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29/11 – 05/12 – Gavril Genovo → Sofia → Plovdiv → Greece : fast track to Istanbul

January 1, 2011

ah, to have a bed… and a shower!

flytipping - disease of the world

we relish in the luxury of our warm nights accomodation, cook up some porridge on percy (stinking out the place with petrol) and are back on the road, in a beautiful day, ready for what will be the biggest climb of the trip.

as we’re leaving the village we are met by the less than enthusiastic owner of our bed for the night – he kind of wishes us luck and drives off no doubt to check we havent stolen anything from his guest house.

We try and take a shortcut along the smaller roads towards Berkovitsa, foolishly relying on the trutworthyness of our small and rather insignificant Bulgaria road map. The best road to the town turns out to be a dried up river bed – all the locals in the locals in the village highly recommend going back and taking the main road but we tell them ‘nah, its fine! see you!’ and disappear up the track. We have to resort to pushing the bikes up the hill, cursing at Bulgarian Cartographers, as the clouds close in and we contemplate a very wet lunch, not even thinking about the huge climb we are facing once we reach Berkovitsa. Persistance and stubborness prevails however as we dont want to return to the village with our tails between our legs… and lo and behold we make the top.

Tired, soaked but full of exhiliration after our true backwater dash across the mountains, we reach the town and load up on a huge lunch – two whole loaves of bread,  a whole brick of cheese,  cardboard super wotsits and three bars of chocolate – before we head for the mountains again to take the super meandering ascent towards Sofia.

The climb is long and slow. It becomes difficult as the sun goes down, but its surprisingly easier than I originally anticipated. Plugging in the headphones and turning up the Techno certainly helps to deviate your mind from the matter – you just sitt back in your highest gear and get on with it. It really is a case of mind over matter with climbs like this – when you anticipate them like we have this one for days now, its much easier to overcome the physical exertion of the climb to the point when it is actually rather enjoyable. the worst is when they are sprung on you – then it feels like you’re legs are gonna drop off.

I have to resist to very persistant offers for lifts up the hill (one old gent even grabbed my arm and tried to force me in his car, exclaiming I would never make it before nightfall) and eventually make it topwards, just as the mist rolls in and the night takes over. we camp on top of the mountain, feeling proud and totally exhausted after our 1,100m ascent for the day.

So top of the hill, the only way is down, so morning comes with a positive anticipation of the joys to come. of course this is not quite the case, and what is downhill turns into some grinding climbs, leading to high levels of frustration and cursing again at the Bulgarian cartographers. Eventually the road does what is promised and delivers us right into Sofia, as we freewheel 30km into the heart of the city.

Lidl is the first course of the day, but Lidl seems to be a new entity in Bulgaria, and it is completely overrun. They even have security! Absolute pandamonium in the parking lot means we have to go elsewhere, resulting in us eating lunch straight from the trolley outside another lesser, more expensive supermarket.

We dont spend long in Sofia as we have a very looming date to be in Istanbul, so we try and push straight through. Our bodies are more than ready for a break though, and stopping for a coffee and quick blast on the internet becomes a very tantalising reminder of city life and putting on some jeans… we cannot afford to stop though, so we must keep to the main road that turns into motorway that cuts through the heart of the city.

luckily the road is straight and downhill, as well as very busy, and before we know it we’re 30km outside the city and camped up with a great view from whence we came, cooking up before nightfall and entertaining the prospect of even arriving in Istanbul earlier than anticipated…

Our route through Bulgaria is very direct and rather uneventful, as to say we take one road the goes right down the middle of the country and the quickest route to Turkey. Its downhill for most of the way, and we pass through varying landscapes of mountains, plains and watercourses. We have to take on two days of savage headwinds, which make cycling along the thin white line of a fairly major minor road dominated by Turkish truck drivers a very tough and at times dangerous challenge. The winds are throwing the bikes in all directions, and the truck drivers are not compensating us with adequate room when they overtake. We leave the number 8 road at Haskovo and take some quieter (if totally unpaved in places) roads towards the Greek border.

Bulgaria was very good to us, although we treated it as a bit of a transit at times. The atmosphere as welcoming as ones we had experienced before, but it is hard to make a good reflection based on such a small time that we had there. Sofia was not what I had expected, although our only real experience of the city was its infrastructure system (which was going through a total overhaul it seemed) and was therefore totally overrun.

Safe to say there were no bandits (as we had been warned) and the beer was cheap, the roads were in good condition, but the air was quite thick with smoke and there was a big problem with fly-tipping – although this seems to be a problem everywhere we have been outside of Western Europe. The contrast with Greece was very evident.

Greece, being in the EU, was very easy to pass into. The roads were wide and new, and the small towns that we passed through in the North were white, clean, and peaceful. It is a beautiful country as many holiday makers will tell you, but the bizarre thing about the north east of the country is its contrast to the nations that surround it in such proximity. With Turkey and Bulgaria being less than 100km away the whole time we were in Greece, it felt like they were remarkably far away.

We were only in Greece for one night – it felt like a dirty weekend – much like the time we spent in Croatia. The most notable things about our time there were the cashpoints (70E minimum withdrawal on the screen!?), the food (best and cheapest meat of the trip, three courses of moussaka, steak and fresh salad!), and a chance meeting with a drunk who tried to rob me for a euro. We also struggled to leave into Turkey – only having the edge of our Bulgarian map to guide us. We ended up jumping the motorway barrier like frontier hoppers and trying to make a dash over the hills – only to find we had gone the wrong way… oops

There’s Edirne in the distance, you can even see the Mosques! Turkey here we come…

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