THIS IS LUCA’S PENULTIMATE INSTALLMENT. HIS NEXT AND FINAL DISPATCH WILL BE FROM ISTANBULL (IF HIS BIKE STAYS TOGETHER!)
Day 80: 04/11/03
Weather: Overcast, rain later
Out early to avoid riding in the dark again. Took road signed to Calerfert ’til Poden where I turned south towards Bulgaria. Very quiet tarmaced roads. Through Segrcea and Dranic. Many more Roma in this area – was lucky enough to see some women in traditional gypsy dress. Would have liked to stay longer in Romania, but I keep getting caught out by the weather and the short days so have to keep moving on.
Through Zaval (rain now) and on to Bechet to cross the Danube for the the third and final time this trip, though now by ferry. Got to Romanian customs by 1.30, but was kept hanging around for no obvious reason for over half hour. Once through I missed ferry by 1 minute and so had to wait over 2 hours for it to return. Too late now to continue so got room here. Had no Bulgarian currency whatsoever, though fortunately emergency Euros were accepted with little persuasion needed.
Day 81: 05/11/03
Weather: Overcast, mist, occasional drizzle/rain
Up and out early today as I wanted to make it to the foothills of the Stara Plania mountain range that spans the width of Bulgaria and so I had to cross. There was a policeman outside when I left who asked to see my passport and then said he’d show me the right road out of town. Wasn’t sure why, but gave him the benefit of the doubt and assumes he was some kind of well-intentioned community bobby or something.
Ended up finding road to Kneza myself in the end as his car broke down on the steep climb out of town. He caught me up 10 minutes later though and crawled along in front of me ’til we were well out of town. Road here dead straight and slightly uphill. Approaching next town I was flagged down by a second patrol car that insisted on escorting me through the town. Wierd, but I was trying not to think too much of it.
When this happened again at Kneza I started to get a bit pissed off. I couldn’t work out what they were playing at (I was given no explanation) and was starting to find their tracking my movements in this way a bit sinister. Maybe they had the best of intentions – to protect me from being robbed? – but I’m a big boy now and am more than capable of looking after myself. Also, my general strategy regarding safety, of acting normal and not drawing attention to myself, that has served me well until now, was being seriously screwed up.
By the time I got to Cerven Brjag I was up to my 5th police escort and rather than getting the usual waves and cheery greetings from some people I was just receiving suspicious looks and muttered comments. All of this “preferential” treatment was doing me no favours at all. I may as well have ridden through town holding a sign saying “Look at me, I’m well worth mugging”. Escort 5 asked, as all the others had done, where I was stopping tonight, so I told them Lukovit. When we arrived there I rode around town disinterestedly ’til they got bored and then slipped away.
Sure enough, within about half hour I was picked up by patrol number 6 (noticeably more brusque than the others, now that I had lied to them), though I easily gave them the slip when I saw them fiddling with their radio and not paying attention to me by nipping in to a roadside cafe and hiding my bike round the back. Watching them driving up and down the road search for me was entertaining anyway.
Back out after half hour and turned up the road towards Tetven that entered the low hills leading up to the mountains. This was a nice little road and I was starting to feel free again at last. Stopped at a roadside fountain to get some water and heard a car quietly slip out of gear and roll up alongside me. Escort number 7 had arrived. A chap got out and did the usual “Where are you staying tonight” routine, while another guy sat in the car taking notes:
“Subject stopped for water (2 bottles) at Glozane. Seemed mildly irritated by our presence. Appeared to me muttering something along the lines of ‘Oh for f*!ks sake, not another pair of t*%s in a Lada'”.
After again being led out of town I was picked up by my 8th and final “guard” who followed me to Tetven. Funny, in Prague I went to the Museum of Communism that gave an idea of what everyday life was like in a police state. I needn’t have bothered going, having experienced the real thing today. Don’t know why they are following me or what I can do about it. Hopefully they’ll leave me alone tomorrow. In the meantime I’ve renamed Lada’s “Wonderbras”, as here in Bulgaria they are sure to contain a fine pair! What a totally surreal day!
Day 82: 06/11/03
To: Cerni Osam (nr Trojan)
Weather: Cloudy, rain later
Forgot to say that I had a minor technical disaster yesterday when I hit a pothole and my rear pannier rack snapped at the point where it attaches to the bike’s frame. Managed to temporarily fix it with a couple of zip cords, but today had to find a more permanent solution.
General consensus at the hotel last night (along with everyone agreeing I was insane going over the mountains in November) was that I wouldn’t find a replacement outside of Sofia or one of the big towns. Therefore decided to stop in Tetven and post my tent, stove and a few other odds and sods that I wouldn’t be needing any more back home. All in I got rid of about 5 kilos of weight off the back.
Saw a couple of Wonderbras in town, but thankfully they paid little attention to me and weren’t around when I left town at 9.30. Continued up valley (gradual incline) then past Ribarica gradient increases until forced in to granny ring for an hour and a half ’til top at 1200m asl – highest point for today and freezing cold up here! Some very tempting off road trails leading from the road but delicate bag rack is keeping me on tarmac.
Road drops gradually at first – stunning views – then sent me plummeting through Sipkovo. More gradual from there in to Trojan, which looks like a lively place and would make a good base for a week or 2’s mountain biking on the trails around here. Found bike shop but had to wait hour and a half for it to open making further progress today difficult. Got a new rack, though its a bit flimsy – more suited to a bike used for nipping to the shops than a long distance tourer but it will do, I think.
Away by 4 (in to light rain) so half chance of getting some of the way up the valley leading to the next big climb that will take me clean over the Stara Plania and down the other side. No such luck though. 5km up the road my front pannier rack broke(!) and so had to be patched up. I then missed a turning and went 10km up the wrong valley and at the point that I realised my mistake it started pouring down. This triple whammy made me decide to stop at the first place offering accommodation that I pass, which happened to be The Trojan Monastery of the Assumption. Any port in a storm, as they say.
Day 83: 07/11/03 From: Cerni Osam (nr Trojan)
Weather: Low cloud and mist
Weather looked dodgy this morning, so decided to go back to bed and leave big climb ’til tomorrow. Just rode the short distance to Aprilci (couldn’t bare a day in a monastery, though it was an amazing place and a very lucky find). Found a small family run hotel in Aprilci, and the owners son kindly took me and bike to the town’s mechanic who welded the broken bracket back to good health, generously at no charge (The natural good nature of Bulgarian people has made my Wonderbra experience of 2 days ago a distant memory).
After a couple of beers, we went back to the hotel where preparations were under way for the grandfather of the family’s 70th birthday party. Grandma wouldn’t hear of me being in the house and not joining them upstairs so I accepted their invitation and had a great evening with some lovely people. Haven’t plugged anywhere I’ve stayed at all so far, but if you do come to Aprilci, which is the perfect base from which to explore the Central Balkans National Park and its surrounds, I don’t see how you can do better than staying at the Nelly Hotel (St Hrisantema, No. 10). Very bright and clean rooms and great value (10 lei) and of course the warmest hospitality I’ve experienced on this trip.
Day 84: 08/11/03
To: Pavel Banja
Weather: Overcast, foggy, cold, though improving later
Set off not long after first light as days are very short now and wasn’t sure how long today’s ride would take. Last night a couple of the old boys said it wasn’t possible to cross the mountains on a bike by the route I was taking, especially at this time of year. After 9km of tarmac I turned right over bridge and was forced in to granny ring immediately. Chain was to stay there for the next 3 hours. Long, long slog up through forest. After half hour of climb visibility down to about 50 metres and mud and ice were making an already tough (steep, rocky) trail even harder. Seemed there were going to be no nice views today.
Very cold towards top with much of trail unrideable. Walking through snow now. Visibility getting worse and worse. Didn’t realise I was at top ’til I almost rode into a fence surrounding one of the buildings up there. Apparently you can see Greece from up here on a good day. I could barely see 10 yards! Wasn’t sure where to go from here as I could see sod all. Guessed right and ended up at mountain refuge hut where resident dogs announced my arrival. 2 blokes came out and ushered me in to hut, one amused, the other concerned that I was up here alone, on a bike in these conditions.
Woman appeared from kitchen with sweet tea and cake, then soup, bread, salad and cheese, while guys plied me with home made plum brandy (a staple in Bulgaria) and glasses of wine. They wouldn’t accept anything for food and drink when I left and were happy to see me heading off in the right direction for the descent towards Taza.
Had read that this mountain range forms a barrier between the med and continental climates but was surprised at how suddenly and completely the weather changed. Within 1km the clouds and fog cleared, the sun came out and the temperature rose. Views were made all the more outstanding by the fact that I had seen very little on the way up. It was as if I had been led up here blindfolded and then suddenly had the scenery revealed to me!
Descent incredible. Fairly flat to start alongside gorge plunging down to the right, then faster later. Some of the most dramatic scenery I’ve ever laid eyes on. Riding above clouds in places! Was torn between hammering it and enjoying the views so did a bit of both. Not even 2 punctures and a water bottle cage snapping clean off could dampen my spirits (though the latter had me wondering why my bike has chosen Bulgaria of all places, where spares are hard to come by, to start behaving like a clowns car).
Saw a few people on this side. 2 guys tearing up the trail on scramblers and a couple wandering around with a high powered crossbow, which was far too “Deliverance” for my liking. Further down passed some sheperds and also gypsy men loading wood in to horse drawn carts. Then 15km of flat to Pavel Banja. Am writing this at 10pm and am still trying to think of a more mind-blowing days biking that I’ve done than todays.
Day 85: 09/11/03
From: Pavel Banja
Weather: Bright, clear skies, cool
Climbed gradually out of Pavel Banja on road to Plovdiv that weaves its way through beautiful wooded mountains. Sunday, so no traffic, unless you’re counting goat herds. Gets steeper later. After 18km, at top, turned right and continued steep up for another 4 km to Novo Selo, then big descent on narrow, badly surfaced road through lovely hills. Eventually to Cipran then a very dull 30km across a vast plain in to a strong headwind to Dimitrovgrad.
Should make Turkey tomorrow. Next dispatch from Istanbul hopefully.