I’m really starting to get towards the end of Europe now as currently I’m in Plovdiv in Bulgaria, the last country before Turkey and Asia. The weather is starting to really hot up – 37 degrees the max so far – but the days are long, the scenery beautiful and the food tasty.
Heading out of Belgrade I again followed the Danube, unfortunately on the hilly side – I looked jealously across and over to the plains to the north. 2 days (and another needless climb) and I passed into the Iron Gates where the Danube carves a gorge and border between Serbia and the Balkan Mountains to the South, and Romania and the Carpathians to the North. Blasting through the entrance, with the rocks towering both sides and Foo Fighters blaring through my headphones was a fantastic moment. The gorge lasts for about 80 miles, so over the course of a day and half I ploughed along the Romanian side. At the eastern end the scenery is the most spectacular and it reminded me of the Gates of Argonath – although instead of Isildur looking down it was Decebalus, the last king of Dacia and defender against the Romans. Awe inspiring stuff.
I scratched my head and checked the map for the third time, still wondering how I had missed it. “Petrohan Pass – 1444m” (Ben Nevis is 1345m for reference) – clear as day slap bang in the middle of Montana and Sofia and my planned route for the day. The former should have given it away really, translating literally as Mountain, but somehow on my route planning I had contrived to miss the Strana Planina, or the Balkan Mountains. This chain gives the whole area its name and stands in between the Danube and Sofia, my next target. I had turned off my favoured river after crossing into Bulgaria at Vidin, where the first Bulgarian I spoke to asked “Can I have 1 Euro please?”. Heading south the terrain became more lumpy, culminating in the Petrohan pass.
A quick google of the road didn’t assuage my nerves, as the top hit was a website called dangerousroads.org. Fortunately though I climbed on a Saturday, when the traffic was quieter. It was a long climb, about 20km of solid climbing at roughly 6% (at a guess) but eventually I crested the top, although the pub and beer I had been savouring didn’t materialise. I wild camped at the top as my legs were shot, then easily ate up the 50km downhill to Sofia the next day.
Humbled in Sofia
Sofia is a charming, relaxed and varied city. Mike McRitchie from Dunblane (he was taught tennis by Judy Murray!) was my host for one night whilst the other night I slept in the basement of a bike shop! The chaps at Sofia Bike Rental were typical bike mechanics – relaxed, friendly and with a layer of grease that will never quite go away, no matter how much it’s scrubbed – and most importantly they had a cold beer in hand for me when I arrived.
I stayed two days in Sofia, with Mike showing me the main sites on his bike on the first day. We ate delicious Bulgarian Pork (my second lunch that day), shared some beers and hung out to some Guided By Voices – a perfect rest day. The second day, Jean arrived at the bike shop, heavily laden on a touring bike also – she had cycled solo from China, pretty much exactly the reverse of the route I plan to do. We hit it off straight away and spent pretty much the next 5 hours just talking all things touring – I also got some invaluable tips from her about Central Asian beaucracy. I was also very much humbled (in a good way) as I was starting to get rather pleased with myself for reaching Eastern Europe – it was a reminder I have a long way to go!
Plovdiv – an unxepected surprise
Plovdiv is Bulgaria’s second city and until I arrived, one I knew very little about – apart from that it was on my route. It’s been a delight though, containing an extremely well preserved Roman Ampitheatre and seating for the Roman race track they had here. It’s also going to be European Capital of Culture in 2019 and I can see why, with the Ampitheatre regularly hosting productions and music events, along with a fine selection of galleries and with buskers on every corner – it seems a relaxed and artsy place. Throw in a friendly host, cheap watermelon and charming backstreets and it’s been a welcome resting point.
I now look to the east and should arrive in Turkey by the end of the week, where the real fun begins. A big route decision awaits as well – follow the Black Sea (cooler, but more touristy) or head to the centre (mountainous, hotter, but more interesting)? I’ll decide in Constantinople.
Pics from the last few days: