Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Melnik

Gordon:  The 86 km ride from Blagoevgrad to Melnik was fast, pretty and varied.  We passed through another canyon (popular for whitewater rafting) and a number of traditional villages before climbing into the hills that surround Melnik.  Our tripometer turned over 4,500 km during the ride.


Melnik is a node on the tourist circuit.  This is not a bad thing, as it means that there is comfortable accommodation, great food, and more than typical attention to maintaining the historic character and appearance.  The small town, with a fraction of its original population prior to the withdrawal of its Greek residents in 1923, is attractively nestled in a dramatic landscape of hoodoos (the Bulgarians call them "pyramids"). It is a wine producing area, famous for its robust reds, which we had the pleasure of sampling.  Winston Churchill reputedly had wine from the area shipped to him by the barrel.





We made an excursion by bike today to the 13th century monastery at the nearby village of Rozhen.  It is a tranquil place, with an atmospheric church in which a solitary monk was singing throughout our entire visit.  There are some great 16th century murals, including a depiction of a ladder to heaven from which unworthy sinners are being dragged by nasty devils.





Monday, September 26, 2016

The Rila Mountains

I


September 26, 2016
Ruth: After leaving Sofia we followed the Iskar River into the stunning Rila Mountains. I should mention that before making it to the city limits my beloved Pocket Earth navigation app took us on a road into a very impoverished neighbourhood. We waited patiently for the pack of dogs chasing the pony cart to pass before retracing our steps to Kansas. 

The forests and mountains of Bulgaria are wild and beautiful. Our route was partially dictated by the location of available accommodation because it was Bulgaria's Independence Day long weekend. We stayed our first night at Alec's guest house in Samokov. The owner, also a cyclist, gave us a welcome that made us feel like we were long lost family members. His wife explained that he just really feels a love and bond with cyclists.  He proudly showed us his collection of bikes and told us that his dream is to cycle around the world one day. When breakfast arrived the next morning it was the most splendid spread I have ever encountered. Crepes piled high with bread, cheese, meat, cucumbers, tomatoes! Perfect!

We wanted to visit the Rila Monastery but the cycling logistics were a bit daunting. In particular, it would have involved a climb of 1000 meters. We cycled instead to Blagoevgrad where we were able to take a bus and taxi up to see the most beloved place in Bulgaria. We arrived in the morning and had the place virtually to ourselves. At 1200 meters it was cold and the sun was just creeping down the walls. 










This place is pure magic for Gord. The Rila Monastery is not only set in a stunning, narrow valley surrounded by peaks of up to 2900 meters, but it also has some excellent last judgement murals depicting the horrendous consequences of bad behaviour. For some unexplained reason my husband has always delighted in these. 



I did steal the camera to take some shots of some of the "happier" murals  which cover the exterior of the church.








Friday, September 23, 2016

Sofia

Gordon:  It took us two days to cycle from Vratsa to Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria.  We came via a beautiful secondary road up the Ishkar gorge.  At times it was reminiscent of cycling in B.C.: excellent road surfacing, light traffic, and a mountainous, treed landscape.  There was the odd 14th century monastery, however, to remind us that we were not in North America.





Sofia is an ancient city, but it suffered so much damage in the Second World War (news to me) that most of the buildings are relatively new.  Much of the built landscape could use a little work, but it is a pleasant and easy city to visit.  Of particular note for hungry cyclists is the availability of cheap and excellent food.  Restaurants tend to have lengthy menus, with an emphasis on various chunks of meat, but there is almost always a selection of pastas and pizzas.  While it may not be traditional Bulgarian food, their interpretations of Italian classics are generally excellent.  And who can argue with a half litre of beer that costs less than one euro?

We have visited a number of excellent monuments and museums during our time in Sofia.  This morning we went to the St. George Rotunda church, which was constructed in the 4th century.  It is a little hard to find, because it is almost completely surrounded by the Sheraton Hotel.  We should be grateful that the hotel did not demolish the church for a parking garage, because St. George is a jewel.  In the interior there are five laters of frescoes, and you can see them peeled back like layers on an onion.  Particularly notable are the 4th century frescoes, just because they are so old, and the 12th century ones, because they are surprisingly graceful and beautiful.


This afternoon we cycled 10 kms up the flank of Mount Vitosha (the 2200 metre peak just south of town) to visit the Boyana Church.  This is a tiny, 11th century church with UNESCO world heritage status.  The interior is completely covered with frescoes, one room painted in the 11th century, and the other in the 13th.  The UNESCO status was granted for the frescoes painted in 1259, which are thought to anticipate the Renaissance.




Monday, September 19, 2016

Storm watching in Vratsa Bulgaria



Looking out of our hotel window in Vratsa before the thunderstorms. 

Ruth: September 19, 2016
Yesterday we cycled down to the Danube to a ferry to cross over to Bulgaria. Our final morning in Romania was hot, dry and rural. It was great to see the Danube again, but we were both glad that we made the decision to explore more of Northern Romania rather than stick to the Eurovelo route along the river. The cycle route is on a road that is a few kilometres from the river and the section we saw was pretty bleak compared to the wonderful places we visited in Romania. 


I always feel a little nervous when entering a new country, and with Bulgaria it was no different. In Bulgaria the language barrier is greater and with Cyrillic script - reading signs is almost impossible. My two greatest travel crutches, the Pocket Earth app and booking.com, also are much less useful in Bulgaria. Pocket Earth relies on open maps, and without individuals contributing local information the maps of this area are much less detailed. 

After crossing the ferry we made our way into the first town and sat down for a beer to get our bearings. Although they did not speak any English, the locals were eager to talk and help us to arrange accommodation at the Hotel Central next door. It is a tired Soviet style monstrosity with an advertisement featuring an exotic dancer right on the front. Not our first choice, but after being told at the only other option in town that the room had not been cleaned and even if we waited an hour there was no guarantee it would be, we headed back to the Hotel Central. As the only guests in the hotel that night, our host Emily gave us the biggest corner room.  Her friendly welcome made me feel very hopeful about travelling in Bulgaria.  We never saw any exotic dancers. 


The Hotel Central in Oryahovo

The next day we cycled to Vratsa, a popular small city near an amazing gorge, and booked into the best hotel in town to wait out the predicted thunderstorms. What a treat!  We ended up in a room with a panoramic view of the mountains and the town. Oh, and did I mention, there is a pool and spa? Needless to say we are spending an extra day here to wait out the rain and to enjoy our luxurious hotel. 









Saturday, September 17, 2016

Our last and best night in Romania




Gordon:  Last night we were ambling about the town of Caracal when we chanced upon an Orthodox Church that was open.  The churches are generally locked, but this one was being straightened up following a wedding.  The priest came out and gave us a tour in French and English, and then invited us to join he and his family for dinner.  Following our rule of never declining an invitation, we accepted.

The priest drove us to a large home that the parish is constructing to house needy members of the community.  His wife and three children were there, as were his brother and several other friends.  The meal was a special event traditionally held six weeks after the death of a family member, in this case the priest's mother.  We were given the seats of honour at the head of the table and plied with a variety of delicious foods and beverages.  The three children, aged 12, 17 and 19 (?) spoke excellent English, and we passed the evening in lively and entertaining conversation.  The bright and serious middle child, Sofia, sat across from us and provided translation, when necessary, as well as well-informed commentary.  Upon learning that we are Canadian, the priest's eccentric older brother, a fan of classic rock, told us how much he admired Leonard Cohen and Rush.

At the end of the evening we were given gifts of food, including buns with candles that are traditionally lit the following morning.  The priest drove us on a tour of the town, highlighting the beautiful Victorian mansions, the drab communist era blocks, and the flamboyant mansions of the wealthy Roma (a rare but noteworthy demographic).

We feel deeply honoured to have been included in this traditional family event.  It is experiences like these that are the best moments in travel.  Sofia is now Facebook friends with Ruth, so we will be able to maintain some connection in the future.






Thursday, September 15, 2016

They're baaack


Gordon:  It turns out that we and the housekeeper were not the only residents of the Swiss style chalet a couple of nights ago.  We were once again sharing our bed with a few bedbugs.  It takes a day or two for the bites to swell and become itchy, so unless you actually see the bugs it is often not immediately apparent that you have been bitten.  We also go through several stages of denial before we will acknowledge that the bites are caused by bedbugs: "It's a mosquito bite", "It's a spider bite", "It's an allergic reaction to unicorn saliva."  Finally we acknowledge the clear reality and turn our minds to how we can avoid carrying the disgusting beasties to another hotel or our own house. We have actually been quite pleased to go for so long without encountering bedbugs; our median number of travel days before being bitten is about 50, and on this trip we made it to almost 70 days.  

We had another first today: after cycling over 3,800 kms we had our first flat tire of the trip.  A shoutout to Marathon tires, well-known to long distance cyclists for reducing the chance of having a flat.

We are spending the night in Curtes de Arges, which was the capital of Wallachia prior to Bucharest.  Little remains of the former princely palace, but there are two fine churches that can be visited.  


The interior of the 13th century St. Nicholas church is almost completely covered with frescos, many dating to the 14th century. They include a rare depiction of a pregnant Virgin Mary, as well as a passion sequence that shows Christ as one of three cross bearing convicts.




We also visited the 16th century church at the Curtea de Arges Monastery.  To say it shows Moorish influence is an understatement:  it appears to be a mosque built in the form of a church.  There are extensive frescos in the interior, as well as so much gold leaf that the dimly lit space glows.  A most unusual and beautiful church.



Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Best Bike Ride of the Trip: The Carpathians


Gordon:  Today we had a ride through the Hobbit Shire that was probably the best outing of our journey (so far).  

We started the day at our pension at the 1000 metre level in the foothills of the Carpathians.  Other than the caretaker and her husband, we were the only residents of the gorgeous three-storey Swiss style house.  The tourist season, and summer, are winding to a close.  We frequently find ourselves rattling about in accommodations and restaurants designed to serve a much larger clientele.  The trees are also starting to change colours, and we have seen some beautiful displays of wild fall crocuses.


Because we are trying to linger in this stunning area, I was able to persuade Ruth to do an 18 km side trip that passed through a number of small villages.  What a gorgeous outing!  It took us a couple of hours to complete the loop, since we had to stop so frequently to take pictures.  The light was perfect, the air was cool (another recent change) and the landscape was endlessly compelling.  Like the Swiss Alps, the area has that mixture of wild nature and human cultivation that can be so attractive.  Also notable were a number of Victorian era houses in various states of repair.  The region has an air of comparative prosperity, and that state apparently also prevailed a century ago.


We climbed up to about 1200 metres, before making a rapid descent to 600 metres.  The end of the ride had one more scenic surprise, in the form of a limestone canyon that narrowed to the width of the road.  

It will be hard to top this morning's ride, but every day presents a new opportunity.