As we passed through the empty border crossing into Bulgaria I wondered what the nurse wearing hospital scrubs was there for. Maybe she was a vet checking incoming livestock, or perhaps Bulgaria was afraid of some kind of zombie flesh eating disease from Serbia? However she left us alone and after our customary request for a stamp in our passports we were in the sleepy border town of Bregovo searching for a cash machine, a map, some cheese and a shady place for lunch. Our lunchtime planning over our new map all in Cyrillic (my idea as a device for learning the alphabet) gives us a rough route for our first few days in Bulgaria.
The road towards Vidin is largely traffic free and the wide empty spaces seem to be filled with a light more harsh and direct than we are used to from Serbia. The fields are filled with long dry grass and few animals or people are to be seen. Reaching Vidin Justin visits a supermarket while Emma narrowly escapes being adopted by a local who speaks Italian. The outskirts of Vidin are dusty and seemingly in a permanent state of construction as horses and carts, bicycles, lorries, buses and us jostle for space on a road that alternates between dirt, potholes and occasional glorious tarmac.
Our first campsite in Bulgaria sees us battling plagues of mosquitoes not seen since our days along the Po River – ahh the pleasures of cycling near the Danube! As the sun sets we huddle in our tent and hear a strangely human and very chilling series of howls that make us huddle a little closer. Emma hesitantly asks “Wolves?”while I imagine creatures from outer space, maybe with pitchforks! A sleepless night follows but no more howling is heard.
The next day we continue towards Lom leaving any traces of the main road behind as we whizz through tiny dusty towns where the road is more pothole than sealed. The locals either stare in amazement or shout encouragement in Bulgarian to which we can only wave and smile in response. Lom is much bigger than either of us expected and we decide to find a cafe with internet to work and research for a few hours. Leaving town we stop to fill our cooker with petrol for the first time before cycling up a state highway (read: very busy) paved with macadam (cobblestones as we know them). As trucks thunder by and I try to guide my tyres around missing cobbles and various holes I wonder that if this is a state highway what do the rest of the roads in Bulgaria hold for us?
Our afternoon ride passes through a number of towns that look to have seen better days with boarded up shops, empty cafes and locals sitting quietly at the roadside with open jaws as we pass by. Stopping for water at a gas station we are offered cans of coke for free despite our protestations that water is enough. We notice that the attendant has the mannerism of “reverse head nodding” (sorry if this sounds politically incorrect) as we know it, meaning they nod to mean no, and shake their head when they mean yes. This makes our conversations in pigeon Bulgarian even more confusing and ripe for misunderstanding.
Pitching our tent beside a quiet fishing lake, we discover new holes in Bessie the tent. Under investigation, the culprits become clear – two trapped grasshoppers have chewed holes in the fly while trying to escape. In anger we squish them but calming down, the rest of our evening is spent watching our own private aerial display in the form of huge flocks of starlings swooping across the sky backlit by the setting sun.
Our first stop at a tiny cafe the next day ends with us sharing a table with the owner and most of the patrons as we peruse our map and they plan our onwards route for us. The general plan from them is “main roads are fast, direct and well surfaced so go that way”, they are not convinced by our desire for quiet winding back roads. Downing a barley based drink they kindly bought us that left me reminded of medicine I had as a child, we cycled on promising we would follow their directions faithfully. The next town holds an all important bread shop and while packing the bread away we are given three tomatoes from a passing car where the occupants shake their heads and smile in disbelief at us.
The next morning as we are packing up from our deserted hill top camp a horse and cart drives slowly by the farmer and son staring with wide eyes at us as we smile and wave back. Stopping in Cherven Brag we struggle to find a bread shop for the first time on our trip to date and are lead out of town by a local on his bicycle who proudly speaks a few words of English and points us in the right direction. The afternoon is a mix of agriculture and lightly forested hills but the one constant is the presence of flies both the regular and biting horse variety. After a few hours of battling heat, flies and hills our tempers are frayed and we are struggling to find a campsite. We settle in a slightly secluded field and eat our least gourmet meal to date – potatoes, cabbage and cheese, while listening to noise from the local bar not far from our tent.
Awaking to gunshots early the next day I immediately feel in better spirits with only 18km to Lovech. We are encouraged to quickly pack up by the presence of hunters in the field next to our tent. Their dogs sniff our tent but are called back to assist with retrieving the shot birds as the hunters wave at us. We pass the 7000km milestone after only a few kilometres and with our spirits raised we are quickly entering the town centre and marvelling at the bright flowers and modern art that fills the largely deserted square. I’m already feeling at home here and contemplating staying a few days to rest up.
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route map for this post
The map below shows the waypoints for this blog post. To view the details of our trip to date take a look at our complete route map.