Archive for the ‘Bulgaria’ Category

Veliko Tarnovo and Burgas

Thursday, June 10th, 2010

(James) As usual, our planned early start saw us heading off at about 11am… Once we’d managed to find our way out of the labyrinth of little back streets in the old town we were able to quickly cross the river that divides the town and head north east. Before long, we located the small road we’d selected for our route that we hoped would give us a more scenic ride.  The journey to Veliko Tarnovo would see us head away from the Turkish border (to the SE) but although we were keen to get to Istanbul  and start lodging visa applications, we didn’t want to simply ride through Bulgaria without seeing anything. 

It was already hot as we left Plovdiv, but finally, we’d been able to wake up to a cloudless sky and were, for the first time on the trip, able to take our waterproof inner linings out of the jacket and enjoy riding without looking over our shoulders at the approaching storm clouds. Our target that was morning was to cross a plain and then a ridge of mountains, before dropping down into the Valley of the Roses, so named because, (as you’ve probably already guessed) it’s full of fields filled with roses. We made excellent progress as for the first time since Albania, we found ourselves riding in pretty much a straight line through farmland, before climbing over the mountain ridge and by early afternoon found ourselves riding through a valley with the most incredible smell of roses which had just that week been harvested and were now being prepared for the cosmetics industry.  

After stopping to pick up groceries for our lunch in the town of  Kazanlak and realising it was already far too hot to stay and eat, we decided to climb the mountains that sat over the town and find somewhere a bit cooler to stop. On the way, however, we did stop once. We were riding along when we both commented on some gleaming gold orbs on the side  of a hill in the distance. As we got closer we realised that they were 5 domes on a spectacular orthodox church. The church, a gift from Russia, seemed completely out of place as the surrounding  village of Shipka was anything but spectacular.  The mountain roads that followed were a little more like those we’d experienced in the Alps and Em (ever self-critical) was busy convincing herself that she’d completely forgotten how to ride hairpins but, as ever, as soon as we got to the first one she swung round and following a perfect line powered up the short straight to tackle the next one – she just won’t be convinced that she’s become a good rider!

Ever since Albania and the Ethnographical museum (no, I’d never heard of one either) Em has developed something of an obsession for them and so, although it pained me somewhat, we’d ‘agreed’ to stop in a small village at the bottom of the other side of the mountain, which claimed to have the country’s best Ethnographic museum (don’t they all?!) so the excitement in her voice was building as we reached the top (I wasn’t even allowed to stop for a photo!) and come to think of it, her descent was unusually rapid too. We all-too-quickly arrived in the village of Erta and Em hastily made lunch on the grass whilst I sorted a few things out (fell asleep) before she went off to see if it was still open (my suggestion to avoid having to get up unnecessarily). Her face as she came back over was hard to describe, but if I could put a sentiment to describe what it was saying I’d go for ‘you complete git’ so I opted to close my eyes and feign innocence to the fact that we’d obviously arrived just a few minutes too late! What this did mean was that we could get straight back on the road with a chance of trying to find the hostel (often an effort itself as they’re invariably located in the old part of town and we don’t have satnav) at a decent hour.

Less than hour later we arrived in Veliko Tarnovo and, as usual, quickly determined that our hostel was located at the top of the steepest, most heavily cobbled street in the town. Em made it a fair old way up before, probably sensibly, deciding that she’d wait for me to come back down on foot for her bike. The result of her losing her balance on the hill would not have been ideal for either rider or bike. Having located the hostel and parked up both bikes we found we were the only people staying (still too early in the season) so had the place to ourselves. Our view was fantastic looking straight over the vast castle ruins on the hill next to the town that once served as the capital of the second Bulgarian Kingdom. The town itself was really pretty, sitting on and in a gorge. It was also surprisingly cosmopolitan (not hard after the questionable ‘fashion’ scene of Plovdiv!) and is home to the most prestigious university in Bulgaria.

The next couple of days saw us visiting the castle (v hot), going to a wine tasting (highlight for Emily) and sampling the local food (too much) before heading east towards the Black Sea coast and the town of Burgas where we had a an offer from Rebekka, the German girl we’d met in Plovdiv, of a roof over our heads. The journey to Burgas was fairly tedious but we made reasonable time and by early evening we had located Rebekka’s flat, had a much needed shower and were wandering round the pretty town centre where Emily managed to have a drink (she’s always so strict when it comes to our budgeting) that cost more than 5 times more than my admittedly overly large beer! She’s now agreed to stick to beer until we reach the dry patch that is Islamic Asia! That evening we went out with Rebekka, her flatmate (and fellow German Johann) and friend from home Aura (who we’d met in Plovdiv) for dinner as it was Aura’s last night. Rebekka has been living in Burgas for almost a year working on an EU funded project  and also spending much of her time volunteering at a local orphanage which, apart from being very laudable, had also allowed her to become (at least to our ears) very capable speaking Bulgarian – not an easy task! We’d assumed that Rebekka and Aura were in their mid-twenties but were shocked to hear that they were both taking a year off between school and university (they’d also spent time in their mid-teens living and working on random farms during school holidays in different countries to learn languages!) which we found both really impressive yet slightly depressing as in the UK we just don’t, on the whole, see teenagers taking such initiative or showing such an interest in bettering themselves and others. We liked them a lot.

Plodding around Plovdiv

Monday, June 7th, 2010

(Emily) The Bulgaria border was a breeze – no mention of insurance and didn’t have to pay for a vignette (road tax) as motorcycles are exempt, bonus! The fantastic scenery we’d enjoyed in Macedonia continued and it was all very green and mountainous. As usual, we were being chased by storm clouds (or rather they were enveloping us from all sides) so we pressed on for quite some time, anxious to escape… inevitably, we didn’t and got caught in a really heavy shower; lovely. At least the roads  were reasonably good so you could get a pace on and dry out in the wind, but the winding routes they took round the mountains meant that progress was slow and the ominous black clouds were ever at our heels. Having been anxious for some food since lunchtime (me and hunger don’t mix well – think of the whinge ‘are we there yet?’; poor James got ‘can we eat yet?’ for a good few hours), we finally stopped for our sandwiches at 4pm and it was the quickest I ever ingested a meal (and I’m a fast eater anyway, right?) as James was convinced we were about to get caught again. Fun and games.

Anyway, we got to Plovdiv in pretty good time due to our ‘must not stop, must not get wet’ mantra and set about finding the hostel for which we had a flyer. Despite the ‘map’ on the leaflet, I think we must have been riding around for a good hour and asked at least 6 passers-by before we reached our destination; I was so hot and sweaty and desperate to get there that I tackled the ridiculously uneven cobbles of the steep road up to the hostel without hardly thinking about it. Progress! It was a cute place with a great view of the city and we got a little cubby hole room under the eaves (think Brambly Hedge, Lizzie). That night we ate out with Charlotte, a lovely lone traveller from the UK who been all over the place and had some good tales to tell. Felt a bit bad in the morning when we realised the time-zone had gone another hour ahead without us realising, and we had made Charlotte wait until about 10pm ‘til we were ready to go to the restaurant!!!

We stayed in Plovdiv for three nights in the end, not wanting to leave in the still unsettled weather – it absolutely peed it down every afternoon/evening, invariably just at the time we wanted to head out for something to eat! The old town is a pretty place to mooch around, and has a surprising amount of Roman ruins including an amazing amphitheatre, but on the whole there’s not a great deal going on – the most entertaining past-time is ‘people watching’ and clocking the quite frankly hideouso outfits sported by many of the women!! Imagine you want to wear exactly what Carrie does in SATC, without realising it’s not really practical or real, yet need to buy your stuff on a Primark budget. That said, mocking as we were, the abundance of heels and lycra on show made me feel decidedly dowdy!! Our prolonged stay meant we could get a load of laundry done and update the blog for Albania, and with free breakfast at the hostel and cheap eats everywhere, there were worse places to be! There were quite a few travellers passing through and we ate out with Forest and Alex, both from the US, one evening. A very pretty and friendly German girl named Rebekka, who we got chatting with, kindly invited us to crash at her place (in Burgas on the Black Sea coast) if we were passing through that way; she was working in Bulgaria for a year and was having a little mini-break in Plovdiv with her equally friendly and pretty friend, Aura. On our last evening, we were much entertained by Priscilla, an Irish lady in her late 60s who has been living in Sardinia for the last 50 years and goes backpacking whenever she can – coolio!  Many people travelling from the opposite direction to us were recommending Veliko Tarnovo in the north-east as a good place to visit so, rather than plough on to Turkey straight from Plovdiv,  we decided to make the detour – am growing to like this lack of planning!!