Border crossing day is always exciting, but today’s crossing into Turkey was particularly significant: we were finally leaving Europe! It was also the first count that we had to get a visa for, though it was an e-visa we just had to purchase online and didn’t even need any additional documents for.
We were following signs (in Cyrillic) for the town nearest the Turkish border called Svilengrad. The ride was much like yesterday evenings, along quiet roads by farms and pastures and through leafy woods. At one point we passed an old Bosnian roady in the full bib and Jersey who had suffered a flat tyre out here in the comparative isolation of the Bulgarian countryside. We offered him a patch to fix his tyre but all he needed was the little bit of sandpaper to prepare the tube.
It wasn’t long after this encounter that we came to Svilengrad and we passed through quickly, pausing only briefly to spend the last of our Bulgarian coins on some ice cream.
Leaving Svilengrad was a bit of a challenge. A motorway bypassed the town and went straight to the border, but we had entered the town expecting to pick up a smaller road that would take us to the border without having to ride on the motorway. We got to the edge of town and onto the smaller road to the border only to find it closed and in an awful state.
We could have doubled back into Svilengrad and tried to get on the motorway from there, but we could see it from where we were now, plus we had already cycled a not insignificant distance from Svilengrad, so we didn’t really want to double back. We pushed on along the old road and it curved promisingly towards the motorway and then…passed over it. Now that we we here though, right on top of it we could see it was pretty much devoid of traffic save for the occasional truck so it seemed like the best option get on it for the last few kilometres left before the border.
There was one way to get on, and that was by wheeling our bikes through a gap in the fence and down the embankment onto the road. This process was delayed slightly when one of my front rack bolts sheared off and had to be replaced as we were shimmying through the fence but after that short delay we were on the road and finally making progress again.
We got to the border maybe half an hour later. We saw the huge tail back of trucks before we even glimpsed the border, the queue for the trucks tailed back for almost three kilometres, but was limited to only a lane of traffic. Getting over the border was a relatively painless procedure, we had to unload our bikes and open the bags for customs but we didn’t have to dump the contents out which would have been a real pain.
It was dusty highway from the border to the city of Edirne 30km away where we were going to finish early for the day and take a look around. As the old capital of the Ottoman Empire it warranted a stop.
The ride to Edirne was pretty uninteresting but the city itself was amazing. I don’t doubt part of the appeal for us was it being the first Turkish city we had visited. Edirne was the old capital of the Ottoman Empire before they captured Istanbul and has some impressive buildings. We only spent a couple of hours there and got to walk around the old town but what was really impressive was the Selimiye Mosque built by architect Mimar Sinan who seems to be a national hero. As the first mosque we visited on the trip it was really something special.
It was getting dark as we left Edirne. Early when we arrived we had looked up Warmshowers to see if anyone was around to host and came across a post by the staff of Shell Gas Station Edirne. They had set up what they called the first bike-touring station where tourers could camp in a small lot out back and make use of the facilities offered by the station. It was only 20km outside the city on the Istanbul side so was perfect for our needs.
We arrived and knew we had found the right place thanks to the kids bikes placed on poles all outside the station, around the area where the tall board displaying the prices was. Then as we wheeled up to the shop we saw a touring bike propped up outside it. We knew we had found the right place, but who to talk to about staying here? Almost immediately a smiley, portly Turkish guy came out with a huge grin in a red She’ll shirt (unbuttoned to the chest) and introduced himself as Erdem.
Erdem led us around back where there was a small grassy area with a couple of short trees where we could put our tent up. He then brought us back around front where he showed the staff kitchen and shower we could use. His English wasn’t great but we communicated just fine and he was so smiley and friendly it was hard not to get along with the guy.
After a very welcome shower we shared photos and talked as best we could with Erdem. He was a bike tourer himself and enamoured with the new service his workplace now provided. He even, when we were about to cook dinner, sat us back down and brought out a delicious impromptu spread: bread, rice, yogurt and Kofte (a kind of sausage). We had never camped at a petrol station before but this was a great introduction to the practice and wouldn’t be our last time either.
Today’s ride was one of two distinctive parts: Our final morning cycling in the Rhodope Mountains (the name of the range we were cycling through in southern Bulgaria) culminating in a long descent out of the range and then the second part of our ride along the arable foothills that fringed the Rhodopes.
So it was more beautiful mountain riding in the morining, we were told by Bibor yesterday that where we were cycling now was the region of Turkish majority, but there wasn’t that much difference to be noticed, although the settlements that we passed through featured more mosques than churches.
We finished one last switchback filled climb and then it was one of the longest downhill runs we had so far, coming out of the mountains and back down to the lowlands. For an hour we coasted along without pedalling enjoying the exercise-free cycling.
Reaching the bottom we found ourselves in the city of Kardzali, the most sizeable place we’d passed through since leaving Sofia. We stopped for lunch and then did perhaps our final Lidl shop of the trip, it was a momentous occasion, the chain had fuelled our progress over most of Europe.
Following a lengthy lunch break we set off in a golden and very warm late afternoon sun. This was the second and decidedly very different half of today’s ride, with the mountains behind us we found ourselves cycling between the rolling foothills by farms and through small hamlets.
At one of these hamlets we pulled up to fill our bottles at the water fountains. On the opposite side of the road stood the sole shop/eatery whose patrons sitting outside were all busy watching us roll in with curiosity. As we filled up our bottles one dude came over to chat. Once he gleaned we were cycling to Istanbul he gave us directions to the border via what I think he had sussed was the shortest route between the various towns between here and Turkey. He kept repeating it and it was only later we figured out he thought we didn’t understand as we kept nodding our heads – which means ‘no’ in Bulgaria.
Before we left Finn ran over to the shop to grab bread for the morning and ran into a Turkish guy visiting who had a bit of English. Himself and shopkeeper invite us over for some sausage they were cooking and a beer. The Turkish dude was the only person with any English so he did a bit of translating while we sat at a table in the shop waiting for the food. Our friend who had been giving us directions before came over and sat with us while we ate this surprise dinner.
Eating something that isn’t pasta for dinner is always welcome and even though it took a bit of time to cook and it was getting dark when we left it was well worth the stop. Leaving this little town of Popvets we were looking out for somewhere to camp right away. Most of the land near the road was farmland or pasture, in fact we passed a number of shepherds herding their flocks as we cycle through. Before too long we found a little hill just of the road with some scrubby bushes we could set up behind.
From here there was a great view of road ahead of us that wound out to the horizon. It was a completely clear night and as the sun went down above was one of the most star filled skies I’ve seen with that big swath of across it of the Milky Way you only really see when it’s properly dark.
In the morning we got to continue riding downhill along the gorge through the narrow alley of rock that the river had carved. The fast flowing water and towering rock face combined to keep us nice and cool until we arrived at the bottom.
We knew that after this first descent we would be climbing up again, and this time up to the highest point of our whole mountain passage across Bulgaria. The climb followed a winding river up most of the way. It was a really pleasant ride beside the water and shaded by the tall trees that grew on the sides of the slopes.
As we began to reach the summit we started noticing more and more hotel and holiday home development. It seemed like every kilometre or so we passed a new building site. Ski resorts were being developed on a wide scale all through the mountains.
Out here, up in the highlands the trees that lined the road further down were more dispersed and we could see out across the the tops of the mountains. We stopped in a newly finished hotel for a lunch where we were the only people aside from the staff.
After lunch we started on a nice long descent. It began with a lot of switchbacks cutting across the mountain face and then evened off to a gradual downward slope as the road picked up the course of a river. We had a short stop during this descent while Finn repaired a picture after a huge piece of shrapnel lodged itself in his tyre.
We were once again riding beside one of the numerous rivers that course through the mountains in Bulgaria. These streams and rivers have led to a feature where every couple of kilometres a tap has been hooked up to some of the water courses that flow underground and fresh spring water flows out by the side of the road. We were therefore never thirsty during the cycle across Bulgaria.
Towards the end of the evening ride after we had followed the winding river for a while we had stopped outside beside a house which had irritated the owners dog. A young guy came out to it and after hearing us speaking English started talking to us.
This was Bibor, a young Bulgarian guy who was back in his parents house in the countryside for the summer. We talked to him for a while by the gate until his mother invited us over for some tea and coffee. We very graciously accepted and sat outside on their house porch. Bibors parents gave us coffee and water and even some chocolate. They were all out of the porch seeding and coring a load of peppers.
“We grow the peppers and now we are making Bulgarian Ketchup!” Said Bibor.
We found out from them later that this was Ljutenica, a Bulgarian relish/sauce that’s made out of Peppers, tomatoes and carrots mostly.
“You want to try some?”
Of course we said yes, and Bibors mother brought us out two slices of bread with the home made Ljutenica spread over and it was delicious. Once we finished that she brought out more again, and then his father brought over a bowl of fresh watermelon gown on their farm. It was a fantastic little break and we stayed a while and chatted to the family.
After this great pit stop with Bibor and his family it was time to go and find somewhere to camp. Before we finished we had to pick up some bread for the morning and stopped into a little hole in the wall shop in the next small village we arrived at.
A coupe of curious guys who had been hanging around outside the shop and one of them had some good English (he had spent a couple of years in Aberdeen). We picked up the bread and then the shopkeeper chuckled and told us he had seen us yesterday when he was driving a bus.
Leaving the village bread in hand we rode out along the banks of the river until we came to a wide sandy meander where we could set up for the night. We did some laundry in the river and slept soundly under a clear sky.
The day started with us finishing the descent from yesterday down into the outskirts of the city Gotse Delchev. We were very near the the border with Greece now and infant a lot of people we had come across (the fisherman from yesterday, the shopkeeper we bought our bread from this morning) had been asking us if that’s where we were headed to Greece, it was only 50km away from Gotse Delchev.
We weren’t heading for Greece though, we were heading for Istanbul so we took the turn off East instead of South and started climbing again. We rode up some hills, through small villages and passed by horse drawn carts and the back into the mountains.
Here the road was lined for a couple of kilometres with numerous masons breaking up sandstone into tiles of somewhat equal dimension and then packed them onto pallets in perfect cubes. Loads of pallets lined the road, waiting to be picked up, and most of the masons gave us a friendly wave as we passed by.
At lunch we came into the town of Satovcha, a nice sleepy little place with a busy square. We went up to one of the cafes to get some food. Of course we had a bit of trouble communicating with our waitress but a gregarious Bulgarian with a big grin on his face came over and helped us out with translating.
When it came time to pay our friendly translator had left, but another guy came by and helped us out, and even left a little note saying the waitress had his number if we needed any help. What a guy.
There was a lot of climbing after lunch but it was really nice, now that we were up in the mountains we were riding along the peaks and through the shallow valleys that separated them. Sometimes the trees had been cleared for agriculture giving as a great view, other times we rode through thick forest on either side. We rode along, going up and down most of the rest of the day until we finally made the last steep descent into a gorge.
As mentioned in yesterday’s post our planned route through Bulgaria involved heading southwest from Sofia towards the Greek border to get access to the eastward-bound mountain route through the southern mountain range, which we had been told was one of the most beautiful areas in Bulgaria.
We continued solute west on the Route 1 out of Blagoevgrad for 20km and then finally got to the turn off that got us onto the east-west road that ran through the mountains which would take us almost to the border with Turkey.
We had a long climb up into the mountains now and the first ascent up into a range, we’ve found so far anyway, is always a bit underwhelming. The road tends to be bust, which this was, and the views you get aren’t all that impressive. It’s like you have to climb over a garden wall, and once your in you get to see the beauty.
This climb took most of the morning then, and while it wasn’t that great it was at least an easy climb stretched out over a long distance.
Once we stared to descend though, the whole range opened us. A wide plain stretched off to the north with some peaks in the distance and to the south, right close to the road, a long ridge line of towering mountains ran off to the horizon. We road along, admiring this vista until we came to the ski resort town of Bansko.
At Bansko there was much development going on, new hotels were being built and the roads in the process of resurfacing so the Main Street to the centre was completely torn up. We stopped for a snack and a coffee and Banako and spent some time looking for Warmshowers or Couchsurfing host for when we got to Istanbul, a city we felt it would be great to stay with a local at.
The afternoon/evening ride out of Bansko was a lovely long downhill along the plains and then in through the mountains following a river as it carved a deep gorge between them. The sun was starting to set which lit up the walls of the gorge as we rode along them, and the rocky walls provided some welcome shade after the warm day when the sun sunk behind them.
We found a nice camp spot by the river near a bridge, a strip of grassy bank where we could set the Bivvys up. As we waited for it to get dark unwinding after the day two Bulgarian guys arrived to go fishing. One of them came up and had a conversation with us in Bulgarian while we smiled and nodded and said “da” now and then. Friendly guy, but they didn’t stay very long. His friend caught a small fish and I suppose they were happy with that haul as they left soon after.
We woke up to a bright and sunny day at our spot overlooking Sofia. Since this was the day we started off on our run across Bulgaria properly, I should probably outline what our general route was going to be.
We weren’t taking the straight shot across from Sofia to Istanbul. While it was certainly the fastest and the flattest, we had heard (as far back as from Tom way back in Gent) that the mountains in the south of Bulgaria had some of the best scenery the country had to offer. The issue was that we couldn’t ride directly South from Sofia to get into the mountains properly, so the course we decided on took us back west a bit, then South for a day or two before finally heading east again towards Istanbul.
We climbed in the morning out of the valley that Sofia was situated in and down into another valley. We were on nice quiet roads most of the morning. Around lunchtime as we were coming up a hill we started to hear music off in the distance. It was a very rural area, there were no towns nearby, the last place we passed that could be called a town was over an hour ago so we were naturally curious as to what the source of the music was.
We crested the hill and saw a small house/cafe bar establishment by the side of the road. There was one full table outside of five guys, old and young, enjoying their Sunday with a big bottle of Vodka and a huge speaker, more like an amp, blaring the Bulgarian gypsie-pop Chalga that Dani had told us in Sofia. We had to stop there.
We went inside and tried to order some food from a tired looking woman, who we eventually got our message across to. While waiting for the for the food we had a very stilted conversation with her young son, maybe five or six, over the incredibly loud music.
After our bizarre lunch we made for the town of Dupnica where we could get on the route 1 South to the city of Blagoevgrad which stood just before the entrance to the mountains. The riding was flat and, once we had joined with the 1 really busy with traffic. This road was the main artery between Bulgaria and Greece.
Reaching Blagoevgrad in the early evening we found the city to be alive with people out to enjoy the sunny Sunday evening. After an ice cream in the square to cool off from the hot day we rode out along a path that followed a mountain stream and turned into a really nice park. The park, too, was packed with people and, I have to get this across, really nice. Probably once of the nicest I’ve been too, it had a load of play areas for kids, a natural mountain stream running through it, a zip line park, bbq and picnic areas, a pound filled with ducks and swans, bike paths and a few cafes all against the backdrop of the mountains.
We didn’t camp in the park, though we did look for an inconspicuous spot. Instead we followed the stream out of the park until we were able to get our bikes down into some flat land.
We found a small wooded area and a clearing therein and set up for the night. Later on in the evening a bar nearby brought in their live Chalga musicians which echoed over our campsite most of the night. So far Bulgaria has had a very distinctive soundtrack.
It was still raining in the morning, and everything was damp. We had a host lined up in Sofia though, a guy from Couchsurfing named Dani so we knew we would be able to get everything dry once we reached the city, which was a little over 30km away.
The route to the city was a straight shot along the same road we had been following yesterday, so once we were packed up we rode happily right along through rain, safe in the knowledge we would be inside soon.
We had originally planned to meet Dani at 7 that evening, but given the rain we decided to take him up on the earlier time he was available at 12:30. We pulled into a petrol station to use the wifi to contact Dani, it was into then we realised that we had passed into a new timezone, we were an hour ahead of where we were yesterday.
So we peddled a bit faster in order to get into Sofia on time. There was a short delay as we navigated a complex situation of roadworks, diversions and off ramps to get into the city, but (with the rain still pouring) we made it to Danis address just in time.
Dani was a great host, a really friendly dude who worked as a developer in a start up based out of the city. It was midweek (Thursday) so he had to get back to work after meeting us but very generously let us stay in his place while he was out, which gave us the chance to hang our gear out to dry.
Sofia is a very unique city, it has the East meets west feel at any city under Ottoman control and that close to Turkey would, but also the contrast of old Soviet style architecture and city planning and the new western shops, malls and cafes. It’s a great place to visit, and it’s also cheap!
We got a good look around the city and ran a few errand that had to be done too. All of the maps we’d used so far were posted back to Ireland by Finn along with some other items that weren’t being used and just dead weight at this stage. We also finally managed to find camping gas for the stoves, all though we had gotten pretty proficient with using petrol as a fuel.
We spent some time hanging out with Dani too, who gave us some great insight into the more esoteric aspects of Bulgarian culture, including a crash corse in Bulgarian gypsy pop music Chaugra (not sure if I’m spelling that right.) He was also kind enough to take us around the city after work one day, his hospitality really made the time in Sofia memorable, thanks Dani!
The day we left we were cycling up out of the city and into the mountains that surrounded it when I started having trouble with my bike. The chain was slipping over the teeth of the chainring, the whole drivetrain was completely worn out – but we didn’t realise this at the time, the symptoms were similar to what Finn experienced with his loose hub.
Incredibly fortunately we were passing a bike shop so decided to go and get the mechanic to have a look over it. His diagnosis initially that it was just the chain and maybe the cassette worn out.
He was a really helpful guy and changed both out to see if that would fix the problem. It didn’t and I was sure no it was the hub but again I was lucky, it still wasn’t the hub that was broken, it was my chainring that was pretty badly worn out. I had planned to get the whole drive train replaced in Istanbul, but I guess it didn’t last as long as I hoped. Either way the it was going to be replaced at some point on the trip and here in Sophia was as good a place as any to get it all swapped out, and cheap too.
So a couple of hours later than we would have wanted, but still with enough daylight to get out of the city proper we left Sophia and starred climbing. We found a great spot in a field that overlooked the city we had just left, the last city we would stay in in Europe and the jumping off point for our ride into Turkey.
I haven’t been able to update the blog much, but expect a glut of posts to follow in the next few days. Our run to Istanbul was the longest between city stops we’ve done so far but we’re here (in Istanbul) now with a backlog of photos and posts to get through so keep your eyes on the blog over the next few days.
It’s always an exciting prospect when there’s a border crossing coming up. Today we would be crossing into Bulgaria, back into the EU, but also the last European country of the trip – after Bulgaria would come Turkey and a whole different part of the trip, but that’s future. Today, the last bit of Serbia and the start of Bulgaria.
The morning consisted of riding down out of the mountains and into the flat land that ran between the last big town in Serbia before the border of Pirot. The ride down was similar to the previous days, narrow roads that ran along the hills. But today was overcast, and with a blustery headwind which slowed us a bit (but not much)
Pirot wasn’t all that much to look at once we arrived. It bore all the marks of being s border town, lots of place changing money and selling cartons of cigarettes. We arrived a bit before lunch we stopped for a break. While we were sat outside a cafe a big tall Serbian guy came over to us and started chatting in English with us.
He had seen our bikes and heard is talking and wanted to find out a bit more. Never got his name, but he was an interesting guy. From Serbia originally he now lived most of the time in Sweden with his family and was back in Pirot visiting. He was very interested in the trip and after talking a while was suddenly struck with an idea!
He had friends who worked for a Serbian TV station not five minutes down the road, they would be very interested to talk to two Irish guys cycling to Nepal who had just crossed their country and he raced off to find them.
It would be great to be able to say we made it onto Serbian television, but unfortunately his friends weren’t available at the time and we had to move on.
The road from Pirot to the border was flat, straight into a headwind and boring enough not want further description.
We crossed the border a bit before three with no difficulty. The border was surprisingly quiet, I would have expect more people to be crossing over, maybe if we arrived in August there would be queues of people heading into Bulgaria to get to the seaside.
After the crossing we climbed for a bit over an hour across the highland that separate the two countries geographically. The wind was starting to pick up and the sky beginning to darken. The fist Bulgarian town over the border was a place called Dragoman. We picked up some stuff for dinner at a market there and then checked the weather forecast and saw this:
The wind was blowing stronger and we figured we should start trying to find somewhere to camp before the storm stated to cross us. We rode out of Dragoman for a while, intending to stop as soon as possible but there were no suitable camping spot up here on the exposed highlands. As a result we ended up hauling our bikes through some bushes, across a train track and into a field where we took shelter from the wind in a little dip in the field at the corner, covered by trees on two sides.
That night just before the rain came we were chased into our tents by the most vicious mosquitoes we had encountered. It started raining early on and continued non stop, but our spot was thankfully sheltered from the worst of the wind.