A Bicycle Is Freedom: Four Days Around Lake Iznik

A Freedom A Bicycle

To me, a bicycle is freedom.

Traveling under your own speed feels completely liberating. Pushing past inclines, breezing downhill, the relentlessness of forward motion, and the physicality of biking instills a meditative repetitiveness. All for the purpose of propelling from A to B.

It was Nacho who dreamed up the bicycle trip. We sat on my balcony one evening, drinking beers, catching our breath from a short run by the Moda seaside, when he confided his plan: a week or less riding around the countryside south of Istanbul, carrying only what we could fit on our backs or our bikes. Wind in our hair, the rolling road underfoot, the freedom to wander from the path.

An irresistible idea.

Nacho Portrait

I was trapped in Turkey already, so I had time. Nacho had the spare bike. With help from our adventurous friends, we tracked out a route around Lake Iznik, a tiny pearl of blue inland from the Sea of Marmara. On one hot July morning, when the stickiness of summer already made the air thick, the two of us and our bicycles hopped on a ferry at Istanbul’s Yenikapi terminal, en route to Yalova.

The city of Yalova is known for its hot springs and commuter community, but we were using it simply as a jumping-off point. The first twelve kilometers were uphill alongside a major roadway; after an embarrassingly short amount of time, I was winded and swearing. The glorious balance of biking, that push-pull, pedal-cruise rhythm, was forgotten as I slowly, painfully, endlessly pedaled through the mountain pass.

Yalova Mountain Pass

But a bicycle is freedom and freedom allows you to divert from the road; this is how we discovered an old abandoned camping ground covered in wildflowers and yellow cherry trees. Like joy-drunk children we scurried around, climbing trees and running through the weeds. I don’t know why the grounds were abandoned, or when; everything we saw had been reclaimed by nature.

Campground Bike Ride

Flowers in the Campground

We took it all as a chance to recharge before the final push and before long we were flying downhill at golden hour, headed full speed towards Orhangazi, the city of mud.

Turkish Countryside

The less said about Orhangazi, the better. In a country full of grim cities, Orhangazi seemed one of the grimmest. The streets were torn up into uneven dirt, its architecture the epitome of generic ugliness. A persistent drizzle turned the ripped-up roads into mud paths and we ended up grumpy and covered in grime. Our hotel had peeling olive-green walls, bleach-stained towels, and a cockroach.

Orhangazi

We left in the morning, quickly.

Farewell, Orhangazi. Hello, freedom.

Nacho Fixes a Bike

We headed east. The rough route on the north shore of Lake Iznik cuts through green orchards and is relatively flat. We only caught brief peeks of the lake through the thick greenery, and spent most of the day singing silly songs and pedaling on.

Orchards in Anatolia

Our midday break was thwarted by Ramazan, the monthlong fast, which meant that the towns we paused in were full of old men sweating and glaring in the center squares and all the restaurants were closed. We bought chocolate bars and water bottles at the (thankfully) open convenience store and hid under trees to eat them, aware constantly of the hungry men who were not thrilled at two foreigners eating in their square. (As the only visible woman, and definitely the only one wearing shorts, I was particularly conspicuous.)

Open Road

Biking is an excellent way to let out frustration, and soon we were on our way again, letting the memories of our subpar lunch slip away. The next destination was the only city our itinerary that non-bicycle riders might ever stop in: the ancient city of Nicea, currently known as Iznik.

Iznik Gates

Located on the easternmost side of its eponymous lake, Iznik is famous for its intricate tiles and Byzantine ruins, and our hotel was charming and devoid of cockroaches. The most notable building in town is the Hagia Sofia– no, not THAT Hagia Sofia, a smaller one– which was turned into a museum at the same time as Istanbul’s famous version, but has since been quietly turned back into a mosque. We’d arrived at peak golden hour, and the ancient structures scattered throughout the city burned in the light and made the streets charming. Iznik lent our trip a cultural relevance, and prevented it from becoming a tour of ugly Turkish cities. As the evening call to prayer sounded and the town broke their fast, we tucked into a real meal among laughing families. Iznik was lovely, in its own quiet way.

Hagia Sofia Iznik

We left Iznik for the south shore of the lake, and finally had a day with the water fully in view—that special blue you find in the water of northwest Turkey, throwing off cooler breezes.

Nacho and Lake Iznik

This was the longest day—we biked nearly 60km—but it was broken up with long rests by the lake, brief naps in the green woods off the main road, and water breaks in sleepy towns. Being near the water always feels invigorating to me, and the constant lake view didn’t disappoint. This was a reward—a long day of blue views.

A Boat On Lake Iznik

Lake Views

Nacho Looks At Lake Iznik

Gemlik, our last city, felt truly like a metropolis, if a neglected one; in typical Turkish fashion, the rather lovely seaside was made almost inaccessible by weird buildings and poor city planning, yet we strolled at sunset anyway. After days of sweaty biking, we’d fallen into an end-of-day rhythm—check into the hotel, shower and change, explore the new city on foot, and devour all the food we could once the sun went down and the fast breaking began.

Sunrise in Anatolia

The next day was our last, and we had to figure out how to get back to Istanbul; upon discovering that a ferry left Bursa directly for our Kadikoy neighborhood at 9:30am, we decided to wake up at 5am and make the last 25-km push at dawn. Our incentive was simple—after days biking through conservative villages, the idea of making it home in time to have a beer with lunch was too beautiful.

Nacho Says Yes

It was a foolish idea in retrospect. We were stressed out and exhausted and the route was hilly; the views were spectacular, but we barely took the time to see them. We chose speed over freedom.  But we made the ferry with twenty minutes to spare and settled our aching muscles into the seabus seats, heading back to Istanbul. Back home. There, we would trade in our bike freedom, the wind in our faces, the dusty towns of hungry men, the long roads through orchards and the bright breeze of the lake shore. But we’d be back in our real lives, a bit less sweaty, and bit better fed, and full of that terrific satisfaction that comes from propelling yourself forward from beginning to end.

View En Route To Bursa

4 Comments

  1. Polly
    December 4, 2014

    Lovely photos, as always. Love the faded, summers-past vibe they’ve got going on.

    I love the pics of Iznik, although I’m not convinced of the grimness of these cities. The quick shot of the buildings looks just like every Russian city, just sunnier ;)

    Reply
    • Katrinka
      December 7, 2014

      Haha, I’m sure Russia has its share of grim cities! I just couldn’t bear to waste my film on some of these dreary cities– plus, after carrying all my belongings on a bike all day, I usually left the camera behind when we went out for dinner :-) But trust me, except in Iznik, there wasn’t much to see.

      Reply
  2. Anna
    December 9, 2014

    As someone who has gone on multiple bicycle tours before, it always warms my heart to see other people traveling my bike and reveling in how wonderful it is. You get such a sense of self-sufficiency and freedom when you travel by bike, and because nothing separates you from your surroundings as you move, you experience an intimacy between you and the world around you. It really makes you appreciate the smaller details, and it makes all the difference.

    Four years ago, I went on a two month long bike trip across the United States, and it was the best experience of my life. I can’t wait until I embark on another bicycle adventure! One of my best friends who went across the country with me currently wants to do an insane trip from Berlin to Baku, Azerbaijan, and although at first, it seemed out of the question, I’m now enchanted with the idea. I’ve already Google mapped a fantasy route which includes going through Istanbul and then heading south to ride along the Turkish coast. :-)

    Also, you take such beautiful photographs!

    Reply
    • Katrinka
      December 11, 2014

      Anna, that Berlin to Baku bike trip sounds like an AMAZING idea! What a wonderful way to see Europe. I hope you do it (and please let me know when you end up in Istanbul!). Your US bike trip sounds great too; that’s something I’ve thought about doing someday. Now I know I can, so maybe when I’m back in the US, I will.
      (And thank you!)

      Reply

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