If ever there was an example of the universe's ability to always balance good and bad it was our journey through Bulgaria.
But first, I'm writing this on the shores of the Caspian Sea in Baku, Azerbaijan, the start of our Central Asia leg of the journey and I'm really excited to be here.
Anyway, I'll stick to chronological order and take you through the through the drama of Bulgaria. We crossed the border to the usual warnings of people from the previous country and were sad to leave Serbia. It was late sowe quickly found a wildcamping spot which turned outto be the best one so far with no wild dogs, no people and no mosquitos! Dreamy! We got up early the next morning and had been pedalling for no more than 20 minutes when all of a sudden a guy popped up next to me on a bike with panniers. He had bren chasinh two Austrian men but that's a different story. We chatted over mutual failed wildcamping attempts and the experience of cycling in Eastern Europe. The three of us headed into Vidin and gladly bought a watermelon to share (because 2 people just don't justify a massive watermelon no matter how delicious they look). At a cafe by the Danube I spotted another fully loaded bike and a girl sat next to it on a bench reading. Having had a good nights sleep and enjoying conversation with the frech guy i went over and introduced myself to the girl. Meet Adrien and Nina.
We split the watermelon and chatted about climbing at which point I knew we'd all get on well.
We were all riding to Montana and Nina was even planning to go to Istanbul like us. But the bad came with the good and it came in the form of utterly crap roads for the rest of the day. The narrow tree lined, windingbroads would have been nice but roadworks on a nearby highway was diverting all the long distance freight lorries onto our road. As the hundreth lorry roared past on a blind corner we found a cafe to get some lunch and shelter from the heat. As a result my last view of the mighty Danube which had taken us through 4 European capital cities and made navigation a doddle was in the distance, obscured by lorries in primary colours.
We camped in the garden of a restaurant and quickly got in a round of Bulgarian beer. It turns out Adrien has also brought a slackline with him and so we set both lines up between a tree and a lorry. Dinner was Shopska salad and a shot of something strong. The great nightd camp was only slightly ruined in the morning by a mangy dog painted green with disinfectant which tried to bite our feet as we set off.
Nina's map had a symbol for the gradient of a hill (hill or bigger hill) to let us know what was coming. We soon realised that what the map considered to be a hill was very different to what 4 people on bikes with panniers considered to be a hill! We would reach the top of a hill, sweaty and gasping for breath, and check the map which would utterly deny there was any kind of gradient there at all! It was a race to get to Montana so Adrien could catch a train. We fought over rolling hills which were more pothole than tarmac and made 52km that morning. After bidding him goodbye Charlie, Nina and I bought an icecream and set off for Sofia. It started raining. We pulled into a village and asked around for a place to camp, we were told we could set up the tents in the nearby football field which was currently being used to graze sheep. That evening we spent cooking and playing volleyball and eating a jar of beetroots...but...Bulgaria struck again and that night we heard voices outside the tent, we shouted and heard them run away but they came back three times and in the morning we looked out at our bikes and saw they had ripped anything off they could get! Nina's seat was gone, our tool kits missing, all lights ripped off, bungee cords even the hairbobble charlie kept on her handle bars. My wheels were loose but luckily the pannier racks had stopped them coming off completely. We were in shock. When your whole life is on your bike the loss of parts of it rocks you to your core. We tried in vain to get any answers, but struggled to communicate through a local girls tablet translation app. We even called the police to report it and the guy who turned up promptly informed us that it was illegal to camp in Bulgaria (not true) and to report it we'd first have pay a fine (convenient huh?).
Some people from the village got Nina a seat so we could cycle the 20km to Vratsa, at that point we just wanted to get out of that village as fast as possible. Oh and it was raining too! In Vratsa we had multiple cups of tea and decided that the Bulgarians we had met so far were not a friendly bunch. We missed Serbia. This was the hardest challenge and biggest knock to my confidence so far. At that point I would have thrown my bike and me on a train to Sofia and never looked back. I didn't want to cycle anymore. But we decided to push on regardless. It turns out this was exactly what I needed as the road leaving Vratsa was beautiful and did wonders for restoring my faith in this journey. We wound up quiet mountain roads through small villages and were rewarded with stunning views of the landscape. We whizzed down the other side of the mountain and headed towards a gorge which is one of Bulgarias highlights. I was looking forward to this part and enjoying the cycling...and then it poured! Heavy rain fell from the sky and a grey world descended in which I could only just make out Nina and Charlie behind me as we entered the gorge. We didn't have lights at this point (damnit robbers!) So were extra wary of the cars passing by. I managed to look up a couple of times through the rain and saw glimpses of a very beautiful gorge. I didn't care though, I just wanted to get to our safe, dry hotel for the night. We were only hindered by a crazy guy for a short while before we were curling up in a hotel and fast asleep exhausted and unsettled. The next morning we let out a collective sigh of relief that our bikes were still there. Attachment issues. And set off again. In Sofia we stayed in a beautiful airbnb and the guy who owned it helped us replace everything that was lost. What else could happen, surely it would be plain sailing from here...then we turned on thetv and heard that there had been an attempted military coup in Turkey. A couple of days later Charlie and I decided we would go to Athens rather than Istanbul. The main reason for this was that if we headed south for Greece we would be out of Bulgaria in 3 days!!
Best. Decision. So. Far.
Nina chose to continue on to Istanbul but would join us to the Greek border before going east. I was really glad Nina was coming with us as she was so much fun to have around totally laid back and with great stories from around the world! Heading south from Sofia things became almost immediately better. We headed into the mountains and had two days of great ascents and our highest point so far a ski resort at 1900meters. The people were friendly here and we stayed in the Balkans premier spa town...can you guess it, you know the one....Velingrad! No? Us neither.
Our last night in Bansko was really nice, the views of the mountains were incredibly beautiful and I could almost be convinced to return to Bulgaria...maybe. When we crossed the border into Greece we were elated, thrilled and absoluetly sure that Greece would be infinately better, without a doubt. I reckon the universe balanced itself out in that country, mostly because we had the pleasure of cycling with Nina and we were really sad to part ways....or did we!? Tune in next time folks for our Greek adventure!
A Wheely Long Journey Blog
Charlie and Lou are twins from Cheshire, UK on a mission to cycle back to their childhood home in Hong Kong.