20 08 2007

Update – added Nova Zagora on 26th August
Update – added Svilengrad on 26th August


I just rolled into Ruse, Bulgaria this evening, after crossing the Danube yet again (and the border) over the longest steel bridge in Europe at 2.8km. The ride down from Bucharest was pretty good (but very hot) – the road was in excellent condition, with two wide lanes going in either direction, and a very broad, flat shoulder to ride on – excellent. Quite a contrast to the road into Bucharest from the north – I can’t recommend that to anyone.

I met a few cyclists on the way out of Bucharest today – one couple were just looking around town, before heading off for the Black Sea coast to lie on the beach for a while. The guy was from France, his girlfriend from Ireland, and they had been riding down the Danube from somewhere in Europe. I also met a Romanian cyclist by the name of Edy, and his younger brother Alex. They were riding in the same direction (to visit a local monastery that they had never been to), and Edy was very interested in my little adventure. He had just recently ridden through Bulgaria and Greece, and was full of useful advice about the best roads to take in Bulgaria. He also gave me a few home-made pancakes (filled with jam) and some fruit for my trip – thanks Edy!

So far, I’m very impressed with Bulgaria. The city of Ruse (Roo-seh) has a peaceful, dignified air about it, with a huge and beautiful open square in the middle of town. For dinner I had perhaps the best pizza of my life tonight – they call it ‘The Wall’ on the menu for some reason – plus a good local beer, all for about 4 Euros. I’m trying to get my head around the Cyrillic alphabet, but so far I haven’t got a clue how to read the street signs or menus – luckily many people here seem to speak a bit of English.
That’s all for now!

Veliko Tarnovo

Wow, I don’t know if I’m fit enough for this…

Yesterday was probably the toughest day of cycling in my life (so far). Not a great distance from Ruse to Veliko Tarnovo (about 110km), but the temperature, roads and terrain made for some very harsh riding.

I woke with a slightly dodgy stomach, and sat down to my breakfast without the usual anticipation. This was the first time in the whole trip that my stomach was unhappy, but it seemed to pass after a couple of hours.

Leaving Ruse, I thought I’d try to get off the main road (Hwy 5) by taking a minor road and avoiding most of the trucks enroute, but that didn’t work out too well. As I approached the turn-off for the minor road, I noticed that all of the traffic seemed to have the same idea, and I soon found out the highway was under construction – everybody had to use this minor road. It was very tight going on the road, and trucks were barely able to squeeze past each other, which sent me into the gravel shoulder countless times. The truckers were fairly considerate, actually, and I didn’t have any near-death experiences, but it was still a serious pain in the saddle. On the plus side, the roads were in better condition than Romania – but that wouldn’t be hard to do.

It was HOT – a good 40 degrees after 1:00pm, and not a single tree close enough to the road to cast any shade. The landscape was quite ‘dramatic’ too – enormous rolling hills the whole way, with me grinding my way to the top of each of them, sweat dripping in a continuous stream through my eyes and off my chin, only to do battle with the traffic on the downhills as the cars & trucks rushed by. Not fun.

Sweating like a maniac, I reached a small town at about 3:00pm, out of water and in need of a break. I asked the friendly policemen on the side of the road (catching speeding motorists by the dozens) where I could get a bottle of water, and they directed me to a quiet cafe/diner. Inside, I grabbed a litre of orange juice and a bottle of water from the fridge, paid (very cheap here – 1 Euro for the lot), and downed the OJ in one continuous gulp, to the wide-eyed concern of the owner. I then asked if she had any sandwiches, and was answered with a blank look as she shook her head. ‘No problem’, I said, and sat down at a table, half-watching a swashbuckling Spanish daytime drama dubbed into Bulgarian, as I tried to find a dry part of my shirt to wipe my brow with.

She woke me up sometime later by plonking a warm salami & mayo sandwich in front of me, which was a welcome surprise. I’d forgotten that shaking the head side-to-side means ‘yes’ in Bulgaria, despite being told by several travellers along the way. I munched it down, paid again, and (somewhat reluctantly) got back on the bike.

The next 60km were marginally less tough, though the ‘Tranzit’ (detour) was still very annoying. At one point I was actually going faster than the traffic, which had banked up for quite a distance. I was finally stopped by an extra-wide truck, with no way of getting past it, so I crawled along like everyone else, the heat all the worse for lack of airflow. At one point I thought I was going to pass-out, as we rolled though the cause of the traffic jam – about 100m of fresh, steaming-hot tar being layed by an unhappy-looking road crew. They gave me a confused look, more concerned about me running over their new tar than anything, and shook their heads as I tried to match pace with the accelerating traffic up the next hill.

I stopped again at a small service station about 90 minutes later, hoping it was open (or even in business – it didn’t look like it). A grizzled old fellow eyed me suspiciously from behind his tobacco-stained window, but was fairly easy with me pointing at his fridge and him pulling out a couple of drinks. I held out some coins for him, from which he carefully took the required sum, and gave me a kurt nod before returning to his torn vinyl chair. I sat in the only shade I could find, under a rusting gas cyclinder, and traded glances with a curious dog that circled from a distance, sniffing the air. The owner then returned to the door and invited me to come and sit in his air-conditioned office, which I gratefully accepted. He sat me on a well-butchered sofa, and we watched a documentary about traditional life in parts of Bulgaria while I sipped my water. He got quite excited about some parts, and almost shouted while reeling off place-names and pointing at different points in the air. He picked up his own drink (a brown 2-litre plastic bottle of beer), and made a big upward spiral with his finger, cracking a smile and pointing at his head. I think he had the right idea, actually. I tried to explain where I was from and where I was going, but I’m not sure if I penetrated his armour. He looked at me strangely a few times though, which was a good sign. I then made my excuses and hit the road.

The final approach was tough – I was really shagged from all the hills and the heat, and Vileko Tarnovo is a city that sits atop the walls of a dramatic gorge. One more push to get up the ‘entrance’, and I was at the foot of town. As soon as I stopped to dig out my Lonely Planet and orientate myself, a taxi came to a screeching halt next to me and the driver lept out in greeting. ‘My friend! How are you today? You are looking for place to stay? I have room for you, very nice, very close to city centre. Come, come…’. I quizzed him on the room and the location, and he whipped out a few photos – not bad- and the price? – 20 leva (10 Euros). I was simply too tired to argue, so he jumped back in the taxi and patiently idled up the hill while I cranked the last of my energy out on the damned 8% grade, reaching the room in a few minutes. He helped carry my bags up the stairs (the only person to have done so on my entire trip) and handed me the keys with a huge grin. I paid him, put the bike on the mini-balcony, and collapsed on the bed ‘for a minute’. I never even got my shoes off. I was out cold for twelve hours, on a badly-sprung mattress in my sweaty gear, but it was ok – I had made it. So much for the nice traditional Bulgarian dinner I could get at the restaurant opposite, as the guy had promised…

Nova Zagora

Well, today’s riding was, in a word, *fantastic*. What a contrast to my ride into Veliko Tarnovo! And to think I was a little worried about the ‘big climb’ today…

But first, I’ll back up a bit to yesterday – I spent the day in Veliko Tarnovo, exploring the Tsarevets Fortress on the hilltop (once the daily furnace died down a bit), getting the clothes washed and hung out, getting prepped for today’s ‘big ride’ (water, food, checking the bike), and recharging the batteries (mine and the GPS’s).

I decided to spoil myself after lunch with a sampling of some of the luscious-looking ice-cream they had on display at a road-side kiosk in town. I opted for three scoops in a cone, and was stunned at the size of the monster the girl handed me – all other places I’d been to recently had given fairly meager scoops (for a very low price, admittedly) – but this was humongous! I then discovered why – they weigh the resulting cone, and you pay by the gram… thankfully it was still relatively cheap – 3 leva (1.5 euro). I was *Happy*.

My plans for a super-early start the following morning (this morning) were sabotaged by my very first flat tyre of the trip. I guess I was lucky in a way – the puncture happened in a ‘good’ location, and there was still plenty of daylight. I was well off the road, sitting on my bike at the railing of a scenic lookout on my way back down from the fortress. After admiring the tiered levels of the town & the gorge below under the late-afternoon sun, I pushed off from the railing and started pedaling back toward the road. Immediately I heard a popping noise, like I’d run over an empty milk carton, and that dreaded squishy back wheel feeling told me I was going nowhere. Looking down, I saw my poor Panaracer Pasela flat as a tack on the (glass ridden) tiles of the square. I jumped off the bike and wheeled it back to the railing, where I did a quick mental check to see if I had everything I needed to fix the problem – I was travelling light for the trip up to the fortress, and I didn’t have any of my panniers. Luckily I did have everything, so I did my best to get the back wheel off and the tube fixed up without dealing a greasy death-blow to my only decent set of clothes. I discovered I’d scissored two parallel gashes in the tube wall when the rim had dropped down on it, as well as a glass-prick right in the centre. This tube was dead – fortunately I had another. Upon inspection of the tyre itself, I pronounced it dead too – the sidewall had a nasty 2-inch crack along one side, and the tread was looking very shallow, with several sharp little rocks trying to burrow through to the inside. It still got me home, but I later buried it in the trash can of my room, with a tear building in the corner of my eye – almost 4400km of excellent service…

By the way, I’m now officially a huge fan of the Thorn rear drop-outs, and the ‘box-type’ Rohloff connector – they made removing and replacing the rear wheel a breeze – no need to do anything special with the chain or gear cables, and putting the wheel back on was a simple reverse procedure. I still got my hands utterly filthy, of course, but it was all fairly pain-free.

A guy about my age watched me finish up, then wandered over to offer to help. He said he knew the owner of a bar nearby where I could wash my hands, but in the end I just asked him to pour some of the water from my drink bottle into my hands (which worked surprisingly well). I then asked him about the roads leading south, and which would be the best choice for me to ride on to Nova Zagora. A few people had informed me that the main road going south was closed for construction (for over a year now), but he told me that it was still possible to use this road, and that he himself uses it quite often because he has a house down that way. He encouraged me to use this route, as it’s virtually devoid of traffic due to the detour signs. This was just the kind of news I wanted to hear, and I thanked him sincerely.

I then limped back to my room in town and proceeded to do the tyre-change trick all over again, but to both wheels this time – I put the old front tyre on the back (being 1.75″ diameter) and a brand-new Scwalbe Marathon XR on the front (because it’s only 1.6″ diameter, and I wanted the fatter tyre on the back). I had quite a bit of trouble fitting the Schwalbe – it mounted onto the rim easily enough, but it took me over an hour of squeezing and twisting and messing about to try and get it to sit evenly. No matter what I did, I always had an enormous flat-spot after putting air into the tube, and was getting quite frustrated with it after I’d changed tubes and re-fitted it about 5 times. After deciding it was just impossible to manually wrench the tyre into submission, I decided to go ahead and pump it up to the maximum pressure I could give it with my hand-pump, and voila – no flat spot. Problem solved. (Oh, Nigel – you idiot…)

I should also mention that through all of this bike-wrestling in the confined space of my room, I was kept company by my new neighbours – a very nice Israeli couple by the name of Tali & Sapir. They had just arrived, in a somewhat surprised state, after thumbing a lift from a passing vehicle over 70km away. Apparently their saviour was some kind of metal-parts cleaning specialist, who lived only a few kilometres from where they were picked up, but he took it upon himself to drive them all the way to Vileko Tarnovo and give them an impromptu guided tour, including the church where he had gotten married. A very friendly lot, these Bulgarians.

They accompanied me through my bike hassles in part because the electricity was on the blink, and if they turned on their room lights, it tripped the breaker for us both – leaving us in complete darkness. My lights were ok, so they hovered about offering help and talking about our respective trips and interests.

I finally got to bed at 2:00am, so my 4:30am wake-up plan died as the lights went out.

So – back to today! I finally got rolling at about 9:15am, hoping to make the big climb of the day before the sun bared its fangs completely. That hope was in vain, however, as I managed to reach the bottom of the mountains at about 11:30, setting me up for a hot, sunny climb up to 700m (from my current 145m). Not a huge climb at all really, but my first ‘real’ climb this trip, and I was a little unsure how I’d handle it with all the gear I’m toting.

Getting to the mountains was bliss – the morning air was cool and refreshing, and just as the helpful bloke yesterday had said, there wasn’t a car to be seen anywhere. Odd that I could feel so grateful for roadworks, but that’s exactly what it was. Beautiful rolling scenery, wide open fields and the mountain range moving closer by the hour, with a first-class road all to myself – you couldn’t dream of better riding conditions.

When I started the climb, it was a very long, subtle incline for the most part, with only a couple of switch-backs, and the dreaded beating sun was surprisingly painless today (despite the reported 37 degrees in town). To be honest, I was completely comfortable the whole way up, smiling at and joking with the road crews, feeling strong and having fun. The road varied in quality from ‘pretty good’ to ‘bulldozed to Hell’, but I managed to navigate my way over the really rough stuff without a hitch, and avoided all the potholes in the tried old road they were digging up. I’d forgotten how enjoyable mountain cycling can be, having followed a series of rivers almost the entire trip, and was almost sorry to see the summit appear, much sooner than I’d expected.

I wasn’t sorry to see the roadhouse at the top though – I was getting hungry. I drank 1.5 litres of fluids (Ice Tea, water & some kind of Red-Bull imitation) and had a jumbo cheese-on-toast, followed by a really huge (and truly excellent) chock-wafer bar. And I mean HUGE – they kept these things in the fridge, and all the road crew boys were eating them. These are big guys, but they still looked like little kids trying to eat paperback books. I’m sure I looked ridiculous too, but at least it helped me ‘blend in’ a little…

Then in was all down hill. Absolute, pure cycling ecstasy. I put the iPod ear-buds in, fired up the Cult ‘Electric’, and blasted down 8km of spanking-new, immaculate asphalt, absolutely alone, at 50 kph – no fear of cars or trucks coming up behind me (the top was barricaded), and I even had a slight tail-wind. I was *very* sad to reach the bottom of that run – I think it ranks as my all-time Freewheel Nirvana, and I doubt I’ll ever find such conditions again. Unless I go back tomorrow…

The rest of the ride was also excellent, though once out of the mountains the heat certainly joined the party. Bakingly-hot on the flats around the lake, I was still on a high from the mountain run and couldn’t be demoralized. There was still virtually no traffic for the rest of the day, and apart from a last-minute surprise climb of about 350m, it was easy-riding all the way into town.

One minor gripe I have about this part of the world is the almost universal use of artificial sweeteners in the drinks. Anyone who knows me well knows that I hate artificial sweeteners, particularly aspartame, but I must have consumed 3 litres of the stuff today in various beverages. I needed the water (which I also drank), but I thought I’d keep it interesting by drinking some juices and ice teas as well. My mistake.


Today, in my quest for lunch, I made a friend.

I was passing through the town of Galabovo, and I could feel the energy levels ebbing to critical. I’d been pedaling hard for about 4 hours in the roaring sun, and though I’d stopped numerous times for a bottle of water or an Ice Tea (only Liptons or Nescafe – the local stuff all has aspartame CRAP in it), no amount of re-hydration was going to put the wind back in my sails – I needed food.

I tried a mini-mart for a sandwich, and the guy was semi-sympathetic, but mimed that I’d have to buy a loaf of bread and some salami and make it myself if I really needed it. He then told me that there was a ‘hamburger shop’ about 2km down the street, and that I should give that a shot.

I’ve learned that everybody exaggerates distances for some reason (even the official street signs are reamarkably inaccurate), and sure enough – 400m down the street, I found a likely-looking establishment.

When I entered, the sole occupant was a customer – a middle-aged gent, face-down on one of the tables, dead to the world while the TV above him emitted some kind of local MTV. I stood at the counter for about 30 seconds, waiting for the proprietor to turn up, and eventually a lady with bright red hair emerged from the back room, somehow failing to notice me for a further 30 seconds. She asked me something in Bulgarian, to which I made my excuses in English – so she bellowed at the guy on the table to get up and deal with me. He jerked awake and looked around for a moment, very bleary-eyed, and then asked me ‘English or Doitch?’. I opted for English.

His English was, uh, rather patchy (he claimed to speak German much better), but I managed to explain that I’d like a sandwich and a drink. He asked me if I wanted salami, mayo and gherkin (a national specialty) and I agreed. I also grabbed a small glass bottle of Sprite out of the fridge, and sat down at another table to watch a bit of TV. I remembered that I had a (thoroughly molten) chocolate bar in my handlebar bag, so I asked him if I could put it in the fridge for a bit, to which he happily obliged.

He soon arrived at my table with a monstrous ‘sandwich’, more like a bread-football with great slabs of processed meat, pickles and heaps of mayonnaise jammed in the middle. I was stoked – great energy food – and I tucked in hungrily. While I chewed though it, he introduced himself as Petr (or something phonetically similar) and asked me my name, where I was from, where I was going, what kind of work I did and many other questions. He was particularly interested that I was a ‘network engineer’ (for lack of a better description) and that I was not married. He went to he fridge and pulled out a small bottle of water, putting it on my table and proclaiming it free of charge. I was very grateful. He also blurted out some orders to his wife (the redhead), and she appeared out of the kitchen with a grilled capsicum on a plate, and placed it next to my sandwich. The pepper was stuffed with rice, mince and garlic, and it was *delicious*. Before I’d finished the sandwich, he also put a freshly made espresso, a big bunch of grapes (from his own vine), and a handful of figs on the table, smiling broadly. I was really very surprised, and tried to offer him some money for it all, but his grin vanished and he wouldn’t hear of it.

I did my best to get through it all, but the grapes bested me. The espresso was really good too – he proudly pointed to his Lavazza coffee machine in the corner. He then explained that his daughter, who was unmarried and could speak some English, would be arriving in a few minutes, and that I should stick around. I agreed with a smile, but I was beginning to get a funny feeling about all of this…

He whisked out the door and jumped in his car, disappearing in a cloud of dust (and narrowly missing my bike!). His wife offered me a small, apologetic shrug, and went back to watering the flowers in the front yard. I sipped my water and wondered how this was all going to end, and soon enough he was back with his daughter in tow. She pointedly ignored me after a brief forced smile, saying absolutely nothing. Dad kept trying to instigate some conversation by asking me questions and having the daughter translate, but she wouldn’t join the conversation. I felt my exit-que being called, so I checked my watch in an obvious way and made my excuses, rising from the table. They were all eating the same scrummy stuffed-capsicums, but Dad jumped up and ran into the back garden, returning with a handful of plums and a very sorry-looking, immature bunch of grapes (a total contrast to the first bunch). He put them in a plastic bag for me, and escorted me out to the bike, where he repeatedly explained how to get to the next town (which was clearly marked on my map anyway) and wished me a safe trip. I tried one more time to give him some extra money, but he actually took my wallet out of my hands and put the note back in himself. The total cost for the meal, coffee & entertainment? Two leva – exactly 1 euro!

I then remembered my chocolate bar, and he raced back in to retrieve it. The wife pulled up a plastic chair next to the door and gestured for me to sit on it, while Petr explained that I must eat it now, or it will be melted again in another 5 minutes. My bulging belly didn’t like the idea at all, but he was right about the heat – so I did as I was told and dismounted the bike, plonking myself down on the chair.

As I unwrapped the (already melting) chocolate-wafer bar, I looked up at the sky and was startled to see an enormous black storm cloud right in front of us. It must have arrived in a hell of a hurry, even though there was no wind, and no cold-front that I could feel. But it was a bit strange-looking, and kind of the wrong colour, and a few moments later I realized that it wasn’t a storm cloud – it was smoke. LOTS of smoke, pouring up from the horizon, in the direction I was to be riding. I tried asking the wife about it, but she just nodded her head and waved her arms around a bit. Petr had nothing to add, other than ‘yes, fire, very big’, so I just chewed my wafer-bar and hoped the smoke wasn’t going to cause me any trouble on the road.

I pulled out my camera and asked if I could get a photo of him, which he was happy to pose for – but he then decided that I should take photos of his entire establishment – inside the restaurant, out the back (which was very nice, I must admit), around the side, a shot of his house next door, some shots of his grape vines and the trellises (‘the design!’ he proudly announced), and even the little ceramic figures along the tops of the walls. I dutifully shot everything he pointed at, until he started really hunting for each next-item, at which point I quickly put the camera away and tapped my watch face, with an apologetic smile.

I finally said my last good-byes and hopped on the bike, pedaling slowly and waving until I was around the corner. Then I picked up the pace, and was back on the road to Svilengrad (at last!)

The rest of the ride was fairly uneventful, apart from discovering that I wasn’t going to be incinerated by a wall of flames. The big fire was a couple of kilometres to my left as I passed, and the towering plume of smoke managed to block some of the power of the sun for an hour or so.

When I arrived in Svilengrad, a young kid on a bike pulled up next to me while I was consulting my map and started drilling me with questions (in Bulgarian). I smiled for a moment, then asked him ‘Centurm?’, and he nodded once, then waved at me to follow as he took off down the street.

Upon finding the (rather nice, green) town center, I went on the hunt for a place to stay, and after a few misfires I wound up at a huge Soviet-era hulk of a hotel. The lobby had the look and feel of an out-of-date gymnasium, and I did a double-take at the switchboard next to the front desk – a huge bank of 1/4-inch sockets with a dozen or so cables making connections. But the lady at the desk was friendly, and the room itself was surprisingly good and modern (apart from the psychedelic carpet). I showered, hit the town centre for a pizza, searched in vain for a net cafe (the guy I spoke too just couldn’t come to grips with the idea of Internet and coffee in the same establishment). Well-fed and exhausted, I slept in air-conditioned bliss…