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.

Hungary, also known as Magyarország

Our first taste of culture shock happened a while back. We crossed into Hungary on Monday 16 May and couldn’t understand or read a word of the language, and had to spend thousands for the grocery shopping. We didn’t realise quite how much we had become used to gentrification until it was no longer all around us.

Sneaking into Slovakia

Before crossing into Hungary we spent one night in Bratislava, a pleasant town which is well equipped for the discerning bicycle traveler. Beer, cheap food, interesting architecture and a generally good vibe.

The Slovak Radio building in Bratislava
The Slovak Radio building in Bratislava

Hungary: our first culture shock

Crossing into Hungary therefor felt like getting out of our comfort zone for the first time. It didn’t help that the weather was overcast and that it was a Catholic holiday. This meant that all villages looked like the zombie apocalypse just happened. The North of Hungary was in Soviet times well known for its large scale farm operations and these still exist. Huge flat fields with the same crops, no animals. We covered 135km since there was nothing to do but cycling and camped in a field. We did not know how we would explain ourselves if an angry Hungarian farmer would find us. Still, there is nothing like cycling for a day to make you sleep like a log.

Next stop: Esztergom, a.k.a. ‘The Rome of Hungary’. A huge kitsch basilica towers over the pleasant little town. We enjoyed a stroll around, pizza and ice-cream, and met up with another bicycle tourer on our campsite.

Budapest

Rolling into Budapest brought us back into our comfort zone with all the creature comforts the city brings. For three nights we enjoyed the hospitality of our charming couchsurfing host Valentine, another new friend we hope to see again when we come back to Amsterdam. I cooked a meal for him, his family and another couchsurfer which made me feel right at home.

Budapest was also the first goal we had set for ourselves. Coincidentally we touched 1000km just before we rolled into town and treated ourselves to a day in the baths to celebrate.

Somehow we didn’t feel like another few days of Hungarian countryside. The guide book promised us the single highlight of a paprika museum set in more flat farmland. We decided to hop on the train and skip one of the most boring bits of Danube. A good decision since we are falling a bit behind and we are scared of running into the winter in Tajikistan. We cycled to the excellent Soviet sculpture garden of Memento Park on the outskirts of Budapest and from there hopped on a train to Baja.

Camping

We spent our last 2 nights camping in Hungary, one wild camp next to the Danube dyke (the local campsite no longer existed) and enjoyed a great little campsite just before the Serbian border.

Wild camping by the Danube

I’ll add the skinny about kilometres cycled, budget and accommodation tomorrow, when we get to Beograd tonight. Hungary was somehow a little bit underwhelming, so we might have to go back someday and explore the mountains. The land has been disputed and as a result ravaged so many times there is a lot less visible of the incredibly rich and interesting history then I expected. The people were friendly enough with curt greetings in passing. Cruising into Serbia on the other hand was a case of joy at first sight, what a difference a border crossing can make.

It’s 7am now, time to get up, pack up and get going. We stayed up way past our usual bedtime last night, until 9pm. Who told you bicycle traveling was rock ‘n’ roll!?