(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.