Zdravei, България / Bulgaria!

Entering Europe’s poorest corner

Crossing the border into the northernmost corner of Bulgaria, the poorest area of Europe, was quite a shock after jolly Serbia. Everything we see is cracked, abandoned, broken, overgrown, dusty, peeling, missing bits, falling apart. Everywhere, even in the middle of the villages and towns we ride through, there are whole buildings left to ruin. The overall effect is that of entering a third world country. The little horse drawn carts with Roma families on board are very picturesque to our traveling eyes. They also show us grinding poverty for the first time. The people are very friendly, waving and smiling. We feel safe, despite the shocking surroundings.

The roads of Bulgaria

Bulgarian stretches
Bulgarian stretches

The roads are ok, from excellent tarmac to a more or less maintained patchwork of fixes. On some stretches we have to surf the potholes but overall we can make good speed. We decide to do some ‘work days’ as we’ve started to call them. In areas that are not particularly beautiful and with nothing to see or do we try cover as many kms as we can. Get up at 6.30am, on the bike by 8.30am, plan for lunch, finish around 6pm and try to get to the interesting bits of Bulgaria as soon as we can.

There are large areas with monoculture, only corn or not-yet-blooming sunflower fields as far as the eye can see. The long straight roads often have a single ‘wall’ of trees and shrub. This creates a tunnel vision with little variation in the landscape, if we can see it at all. Sadly this lack of diversity in farming (and aggressive spraying?) means that there are a lot less animals to be seen by the roadside. We miss the emerald blue-headed lizards, the sounds of the insects and the birds. We even start to miss the snakes, they are a bit scary but mostly very beautiful.

Grassroots initiatives

We stay with Annelies, a Belgian girl who owns a property near Vidin, the first town we ride through. She explains the local situation. There used to be a thriving tyre industry but after the fall of communism the machinery was quickly sold off and everybody who worked in the factories was fired. Cue economic free fall and a once bustling town surrounded by pretty vineyards now looks like a post-apocalyptic disaster zone. Empty factories and a grim outlook on the future for the inhabitants.

This is confirmed by a Dutch couple we meet later on and who are working in Vidin. Therefor first impression of Bulgaria was not a very good one, and we feel bad for the Bulgarians stuck in this situation. Hopefully new grassrootss initiatives like Annelies’ permaculture project will bring new ways of life to the area. The overnight stay was lovely. Our shower that night was a jump into a nearby dam lake, and one of her dogs kept guard next to our tent all night. Another dog ran along with us for a few kilometres to the next village. We had to send him back quite sternly before we accidentally would have adopted him.

Rolling with the pack
Rolling with the pack

Leaving the Danube

Yesterday things started looking up however. After one month of faithfully cycling along its banks we finally said our goodbye to our friend the Danube. We veered South, towards the Balkan mountain range. Leaving the Danube behind means entering a part of Bulgaria that is better off, with more well preserved villages and towns. For instance lovely Lovec, where we spent last night.

It also means we will start seriously climbing for the first time. This is a scary prospect with all our heavy luggage but mountains make for a welcome change of scenery. The plan is to climb up to Buzludzha, an abandoned communist headquarters that looks like a flying saucer. A Brutalist gem. It’s situated above the Shipka pass, at 1441m. We plan to camp up there and then descend to Plovdiv, the oldest continually inhabited town in Europe. From there we will take the night train to Istanbul.

Serbia, we love you and leave you

Today is probably our last day in Serbia. We are sad to say goodbye to this country full of lovely people and calorie-dense food. Today is also exactly one month since we left Amsterdam and we have decided we’ll do another month since this is just way too much fun.

Belgrade

After leaving the kayak club camping spot we made our way to Belgrade where we spent two nights with friends of my friend Zoran. We felt as if we had been taking it relatively easy but we crashed and burned. A planned 10 minute afternoon nap turned into a deep three hour sleep. We were very grateful for our new friends Ana and Beli and their little princess dog Kiki who were looking after us. Well fed, well rested and with freshly washed everything we left, with a promise to come back. We only had a little taste of the city but Belgrade has a great vibe, tree lined streets with little cafes. Domineering plattenbau Brutalist housing blocks greeted us before we entered the old city around the citadel. The biggest attraction of Belgrade however was feeling truly at home for a day, with our new friends.

Big city cycling: no thank you!

We are no longer very keen about heading into big cities. It is difficult and dangerous on a bicycle, and somehow we don’t feel like doing the things we have always enjoyed on city trips such as going to museums. We feel a little bit restless when we are not outside on the bicycle and want to keep going. For the first time I notice how dirty the air in cities is, and how people live so close together without making any kind of contact. How I am constantly enticed to spend money. Right now the biggest attractions of the city are meeting up with people and doing practical things like laundry, writing and organising our (visum) administration. We much prefer traveling in the country side. A friendly greeting, fresh air, a laid-backness, quiet, and nothing to spend our money on but food.

Leaving Belgrade was a lot easier than going in. When we entered we had to endure a long stretch of choking two-lane busy road with little space for us, plus we were being chased by a thunderstorm. On the way out it was bright and sunny and a local cyclist guided us across the bridge. Within 15 minutes we were on a 15km stretch of off-road Duna dyke.

Camping by the Serbian Danube

We only did a modest 50km day before finding a little well-kept caravan park where Belgradi’s enjoy their weekends. The owner let us stay for free, indicated with a shrug when we enquired about the price. The other residents however seemed a little bit miffed by the cycling hippy invasion of their little dacha paradise. It didn’t help that we accidentally put up our tent in the middle of the path to the well which the whole campsite used to get their fresh water. A few residents ‘accidentally’ almost stumbled over the tent. If I had been walking back and forth for the last 20 years I would be annoyed too if someone put a tent and a pile of Ortliebs in my way. The next campsite was a caravan park in a little resort town. A small Costa Del Sol on the Danube, lined with ice cream sellers, cafes and restaurants. We were obviously not their target audience but again we were very impressed with the incredible hospitality and fun spirit of the Serbs. A relaxed evening, sunset with the deafening roar of croaking frogs.

At Golubac the Duna landscape changes dramatically. We cruised into a huge gorge of steep cliff faces. The first serious climbs! We had to go through 23 tunnels but luckily most of them were very short. The cycling route took us from quite hight up on the cliff face down into a smaller gorge, which we also had to climb out of again. It was well worth it, with the added excitement of having to cross a small river with our bikes.

Reflections on Serbia’s recent past

Serbia has been our best experience yet, and it’s hard to believe these lovely people were at war with their neighbours not long ago. People we meet are eager to talk about the war and how it’s affected them and their families. The prevailing sense seems to be bafflement. How could this happen? Before it started there was no tension between the different nationalities and religions in former Yugoslavia. Then, all of a sudden, divisions appeared and violence erupted. People talk about mixed families, friend groups and marriages. Now people can no longer talk to eachother because of the horror of what happened between Bosnians, Serbs, Croats. The people here are not very optimistic about the future. There is no work, educated people leave if they can. There is a sense of nostalgia for Tito’s days, when everybody could have a good education, a job and a house.

To Bulgaria

We are about to set off for our last day of cycling between the high cliffs of the Duna Derdap National Park. Then tomorrow we’ll head into Bulgaria, to follow the Duna for another couple of days before we will start climbing.

(sorry, no pics. Internet is also very laid back here. Uploading goes with the speed of a horse drawn cart on a hot afternoon 🙂

Dober dan Serbia!

On 22 May we cruised into Serbia, after a good nights sleep next to the Donau dyke just outside Ujmohacs. Bye bye Hungary, dober dan Serbia!

Our first ‘real’ border crossing: two checkpoints and the first stamp in our passport. A huge sign that welcomes cyclists to the country greets us upon arrival. Nice!

Welcome sign to Serbia
Welcome sign to Serbia

We love Serbia

The change in atmosphere is immediate. People smile and wave, sun is shining, the asphalt is smooth, the dogs are cute. Life is good to cyclists in Serbia. We find a perfect well-kept little campsite where we also have a catfish dinner cooked by the manager.

TLC for the bikes at the campsite
TLC for the bikes at the campsite

The next day the Serbian adventure begins for real. The three weeks on the road mark has been passed, meaning we are now beyond the normal time frame for a cycling holiday. Cyril wonders when we will start to feel like real road warriors instead of relaxed holiday makers. Turns out today is the day.

Into the wild boars

First, we head into the Upper Donau national park. It is very hot, well over 30 degrees, but we are going fast on the dykes with a steady wind in our back. We see some (dead) snakes and not many people but enough to be sure of food and water. The landscape is flat but less rigidly manicured than Hungary. We are loving it and devouring the kilometres, we will make 136km in total today, breaking my personal record for daily distance with a fully loaded bike. We cross a woodland and hear little wild piglets squealing, which is cute but also a bit scary since it means big mama is nearby and possibly upset. A bit later we see a big boar crashing across the bike lane. We didn’t see it coming because the grass on either side of the path is very high. Further along the road is a whole family of piglets and boars; the jump into the primordial swamp next to the dyke with big loud splashes and grunts. We disturbed their lazy afternoon nap in the mud. This is starting to feel like adventure.

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Slivovice lunch

After the wild pig excitement we find a little camp with old caravans sitting on the shore of the Danube. It looks like a little collection of man caves for local guys who like to fish and enjoy a beer in the outdoors. Completely deserted because it is a week day, we decide to have a little break in the shade. Turns out there is one older man on his own at his caravan. Nikola ambles over to us and we have a lovely chat even though he only speaks 4 words of German and 2 words of English and we have only just learned how to say hello and thank you in Serbian. He brings out the slivovice and a nice prune brandy ‘for the lady’ and cooks us our first Serbian Turkish mud coffee. Nikola has been a truck driver for 40 years and all it got him was a triple bypass. This sweet old man completely agrees with our mad idea of quitting our jobs and cycling the world for a year. He misses the good old communist days when there was little stress but fishing brings him peace of mind. A lovely man, we are very glad to have met him. Cycling with a shot of moonshine and strong coffee makes everything a little bit surreal. Since there is no traffic we are free to enjoy the buzz.

Kayak camping

Our goal for today is Bačka Palanka where the guidebook promises us a camp site. We arrive after 136km, tired, hot and hungry, but no camp site to be seen. After asking around for a place to stay the local kayak club welcomes us to put up our tent on their grounds. Staying safe within the fence, the club keeper comes to check on us with his torch light after we’ve enjoyed cevapcici and a beer by the waterside. When we are clean, warm, fed and cozy inside our sleeping bags a thunderstorm breaks and it starts to rain. Today was wonderful and we are starting to feel like real bicycle adventurers.

Backa Palanka kayak club camp
Backa Palanka kayak club camp