I’m taking a couple of days off in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, before I set off on the final 450km leg into Istanbul. I’m in a very good mood having just smashed through the 2,000 mile barrier on my way into the city! The last five days from Bela Palanka have been tough as I’ve been trying to manage the pain in my knee. It no longer hurts but it constantly feels like if I push my luck and ride too hard then it will go and lock up again.
As I left Bela Palanka I felt good on the flat smooth tarmac but after a few km I hit a massive queue of traffic. A bicycle comes into its own here as I casually cycled past what turned out to be a 2km queue of trucks and cars. When I got to the front I realised there were huge road works completely blocking the road, I didn’t have time to hang around for this so I ignored the road block and then carefully zig zagged around various diggers doing their thing for a full 10km of works getting stared at by a lot of confused workers.
Once through the road works I then cycled past about another 2km of traffic waiting to pass on the other side! It was nice riding down the now completely empty highway but I was constantly aware that at some point the cork would be pulled and I’d be overtaken by all of those waiting vehicles.
I had maybe 20km of road to myself before I hit another of the completely pitch black tunnels that litter this route (e-80 from Nis to the Bulgarian border). I was convinced the traffic would catch me up when I was in the tunnel so stopped to put on all my lights and luckily spotted a very narrow and very bumpy pavement on one side of the tunnel. I got up on to it and proceeded slowly.
It turns out I must have a sixth sense because halfway through the tunnel I heard a truck flying up behind me, as it passed me I wobbled a bit and smacked into the wall of the tunnel. Once I reached the other side I realised I’d bent the front right hand side of my rack and the pannier was wobbling about a lot. I decided there was no point inspecting it now and I’d check it out later on.
I rolled into Dimitrovgard, the Serbian border town, at about 2pm with a knee that was feeling better. I considered carrying on to the Bulgarian border town but it didn’t seem worth the risk to my knee as it would still only be one days ride to Sofia and the hotel in this town was way way cheaper than the other side (£12 versus £30).
Next morning I fixed up my front rack and then polished off the few km’s to the border. I was quickly waved out of Serbia and then waved into Bulgaria grabbing a photo of the border marker on the way through. I’ve never been searched at a border on my bike, I reckon they just can’t be bothered sifting through all my bags!
The ride from the border to the town of Dragoman was really scenic, huge peaks rising up on each side of the road. I stopped in a petrol station to get a map of Bulgaria and spotted an interesting sign on the door…
Once I reached the town of Slivnitsa the road turned into a dual carriageway without a hard shoulder but was fairly quiet so no problem. I reached the outskirts of Sofia at around 2pm and decided to lurk in a KFC until 5pm when my Warmshowers.org host would be home. I learnt that hanging around on a laptop in KFC for 3 hours knocking back espressos will get you some funny looks from the staff.
I met up with my Warmshowers host Stoyanka and was treated to a really nice dinner of fried fish, potatoes, homemade wine and Ouzo with her family and was recommended to checkout the free walking tour of Sofia the next day.
I’ve never been on a walking tour before, the idea seemed a bit odd to me, but to be fair it was actually really good. I got to see many tucked away parts of the city that I wouldn’t of spotted on my own.
Sofia is a city which has been destroyed several times with the new just being built on top of the old. In the city centre various underpasses are being joined together with excavations of old buildings which will eventually create a huge underground museum complex.
After the tour I went over to a German style Christmas market, grabbed a Bratwurst and some Gluhwein and started to seriously look forward to christmas at home. I’m still enjoying myself but this cold weather and knee pain has gotten me down a bit I must say.
I had another lovely dinner with my Warmshowers host, this time Paprika skins stuffed with rice, meat and vegetables as well as some really nice homemade cherry cordial. Stoyanka was also kind enough to call one of her friends who confirmed that my planned route out of the city, which involved 7km’s on the hard shoulder of a 3 lane motorway, was the only option. Stoyanka also phoned a friend in the town of Ihtiman, 60km down the road at the top of a big climb, who offered to host me the next night! I was looking forward to the top of this climb as from that point on it is downhill then flat all the way to Istanbul.
I cycled across Sofia the next morning after saying goodbye to my wonderful hosts (Stoyanka’s mother gave me a huge bag of little cakes to take with me!) and was nervous for the fist 10km as I approached the motorway section of my escape from the city.
To be far it wasn’t actually that scary riding on the hard shoulder as you are quite far from the passing traffic. Also any questions regarding the legality of what I was doing were answered when I cycled passed a pulled over police car to nothing more than a curious stare from the occupants.
I was still quite relieved once I was off the motorway and decided to cheer myself up with some instant noodles that have been tempting me every time I’ve opened my front right pannier since I bought them in Vienna. I fired up my stove by the side of the road and the hot food definitely made me feel the -3c bite of the air less.
After the food I started making my way up the climb which would take me from the 500m altitude of Sofia up to around 900m. The climb was pleasant giving me some nice views and I appreciated the warmth the extra exertion provided. Before I new it I was over the crest and cycling through the town of Vakarel. Once I reached the other side of the town the road quality dropped significantly, literally by the sign that marked the edge of town.
The road was now littered with potholes and huge patches of ice where trees had sheltered the road from the low sun for who knows how long. The patches of ice got larger and larger covering the entire width of the road in places leaving me no way around them. It was only a matter of time before the inevitable happend.
As I was cruising down a slight gradient I went through a patch of snow and my front wheel disappeared from under me out to the left sending me and my panniers slamming into the ground, bad knee first, and then skidding down the road. I was up quickly hopping around the road making sounds similar to the news reporter in this video.
Just my luck to land straight on the knee that’s been giving me trouble but as the initial pain subsided, and I realised I hadn’t done any serious damage, I took a couple of pre-emptive Ibuprofen and carried on. I heard something rubbing on the back of the bike and realised that my rear mudguard had bent in the crash and was fouling the tyre, I fixed it temporarily with some duct tape and got moving again. As I reached Ihtiman I saw Stoyanka’s friend Snezana cycling down the road towards me, we said our hellos and headed over to her apartment.
After getting changed Snezana showed me round the town and there was one little sight that caught my eye. At the back of an old primary school are the ruins of an Ottoman empire mosque. Nearer the centre of town was a restored Turkish bath house but something about the unrestored ruins being tucked away and low key raised my interest.
Later in the evening Snezana showed me some really cool pictures from when her and some other cyclists from Bulgaria cycled from Sofia to London and back to catch the 2012 Olympics including giving a talk about their ride at the Bulgarian embassy in London! I was also introduced to Snezana’s english teacher Orfey who spoke English to a higher standard than me despite having never visited an English speaking country! After a long night chatting, and clarifying a couple of the subtleties between British and American English, I caught a solid nine hours sleep.
I still felt sluggish in the morning but was woken up with a wonderful view out of Snezana’s kitchen window…
For breakfast Snezana said I had to try a traditional bit of Bulgarian food from a local kiosk. We cycled down to the place, which had a queue of people outside which is always a good sign, and Snezana ordered me a Banitsa. It was really nice, basically a pastry filled with a mix of fried egg and cheese but the pastry itself was more of a pizza dough consistency. Afterwards we met with Orfey again for some coffee before I hit the road. Snezana and Orfey refused to let me pay, I really am a bad guest as I find it hard to accept so much generosity!
Snezana rode with me to edge of town, we said our goodbyes and I headed off down the huge decent towards Plovdiv. Bulgaria is really turning out to be a country of beautiful roads.
I pulled into a petrol station to get a snack and a drink and was fed up with my front mudguard getting clogged up with dirt and the rear one now being damaged. After deciding that they are also quite ugly I elected to remove them from the bike attracting curiosity from the station staff as it appeared that I had spontaneously decided to completely disassemble my bike on their forecourt.
I may regret the decision to discard the fenders but I can always pick up cheap ones if it proves to be a problem, I’m currently much happier with how my bike looks as well which is a nice bonus!
I reached the centre of Plovdiv at about 3pm with only mild soreness in my bad knee, feeling chuffed that I got back up to riding a 100km day, and checked into Hostel Mostel for a good nights sleep.
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I also want to divert the interest this trip generates towards helping out a charity that made a big differance to some friends of mine. Samuels Children Charity are a Lewes based charity providing support to families throughout the UK who are currently affected by childhood cancer. I hope to raise the sum of £5,000 from people who hear about this trip to help them continue their work, and to also keep me motivated throughout the challenges this trip will provide! If you’d like to see how the fundraising is going (or even better would like too donate!) then click here.