Thursday, August 30, 2018

Trip Summary: Cycling in Romania and Bulgaria

Ruth:  We are both surprised that there are still so few foreign tourists in Romania and Bulgaria, especially if you venture a kilometre from the tourist spots. Perhaps the tourists are all on the Black Sea, one of the areas we have not yet explored. Romania and Bulgaria are excellent for cycle touring and yet we encountered only 16 others in our two month trip in the region. 

All countries have their problems. One of the negatives in Romania was a few aggressive drivers in black luxury vehicles who believed in their immortality despite the memorial crosses lining the highways.  Passing at high speeds on blind corners is never a good idea.  Doing it while holding a cell phone or a cigarette is simply insane.  We heard tales of young men selling the family land just so that they could be driving that new Audi.

The last time we cycled in Romania we encountered some aggressive dogs. This time we still saw some, but it seemed like less of a problem. Perhaps I was just more confident carrying a can of pepper spray. 

These problems were only occasionally hair raising and were easily overshadowed by all the beauty of cycling the quiet back roads of Romania. Most of the time we shared these roads with only a few cars or horse carts.  Romania is well worth at least a month of exploring. The food is hearty and good and the country offers a huge variety of different sites to visit.  Highlights include the wooden churches and traditional life in Maramures, the painted monasteries of Bucovina, and of course the Carpathian mountains and Transylvania. 

Bulgaria is also a sensational place to explore on bicycle. Cars are the main challenge once again. There is more car ownership per capita in Bulgaria than in Romania and the accident rate is staggering, mostly due to a few rogue motorists who do not play by the rules. Otherwise the majority of drivers gave us room and drove reasonably well. It is best to plan with weekends in mind and try to avoid the major roads at this time, as they become much busier. We also encountered a couple of spots where highways turn into motorways with no alternative routes for cyclists. A little planning can avoid these places. 

Bulgaria’s number one highlight for us was the Rhodope Mountains. This area is perhaps one of the best places we have ever cycled. Beautiful shelters with tables and water springs are frequent along the well graded roads through these spectacular mountains. Whether you are wild camping or staying in the readily available guesthouses, this is a fabulous place for touring. We happily spent several days climbing up narrow gorges, exploring caves and staying at end-of-the-road villages. 

Veliko Tărnovo and Plovdiv are wonderful Bulgarian cities rich with historic sights.  Our route took us through many other lovely places with only a few “uninteresting” days. Generally, Bulgarian towns are modern, beige and run down, but the few exceptions where Bulgarian revival architecture has survived and been preserved are gems. 


The trip by the numbers

Kilometres cycled: 2150

Numbers of Passes over 1100 meters crossed: 9

Highest pass: 1667 meters (in the Rhodopes between Dospat and Batak)

Number of speed traps encountered in Romania: zero

Number of speed traps seen in Bulgaria: 2

Number of times we cheered policemen at speed traps: 2

Most baclava eaten in one sitting: 1/2 pound

Ill effects from excessive baclava eating: Ruth had palpitations & Gord started sweating profusely

Bedbug bites: zero!!!!!!!

Dog bites: one (Gord was savaged by a hyperkinetic but hopefully non-rabid chihuahua)

Flat tires: zero

Lost items: one mechanical pencil

Other cycle tourers met: 10 in Romania and 6 in Bulgaria. 

Things we packed and never used:


Sleeping bags

Mattress pads

2 of the 5 pairs of socks I brought

Essential things I would never leave behind:

Small collapsible coffee filter

Mugs, bowls and cutlery

Small inflatable pillow from MEC

Comfy dress

And, of course, Gordon

Monday, August 27, 2018


Gordon:  We spent three days cycling from Velingrad to Sofia.  The first day was a pleasant surprise, with a 20 km descent through an attractive canyon.  We were accompanied by a small river and a narrow gauge railway that passed through innumerable tunnels beside the road.

The second day saw us regain our altitude and more, climbing to 1350 metres at the Borovets ski area.  We stayed at Alek’s Guesthouse in Samokov, where we also spent a night in 2016.  Ruth’s review of our earlier stay, and a picture of the two of us in cycling togs, are still prominently displayed on the Booking site.  Alek is a cyclist and remembered our earlier visit.  He insisted on making us an amazing crepe breakfast with four different type of crepes - two savoury and two sweet.  The ham and eggplant, and the walnut and comb honey were particularly delicious.

We are spending three nights in Sofia before flying home.  The end of every cycling holiday involves a search for bike boxes that are not always easy to locate or transport, and puts us on edge a little.  However, after a few telephone calls and a cab ride, and an Atavan and a beer, we obtained some boxes earlier today, and our bikes are now ready to go to the airport.  We celebrated with a beer and an eclair.

From discussions with Bulgarians in other parts of the country we learned that Sofia is not highly regarded by thise that are not from the city.  It is indeed a large and somewhat chaotic city, but we are very much enjoying our time here.  We are staying in the central part of the city, within easy walking distance of many of the popular sites.  This area of the city is rather gritty, with many buildings in a rough state of repair or already demolished.  When you look carefully at the buildings, however, you realize that many of them were at one time quite elegant.  Like much of Eastern Europe, the late-19th and early-20th century was a time of prosperity, but the period since then has been more challenging.  There still does not seem to be the money or will to restore the formerly gracious buildings, with the default being demolition and new construction.

It is a pleasure to wander around Sofia, whether it is the central residential area, or the public edifice district.  There are treasures scattered about, such as 6th century churches and extensive Roman ruins.  There is one church, the St. George or Rotunda church, that claims to be the oldest church in Europe that has been in continuous use.  This may be a bit of a stretch, but it is remarkable to see fragments of five layers of frescoes, including one from when it was in use as a mosque.

All that remains of our summer trip is one more trip to the breakfast smorg trough, and a cab ride to the airport.  We’ll be home soon Russell.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Birthday at the Spa

Gordon:  After a little internet research I am able to pose the rhetorical question: in what way can I be distinguished from George Patton, Carrie Fisher, Teddy Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge, Paul Klee, the Shah of Iran, and Leon Trotsky?  While clearly they are all famous and I am known only to my blog audience of a dozen, and a handful of others, the distinguishing fact I am seeking is that we all celebrated a 60th birthday, but I am the only one to go on to a 61st.

Yes, today is my birthday.  And because the arc of our travels has brought us to the spa town of Velingrad, Ruth decided that we should book ourselves into a spa hotel to celebrate the event.  At several times our usual outlay, or about the cost of the most basic hotel room in Victoria, we are spending a night at the Royal Spa Hotel, accommodation so luxurious that it has its own flag.

While other guests float about the expansive premises with an air of assurance, it has been a bit of a learning curve for us.  When we first presented ourselves at the door of the spa area, the English speaking employee was noticeably uncomfortable with our attire; he kept glancing at my shoes while explaining the usual dress, access to towels, and the pools and treatments available.  We retreated to our room and returned clad in the heavy terry cloth robes and sandals that are standard dress here.

We spent the afternoon flitting from pool to pool to sauna.  There are a daunting number of them: hot pools, tepid pools, jacuzzi pools, cold shock pools, indoor pools, outdoor pools, Roman bath pools, a Russian bath, a Finnish sauna, a salt sauna, and the list goes on.  It has been a lot of fun, but I am sceptical about the health benefits claimed for our frolic.  For instance, the infrared sauna claimed we would burn 300 to 800 kcals in 30 minutes.  The lower figure is roughly the energy needed for a 5 km run, which we were not doing inside the sauna.  In any event, I will admit to starting my 62nd year in a comfortably relaxed and very clean state.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Dospat to Batak

Gordon:  This morning we climbed 300 metres above Dospat and then spent most of the remainder of the day on an undulating plateau at around 1500 metres.  It was quite reminiscent of Canada, with a mature conifer forest, a number of lakes, and no towns in the 50 km ride.  We did meet about a dozen Bulgarian cyclists, out for tours of four days to a week.  Long-distance cyclists are rare in Bulgaria: in three weeks we have met only three other foreigners on bike.  This is a shame, as we have found Bulgaria to be an excellent country for cycle touring.

After reaching an elevation of 1667 metres, our high point for the trip, we descended 600 metres through beautiful conifer and beech forests to the town of Batak.  This is a pleasant but nondescript town that nonetheless has a prominent place in Bulgarian history.  In May, 1876, during the struggle for independence from the Ottoman Empire, it was the scene of a particularly horrific massacre.  About 80 percent of the town, some 5,000 people, were killed by Ottoman irregulars in a saga of deceit and cruelty.  (Stomach turning details can be found in the Wikipedia article.)  The event is commemorated by a museum in town, as well as two glassed ossuaries in the former church.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Rhodope Gorges

Ruth: We have spent the last three nights in towns within about 10 kms of each other, but each is located up a different valley and hidden behind deep gorges. The road up the Buinovo Gorge,  that we have been exploring for the past two days, might even rival the Trigrad Gorge that I earlier proclaimed as my best ride ever. I am not travelling with a GoPro but here is a link of  a video showing one of  the narrowest bits. 

Yesterday we visited the Iagodina cave and then climbed up a steep road to spend the night in a town of the same name. I rested while Gord hiked up to the Eagle Eye, a viewpoint cantilevered over a precipice with views in all directions. 

The people in the Rhodopes are so friendly and we have been having fun communicating with them. Sometimes the conversation is carried out completely with google translate and sometimes with the help of a son or daughter who speaks English.  The Rhodopian food has also been a delightful treat. Two of my favourite dishes are Patatnik,  made with grated potatoes, onions and flavoured with spearmint and Tarator, a cold cucumber and yogurt soup. Our hosts in Iagodina sent us off with a large lump of fresh homemade cheese made by grandma from their own cow’s milk. We were again treated to a feast of Rhodopian food here in Kojari.

Gordon:  We went for two interesting hikes today, each a couple of hours in length.  In the morning we walked up from the Iagodina gorge to the Devil’s Bridge.  This is not the Roman bridge of the same name that we thought we were headed for, but a natural arch over a shockingly deep and narrow canyon.  The walk was simply wild: like sections of the West Coast Trail, but with the added exhilaration of rustic Bulgarian engineering, or perhaps like an easy via ferrata without the annoying ropes and carabiners.  It was physically challenging and very beautiful.

This afternoon we walked the five kilometres from our hotel to the Greek border.  The town of Kojari has a pleasant end-of-the-world feel, with rural charm and friendly locals.  Along the way we met a cowherder with a herd of dairy cattle and a pet calf named “Africa”.  The calf was entirely focussed on the cowherder, and bawled when called by his name.  The cowherder gestured that the calf was his great love.

We were curious how the border would be demarcated.  It is a Schengen boundary, and portions of Greece’s northern border are heavily fortified.  As it turned out, the border is just a cutline in the forest, like much of the US - Canada border in B.C.

On this trip we have now cycled 1,850 kms, covering the distance between the borders of the Ukraine and Greece.

Friday, August 17, 2018


Gordon:  Ruth thinks that today’s blog should be titled “The Best Ride Ever” because neither of us can recall a more beautiful single day of cycling.  Perhaps it’s just the recency effect.

We only covered 40 kms, descending 300 vertical metres, and then climbing 500.  The descent followed a river for 17 kms of gentle downhill.  The human infrastructure was limited to a few minute villages, a couple of small hydro dams, and a series of fish farms with trout in tiers of concrete pens paralleling the river.  Life always seems more beautiful and harmonious during a long, gentle coast on a bicycle, particularly in the early morning light.

The ascent was through the Trigrad gorge, and except for a short section around the Devil’s Throat cave, it was well graded.  The gorge itself is spectacular, with a crystal clear river running beside the twisting road through an increasingly narrow canyon.  At the narrowest point the river disappears entirely, plummeting through the well-known Devil’s Throat cave.  The cave is alleged to be the place where Orpheus led Ariadne from the underworld, until he turned to look at here and she had to return to Hades forever.  If true, Hades is a damp and noisy place.  The enormous cavern is continually filled with the roar and moisture of the 40 metre waterfall.  The stairs paralleling the waterfall were actually unsettling, with such narrow steps and steep pitch that I think they were technically a series of ladders.  It was a great experience, and one to make you appreciate the sunlight when you emerge.

The town of Trigrad, where we are staying, is only a few kilometres from the border with Greece.  Earlier in our trip, in northern Romania, we were only 100 metres from the border with the Ukraine.  It is remarkable to think that we have cycled from the Ukraine to Greece: although I think of them as having completely different climates, they are physically not that far apart.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Shiroka Laka

Gordon:  Today we climbed almost 900 metres to pass the ski resorts of Chepelare and Pamporovo, before coasting down to the traditional village of Shiroka Laka.  The ski resorts were unappealing out of season, but Shiroka Laka is delightful.  The village rises on the valley walls along irregular, cobblestone streets.  Many traditional homes have been preserved and restored.  It has become a modest tourist destination, so efforts have been made to build new structures in a manner that reflects the older homes.  

Our guesthouse is at the top of the village, but we could hear when one of the tourist buses had stopped at the central square below us.  It was not the sound of the voices, but the distinctive notes from cowbells, a popular local product, being tested.

Shiroka Laka is at an elevation of 1,050 metres, so the temperatures are pleasantly moderated.  While it was 32 degrees today in Plovdiv, the maximum in Shiroka Laka was only a comfortable 22 degrees.

Our guesthouse has a lounge and kitchen so we were able to cook for ourselves, which we enjoy doing from time to time.  However, it means that I have to write today’s blog, because Ruth is incapacitated by the litre of beer and pound of baklava we had for dessert.

We don’t always stay in dumps, despite my frugality