We are still in Serbia for a veeeeery short time 😉 Near the border between Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria is Negotin. It is said that there is a campsite here (Base Camp for Adventurers – Urban Guerrilla) that is a paradise for cyclists. This turns out to be a dream come true and while we are pampered by owner Bojan with delicacies we rest here for a day. After a haircut Eloy is ready to leave, but we like it so much that we add an extra night. At the campground we meet many cyclists with very inspiring stories and make new friends. Suddenly Robert arrives, the Dutchman we met in Germany at the very beginning and who is on his way to Istanbul! It turns out to be true: cyclists always meet up somewhere along the way. From Negotin we follow a part of the Iron Curtain Trail, including many altitude meters, to the Bulgarian border. We shall see!
A thunderstorm has been forecast and the proposed road includes an almost impassable steep goat path up the mountain. We therefore decide to take the train for a short distance, safety being paramount. We are immediately helped to lift our bikes and during the ride we meet cyclist Jakob, on his way to Greece. When we arrive at the hotel, a Serbian man starts to ask us questions about our bikes and the journey. The conversation progresses and he tells about all the places he has lived. Also in Rotterdam years ago, so it turns out. As soon as he hears that we’re from the Netherlands, he wants to tell us a rumor he heard. Given that the Netherlands is below sea level, our land will eventually be washed away. Therefore, the government would have bought a piece of land in Mongolia to relocate the entire population. We look at each other laughing and ask again if we understand his rumor correctly. “Yes, that’s what I mean”. We answer that the population would not agree to that and that we know nothing about it, but he isn’t so sure. Prime Minister Rutte, do you have anything important to tell us?!
De volgende dag is het opnieuw lekker heet, maar bovenaan de eerste berg staat een fontein waar het hele dorp water komt halen. Een goed moment om de flessen te vullen en een praatje te maken. Vervolgens gaat het op en neer door mooie bossen totdat we de Bigar waterval bereiken. Fietser Robert zal later ook hierheen komen om samen te wildkamperen. Eloy neemt een douche (lees: koud dompelbad), Audrey is een held op sokken en gaat voor de subtielere versie. Daarna komt er een motorrijder tevoorschijn en filmt zijn kunsten door het water en is weer weg. Vervolgens stopt er een echte filmploeg met een model en vertegenwoordigster van het toerismebureau voor een interview op de nationale televisie. Ze halen drones tevoorschijn en gedurende het filmen staan wij op de achtergrond te koken en te eten. Je weet nooit wat er gaat gebeuren in Servië. 🙂 Wanneer het begint te schemeren zetten we onze tentjes op, zien vuurvliegjes door de lucht vliegen en staren nog een tijdje naar de heldere sterrenhemel.
In the morning we are lifted out of our tent at a quarter past 6 by honking trucks (very nice that enthusiastic honking). Robert joins us and, as bad weather is forecast, we decide to share a hotel room just before the border and have dinner together. When we approach the Bulgarian border the next day, we pass the highway signs with a somewhat unpleasant feeling. There is no bicycle path, so we ride on the highway! There is a very long line of trucks waiting on the right and fortunately there are very few cars on the other lanes, so we can overtake on the left. As we pull in, suddenly a customs officer waves for us to come to the front. We drive past the cars and can enter the country immediately!
Just before we drive into Sofia, a heavily tipsy woman declares love to Audrey and demands that she takes her far too large red raincoat with her because it’s going to rain later that day. Despite the fact that we already have our raincoats on, she won’t accept it. Not much later, the busy roads to Sofia loom up in front of us, but this time too we manage to cycle into the capital unscathed. It rains a lot when we’re in Sofia, which makes it all look a bit sad (and the electricity sometimes breaks down). Still, we see ruins, buildings from the communist era, some churches, parks and the Alexander Nevski Cathedral. We also eat traditional dishes (including lamb’s head) in one of the basement restaurants and enjoy the Free Food Tour of the city (who doesn’t love free food?!). The guide on this tour also explains that it is a relic of communism for every dish in a restaurant, as well as an ice cream or waffle, to state how many grams you are getting and literally list every ingredient. That way you know exactly what you’re getting on your plate!
We jump back on our bikes to follow the Sultans Trail now and see a nice little lake on the map for wild camping. Much of the route follows the old historic road to Istanbul, in the beginning even over kilometers of old cobblestones! We wonder how they were all put there. After that it becomes asphalt or a huge cheese of holes (craters!) but through the greenery and with few cars. The old road seems abandoned, but we enjoy it anyway, perhaps because it demands our full attention. After a long day of concentrated cycling, many altimeters and our highest point so far (900m), Audrey, in a moment of fatigue and inattention, runs over a live snake which then quickly crawls away. Oopsie, we’re awake again! Fortunately, the lake is glorious and we can camp and swim there, even Robert is already bobbing up and down. We are rewarded with a beautiful sunset.
Na een lange dag geconcentreerd fietsen, heel veel hoogtemeters en ons hoogste punt tot nu toe (900m), rijdt Audrey in een moment van vermoeidheid en onoplettendheid over een levende slang die vervolgens snel wegkruipt. Oepsie, we zijn weer wakker! Gelukkig is het meer stralend en kunnen we er kamperen en zwemmen, ook Robert ligt al te dobberen. We worden beloond met een prachtige zonsondergang.
Along the way, we continue to encounter abandoned houses and factories, often with new buildings next to them. This makes the view sometimes sad and in great contrast with the beautiful landscape. Later we hear the following from a guide: ‘In Bulgaria we never destroy old buildings, because you should learn from the past’. We certainly don’t have to worry about coffee on the road. Throughout the country, there is a coffee machine on every corner (and this is no exaggeration!). Another striking phenomenon are the black bow ties hanging from front doors and the bus shelters and lampposts filled with death announcements. With these, people indicate that a loved one has died.
Our next stop is Plovdiv, the second largest city in Bulgaria. We are not disappointed, as it turns out to be one of the highlights on our trip so far. The city was named European Capital of Culture in 2019, which means that ancient archaeological finds have been restored to their former glory. The gigantic Roman theater under the city center was only discovered in the 1970s and later excavated. The abandoned Kapana neighborhood was also refurbished and its original inhabitants have had a chance to build a new life. The lights that decorate the streets are connected to a number of hospitals in the area. Every time a baby is born, the lights flash softly. A guide explains to us what communism brought about and how reconstruction saved Plovdiv. Plovdiv is definitely worth a visit, should anyone ever be in the area.
On one of our last nights in Bulgaria, the evening sky is clear and the village where we camp is on top of a hill. In the only restaurant, the owner joins us at the table to discuss what we want to eat in her best English-German-Bulgarian. There is no menu, so she brings us ‘chicken’, ‘fries’, ‘Shopska salad’ and a lot of humor. It is a funny sensation. When we are back in front of our tent we see the Milky Way for the first time in our lives! A special spectacle, all those stars!
Before we drive out of the village the next day, we are greeted by a few local residents. The kids say “hello”. One man rolls down his car window and says he just came from Turkey, he asks if we are going that way. Another man shouts ‘France?’. ‘No, Hollandia’ shouts Audrey back, aaaah ‘Marco van Basten is good’ he replies. The friendliness is great, the shabby conditions in which some of these people live is indescribable.
We continue in the direction of the Bulgarian-Greek border. One kilometer before the camp site two cyclists approach us from the other direction: they are Andy and Koen. Andy is from England, Koen from the Netherlands. They are travelling together from Georgia. They decide to deviate from their plan and join us at the camp site. It becomes a pleasant evening and we do a game. Turn in an item you are not using on your trip and you get an item from someone else in return. The result: Eloy gets a book by Paulo Coelho and Audrey a nice 3XL cycling shirt. Let’s see how they react to that in Greece 😜.
We will soon post the next blog of Greece and the first part of Turkey! For those who still want to know faster where we are: check out the pictures page 🙂