After our long stay in the fantastic countryside of Romania, we were ready to go. Crossing the Danube was a challenge, as there are only a few locations where there is bridge (Calafat,RO to Vidin,BG ; Giurgiu,RO to Ruse,BG) or ferry (Turnu Măgurele,RO to Nikopol,BG ; Călăraşi,RO to Silistra,BG). We got lucky and managed to find the free ferry near Călăraşi in Romania (there is also a paid ferry at the same location). After crossing the Danube river we were still in Romania, surprisingly, which was funny as it was a running joke at this point that we would never get out of the country after a few failed attempts over the previous two days. But thankfully after rolling off the ferry and cycling about 200m, we were at passport control and into country number 10!
Both Claire and I were not sure what to expect from Bulgaria, but we knew it would be different from Romania. It was the first country we were going to which uses the Cyrillic alphabet, it is an ex-soviet state, it seemed less populated with cities and towns more spaced out; but all and all we just didn’t know much about the country, it’s people or it’s history.
After passport control we moseyed into the centre of Silistra. Cycling into the city centre the surroundings were different than they were across the river and it was noticeable that Bulgaria was a little different than Romania. Large soviet era tower blocks guarded the city and butted up against the border of Romania’s land south of the Danube. Entering the town we passed a few brutalist style buildings of the same era and finally settled in a public park which was more concrete than greenery.
We were lucky enough to find a host for our first night in Bulgaria; Desislava met us in the park (which had wifi!) where we were sitting in the shade relaxing. We were quickly whisked off to Desi’s apartment where we showered and then headed straight out the door to take in the sites and enjoy some local food and drink! We saw a few Thracian ruins in the city and walked in the first “Danube Garden” where we watched the sunset. The rest of the evening was spent with Desi’s friends chatting about life in Bulgaria and our big adventure! It was a blast. The next day was a bit of a treat for us, as we were hoping to check out a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Bulgaria about a hundred kilometres west of the city but couldn’t face backtracking on the bicycles so we took a road trip! Along with Emo, a friend we had met the night before we drove to the Thracian Tomb of Sveshtari, neither Desi nor Emo had ever been so were happy to bring us to the site! Having been on a bicycle for so long it was a real change being in a car, both Claire and I felt carsick initially which thankfully faded. We also noticed what a different experience it was from the seat of a car versus riding a bicycle, you see things very differently, the landscape, the road the villages… The Tombs were interesting sites, dating from 3rd century B.C. and only discovered in 1982 but it was only a quick visit in and out.
Desi grew up locally and suggested we go to a site nearby which is believed to have been a holy site since the 4th century B.C. The mausoleum of an Alevi saint, Demir Baba Teke, is located on the site along with a ‘healing spring’. It is said that if you have an ailment and leave a piece of clothing related to that ailment (bad knee, a piece of your trousers; a bad back, a piece of your shirt etc.) at the site you will be healed. So as you follow the path down to the site small pieces of clothing are tied to all the trees, bushes and handrails. It was an interesting place and certainly off the tourist circuit.(While we were at this site, it was the first time i noticed a very strange thing, which popped up again and again in Bulgaria, there are coffee machines in the strangest places. This tomb was located a 20 minute drive off the main road, then you parked and walked down into a valley where there are 2 buildings amongst the forest, and there at the arch way to the courtyard of the mausoleum there is a lone coin operated coffee machine. Bizzare.)
Last and not least we had an amazing lunch with Desi’s parents. We were greeted with the warmest of welcomes and enjoyed a nice home cooked meal. It was also our first introduction to Rakia (a home-made, 50-80% strength liquor) and the tradition of drinking it with salad, it was intense! After a tour of their lovely house and garden, we sampled a few fresh strawberries, tomatoes, hazelnuts and other treats. We were promptly given some Rakia for the road and we said an emotional goodbye to the Petkova family. We felt very lucky to have spent time with Desi and her family, and for us it was a great introduction to Bulgaria!
The next day we needed to make some tracks and hit the road as we began heading for the Black Sea Coast. The roads in Bulgaria were pretty good, the highways were paved with a decent sized shoulder, were graded well without any steep climbs (lots of up and down though), and were very direct. We cycled from Silistra to Varna in a few days skirting around Dubrovnik. Varna was a pretty big city with numerous tower blocks and some major highways! When we left the city we opted for the most direct/fastest route down the coast (against the advice of one of our hosts) the ride was pretty hairy as we drove on a motorway, often without a shoulder, crossing some very large bridges which then met some steep climbs out of the city!
The coastal highway was much busier than the inland highway we were on for the previous few days, it was heavy with cars trucks especially logging trucks hauling freshly cut oak trees. We continued on the road as far as Obzor, where we finally went a little more inland to the old highway. This route was less direct, a little bit more hilly, but well worth the deviation. Traffic on the road was next to nothing, the route brought us into some hilly terrain but we were surrounded by peaceful, beautiful forest.
After climbing for about an hour in to the forest and over the mountains we heard a small meow coming from the forest. After looking to the verge and calling out for cats I saw nothing and cycled on, however as I continued up the hill a little kitten shot out from the bushes and started to chase me down! Luckily Claire saw the little critter and we stopped. It’s a good thing we did too, as it became very clear that the little kitten was starving and alone. We quickly fed her some sausage from our panniers and named her Agnes! After some pets, some more sausage and some discussion we decided that we couldn’t leave Agnes where she was. It was at least 20 kilometres from a town, and she was too young and small to be fending for herself so we took her along with us. Agnes was stuffed (carefully) into a backpack (which she was not happy about) and we set off up the mountain. It was slow going with a kitten in tow, every pothole felt like you were upsetting an already upset cat in a bag and Agnes was whining constantly. However, after an hour or so Agnes adjusted to it all and was calm enough to even have her head out of the bag without trying to escape as we descended from the hills above.
At the next town we decided to stop for lunch and see if we could find a home for the kitten, as cats and cycle touring don’t mix. We couldn’t risk the claws and the tent or the border crossings! I freed Agnes and Claire stepped into a shop to grab some things for lunch. Before I knew it Agnes was off exploring, and headed straight into a shop! Things escalated quickly as a minor commotion began with people looking around to see if the kitten belonged to anyone, then a cardboard box was found which Agnes was put into and then a man took the box and placed it into the trunk of his car. When Claire came out of the store, which was not more than 5 feet away, Agnes had a new home. Rather distraught and upset, Claire had bought a treat for Agnes who was now gone! We spoke to the man who had adopted the kitten and he told us that he owns a hotel in Sunny Beach on the Black Sea coast, where they have a mouse problem and were looking for a cat. We passed on the tin of pate bought for the kitten and told the man Agnes’ name, and then said our goodbyes. It was a little sad, but we were really happy that we managed to find a better place for Agnes the kitten.
After lunch we headed back towards the coast south of Sunny Beach (which is an over developed stretch of land with far too many big, ugly hotels) to Nessebar. Nessebar is a beautiful seaside town on a small peninsula in the Black Sea, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage City. The small town has as many as 40 stone churches dating as far back as the 5th century, which is incredible. There were also lots of traditional Greek timber homes, which were very beautiful and we spent some time wandering around and admiring all the architecture and the views out to sea. It had been a long, tough day so we decided to treat ourselves to dinner at a restaurant (a big deal for us). We found a nice place in town called Mehana pri Shopite and had a great meal. It was the end of the season so there weren’t too many people around. We ended up talking to the owners a lot and also the two other tables of guests. The guests were from England and Russia, we talked about our trip and what we were planning. It was pretty late by the time we finished up and by that point the owner was offering us Rakia and then a place to sleep for the night. We were really happy as the city is very small and without many locations for camping, also the wind was howling that night. So, one of the more interesting sleeping locations of the trip so far; we slept on the very benches we ate dinner on in the restaurant courtyard!
The following day we set off towards Sozopol, which is another historic town very similar to Nessebar but a little less touristy. We decided to take a few rest days in the town and recharge our batteries. The town was beautiful and very peaceful. We stayed in little hostel style hotel which had a terrace with sea views and a huge fig tree. On our first evening we met a young Ukrainan guy called Vladimir who was really friendly and helped us out with translations. We spent the next couple of days hanging out at the beach or going for drinks in the evenings with him, he was great company. It had been a long time since we had a day of staying in one place, and the rest was needed. We were very happy with our choice of location for a break, as we enjoyed a few days of picking fresh figs and pomegranates in the town and swimming in the gorgeous clear sea.
Recharged, we hit the road once more, and set our sights on the Turkish border. The weather had different plans for us and after an hour on the road the skies opened up and showed no signs of letting up. At this point there was little to no shelter to be found on or near the road. So we needed to plough on to the next town to get some supplies for lunch, and to get out of the rain. We arrived soaked to the skin, but ended up making it in time to avoid the major deluge, which happened just after we found shelter for lunch.
The next few days were a mix of rough weather and rough roads as we climbed into the mountain range in Strandza National Park, which occupies a large area of the south east of Bulgaria on the Turkish border. The hills were tough, and the surface of the highway was some of the worst we have encountered on a main road. However, in the park we had some scenic wild camping spots and it was a nice change from the touristy, developed coastline we had left a few days before.
It took us longer than expected to climb out of Bulgaria but we finally made it. Bulgaria exceeded our expectations in many ways especially the beautiful little towns we found along the coast . However, we are excited about the road ahead especially cycling into Asia (finally) and the time we are going to have catching up with friends and family over the next few weeks.
For more photos of Bulgaria click : HERE
Our journey continues as we cross the border in to Turkey!