"Come to Bulgaria, your cars are already here" - Bulgarian joke tourist slogan aimed at Western Europeans (though probably with an ounce of truth in it...)
"No this is real natural yoghurt, its not your western muck!" - G in response to Erika asking if the Bulgarian yoghurt had gelatin in it.
We finally left Vratsa on Monday, 6 days after arriving! G accompanied us on a great cycle out of the city and over the hills into the Iskar gorge. The hills around Vratsa are really beautiful - very white limestone rocks which shimmer in the hot sun.
The last few days in Vratsa were filled with partying again! We went with G’s family to a monastary restoration party and witnessed a very cool gypsy band and fantastic gypsy dancing with everyone shaking their ass to the infectious music.
The road down the Iskar was lovely; very quiet on the traffic front and stunning. The rocks changed abruptly from the white Vratsa limestone to a darker sandstone and we kept stopping to see birds and enjoy the views. We found a nice camp site by the river, but the banks were strewn with the debris of the
Aleksander Nevski Church
One of the finer sights in Sofia
previous week’s floods. However the river is fast flowing and seems clean enough and we enjoy a swim and a quiet camp watching the moon rise over the steep wooded valley walls (sorry g we ignopred your warning, but we havent turned green or started glowing in the dark yet...) Our stove is now working well again thanks to the weld job in Vratsa and so we can enjoy hot food without burning ourselves on a fire. We make a great cycle into Sofia the next day. The Iskar Gorge is a really good approach road into the city.
Sofia was a nice surprise. Every Bulgarian had said it is a horrible city; noisy and angry. However we found it quite interesting, probably because we were on bikes and this is the best way to be in Sofia (though we were warned by one guy to 'be careful these big black cars - very dangerous' as he points to a convey of shiny black BMW's and Mercs with CD plates on - presumably refereing to the nature of the occupantsd rather then their driving skills....) We found our way to the Velodrome where there are a load of old
Top of the Balkans
Musala (on the right) and a neighboring peak in the Rila Mountains. Musala is the highest mountain in Bulgaria and the entire Balkan peninsula.
guys with bike repair workshops. Robin was having major problems with his front derailleur and the bike shop in Vratsa had only made it worse.
The old guy, a complete professional, took one look at the mech and got out a very large pair of pliers and started to bend it. This caused us a bit of concern as it seemd a bit radical, but the guy seeing our faces assured us by saying “deformed deformed!” This was true and Robin now has a working Front Mech!
We stayed that night in Sofia in Hotel Sport in a nice room and probably the best buy in Sofia at 20 Euros for the twin room. Sofia is more expensive than the rest of Bulgaria.
After doing some sight seeing in Sofia the next morning we head south along the Iskar towards Samokov and the Highest Mountain in the Balkan Penisular. The road climbs all day but steadily and we find a quiet camp in the woods south of Borovec. The wash in the stream that night was freezing and we realise the height we are at, as we experience the first chill since the High Tatras and of course
Britain before that.
From Borovec we head up into the Rila mountains, this time stocked up with food and a working stove and the peace descends on us again. The woods were lovely, full of scots pine and the paths were in a much better state than Romainan ones, maybe because they do not get as many people. We find a great camp in the dwarf pine below the Musala Hut and have a lovely evening veiw of the high peak Musala.
We woke to mist and rain, terrible when the day before had been completely clear, however we kept on up and made it to a shelter/café for the lunch time heavy shower. There we met a pair of Bulgarian walkers they must have been in their 50’s. They had huge packs and just kept pulling out more and more food, but not light weight mountain style food - metal pans full of hard boiled eggs, mountains of tomatoes and cheese and they proceeded to make a very professional salad and insisted on sharing this mountain of food with us - a 'supermarket as they described it!. Their wives had packed the food for them and they were
The 'hut' we spent an evening inside - actually much nicer inside than it looks from outside, and much warmer than the tent.
walking hut to hut for 3 days so could afford the weight of the glass bottles of vodka I saw them packing away!
We made the top of Musala 2925 m and the top of the Balkans to find yet more buildings - a cafe and a weather station. The mountains here are quiet but littered with buildings, I realise the advantage of our planners all the more when I see some of these crumbling structures!
We do not get much of a view but typically when we leave the summit the weather clears and we have a great ridge walk round above nice crags. We hear some alpine cough in the moving mist and see no other people all day.
We walk down to Borovec, a typical ski resort town, we retrieve our bikes from the nice hotel that locked them in the basement for us and cycle up out of town and over into the next valley to meet the Black Iskar river. There are great free camping places all along the river banks and we enjoy a well anticpated wash after the sweaty days walking. That night Robin made a fire which was well
appreciated as the night was quite cold because of the height. We were enjoying some beer sitting by the fire, when we hear a huge skreech and crash and I look round to see the headlights of a car rolling through the air to crash about 100m away from us. We jump up quite shaken and run with torches over expecting to find a bloddy mess! Instead we find a very lucky driver who is in vain trying to restart his Citreon Xara. He just kleeps saying OK and “Dobre” (good) and seems to be fine, well he is unscathed-amazingly. We look around and help him gather up all his possessions which are scattered around amongst all the broken glass and hub caps etc. The passenger side of the vehicle and that side’s roof is completed dented in and had there been a person there they would have been very seriously injured. Eventually we find his mobile phone which had fallen out of the car and he rings his family who all arrive in BMW’s ( most unsuitable for towing the car off the rough ground it landed in).
We return to our fire and Robin manages to revive
The Seven Lakes
Well four of them at least...
it, we are thankfull that we usually try to camp a bit away from the road. We usually do this to be more hidden for security, but some trees between us and the road also serve as protection from flying cars! There was no reason for the car to leave the road the only thing I can think of was that the driver fell asleep or just clipped the edge of the road whilst driving too fast and spun and rolled it!!
In the morning we cycle up the valley towards Malyovista and the beautiful Rila Mountains open up in front of us. We cycle through Govedarce and notice the purpose- built villas that are springing up everywhere for sale to British property hunters. We find all our food for some more days in the hills after stopping at all the little shops we pass.
The road just keeps going up and up and up and after one and half hours we arrive at Complex Malyovista. We check the map and realise that we have just cycled to 1700 m with all our bags! There is not much here, a busy car park for moutain walkers and one hotel
that is most unhelpful and will not let us put our bikes in their basement without paying for a room! We search on and find the mountain rescue base and Bulgarian climbing club building. I go in search of some bike storage and find a confused admin woman who eventually realises what we want when I take her out to show here our loaded bikes. I wish I spoke Bulgarian! However she goes to find a man with some keys and they let us put our bikes and some of our bags in his office. What a relief. It was awful to think we had cycled all that way up and there was nowhere to leave the bikes!
After a lunch by the climbers club building we set off up to climb Malyovista - a wonderful buttressed peak towering above us in the sun. Most people were coming down looking very tired and we realise how fit we are, as we are flying up these steep slopes even with the full packs on. Just as we are getting to within reach of the summit the clouds descend and we kick ourselves again for not getting up earlier. However after a tea stop and a water fill up we carry on to the summit and find that the clouds are only on one side. The ridge looks very eerie and as we look back into the mist we see a Brocken Spectre! A kind of cool shadow of ourselves on the mist below, which had a full rainbow around it. We waved our arms about and watched with wonder as these weird grey men with rainbow halos danced in time to us. We have the summit to ourselves , well if you don’t count the Balkan Chamois and about 50 alpine cough that joined us there!
We camp in the col below the summit at about 2600m, and with a lot of clothes on are warm through the night. The next day we descend a long long way to Rila Monastery. The monastery is busy and touristy, but for good reason. It has a beautiful frescoed church and some very good bread and doughnuts. We stock up here and do a bit of looking around the church, then set off again up the steep hills. This is very tiring and we are pushing it trying to get to a spring high on the ridge so we can camp by water. At 7 pm we finally make it to a shepherd’s camp just short of our intended spring. After speaking to the shepherds we camp by them and are invited into their cabin to eat our dinner in the warmth. The shepherd's wife speaks Spanish and Italian and we manage to make ourselves understood just about, with some remembered Spanish. It is terrible how quickly you forget languages though, as we have not had to use Spanish at all on this trip, German has been much more frequently understood if not English. We muse that this is a very “Nicholas Crane” experience as we are fed sheep’s milk rice pudding! The shepherds have cows, sheep and a load of horses up here and their cabin was a lot bigger inside than we expected.
We walk on the next day up over the ridge from Malyovista towards the 7 Lakes - a definite 'honeypot' area of 7 alpine lakes on shelves in stages up the mountainside. The scenery is really beautiful if overgrazed! And we reminise that some of it with a bit of imagination could be Scotland! Well it is all a bit bigger and sunnier but we do see some dotterel. We make it back to the bikes that evening and head down into the valley to the same camp site where we were before and have time to make a fire to keep us warm.
Now we head back to Samokov and after stocking up on oats ( something that is not that easy to find) we head west towards FYR Makedonia and Skopje to collect our pakcage post restante. The road is good and we make quite good progress however an early evening storm finds us sheltering in a bus stop and we decide to try finding a room in Kjustendil. We can only find a two star hotel and are told the price is 32 Leva (about 11 GBP) we think we can find cheaper and look round town to finally decide that it probably is the best deal, so after stocking up in the supermarket we head back to the hotel. On return however a different woman appears and tells us that as foriegners we have to pay 50 levas! I protest a lot! She explains that the 32 price was for Bulgarians only! We are horrified, this is what we had been warned about in Bulgaria but until now had not found it and all Bulgarians had been very nice and kind. We eventually got the lady to back down to 40 leva as we would take the worst room in the hotel, but then she saw the bikes and started saying we would have to pay more. At this point Robin storms off into the rain in disgust! She did not speak english but seemed to understand him clearly at this point....
We get soaked and eventaully turn up at the Hotel Bulgaria which is apparently 3 star. We are shown a big en-suite room and check in even though the price is 80 leva. Even in Hotel Bulgaria there is a cheaper Bulgarian price, but at least the staff are more friendly and don’t just keep changing the price every 5 mins.
This experience of Kjustendil slightly soured our Bulgarian experience. However Bulgaria is a great country. The food is fantastic. The wine is great (the beer not so good, but cheap) the cheese is amazing!! It seems that in Bulgaria you can not have a meal without white creamy feta like cheese. The veg is aso really good and we enjoy tasty ugly tomatoes (the uglier it is the tastier) and weird shapped peppers. There are no plastic round dutch style tomatoes here and the cucumbers are the tastiest I have ever tried! Definitely not 'western muck'!
We have only seen a small part of Bulgaria, but the people are very welcoming and the scenery is beautiful. We leave looking forward to our return to the south of the country.
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