby and running away from me. Occasionally I see larger animals but honestly they’re mostly dead in roadside ditches. One day I will see boar, there are plenty of them from here all the way to Spain. There are balkan jackals here, I hear them howling at night. No more wolves held up to me as the dangerous animal, the night terror. No more bear danger. Friends of mine saw bear prints on a Croatian trail I’m planning to walk but here at least, for the next month or so, I’m putting bears out of mind.
Mainly though, it’s just walking. Sometimes, if I stop for a few minutes, to check my phone or look at the route ahead, my feet will be tender for the first few steps. They hurt as I place them to the ground and I step gingerly for a while until the pain reduces. Mostly though it’s good pace, I can keep a good strong stride for an hour at a time. This is when I drink the majority of my water. I aim for minimum 2 litres a day, I carry 1.5 litres. I don’t want to drink too late in the afternoon as it will mean I have to get out of my tent for a wee later. So I gulp an entire litre at about 3 or 4 pm, make sure that I’ve definitely hydrated myself, that I have another 500ml for emergencies, that I won’t go to bed thirsty. I carry a water filter so could take from streams if I needed to, but so far there has always been water enough in the frequent villages.
I watch the sun, see how far I have before it comes close to the horizon, the danger time when I should start looking for a bed. The sun is beginning to burn me, as I move from February to March. I have bought suncream, apply it twice a day. I’ll still end up with a deep brown face and hands, with a patchy torso and pale white legs. I can’t help it, practically living outside as I do.
I try to camp within 20 minutes of sunset. Looking for a good spot that is secluded and flat. If I push on and camp as it gets dark, it means I’m more tired, that I make bad, rushed decisions that are more likely to get me seen. I’m less likely to give in and go for a hotel, now that the nights are warmer, now that the snow has melted. I had a fear of camping in the snow, in Romania, when it was a metre deep. I just couldn’t imagine how I could put the tent up in those conditions without snow getting everywhere, without getting irreparably cold and wet. So I avoided it, slept in barns, or found beds through Couchsurfing or bnbs in the towns. Now though, that time is ending, and it’s easier to spend 3 or 4 nights camping in a row, without the gradual creep of wet kit leading to discomfort.
Tent up, inside, boots off in awning, insulated trousers folded alongside them. It’s warm enough at night now that I can sit for a while, the heat of walking circulating in my blood and giving me the leeway to sit unprotected for a while, rub my legs, rather than encasing them in the sausage wrapping of my sleeping bag, restricting them to thighs together and no more than a gentle bend at the knee.
I eat, in the deepening twilight. Something from the selection I listed earlier. Not the same meal as lunchtime though, something different. I write my diary, I check my phone to see how many steps it reports. Over the snowy winter, a normal day was 12-13 miles. Now it’s creeping up as my days lengthen, 14-15 miles is normal. Soon, as I drop my heavier kit and streamline for summer, I will aim for 15-18 miles a day. Five or six days in a row, then a day off.
It’s not always like that though, things happen, sometimes I have low energy, sometimes I sleep badly, sometimes I get into interesting conversation, sometimes completely unexpected things happen. I don’t pressure myself to keep to targets, to walk any kind of speed. At least not in the immediate sense, though the urge is always there, to pick myself off the ground again, to push on, to keep moving, just a couple more miles, just another hour.
Socks off, bedsocks on. I keep a pair of pink striped, fluffy mohair socks tucked inside my sleeping bag liner, hand-knitted, given to me by an old lady I cared for a few years ago. She was a crotchety old cow who tended to make her carer’s lives a misery but still, it was a thoughtful gift, and here I am still using them, remembering her occasionally.
I sleep in my clothes, it’s been too cold to remove them, and too much weight to carry others just for sleeping. I have one entire set of spare clothes, and I like to keep them clean and dry in my bag for emergencies, the type of falling in a river emergency.
Then, on my day off, I will remove the set of stinky clothes, launder them in the hotel sink, squeeze them out, hang them to dry, then place them at the bottom of my rucksack, putting on the fresh set. With three pairs of socks and three pairs of knickers, for regular rotation, so is my simplicity of fashion choices achieved.
Down jacket goes at the bottom of my sleeping bag for extra insulation at the toes. Fleece goes underneath my small travel pillow for extra head height. Glasses go in the tent pocket. So does my phone if it’s not too cold, otherwise it sleeps in my sleeping bag. Bobble hat on, neck warmer on, gloves on.
Get out of bed for final wee then back inside, quick. Silk liner, inner down bag, outer down bag, bivvy bag. The layers are wriggled and wrestled until they all line up to my satisfaction, tucked around but not touching my face.
Doze. Sometimes it’s easy to sleep, sometimes not. Sometimes my body hurts too much, sometimes I am exhausted. Sometimes I must lie and listen to approaching noises, fearful that I am discovered camping here. Sometimes there are dogs barking. Now, in Bulgaria, I have started to hear jackals howling. Sometimes there is moonlight illuminating my tent and I am kept from sleep. Sometimes my nose is cold. Sometimes the wet sleeping bag brushes against my face.
And so here I am, full circle. A normal day ends.