Serbia – Bulgaria Bike Ride
Rather than sitting on the beach in Mangalia, Romania all summer I took a 17 day bike excursion taking advantage of many good Eastern European hostels. I started by taking a sleeper train to Drobeta Turnu Severin, Romania where a dam crosses the Danube and has border crossing facilities to Kladovo, Serbia. I biked from the station to the dam and across the border into Serbia. I was planning to take a bus 50 km from Kladovo to Negotin as I had previously biked this route, but the weather was good with a tailwind, so I decided to bike all the way to Zajechar, 130 km. There were beautiful views along the Danube, with many vacation homes and a few public beaches. There were lots of hills on the way and I was quite tired when I arrived. There are no hostels in Zajechar, but I found a two star hotel with a good hot breakfast, wifi and cable for about 40 euros.
The next day I had a 100 km ride to Nish with a climb from 130 meters to 730 meters, which sounded daunting. After a flat ride in the morning to Knjazevac I started up the mountain. It was a continuous climb for about 15 km to a high plain. I walked most of the way. I could ride periodically but my legs tired quickly and my 20” Dahon Mariner doesn’t have a very low gear. After reaching the top I expected several more ups and downs, but the rest of the day was generally level or down with a pleasant descent into the large interesting city of Nish. I spent two nights in Nish so I could do some sightseeing and rest. Nish has a large Turkish fortress, a Roman settlement, and a WWII concentration camp. The tourist office in the fortress was open until 8:00 pm and gave me directions to the Nis Hostel which I had found on Hostelz.com. It was small, clean, and friendly with English speaking staff. The dorm bed cost 10 euros. Breakfast wasn’t included, but there was a good kitchen, so I picked up some groceries and made my own.
From Nish I headed up the Nishava River 115 km to Bulgaria. The road climbed steadily through a scenic gorge. The road was narrow with quite a few trucks, but by going slowly and carefully I had no problems. There were about 15 tunnels but they had a small sidewalk so I could get off the road a walk when needed. I don’t think any of them were longer than 400 meters and most were much shorter. I took a side road into the town of Pirot to get away from the traffic a bit and get lunch. It was drizzling a bit but the streets were full of bikes as were the parking racks at the factories. It’s nice to see a city that appreciates bicycles. Bekescsaba, Hungary is similar, but I haven’t seen any place in Romania where practical bicycle use is widespread. After passing through Dimitrovgrad the road left the headwaters of the river and climbed more steeply to Dragoman, Bulgaria. I rode into town looking for accommodation, but found nothing, so I returned to the main road and immediately found a new small hotel for 10 euros and had a pleasant night.
It was only 60 km to Sofia so the next day was an easy ride on a beautiful sunny morning. I stopped at McDonalds on the outskirts of Sofia, my first McDonalds in Europe this year. As I ate I visit with some young Bulgarian boys who had also biked there, but lived nearby. They knew a little English and I know a little Bulgaria, so we could chat a bit. The hostel in Nish recommended the Hostel Mostel in central Sofia, a restored 19th century inn. It was in a convenient location with good facilities and a friendly staff. They included a cold breakfast and spaghetti each evening. I did some bike repairs, sightseeing and ate in an excellent traditional restaurant. I am a big fan of the Bulgarian dishes served in ceramic pots, generally called guvech. I met two Korean girls there who also had the map from the hostel in their hand. We chatted and took pictures of each other in the folk setting. Later that evening we discovered we were dorm mates. We chatted some more and swapped Facebook addresses. They had been studying in Russia for a year and were doing some sightseeing before returning home.
The next morning I took on the most challenging day. Sofia is at 570 meters and my destination, Koprivshtitsa, is over 1000 with several mountains in between. I used two Garmin GPS’s: an Etrex for elevation and long distance navigation, and a Nuvi for the cities. The Nuvi will only operate about two hours without recharging. The Etrex has no maps, but I put in coordinates from Google Earth for my destinations and it will run all day on two sets of rechargeable AA batteries. There was an abundance of roadside grills so food was no problem. I passed through several interesting towns and at the last decided to take a back road to the Koprivshtitsa exit. The road looked good on the map and started well, but soon deteriorated to dirt and gravel. I stayed with it until there was a connection back to the main road where I switched back. The side road did connect again at the end as shown. I climbed about 1000 meters for the first time here. After a steep descent and another climb I arrived in Koprivshtitsa. It was getting dark, around 9:00 pm, so I found a room at a two star hotel for 20 euros with hot breakfast, wifi, and cable. The next day was rainy so I decided to stay and visit the 19th century museum houses. I had seen them about 13 years ago and not much had changed but it was nice to see them again. They demonstration the courage of the young patriots in their revolt against the occupying Turks. Most of the patriots didn’t live to 30.
The next morning was sunny again so I set out expecting a long downhill ride to Kazanlak in the Valley of Roses. This area is the leading producer of rose oils for perfume. Unfortunately the road didn’t go gradually down, but up and down most of the day. I stopped in Karlovo for lunch and to visit the Vasil Levski museum. Levski is another of the the patriots and the Sofia football team is named for him. Karlovo also has a large army base and the street were full of soldiers at lunch. I continued on to Kazanlak where I had found a hostel/rooming house listed in Hostelz.com. I didn’t have a good map and was having trouble finding it. I asked a biking couple if they could tell me where it was. They said they were members of Couchsurging.org, a bed exchange site for travellers, and invited me to stay with them. I once belonged to a similar pre-internet group, the Pilots B&B Fly-in Club. I accepted, but we went and found the new hostel, Cubiquie, just for information. It was open but not yet in full operation.
The next day I start out toward Sliven again hoping for a long downhill ride, but once again the route was crossing streams, not following them. The scenery was less interesting in the low country, but there were several pretty lakes. My destination was Yambol and Sliven was about 5 km off the main road so I decided to skip it. I reviewed the map and found a better route would have left the main road and gone to Nova Zagora and down a valley to Yambol. I chose Yambol because it is a district seat of 70,000, but I had never seen anything about it in tourist guides. I also like the Cyrillic name ямбол. I bought a city map and guide and picked the Arfa Hotel near the city center which looked inexpensive. It looked a bit dodgy with a no pistols sign on the door, but when I got to the room I found it charming. It had hardwood furniture, attractive paintings and a balcony, though it was locked for security. The restaurant downstairs was similarly attractive. The cost was 16 euros without breakfast or internet, but with cable. There were many cafes with free wifi on the nearby pedestrian area. The Yambol Mall about 200 meters away had a large grocery store on the basement floor. I was charmed but saddened by Yambol. You could tell it was once a beautiful prosperous city with an elegant park on an island formed by the river flowing through town, but many of the park facilities were shut down including the boating facility which had an excellent location for paddleboats or rowboats. There was a covered Turkish market in the pedestrian area which once housed stylish shops, but only on clothing store operated in the inner area and several of the outer shops were shut down. The surrounding area was covered with fields of sunflowers and wheat and agriculture seemed to be the only significant industry. I’m tempted to move to the city and see if I could lease the boating facility, restore it and spend my time knocking about on the water.
The primary destination of the trip was Burgas. I had previously biked down the Danube to the Delta in Romania and from Romania through Burgas to Istanbul, so this trip would be another link from the Danube to the Black Sea. One again the road was up and down as I hoped to follow one valley down to the sea. The must have been a thriving brick industry as the houses along the way were brick, they had brick fences, and at Sredets the streets were brick. After Sredets the road finally became fairly flat and as I enter Burgas there was a new bike path beside the road. Burgas seemed much cleaner and in better repair than on my previous visit six years ago. I followed the signs to the tourist information office, but when I reached the indicated area I could find no sign of it. I had addresses of two hostels, but no phone numbers. I found the location of the first, but there was no sign of a hostel. After wandering a bit I found the second, the Burgas Hostel. The manager was welcoming, spoke good English and got me a bed in a dorm, with a Norwegian roommate. There were guests from Japan, England, and some Americans who were working in Turkey. There was no breakfast, but once again cooking facilities, so I fixed French toast each morning. The manager was more focused on the arts than hostel formalities and the decorations were pleasant and there were impromptu jam sessions from time to time. I needed some major repairs at this time as my wheel bearings were worn out after 10,000 km with lots of baggage over the seven years on that bike. I replaced the entire rear wheel and the crank set as the chain ring had been bent by the airlines and I’d never been able to get it straight again. I didn’t notice that the sidewall of the tire was failing and unfortunately didn’t replace it. I visited a fantastic exhibit of Thracian Gold at the Sea Pavilion. It included a mask of about 600 grams of near pure gold.
As I had previously ridden from Varna to Burgas, I planned to take a bus or train back, but the weather was good, I was feeling good and the bike seemed to be in good shape so I decided to ride. About 40 km out at Slanchev Brag (Sunny Beach) resort is a mountain that goes from sea level to 450 meters in about seven km. I rode some and walked most. As I neared the top I saw someone coming up behind me and I thought it was someone on a better bicycle, but it turned out to be a Russian woman on road skis training for the Olympics. She went right by me, but there is a spring at the mountain top and I caught up and got to speak to her there. As I started down the mountain I saw that the side of the tire was starting to open up. I had a tire liner in the tire and it kept the tube from blowing, but the split had opened up about five cm and it didn’t look safe to ride down the mountain. A Romanian once repaired a similar failure for me by sewing it with some polyethylene line but I decided it was better just to go back to plan A and take the bus to Varna. I packed the bike in its bag and a bus came by in about half an hour and soon I was in Varna. There is a mall beside the Varna bus station with a Carrefour store which had some bike tires, but not 20 inch ones. I walked the bike to the Yo Ho Hostel in the center of the tourist area and got a dorm bed for three nights. On Sunday I found a Bulgarian 20” tire, maybe 30 years old, in a market and put it on the bike. The folding hinge pin on the bike broke a few years ago and I had replaced it with a bolt, that now looked rather rusty, so I decided I’d better replace it too. When I tried to remove it, the head broke off and the bolt was rusted in so badly even soaking it all night it WD40 didn’t get it out. On Monday I wen t to an auto shop and after pounding for a while they had to drill it out. This done, I put in a new, better bolt and was back on the road. I was planning to ride the bike the 100 km back to Mangalia, but I got a call from a friend that someone wanted to make an offer on my apartment.
I got the first bus to Shabla in the morning and biked the last 40 km from there. As I crossed the border I picked up the new EU funded bike path from the border to village Doi Mai. As I passed through Vama Veche, the first Romanian town after the border, I rolled over 1000 km for the seventeen day excursion. I rode on to the real estate office and the prospective buyer said they had decided to think about it for a few more days, and that’s the last I heard from them. After a week at the apartment and a serious beach weekend, I’m ready for the road again.
Link to Facebook photo album – https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.222326787799423.60714.100000663101480&type=1&l=3a17f81a04