Little is told about Bulgaria in the Netherlands. As far as we know, Bulgarians are good at discus, wrestling, skimming and working cheaply. Quite limited and not too positive image! Besides, we had prepared ourselves "just fine": we thought the Euro was the currency. It turned out to be the Lev. And after a day we found out that the clock had to be moved 1 hour ahead. We passed a first time zone. No discus, wresters or skimmers seen, only friendly people. Bulgarians seem somewhat stiffer at first than the Serbs. That is not a criticism of Bulgarians but a great compliment for the Serbs.
In addition to the Bulgarian language, there are additional communication difficulties: if Bulgarians nod Yes, they mean no and if they shake No they mean yes. And the alphabet is really a problem: the Cyrillic script is used without exception. Their x is our h, their h is an n, a p is an r and the mirror image of the n is an i (or y) and then sit and also additional characters for example c (ц), d (д) and there are characters for letter combinations such as zje (Ж). Harry and Roelie is written here as Хари и Роли. Not immediately easy to decipher. Although, it is getting better and better.
The Bulgarian language differs considerably from the Slavic languages in the former Yugoslavia. It tends much more to Russian. At least to us. The "Good day" is fortunately almost the same: "Dobur den".
First impressions on the road
Characteristic for Bulgaria are the many taps for spring water on the way. Often there are people filling huge bottles at these points. The further south, the more these tap points are "dressed". Often there is a covered picnic area, which sometimes even has a barbecue and more the character of a log cabin. Some are decorated with a picture and text. We have the idea that these are facilities built and maintained by private individuals.
The verges in Bulgaria are a lot nicer to cycle along. No disposable waste and plastics here. A very big positive difference with Serbia!
Also characteristic are the omnipresent messages. We had already seen them in Serbia, but in Bulgaria you can not ignore them: you can see them almost on every wall, on every bus shelter. All in A4 format with the names of persons who have died, a portrait and a short characterization of that person. That is the tradition here in the whole region to announce that someone has died. Some papers have been hanging for several years, these are often torn or hanging loose. Others are from less than a month ago and are therefore much better. In Bulgaria, these messages also hang on the doors or gates of the houses, stating that a family member is no longer there. Sometimes there is a dark bow, indicating that the deceased has left a widow in mourning. We have no idea how long that snare should stick, but we know that the mourning period with strict believers in the Netherlands lasts a year plus 6 weeks. It is possible that this is also the case here.
Sofia & Sofia Bike
After crossing the border we fear to have to cycle on the motorway, but parallel to the highway there is a beautiful trail for us alone: the old road paved with cobblestones. In Dragoman we first stop to eat something and then we decide to spend the night there. The next day we cycle again over the cobblestones to Sofia, the Bulgarian capital.
Sofia is certainly not the most beautiful city we have ever been, but it is certainly one of the best. There is hustle and bustle, but not the crowds you would expect from a 1.5 million city. There is traffic, but no jams. There are tourists, but they do not dominate the streets. And yet the city is very lively, it exudes pride, there are eateries everywhere, archaeological excavations, colossal buildings, terraces and (also here) mini-markets. None of the buildings is vacant. It is a special mix of historic ancient buildings, prominent (concrete) buildings with a Soviet signature and modern buildings with lots of glass. Sofia is the greenest capital of the EU and has pushed Berlin from the first place when Bulgaria joined the EU. Finally Sofia has something that no other city has: Sofia Bike!
Sofia Bike is a super small bike shop, does rental, carries out repairs and provides one or two bike tours through the city every day. The latter is free, but it is hoped that you rent a bicycle for them. Sofia Bike is also a host on Warmshowers (the worldwide network for longstance cycling). The basement of the small store offers accommodation for 2 people on a couch and on the ground between various bicycle parts. There is a toilet and shower (also half filled with bicycle parts). At night they put all rental bikes inside. Those of us also go inside. Roelie's bike is placed on top off the rental bikes.
Sofia Bikes gives a free bike tour through Sofia and of course we join in. Guide Ilian tells two ladies from Madrid and Berlin and us about history, special customs and good stories. There is an EU investment board on almost every corner. Roads have been renewed, parks have been redecorated, good public lighting has been provided and good sports facilities have been laid out in hamlets such as Dragoman, where a village like Oirschot can only dream of. Bulgaria is happy with the EU. Ilian explains why: they do not pay much and get a lot in return. The average Bulgarian earns € 250 per month. For us everything seems very cheap, but for Bulgarians that is not the case. Especially Britons are currently buying real estate in the country, but also Germans, Belgians and Dutch.
We cycle through Sofia's city parks into the forest. After the tour we cycle to Decathlon for gas cans. When returning to Sofia Bikeshop, Alexander tells us that we could have saved the ride. There are two abandoned cans in the corner of the store.
At the tourist information center we receive advice about a cycling route through Bulgaria: do not cycle through Bulgaria: "impossible!". The men from Sofia Bikeshop and former warmshowers from Poland (who are back now to look for a house to buyin Bulgaria) happily advise us better. There seem to be two options left for us: through the middle to the east between mountain ridges in or over the Rodolphe Mountains in the south. The choice is difficult and that is why we decide to combine the routes. First to the east and then to the mountains in the south.
But first we need a good night sleep. Next to the Bike shop there is a 24 hour shop and it was incredibly cozy last night. After 6 o'clock in the morning it became quiet and we could finally get some sleep. That was a Friday night. We do not expect much better from a Saturday night and move to an apartment. Daniel, the owner, speaks very good English and offers to call him if we ever need help or advice.
On to the Rodophe Mountains!
If we leaf Sofia far behind, we cycle on a beautiful route through the hills. Initially we cycle on major roads, but the streets are getting quieter and quieter. The route even comes across a busy market / trunk sales area. From Elin Pelin the route becomes breathtakingly beautiful. Nature is pure, the roadsides are full of flowers and wild blackberries. The fields are full of sunflowers (and unfortunately also interspersed with ugly corn).
There is no campground on our route between Sofia and the Rodophe Mountains. In Panagyuristhe we sleep in a hotel on the outskirts of the city and in Pesthera we have a hotel in the center. Between those two cities the route is not very nice: a lot of traffic, straight and flat. Both hotels were realized in former real estate from the concrete soviet period. It is very cheap here, about € 25 including breakfast. We have previously camped for (much) more. But we are very excited about the mountains and the camping. The climb to Batak is fairly easy, between 5 and 7% with a kilometer around 9%. Arriving at the campsite at the Batak lake we decide immediately to do an extra night. Camping Batak is a great campsite and is located directly on the beautiful Batak lake at 1100 m altitude.
Soon we realize that a rest day at this campground on the lake will turn out to be some boredom. We decide to continue cycling to the town of Dospat. There is also a campground there at the Dospat Lake and otherwise there is plenty of opportunity to camp at the lakes along the way. Some places are so popular that caravans are packed together side by side.
The route to Dospat is beautiful.
The campground in Dospat opened in 2016 and everything is brand new, but also cheap. It does not matter. We have a beautiful place and set up the tent on film. Especially the editing of the film proves to be very nice. We intend to do that more often.
From Dospat we cycle via Trigrad to Devin. It is an overwhelmingly beautiful route. It will be the most beautiful cycling day to date.
After Dospat we cycle through the rolling hills and are treated to picturesque panoramas on all sides. The Trigrad gorge leads us uphill between mountain walls along the creek to Devil's Throat and back down again. A beautiful gorge, which is not less beautiful on the road to Devin.
Devil’s Throat is a mysterious cave in the Rodhope Mountains, in particulary the Trigrad Gorge. It “swallows” the Trigradski river. The cave is received by the river falling into the ground from 42 meters in height, forming a huge hall in which the cathedral of Sofia easily can fit. After 400 meters the river disappeares. That’s why it is called the Devil’s Throat. The water continuous in an underground river. About this underground river many legends are told and written. We keep to the facts: many attempts have been made to track pieces of wood and other material through the cave, but they all vanish without a trace in the underground river, arousing curiosity and tantalizing the imagination. Experiences performed with dyes have shown that it takes more than 2 hours for the water to traverse the short distance from one opening to the next, fueling speculations about an extensive system of underground streams in the cave. Many attempts have taken place to penetrate the cave and follow the path of the river. All attempts did not succeed. The last attempt in the 70ties was massive, very well prepared and organized, and had the best underwater equipment of that time. The two divers Siana Lyutskanova and Evstati Yovchev have never returned from diving in the cave and their tragic deaths have stopped any further research.
The mountain villages in the Rodophe Mountains have their own charm. Village Shiroka Laka not only sounds like a fairy tale book but also looks like a fairy tale. From there we climb to the ski area near Smolyan lakes. This is followed by a descent with a beautiful view over the valley through which the province of Smolyan wriggles. Smolyan is a multi-kilometer-long village with a wide range of shops, restaurants and hotels, but unfortunately no campground. Again we spend the night in a cheap hotel. On Tripadvisor our eye falls on the nacho dish of the Theater bar. Last year in the United States we often ordered nachos as the starter (often only half a portion). After that we could not eat anything anymore. How big is our disappointment when it appears that the nachos have been removed from the card? Well, very big!
Unfortunately, the croissants for breakfast are from those factory croissants with are by no means fresh baked. Fortunately we bought Bulgarian yogurt, bananas and muesli for breakfast and on that we cycle to Kirkovo, a village just before the border with Greece. The landscape changes after a final ascent of forest and gorge to artistic round rocks, wide views and stray cows. The temperature rises, the humidity drops and villages are scattered everywhere in the landscape. How other than the part of Rodophe where we have cycled in the past few days.
Kirkovo also has no camping, but we see places to pitch a tent. But also in Kirkovo we find again a very cheap hotel with swimming pool and enjoy a fresh dip, a warm shower and a great peaceful atmosphere. There are also many Bulgarian Dutch people staying at the hotel. Meanwhile it is nice to chat Dutch.
From the Kirkovo hotel the route planner Bikemap sends us via an unpaved road to the motorway. At the border to Greece there is a long traffic jam where we cycle past. When we insert our last minute, motor riders pass by, brutally in front of the queue. A chauffeur next to us tells us to do the same and we do and drive out of Bulgaria shortly afterwards. What have we enjoyed Bulgaria! What will Greece and then Turkey bring us?