Translated by: Marci Bekker
During our stay in Sofia the weather wasn’t very much in our favor. Even though there didn’t seem to be any improvement in the weather conditions despite the sunny forecast, we set out. Someplace up above, the sun must have surely shined, but we neither saw nor felt any of that. Instead, we were accompanied by a light snowfall on our way out from the Bulgarian capital.
We were heading towards Plovdiv and the first part of the way proved quite arduous. There was a lot to climb, but the traffic was low. We were yet to learn why everyone else chose the highway running parallel to our road. We took road number 8, which, from a settlement called Vakarel continued on in a catastrophic state. If I ever wanted to direct a movie about the apocalyptic landscape in the aftermath of an imagined World War III, I’d definitely use this road in it. Huge pits filled with water, cracked and rutted asphalt with depressions all over it, tree trunks sprawling across the road and beginning to be grown over with weed. Having arrived in Ihtiman, we played it safe by darting to the churchyard. They let us spend the night there – there was running water as well as a toilet. The latter was of the earth closet type, but wild camping doesn’t offer more comfortable opportunities either, so we have no reason to complain. We had a rather cold night, but our sleeping bags kept us warm. In the morning people started stirring about the church without paying us much attention. At the boundaries of Ihtiman a lamentable image awaited us. Scrawny horses grazing among plastic bags whipped around by the wind. Garbage. Everywhere. Again.
That day, to our great joy, the sun peeked out from behind the clouds once in a while, but spring was still a day away. We spent the entire day descending on the slopes of the Rila mountain range, which day, as regards the amount we pedaled, has remained Eni’s favorite ever since then. The scenery was spell-binding, with some peaks still covered in snow, the highest of them invisible from the clouds hanging above. We left Rila behind. The Rhodope mountain to the right (south of us) and the StaraPlanina mountain to the left (north of us) started growing high on the horizon. The two of them kept us company even two days after we set forth from Plovdiv.
With its 112 km, this was the longest ride so far. We loafed around Plovdiv for a while because our GPS went out of whack and led us in circles. Eventually we did find the hostel we were looking for, but we paid a high price for it as we had to jerk wheel our bikes up a steep, cobblestoned streets (with enormous, abyss-like pits in between). The little place called Hikers Hostel was very cozy – the owner received us warmly. Cleanliness and calm held sway over the place. Apart from us there were three Finnish and an English biker lodged there. We drank a welcome drink of rakia with the owner guy and headed to the town to forage out some dinner. The English bloke, Stewart, joined us and we found the occasion to share our biking experiences with one another. We admired Plovdiv being lit up at night; the old part of town is simply beautiful. If you are ever in Bulgaria, don’t miss out on it!
The next morning we squeezed in a little bit of sight-seeing before continuing on. We woke up to a genuine spring day, the coats were off at last. Plovdid is a treasure chest inside Bulgaria. Unfortunately, the majority of Bulgarian cities isn’t remotely as beautiful. They are shabby and reek of socialist architecture; not even Sofia cuts it, but Plovdiv truly is a relief. Having been inhabited for over five millenia, it’s not only Bulgaria’s oldest, but one of Europe most ancient settlements. We didn’t manage to leave the town until somewhat late into the afternoon on account of the stroll in the city, but we didn’t mind, it was nice to skip and bounce in the sun a little. After around 60 km we started keeping an eye out for some sort of accommodation, because the sun was about to set. Here, we are an hour ahead, and it stays bright until almost 8 o'clock. We first aimed for a little clearing behind a restaurant in a small village (Byala Reka), but the main road was rather loud and I had the feeling that we'd better move on. Eni didn't mind, that's how it is. If either of us has a sinister feeling about a place, we preferably just don't stay there. Around 2 km after leaving the village, we spotted a house roughly 500-800m off the road in the woods. We thought it'd be some sort of a ranch, they wouldn't mind if we pitched a tent, there's room galore. Afraid of dogs and leaving our bikes behind, we approached the house tentatively, each of us bearing a stick in our hands, which was still somewhat hidden by the trees. Dogs were nowhere to be found. We edged closer and noticed what it we’d spotted really was. A little church stood there with a small yard circumfenced by stones. On the verandah of the church a table with chairs. Budding trees, blossoming flowers, the chirping of birds. Not a sole around. By this time we knew it was worth leaving the roadside. It felt as if we'd cycled into the Garden of Eden. And there, we had every right to feel that. It was a magnificent place in the setting sun, emenating nothing else just calmness. We dined and tucked ourselves away to sleep. We were woken up by the shining sun and the songs of birds the next morning. We agreed that this must have been our top wild camping spot since we started the trip.
After spending half the day with sightseeing in Plovdiv, we couldn’t cover as much as we’d planned to. We had a room booked in Edirne, Turkey, but that seemed too far away for a day, especially given the elevation for that stretch. We pedal on as we can and we’ll see how it works out, just as we’ve always done – we thought. It was our first T-shirts and shorts day. We stopped in a small village to ask around for a grocery store. As we were receiving our itinerary, an old lady ran towards us clinging onto something in her hands. It was an Easter egg and some pastry with and a ‘happy holidays.’ We found the store, bought ham, bread and vegetables to the boiled egg and made an Easter feast of our breakfast with a week of delay, according to Bulgarian traditions (here, it gets celebrates a week later). We took out time with lunch, chatting over it, drinking coffee and eating the Easter pastry to it, enjoying the sun.
We were in the saddle all throughout the afternoon and got in the close vicinity of the border. Despite the fatigue, we thought it would worth a try getting to Edirne, since camping in the wild 20-25 km away from our accommodation wouldn’t make much sense, and in any case, it’s never advised in border regions. Before crossing the border, we drained out last levs into buying chocolate and a glass of water. We ran into a few Hungarian truck drivers, too. It was a peculiarly uplifting feeling to meet people from home. Thankfully, we were through with the border crossing pretty quickly. The Turkish border lady was a little perplexed for a few seconds as to which way New Zealand actually was, but we told her not to worry, from this point, we could really just go either way. We were a little afraid of the luggage inspection, because if they’d wanted to rummage through our bags, cramming our load back in would have taken a lot of time, but the guy thought a glimpse into our front bags would suffice and he let us go with a “Thank you, good bye!” The sun was going down over the horizon and it painted the roof of a mosque orange in front of us: we’ve arrived in Turkey.
We weren’t left alone on the other side either, as a trucks lined the road around 6-8 km long. I wonder how much time it took those poor guys to get across. A big racket, bustle and flickering lights welcomed us in Edirne. We were expecting to see a smaller town; instead, we found ourselves in a city with a population of 150 000. There were so many things around us, we didn’t know which way to look. We’d almost found the address we needed to go to, but the street just wouldn’t be discovered. A local guy the same age as us called Umut (meaning hope) came to our rescue and rode ahead on his motorcycle as our reconnaissance officer. And sure enough, we were fiddling around in the right place. He called our host on the phone and waited with us until they came to fetch us. Since he could speak some English, we started chatting about all worldly things in the meantime. Osman, the brother of our host came to get us and led us to the apartment. He was in his 60s, a kind man with no knowledge of English. As we spoke no Turkish, we could only communicate with our hands and legs flailing in the air, but we got by, somehow. (Before going on a world tour, it actually pays to practice on Activity, a lot!) He showed us the bathroom and our quarter and made us tea, true to Turkish traditions. We set up a new record this day cycling 133.5 km and climbing around 750m. After the usual pre-sleep activities (showering and brushing our teeth), we dozed off.
We were startled out of our dreams at dawn by the voice of the muezzin, which gave us a kick, but after realizing we are in Turkey and that there’s no problem at all, we snoozed back for a little more.