map of the route
|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.
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
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,
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
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.
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
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
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 wed
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 didnt 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 didnt
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,
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
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
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, its 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, id 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 (drivers
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
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
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
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. Hed
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,
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.
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
Last part: Greece