Our route took us down through western Bulgaria from Vidin in the northwest, to Petrelik in the south in early August. We self-navigated through the country to Belogradchik, the capital city of Sofia and the Pirin Mountains. After spending three weeks here, we would highly recommend Bulgaria as a cycle touring destination.
After a month cycling on mostly flat terrain through western Europe, we welcomed the regular inclines provided by this mountainous landscape. The drivers impressed us with their courtesy and the road conditions were decent (disclaimer: quieter country lanes can quickly turn into cobbled tracks). Main roads have a wide hard-shoulder which makes you feel less exposed. The climate was wetter than usual for this time of year, however it meant that the temperature never became unpleasant whilst on the bikes. The dogs are something to be aware of here. Whilst we never felt threatened, we got chased a number of times (it’s usually domestic dogs that want to chase you). Tip: In this situation, climb off your bike, pretend to pick up a stone and this should scare them off. Bulgaria is also a paradise for wild camping and there are plenty of water taps for drinking water along the way.
A number of things happened in Bulgaria that marked a change in our attitude and approach on this journey. One thing was our attitude to wild camping. Up to this point we had felt quite nervous about pitching the tent outside an official campsite (and probably spent more money than necessary on campsites through western Europe). We British are just too damn polite and apologetic sometimes! The landscape in Bulgaria provided the perfect ground for us to relax our anxious ways and now I would like to consider us decent wild campers. Hooray!
Early on we were overly worried about the security of the bicycles and made sure to lock and double lock them even if they were in sight. We have become so relaxed now that we are thinking of ditching the heavy bicycle locks as we struggle to foresee an occasion where we need more than just a lightweight cable lock to deter opportunist thieves. We have also become more tolerant to dogs - both wild and domestic - which is to say I don’t scream and veer into the road anymore when one comes running (more on that later).
One final change we noticed whilst in Bulgaria was our attitude to the loads we were carrying on our touring bikes. This seed had been planted back in Serbia thanks to our new Israeli bike buddy who suggested we were carrying too much. This was then encouraged by Matt’s obsessive reading of the ‘Ultralight Bicycle Touring’ blog. And then cemented by the relentless climbs in Bulgaria.
We used our first rest day to rethink every item we were carrying on our bicycles and to review our touring set up. This process resulted in us sending home a pile of items that we no longer needed or had never in fact used, totalling nearly 8kg between us. We are writing an article all about what we sent home and why, which we will post soon!
Our first stop having left Serbia behind was Belogradchik. This place was phenomenal and we think the pictures speak for themselves. We stayed at the only campsite in the mountainous village - Camping Madonna - allowing us to take a rest day and give us time to explore the famous rock formations. Check out more photographs here.
Let’s briefly touch on the situation with the animals. There were a lot of stray cats, which we didn’t mind. They only want a stroke or to pick up scraps of food you’ve unintentionally dropped if they’re lucky. The mosquitoes were the size of flies, striped like zebras. They are the devil and are not afraid to attack at any time of day. The flies - much smaller than a typical fly and far more determined to irritate - hang out in packs and are very cunning. Often hiding out in wooded mountain areas, they like to get you at your weakest, which is to say when you’re battling it up a hill at a very slow pace, with no free arms to bat them away when you’re hot, dehydrated and panting. They like to go for the eyeballs, in your ears or anywhere in fact, which prevents you from taking in big gulps of air - difficult when riding uphill. In these cases the buff or bandana is your best friend, or a balaclava if you have one. Cover as much of the face and ears as possible. Don’t worry about your appearance, survival is the only goal here.
And finally, the dogs. Now this is a sensitive subject for me - I love dogs and hate to see any stray. We’ve become very used to the fact that in eastern parts of Europe, stray dogs are common. Beautiful dogs that would have a loving family back home hang out in small groups or alone, trotting up and down the road side looking quite forlorn. More often than not they just want to come and say hello. In our time here it was in fact the domestic dogs either tied up behind a fence or sat by a property that barked viciously and chased us as we cycled past.
On our last day in Bulgaria, we were cycling down a fast-moving country road and a dog was wandering down the middle. Whilst it wasn’t chasing us, it was in the way of cars. The car behind us had to brake suddenly, which caused the car behind that to do the same and swerve into the middle to avoid shunting the lead car. We had barely a chance to register this initial close call before a trio of dogs leapt out from a farm on the opposite side and bounded down into the road. I began to slow my pace to stop but a car coming the opposite way drove straight into the smallest of the three dogs, having had no chance to brake. The sound alone caused instant tears (and I’m not really a crier). It was an awful thing to witness and I couldn’t help but feel guilty. We pedalled on to get out of the way and pulled in to take a breather whilst the guy who had to deal with having killed a dog picked up his front bumper, put it in his boot and drove on. Shortly after we saw another dog laid in the middle of the road and we realised this must happen all the time here.
I’ll finally mention what remains to be the most memorable part of our time in Bulgaria - aside from the stunning landscape - and that is the people we met. First up is Belinda and Noel - a British couple from Grantham. They too are on a year-long tour, travelling around Europe in their motorhome. We met them as we rocked up soaking wet into the nearest camp ground after being caught in a torrential downpour up a mountain. This was the strangest/most interesting campsite we have so far set foot in - a former Communist holiday camp with small huts that were allocated at random to different families for their prescribed holiday.
As we wheeled our bikes through the field, I spotted the GB sticker on their vehicle and shouted over: “You’re from England!”. Bel responded by saying: “We are! Cup of tea?”. Hearts melted. We dumped the bikes and took shelter under their awning. We were presented with Le Creuset mugs of hot milky tea and a tub of a variety of biscuits. We chatted about our routes, experiences so far, and they introduced us to ‘HelpX - basically a volunteering network for working holiday makers in exchange for food and accommodation. We spent the evening with them drinking Bulgarian beer in the small campsite bar and the next morning we were again treated to a perfect brew whilst we packed up our things to leave. Thank you guys for good conversation and great tea - the familiarities of home are so welcomed when you’re missing family!
We headed off that morning to cycle the short distance (completing the 42km climb!) to Bansko, where we would be meeting my university friend Lizzie the next day - our first visiting friend from home. Before we checked into our hotel for the weekend, we paid a visit to Glynis and Nigel’s place.
Cycling in a poorer part of Bulgaria the week before, where the road conditions weren’t as good, I noticed that my front wheel was shredded. We had just left the big city of Sofia where I had paid for my chain, cassette and cables to be replaced (something I should have done before leaving home in hindsight). I hadn’t however checked the tyres properly and now we weren’t close to a bike shop that would have the ones I needed. The budget hotel I had booked wasn’t responding, so I decided to check Warmshowers for any nearby hosts that might kindly let me use their address for a delivery. This is where I came across Glynis’s profile and she replied almost instantly agreeing. We arrived in Bansko a couple of days later and luckily my tyre held out until then.
Glynis and Nigel welcomed us into their home, where we were treated to a cup of coffee whilst we chatted about our trip and of our shared interest in cycling. We learned that they moved to Bansko from the UK 15 years ago to run their ski chalet - the Devonshire Lodge - mainly catering to the increasingly-popular ski resort here. Nigel is also massively into mountain biking and regularly takes part in biking competitions. During the warmer months, Nigel and Glynis run a MTB & road bike holidays in Bansko. They were therefore suitably geared up for bike repairs and kindly allowed us to change the tyres right there and then. Nigel laughed in a horrified way at how much my tyre had deteriorated. He helped us set the tyres properly with some soapy water and taught us some cool tricks for quick-fix bike repairs if we are ever desperate on the road. If this wasn’t pushing our luck, they then helped us out further by allowing us to use their place for a courier to collect our ‘rejected’ luggage that was being sent home.
We made a final visit a couple of days later to say our goodbyes before heading to Greece. Glynis even gifted us an ultrasonic dog deterrent for potential desperate dog situations to come. We cannot thank these guys enough - they helped us out a huge amount and we are indebted to them! (We will be back for the ski season if you’ll have us!) For accommodation in Bansko, check their place out here.
And finally: our great friend Lizzie, who made the trek to visit us for just one weekend from London. Not only did she take an early flight to Sofia and a 3-hour bus transfer to Bansko to see us, she then climbed Vihren mountain with us the next day. Vihren is the highest peak in the Pirin Mountains at 2,914 meters and the second highest mountain in Bulgaria (second to Musala by only 11 meters).
It was great to have three days off the bike with our friend, even though the legs were definitely not rested. It took a week for my legs to stop aching after the climb. We also made a new Bulgarian friend called Tsvetan on the mountain, who we ended up spending both the day and the evening with at a musical festival back down in the town. Some great memories were made in Bulgaria and we’d highly recommend it for anyone thinking of cycling through. B
Total days on road: 81
Total rest days: 16
Total distance completed: 4,935 Km !!
Best food: Tiropita and souvlaki in Greece!
Total books read: 8 (Favourite: 'Larry's Party' picked up in an Austrian campsite)