With old castle ruins towering over it, Lovech was the halfway point in our path across Bulgaria. Its a sleepy little town with just a few ‘tourist attractions’ and we feel immediately at home. Our hotel room is huge, and so reasonably priced we can afford dinner at the restaurant below us. We amble along the river and up to the castle at sunset, marvelling at the lack of tourists here compared to hilltop towns in Italy.
We have space to put up the tent inside our room to fix recent grasshopper holes, bicycle maintenance is completed and we cross things off a huge list of mundane chores which we’ve been meaning to complete for months. We ask reception about washing clothes with our phrasebook in hand and they send us back to our room with a cloth filled with washing powder and a huge plastic tub. Three hot days slip by and we are back on the bicycles early with a new supply of energy for the stretch to Istanbul.
The cycling is fairly flat until we hit the village of Troyan and the 1600m Troyan pass behind it. We’re not far from the top when we spot chair lift poles for a nearby ski resort which we think might be an interesting spot for camping. We find some people sitting outside a building, where the grass looks perfect for camping and manage to bridge the language gap by showing them our phrasebook and gesturing at the flat ground.
We’ve just established that we can camp, put up the tent and pulled out our cooking gear when a thunderstorm starts. Justin braves cooking outside and every now and then I can hear him laughing as the owner of the house comes out to communicate to him. We think she may have been inviting us into the building, but we’ve just finished cooking and can think of nothing better than staying in our snug tent and enjoying the rain.
The next morning we’re invited in for coffee as we’re packing up and a sleepy 16 year old is summoned. Iliya’s family own the motel and he is here helping his grandmother out. He has been studying English and is good company– we drink coffee and eat biscuits with him while discussing skiing, cycling ambitions and Bulgaria’s relationship with neighbouring countries. Suddenly its 10am and our early start isn’t quite so early. We finish packing and are sent off with pears for breakfast and complete the last five kilometres to the top of the pass before one of the best descents since Italy – 20 wiggly kilometres with views to the next set of mountain ranges in the south.
In Bulgaria we’ve had a new language and alphabet to learn and we suspect this is why we have started to struggle to get provisions, namely fruit and vegetables. Today we can’t spot a supermarket in the reasonably big town of Karlovo and assume we’ll find one on the way out of town but it doesn’t materialise. We spend the afternoon stopping at tiny village mini-markets which don’t have any fresh produce, frustrating when we can see big fields of peppers and chillis being cultivated on the fields around us. An old lady is selling tomatoes on the roadside and we stop to buy some from her, ending up with three huge tomatoes she refuses payment for. We camp with permission from a farmer next to a newly planted cabbage patch which recedes into the far distance. He warns us to pitch early to avoid mosquitoes and we’re thankful for the advice.
With only a few days left in Bulgaria we head south towards hills again to Minerali Bani where we decide to stop to take in the thermal waters at Hotel Bulgaria. It only took three room changes before we’re in a huge space with equally large balcony for the princely sum of 35 euros including free entry into the spa complex below. We make full use of the facilities before heading out for dinner and leave late the next day – somewhat reluctantly, as we are the cleanest and most refreshed we have been for the whole trip.
With one more night of free camping before the Greek border the crops have changed again, this time to big fields of tobacco. We stop early on a minor road and Justin wanders off to investigate camping options. He’s gone for a long time, and I can hear voices coming from behind the trees he headed into. Finally he comes back with news of a sort – he thinks we can camp, but the tobacco farmers he was talking to had asked us to return at 8pm so they could take us somewhere to eat, maybe. We go back twice to talk to them and I eventually pull out our phrasebook so we can ask how far away they want to take us.
Still confused, we have a few hours to wait. We cook some food and watch shepherds bringing their herds down the hill towards us, wondering if we’ll have to camp in this spot which is starting to look quite busy. Just before 8pm Sabrina comes up the path to greet us, followed by her husband Savatine. We follow their white Lada back to the village where we filled bottles with water a few hours ago. Their son Rian comes back with supplies from the shop while Sabrina sits on a step making dinner and laughing with us as we try to communicate. She shows us the property including a shed housing three cows (all named), a hutch with rabbits and chickens, and a huge vegetable garden. It starts to make sense that vegetables aren’t available in shops here as most people grow their own. We’re fed well including cucumber soup, grilled peppers, tomato salad and freshly brought fish from the market with conversation aided by an English speaking neighbour who invites us to his house for a late evening coffee and showers. Despite our protests we’re given the parents bedroom for the night as they’ll be up again in a few hours for more tobacco leaf harvesting.
We cycle past the fields in the morning to say goodbye – both to the family and to Bulgaria as our border crossing to Greece is just ahead.