Baffled in Bulgaria
A shake of the head is yes, a nod is no, the same salad has three different names, small towns are virtually empty, Bulgaria has been rather baffling.
Approaching from the Romanian side we finally had a taste of the “real Romania”. The last 5kms was on a rough road that shook you to the core. Just before the border control we were given a hearty goodbye by some of the local canine members. True to our experience there was a local nearby the intervened and gave them their marching orders.||
On the side of the road was an old Industry which from first glance seemed abandoned but we soon noticed a toxic yellow gas bellowing out from one of the old decrepit chimneys.
Checking out of Romania we handed our passports to the officer. He took one glance, looked up and said with an authoritative voice, “there is a little problem” Instantly our guts feel to our knees. Damn, we can’t get through, were we not checked in properly?
“The ferry does not leave until 6pm” said the border guard.
He must have been surprised to see our faces as we broke into grinning smiles from ear to ear. This equated to a 6 hour wait, but to be going through was all we cared about. We soon made ourselves at home next to the sterilisation pit, watching frogs watching us with beady eyes in the bright green coloured water.
No sooner had we settled than the ticket lady whom we purchased the tickets from announced we would be going on the unscheduled 3pm truck ferry and proceeded to celebrate the news with us with a round of high fives. We sensed she had gone out of her way to get us on the earlier ferry.
Waiting for the final truck to pull into position on the ferry we moved in. Tantalising close to the draw bridge we acknowledged the skipper for entry. He took one look at us and waved his index finger in a rather negative gesture. Clearly we weren’t going anywhere. A moment later we saw a cheeky smile emerge as he motioned us onboard.
The first thing we noticed onshore in Bulgaria was how deserted the town was. At the time we put it down to the border town blues that we had experienced many times before, but we later noticed that most villages and small towns seem quite deserted, with many abandoned, window-less apartment blocks on their outskirts. With daylight fading we were keen to get out of town and into the country side to find a wild camp for the night. The country side was lush and hilly, the road smooth and we had the new country excitement spurring us on.
It was only a few km cycling alongside the Danube before we finally parted company after travelling some 2,300km together. We headed south into Bulgaria off the official Danube cycle route, whilst the Danube continued another 500km to melt into the Black Sea. It was sad to say goodbye, we never really thought we would have such strong feelings for a river!
We soon noticed that most villages had a well maintained water fountain so we embarked on filling up at the last village before a promising wooded area to camp for the night. The towns folk initially seemed reserved but obviously curious about these odd looking foreigners as all kinds of excuses were conjured up to suddenly visit the water fountain. It was a little awkward as our smiles were returned with blank stares and the outgoing bubbliness of the Romanians seemed a million miles away.
A few kilometers after the next village a car pulled up beside us and asked if we spoke German. The lady heard from one of the village folk that there were some strangers passing through and taking the chance that at least one was German, hunted us down to offer us some Bulgarian coffee. Vili herself lived in Germany but had come back home to visit her parents.
We were a little hesitant as it was getting late and we needed to find a camp spot, but she dispersed our worries and convinced us to come back to the house. The house itself was quite unassuming, a slightly crumbling concrete affair, but the garden was amazing. There were separate sections for fruit trees, a vegetable garden, vines which provides enough grapes for over 400 bottles of wine a year, and a large area for the chickens.
Plucking fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, onions and parsley from the garden and adding a little feta and olive oil, our host prepared a Chopski salad for us, which was served with meat balls and bread, and, importantly, home brewed schnapps to wash it down with. We also indulged in some birthday cake, which was left over from one of the children turning 8, as well as coffee.
Finally it was time to raise the question of a place to sleep again, and Vili asked her mum if we could set up our tents in her garden. Alarmed, we watched as her mum shook her head vigorously while responding in Bulgarian. “It’s ok, you can stay”, Vili said. Oh, right, a head shake means “da” – yes…
We set up camp under the plum trees, right next to the chicken house, with the help of Vili’s little niece and a very cute kitten, who unfortunately proceeded to jump on our tent repeatedly, digging in her little claws in the expensive and delicate fabric as she climbed up to the top.
That night, we did not sleep much. The excitement of the day and the effect of the coffee took a while to wear off, and when we heard steps and talking close by, paranoia set in as we imagined curious villagers coming to inspect our tent.
Leaving early the next day we pulled up shortly after the village to have breakfast in a field as shepherds wandered passed us with herds of goats curiously eying our presence.
After the lack of sleep we were all down on energy and the roads felt like sand and our legs as heavy as lead. The heat was also taking its toll so when we pulled into Veliko Tarnovo 90km later, we were wrecked. Unable to find our desired hostel at the other end of the hilly, historic town, we stumbled across Nomads Hostel. As soon as we arrived we were ushered in for tea, our bags taken to our room and our bikes stored safely away. Among the hostel staff were Giorgi and his girlfriend Katja, who also have ambitions of cycle touring across Europe and beyond so the conversation soon fell to bike talk. That night Giorgi cooked a traditional Bulgarian hot pot of vegetables and layers of cheese and eggs, which we were invited to share. Bulgarian cuisine has really impressed us, with its abundance of fresh local salads, as well as some Greek and Turkish influences.
Perched up on a hill the hostel offered lovely views of the valley below and with international travellers coming and going it was a very lively place. We soon felt at home and stayed 3 nights, which could have easily been more.
Leaving such a friendly welcoming place is always hard, but this time it was especially difficult as we knew we had the Bulgarian mountain range, the Stara Planina, to cross and we knew it would be around 40 degrees with questionable roads. We spent the night in Elena, a town just before our big climb up to over 1,000 m height. Luckily, the next morning we had overcast weather and a temperature of only 20C, the coldest it had been for weeks. All was going swimmingly well, until the tarmac cracked, then further deteriated into little islands of tarmac, then finally flat out gravel roads. This made the final 20km and 400 vertical metres hard going, and we sometimes had to push the bikes as the road was unrideable.
A recent conversation about Bulgarian bears living in this area did nothing for our anxiety as we passed through the more remote stretches. The very occasional van or truck that passed was normally filled with gypsies seemingly out foraging in the forest. Near the summit we came across some dodgy looking woodcutters that were chopping down the old hard woods right on the road banks. They gave us some unfriendly stares whilst swinging their axes, and we made sure to speed up a little and leave them behind as soon as possible.
Just over the summit at 1,060m height the unexpected happened: we hit tarmac, smooth, uninterrupted tarmac, the real McCoy. We had visions of a slow bone shaking downhill but instead the 12km down hill was pure delight.
That night we treated ourselves to a hotel in Nova Zagora to celebrate the big climb. From then on, the Bulgarian countryside was still hilly and pretty, but there were no more major climbs. Outside the village of Glaven, we came across an irresistible wild camp spot, with great views of the valley below and well tucked away from the main road.
The following day we cycled our final 50km through relatively flat terrain but always interesting landscape. In one small village we turned the corner to be greeted by an ultra modern looking complex, very out of place with the surrounding village homes. Coming up the hill a voice called out to us with a thick Somerset accent, “Are you lost?”. It turned out to be an Englishman who spends half his time in New Zealand and the other in Bulgaria. We never really worked out why he lived in such a remote village. He explained to us that the complex we noticed was a 15m Euro EU funded project to build nothing less than a winery. To hell with the potholed roads, the crumbling schools, the many village homes with no canalisation, more wineries seems to be what Bulgarians are crying out for.
We have found Bulgaria to be the prettiest country so far in terms of the countryside, very reasonably priced and with great food. The villages have been fairly ugly and depressing, and the people not as openly friendly as in Serbia and Romania, but always there to help when we needed it. The roads were much worse than the roads we cycled on in Romania (the road on the photo is an extreme example).
The end of Bulgaria spells the start of Turkey, our final destination for phase one of our trip. We were super excited to be so close to the border but first we had a quick 30km dash through northern Greece to get to the quieter Greece-Turkey border, as the Bulgaria-Turkey border near Edirne is apparently one of the busiest border crossings in Europe, with long queues of trucks to negotiate. We recorded our hottest temperature on the highway in Greece, the mercury pushing 43 degrees Celsius. We were close to running out of water as the villages marked on the map ended up being inconvenient deviations. A fuel station materialised like an oasis, and we blew half our daily budget on water and ice-cream, a reminder of the higher cost of living in the West.
With less than 2km to go we asked for directions to the border.
“Not far, a left and a right, you’re almost there” advised a local farmer.
With only 1km to go we turned the corner to be faced with a steadily flowing river, cascading over the road that led us to the other side. Only the odd car was braving it. Before we could come up with a plan a young Greek man greeted us and said one thing to us.
“Before you leave Greece you must at least have a Greek coffee.”
And with that we were ushered to a table whilst he served us some truly delicious coffee and gave us a brief run down of some of the “must sees” next time we are in Greece. He said that we could free camp anywhere we liked on the picnic area, and with an offer of a free camp next to a river with sandy beaches we knew Turkey would have to wait one more day.
The camp site was not as clean as it could have been. The area was so beautiful but people still abused it dropping litter all around, the odd lump of horse shit dotted the camping area and frogs hoped around in the shower basin. The only way to flush the loo was with a garden hose attached to one of the sinks.
We had run out of food so we had to eat at the snack wagon. The guys running it were very nice and the first night gave us a hearty assortment of meats and salad, as well as free schnapps, pancakes and watermelon. The next day we ate there again but this time without the complimentary shot of schnapps. Bad move, a few hours later Freddie was on the big white telephone and spent a rough night running out of the tent every half hour or so. Stoically she pushed on the next day and made it through the border to Turkey. We actually ended up backtracking a little to avoid the river crossing and take a bridge instead.
We cycled just 20km to get to Edirne, where we are taking a couple of days off to recover and prepare for our final push into Istanbul. With the mosques and lively markets it is exciting to be a the doorstep of Asia. Our plan is to reach Istanbul via a longer, quieter and more hilly route near the Black Sea coast, avoiding the busy highways in the south. Once there, we will evaluate our next move, but one things for sure, there’s still a hell of a lot of cycling to be done.