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.

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

 

Germany: Crossing our first border

Germany! The first country, of many more to come. We traveled here for 5 days: Tuesday 3 May to Sunday 8 May 2016

Weather: sunny but strong headwinds all the way. Fresh on the first day but soon getting warmer, up to 25 degrees.

Route: following well signposted riverpaths without traffic. First the Isar out of Munchen, then the Vils until Vilshofen an der Donau, then the Donau into Austria. Very flat but we´re only just getting used to the heavy luggage and the strong headwinds so we´re grateful for the easy riding.

Overall we loved our short tour in Germany. We met some great people through warmshowers and couchsurfing, enjoyed some nice chitchat for instance with the dogwalker who came to greet us when we were packing up our first wild camp site. A relaxed start to our journey.

Etappes

Voerendaal – Cologne 85km. CS with Midori and Felix

Cologne – Munich by night train. Breakfast with Dita und Michl.

Munich – Hohenpolding 80 km. WS with David and Uschi

Hohenpolding – Eichendorf 70km. Wild camp

Eichendorf – Passau 70km. Campsite.

Total distance cycled in Germany: 325km

Budget, acommodation and food

1 couchsurfing, 1 warmshowers, 1 campsite, 1 wild camp.

Total cost accomodation; 18 euro. Average per night per person: 2,50 euro.

Total cost food: 29 euro. We did our own cooking and shopped at Lidl. One beer in the sun in Cologne. Average per day per person: about 3,50 euro.

We spent about 80 euro in a camping store in Cologne on essentials we forgot: pepper spray against wild dogs (not possible to get in NL), bike lock, fuel for the cooker, universal electricity plug.