Bicycle tour Carpathian & Balkan mountains


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Wednesday 2 July, Baile Herculane - Vidin, 167 km

Because of the expected heat (>35c), I left Baile Herculane very early in the morning.
Followed the Danube river which passed a narrow gorge, the so called Portile de Fier (Iron Gate). Beyond the industrial city Dobreta Turnu Severin the route was quite long and boring. It got hotter as i reached Calafat. From this harbour town I passed the border without trouble and took the ferry to the Bulgarian city Vidin.

The first impressions of Bulgaria were good. Vidin seemed more wealthy compared with the Romanian cities, the city centre had a large pedestrian area with many shops and outdoor cafes like we have here. In Romania I haven't seen anything like that, apart from a big city like Brasov. The shops and gas stations I visited later during my ride, offered more products than the shops in Romania. The roads in general were better, often pretty good, although there were some bad sections too. Another thing that surprised me was the lack of traffic.

As I arrived in Vidin I had to get used to a different language and the Cyrillic script on all the street signs, shops etc. In the centre I met two other experienced cycle tourists, Jean-Pierre and Betty. A 50+ couple from Colmar, France, who followed the Danube river all the way from source (Black Forest) to Delta (Romania). They were planning to continue their trip through Turkey with a final destination in Syria. At the campground we exchanged information about our journeys until late. Mainly in French, although Betty spoke a little German as well.

Thursday 3 July, Vidin-Belogradchik-Lopushanski, 120 km

After having said goodbye to the French couple, I headed early in the morning to Belogradchik, a very picturesque town. The lack of traffic, even on the main highway to Sofia, surprised me. And hardly traffic at all after i took the turn to Belogradchik. In the villages I passed there seemed no shops (maybe people in those villages seemed self-supporting) contained). In Romania on the contrary, every small village seemed to have a number of grocery stores.

As I approached Belogradchik the nature got more scenic which meant I had to climb again. I encountered two aggressive dogs, who were not used to cyclists in this empty region. Both dogs attacked my panniers and I had a narrow escape.
Finally i managed to reach Belogradchik unharmed. The location of the city was quite spectacular, amongst beautifully shaped, high red rock formations. It reminded me very much of Utah. After Belogradcik I cycled to the Lopushanski monastery. Part of monastery has been transformed into a guesthouse, where i stayed for the night. the owner, who spoke German, asked where I came from and told me he has visited my hometown Amersfoort a few times.

Ladies market, Sofia

Friday 4 July, Lopushanski-Sofia, 122 km

Early on the road to avoid the heat during the day. Past Berkovica i started the 20 km long climb till the 1420 m high Petrohan Pass. Luckily the road went through a forest with a lot of shade, so I had no problems with the heat.
The expected long descent to Sofia turned out to be a long, quite hilly up and down route, through a very scenic and sparsely populated area.

Early on the road to avoid the heat during the day. Past Berkovica i started the 20 km long climb till the 1420 m high Petrohan Pass. Luckily the road went through a forest with a lot of shade, so I had no problems with the heat.
The expected long descent to Sofia turned out to be quite a long while a very hilly up and down route, through very scenic and sparsely populated area though.

Finally, 10-15 km from Sofia, I had a long descent with a panoramic view on the valley in which the capital was situated at the foot of the 2000 m high mount Vitosha. The long, dusty and busy city roads full of market stands and kiosks reminded me of a western town.

I'm now staying in an apartment in downtown Sofia. My bicycle was taken upstairs too and is parked in the kitchen. The people who are living in the apartment combine work with college. It's nice to see they share the same musical taste as me (alternative music like Radiohead, Depeche mode, Nick Cave, Dead can Dance as well as Bulgarian folk music). This morning Mia has showed me part of the city before going to work. I will go soon return to the apartment, to watch on Eurosport the prologue of the Tour de France. Tomorrow I'll stay in Sofia, too hot for cycling and camping :-/

Monday 7 July, Sofia

Still in Sofia, it's too pleasant to leave :-)
After I'd finished my e-mail on Saturday, i went back to the apartment. Just in time home, before a very heavy thunderstorm with hail stones as big as eggs started. The temperatures have dropped now considerable, its now very pleasant, 25 c.
Sunday went with Mia by bus to mount Vitosha, to visit the Dragalevski monastery. Not as spectacular as the painted monasteries in Romania. As we arrived there, an orthodox ceremony took place, so I had to zip on my long trousers' legs onto my shorts before entering the monastery grounds.. ;-) Back in the apartment I enjoyed a local home made dish: tarator (cold soup made from cucumber, yoghurt, herbs and garlic), Shopska salad (salad from cucumber, tomato and Bulgarian white cheese), omelet and bread. Very tasty. Watched in the evening the latest reports of the Tour de France on Eurosport and some music channels on cable TV.
Today Petros, a student philosophy, showed me the city and i showed him my website here in the internet cafe. Tomorrows plans are a day or two to go hiking and camping in the mountains. I leave the bike here in Sofia and plan to travel by bus. I'll see who is able and willing to join me on this short trip.


Tuesday 8 July, Sofia-Bansko

With Mia I made a plan to hitch a ride to Bansko, a winter sports resort near the Pirin mountains. First we took a bus to Simeonovo, where Mia had to collect some stuff in her old room. Her old home is located in a quiet suburb of Sofia, on the foothills of Mount Vitosha. A short ride per bus brought us to the outskirts of town, where we’d hoped to get a ride further south. Hitch hiking in Bulgaria seemed not as usual and easy as Romania. But we got lucky and within one hour a truck driver offered us a ride. The truck was heading for Piraeus, Greece, with a load of -already melting- Nestle chocolate. Highway E79 Sofia-Athens is being transformed into a 4-lane motorway. The whole project is scheduled for the Olympic games in Athens, summer 2004. Seen from the truck cabin, the busy highway didn’t seem a pleasant cycling route, despite the scenic landscape. After a cup of coffee, offered by the friendly truck driver, we left the E79 and didn’t had to wait long for another ride to Razlog.
Three hours after we left Sofia we reached Bansko, a pleasant tourist resort at the base of the rugged Pirin mountains. In one of the many picturesque mehanas (inns) we enjoyed a regional speciality called gyuveche (clay pot filled with tomato, eggs, cheese and potatoes). It got already dark when we walked out of town to look for a place to camp. With the help of the light of the full moon we manage to find a relatively flat spot to pitch the tent close to a stream near the entrance of the national park

Wednesday 9 July, Bansko-Vihren hut, Pirin

As we woke up the following morning, the more then 5 stars Palace Hotel proved to be a good choice (tent in Bulgarian: palatka, literally small palace): a perfect view on the rugged Pirin mountain range. After we bought groceries and a hiking map in the village, we followed the yellow marked hiking trail to the Vihren hut, 1000 meters higher up the mountain. Everywhere along the road new buildings are constructed as well as a brand new cable car to the mountains. The construction workers seemed to prefer the many cafes or the shades under a tree above the working site.

The first part of the trail is well marked, and suspicious wide for a hiking trail. Soon this trail is transformed into a paved highway to one of the many ski runs. At the end of the constructed highway, the trail disappears into the woods. Due to lack of maintenance the trail is almost inaccessible by fallen trees and landslides. Having struggled our way through the wilderness for some time, we noticed another highway under construction just across a stream. This dirt road ended at an enormous site where a ski centre was being built. Higher on the hill we found the paved road from Bansko to the Banderitza hut. After a sop for a bowl of Tarator (cold soup made from krastavitsa=cucumber) in the local cafe, we continued the yellow route along the stream until the last hut, Vihren. The hut is beautifully located at the base of the mount Vihren, with 2914 m second highest summit of Bulgaria.

Because of the many mosquitoes we decided not to camp but opted for a bunk bed in one of the huts bungalows (foreigners were charged 4,5 euro, Bulgarian 3). In the evening we met other travellers in the cafe, like a Bulgarian studying the mountain environment, a German biologist doing research on Alpine insects and a group of Czech hikers. The Czech, a couple Petra and Georgy and three other guys, were making a hiking tour in the Bulgarian mountains. After a pleasant night in the cafe and many glasses of excellent Melnik wine, it’s hard to find my way back to the bungalow.

Thursday 10 July, Bansko

Had a very cold night in the bungalow. The following morning we planned to take a walk to the mountain lakes higher up the mountain. Petra was joining us, while her friends tried to hike up to the summit of Mount Vihren. Seemed a nice hike, but walking the rocky trails to the lakes on my bicycle shoes was a pretty strenuous already. The hike up to the lakes was very scenic and we enjoyed our time near the lakes, resting and making pictures. Following the lakes and streams we hiked back to the hut, to enjoy a good meal of soup, beans, tomatoes and fried cascaval (cheese). After lunch we walked down to the Banderitza hut to catch the last bus back to Bansko. Mia and I were guiding the Czech through the pcitureque town. In one of the inns we had some dinner, i’d tried the local Banitsa, a sweet pastry filled with honey. We camped near the same spot along the stream, just out of town.

Friday 11 July Bansko-Sofia

This time we'd planned not to hitch hike back to Sofia, and joined Petra & Georgy on the train to Velingrad. From there they'd planned to hike in the Rhodope en Rila mountains, before going home by train from Sofia via Belgrado to Prague.
The train journey Bansko-Velingrad was only 75 km, but we went very slow, it took us 3 hours to get to Velingrad.
The mountainous train ride was very scenic though, and we met interesting people in the train. Petra was very busy taking photographs of the passengers. The Czech language seemed for Bulgarian quite understandable, and I'm lucky that Mia can translate for me. In no time we met and talked with a lot of the other passengers. Most of them were thinking we're all foreigners, even Mia was regarded as Czech, speaking surprisingly good Bulgarian though ;-)

In this area of the Rhodope mountains, the majority of the people living here are Muslim from Turkish origin. Towns along the railway are dominated my minarets instead of church towers. One Muslim guy we met in the train is telling us the whole story of his life, which includes proudly showing all his papers (driver’s license, passport, bank and credit card, insurance papers). As he is working for the railway company, he had the opportunity to make several trips in Europe by train and even went to Holland a few times. He told me he was impressed by the Heineken brewery, Madam Tussaud and the canal boats.
Another guy (or was it one of the Czech?) was raving about the coffee shops and hash. Yet another one had some Turkish friends who drove buses to and from Amsterdam (probably transporting illegal workers we'd read about every now and then in the Dutch newspapers).

Anyway, after a pleasant train ride we finally arrived at Velingrad, and said goodbye to the Czech. Another train ride followed, through some spectacular scenery of canyons until the last station, Septemvri. The railway guy invited us for a cup of coffee in a cafe, before our train to Sofia departed. This train was a very comfortable and fast intercity, stopping only in one suburb station in Sofia.

Thursday 17 July, Sofia

Sofia is quite a pleasant city with many beautiful churches and different cultures, on the threshold between Europe and Asia.
For the rest, it's not exceptional, just another big capitol. Surprisingly there are not too many big stores downtown. Apart from a few shopping malls, I never saw a big supermarket, large book store nor record store. Most of the shopping took place at market stands along the streets, or at the lively and colourful Zhenski Pazar (Ladies market).

Yesterday Eli showed me around to shop for records and books. On the (black) market a CD costs about 7 Lev (3,5 euro). The book stores we visited were quite small. At one CD store we'd visited they were very friendly and offered good advice about the local folk music. At the Garibaldi cafe I scanned some photos from my Bulgaria pictures, which I uploaded on the internet.

In the evening Mia took me to the Lodkite, an outdoor bar in a sinister looking area, where the local youth gathered for a beer and music. She met a friend who now lives and works in the Netherlands. He’d spend his holidays here together with his Dutch girlfriend. It was a pleasant surprise to meet her and talk Dutch again.

Yesterday Georgy and Petra arrived from their hiking trip in the Rhodopes. We went together downtown and brought them in the evening to the train station. Until now it was the only place where I noticed criminal activity. First Petra's wallet was nearly stolen by three gypsy women. Later a man showed up, demanding we should hurry for the Beograd train. He wanted to carry Georgy's bag, but of course Georgy didn't allow him. At the train he asked money for his "help". After the Czech rewarded him with a few stutinki, he left disappointed. In the centre you see the usual beggars, begging mothers with little children, glue sniffing children. It reminded me of South American cities like Lima rather than a European city. I haven't seen the slums though... Well, I have seen some slums, but that was in Romania, where gypsies lived in ruins or huts made from plastic and wood... :-/

Often Sofia reminded me from Amsterdam, with all those trams. Only without cyclists, only a very few here in the streets...

Tomorrow I plan to leave Sofia with Mia, first part by train. The slow trains are cheap and have a luggage compartment for the bicycle. In the weekend we visit Melnik, where Bulgarian wines are produced. From Melnik, it's a day or two cycling to Thessaloniki, from where I'll take the plane back home.

Saturday 19 July, Sandanski

With my loaded bicycle we walked to the train station to board the afternoon train from Sofia to Sandanski. It wasn't possible to get tickets for the bicycle at desk in the train station, so we'd to try our luck with the conductor. Luckily there was a luggage carriage where the bike could be stored. The conductor didn't mind some extra cash andoffered us not to sell us tickets (15 Lev for two one-way tickets, exclusive costs for administration and bicycle transport). For only 8 Lev slush money, not bad for a 3,5 hours during train ride $-)

In the city centre of Sandanski we walked though the very lively and pleasant pedestrian district. After we'd enjoyed a tasty local speciality in one of the many restaurants, we'd start looking for the campground. At the local swimming pool Mia asked directions to the campsite. The owner invited us to camp for free on the grass strip near the pool. Also the shower and the hot mineral baths are available for us alone and for free as well, perfect!

Sunday 20 July, Melnik/Rozhen

The next day I cycled from Sandanski to Melnik, while Mia took the bus. Melnik, where the famous Bulgarian wine is produced, is a crowded tourist resort with many restaurants, hotels, pubs and of course wine cellars. The smallest Bulgarian town, (once 20.000 inhabitants, now only a few 100), is located in a spectacular setting of impressive sandstone cliffs. While Mia, tired from working, rested in the park, I make a small hike in the vicinity. Climbed one of the cliffs, from where I'd enjoyed a good view on the village. Back down, I found a trail leading through a canyon of a dry sandy river bed, heading to the Rozhen monastery. Unfortunately I'd forgotten to take water with me and halfway I decided to return back to town.


The climate here in the south of Bulgaria is more Mediterranean, big grasshopers, chirping crickets, vegetation with thorns,
big reptiles, like the big turtle that crossed my path...Back in the village we visited a local pub to enjoy the local wines. The thick walls made it pleasantly cool inside the building. In the evening the heat had passed and we walked along the paved road to the Rozhen monastery (the sandy trail to the monastery was practically impossible with a loaded bicycle). The paved road was very scenic as well, and one hour later we'd found a good place to camp on a field near the monastery.

The next day it was time to say goodbye. In Rozhen, a hamlet of 20 people, Mia took the bus back Sofia via Sandanski. I descended to Melnik and further south to the border town Kulata. At the Greek border I encountered up in a traffic jam of trucks and cars. However, with a bicycle I could passed all the waiting cars swiftly and enter Greece.

Last part: Greece