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.