Sultan’s trail (part 4): Enough of Bulgarian mountains – off to Turkey

Distance: 480km |Total: 1,752km

My morning in Kocherinovo started bright and early in order to catch a bus to the monastery. My host told me there is one bus from the village at 7am. Well, it left ten to seven without me. Great i thought, as i was sipping away my coffee at the empty bus stop. But then things came quickly together. A bus to Rila bus station (7.20am) and from there with a smaller bus to the monastery. So here I come…

A visit to Rila Monastery

The monastery is the largest in Bulgaria and probably the most important cultural repository of the country. It was named after its founder, the hermit Ivan od Rila, who lived in a nearby cave in the 10th century. The complex measures 8800qm and reminds me a bit of Montserrat near Barcelona (though transport links for the latter are way superior).

The architecture is pretty impressive and the complex is in a good shape. The museum offers thematic overviews of its own history and overall Bulgarian culture. No fotos allowed.

When i got there i went straight to the church where people were praying and singing. I lit two candles as well to pray for two people close to my heart even though, as a protestant, i am technically in the wrong place (details, details…).

Back to my bike now…

Uphill (UP-UP-UP HILL!) to Bansko

Man i am tired. Twice my route today had me cross mountains. Must have been close to 2000m altitude gain in total. God knows. Feels like 5000 to me anyway.

First up the hills behind Blagoevgrad. All offroad that meant a lot of pushing uphill and incouded a small fall on the downhill bit (not hurt though). My bike is just not made for this kind of stuff. No grip uphill and skidding easy downhill. Leaving that aside, the views were stunning. Loads of goat herders about as well and up top these little things even caused a traffic jam. Well, three madly barking dogs convinced me to stay back anyway.

By 3pm i made it past these hills and had still 26km to go (35ish done). First up lunch that came with a surprise… The guy asked me if i speak spanish. Si señor, a veces 😉 👧🏻. He must have worked in spain for a while and told me about his views on immigration. Must be pretty bad now in germany he said and that he is not a fan of open borders anyway. I guess he joina my old serbian friend with his views. His food was brilliant though. Chicken soup and ‘bob‘ – a white bean & pork dish (the latter is his addition). His wife was probably not with him in Spain for we spoke Russian. Less of a conversation, but helped to make my order easy. I left with a full stomach and compliments for my language skills. Gracias & спасибо to that!

The second hill was better to the extent it was a road. Well, the traffic towards bansko was crazy. Maybe because it was friday and people went for a weekend into the outdoor hub. I don’t care… The way people drive here reminds me of kids games. I have the bigger car and need to go faster. Few slowed down and many blasted right past me.

My bigger worry though was the 10km uphill stretch from the the lunch place. It literally never stopped going up. Maybe 100m flat bit once every 2km. I must have used up my swear word allowance for a month. I mean seriously… Does this hill ever end. Everytime you think it has… It goes right up again. I ended up pushing again. Who cares. My legs were tight and tired from the morning already.

Naturally i missed the train i planned to take to get me back on route, as my visit to Bansko was an extra that has taken me further south than planned. Always wanted to see that bulgarian ski resort that i used to mention in my research as one of the problem spots in the real estate crash in eastern europe in 2008ff. So bansko it was for a night though i opted to get some rest instead of exploring the village. Exhausted!

Off to Dimitrovgrad – the bulgarian one

Today is a rest day on the train. Gets me back to plan having added some 200km by visiting Rila & Bansko that has taken me further south rather than east from samokov. The train is a narrow rail one that slowly moves from village to village with the mountains around Bansko slowly disappearing in the back. Great scenery.

I met a Bulgarian man who used to live in Vienna and hence spoke german pretty well. He was helpful sorting tickets and finding a place for the bike on the train (different to serbia, this train doesnt have a bike compartment). He complained that ruthless excess construction has destroyed much of the charm bansko used to have. I agree. Villages nearby are even worse. Happens when governments just look for a quick buck rather than approving only sustainable development. Next step is to further enlarge the ski area… Something the mountains cant entertain very well, the man thinks.

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I arrived in Dimitrovgrad (same name as the last bigger town on the serbian/bulgarian border) by nightfall, ate and followed another disastrous performance of 🇩🇪 losing 3:0 to 🇳🇱… Good night!!!

Touching Greece & into Turkey

It was a cold and grey morning as i got comfortable in my saddle. However, the road was kind and seemes to have a small tilt downhill all day. 120km were flying past.

It was some 50km to the border. I stopped in the last village and had a basic chat with shopkepper Maria in russian and english. She told me about the immigrants (now held off by a fence) and how hard it is to make a living around here.

My short time in greece (3 hours?) was an enjoyable ride with some good views, but other than a greek coca cola and greek potato chips offered nothing greek. Well, just passing through anyway.

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The greek/turkish border was busy esepcially into greece with the longest car queues yet. Well, i jumped the queues on my bike and was done in a heartbeat.

Soon the minarets of edirne welcomed me to turkey. The town had instantly a different feel. There was life on the street. People. And the sound of the muezzin. A stark contrast to the often deserted villages in bulgaria, serbia and hungary. Well, a look at demographics explains wonders. Fact is, turkey in the middle of en economic melt down has still more action than many of its EU 🇪🇺 conquered neighbors.

Enough for now. Tired after a decent dinner and a long day on the 🚲. But glad i am in turkey now… Home stretch on my way to Istanbul.

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Sultan’s trail (part 3): Through Sofia into the Rila Mountains (Bulgaria)

Distance: 295km |Total: 1,272km

After a lengthy wait at the passport control, I enjoyed a sunny sunday afternoon back in Nis, Serbia. First up i checked if my bike was still there… All good. I was dead tired from the previous festivities and ended up back in the hostel munching away another Serbian hamburger and watching some YouTube stuff on Laos – my destination for February.

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One thing that was missing were my cycling pants. Probably still in london. So before setting off next day i quickly popped to the cycle store. Going without pants is just too cruel on my backside i figured. Gonna be enough pain anyway.

Off to Pirot

The Bulgarian border was a good 100km away on the roads – more if you avoid them and go off-road. The person in the hostel said the first 30km out of Nis are horrible on the road, so i followed the GPS tracks of the trail once more.

 

That worked well for a while until it took me uphill somewhere (generally the terrain is much more hilly now) and roads turned to dirt roads and those eventually disappeared too. I was somewhere in the forest with a GPS yet no trail. Brilliant!

Walking through these bushes would have been hard enough… But with a touring bike and panniers it was yet another challenge. I must have pushed the bike for over an hour before dirt roads reappeared. Scratches from branches all over me and half a forest somewhere stuck on my bike. Fun!

 

Eventually the road had me back and i abandoned my GPS markings for today. Initially it was a bit busy, but soon i was on a sort parallel road next to the new motorway and was in peace. Well, the sun didn’t give me much peace.

By 4.30pm i reached Pirot passing by its castle and called it a day after 80km. I booked myself into Ana Lux hotel, had a massage and a huge piece of meat for dinner. Time to relax a little more. Tomorrow i head for Sofia. The last capital city before Istanbul.

 

Sofia… Its been a while

The border to Bulgaria was some 35km away from pirot and the crossing again very straightforward – much better than at airports 😁

 

The countryside got hillier though all towns and little villages up to Sofia were little inspiring to be honest.

Even Sofia, some 60km from the border, left me unimpressed. Definitely not a great place for cyclists even with some random cycle lanes. Well, i has reached the fifth and final capital city on this trip before Istanbul.

 

After a little sightseeing and a decent sushi dinner on the main shopping street, realising that i remembered almost nothing from a business trip to see the banks years ago, i headed back to the hostel for a lengthy chat with the manager – a Bulgarian lady in her 50’s – before hitting the bed super tired.

She was very friendly yet loves gossiping about other guests behind their back’s… I wonder what she thinks about me 🤣😂 well, not really. Thanks for everything.

Pushing the bike

This days target was Samokov, a town nestled on the foot of the Rila mountains. I chose to go offroad again after leaving Sofia in what seemed an endless straight road out of town.

After a decent climb on normal roads heading for the hills i had to capitulate… Dirt roads are not made for my touring bike. A jeep would struggle on these! My back wheel just kept spinning… So pushing was on the menu all the way up. Sofia’s concrete towers slowly disappearing in the background.

 

Well, nice views compensated for all the sweat and thankfully i had plenty of water with me. The way down was better though i had to carefully maneuver rocks, gravel, sand, bushes…

On the other side, not far from a large lake, i enjoyed a great lunch. Proper chicken soup (TWO in fact) and pork shashlik’s. Delicious 😋.

 

From here it was more or less flat (it never really seems to be in Bulgaria) and by late afternoon i reached Samokov some 70km later. Tired. Even a horse carriage overtook me 😉

 

The hotel Aleks was a great place to stay. The owner is a biker as well and speaks german. Good chat about travelling. He also recommended a local restaurant just around the corner. Very traditional and, as i found out, with huge portions. Tasty though.

 

I slept early after spending a little time watching world stock markets crash (correct?)… Gladly no office for me tomorrow. 🗽💹📉

Too tired…

Aleks prepared filled pancakes this morning and told me about this plans to cycle to the Danube delta in Romania next year. All the best for you man!

It was pretty fresh outside, but i got going just after 9am. The scenery of the Rila mountains remained impressive though i opted to keep to the roads after yesterdays offroad experience.

 

Not an hour into my ride some screws decided to go over board… Again the panniers holders. Clearly due to the rather shaky downhill ride yesterday. Well, it was quickly fixed with a spare screw and cable ties. I also added a little more air to the tires and reached the town of Dupnica by lunchtime after a good 40km. Brisk (helped by a long downhill stretch 😁).

 

To get to the Rila monastery was only 40km more. But i was not at all in cycling mood and tired. So i abandoned my target for today and checked into the town of Kocherinovo to hang out for the afternoon.

Dont know why i am so tired, but my legs just feel heavy. Well, afternoon in a Bulgarian village then that has not a lot more than through traffic to the monastery. Maybe just what i need 🤔🤣😂 Tomorrow off to see the monastery allowing for a good amount of time… After all Aleks told me they keep all the Bulgarian history there. I am curious.

 

Sultan’s trail (part 2): Crossing Serbia

Distance covered: 480km | Total: 977km

My last morning in Hungary was a sunny one after small showers overnight. Still it took me a while to leave Baja, as i was busy writing up part one of the journey to Istanbul to make use of the still free roaming (in Serbia my mobile provider charges 5GBP/mb!?!).

Into Serbia

I forgot to havea breakfast and was dead hungry having fallen alseep uber tired and without dinner the previous night. It took me to the next village, the last one before the border, to locate a bistro. That one didn’t have food though other than potato chips. Well, better than nothing. I also had an early beer to fit into the landscape – the place was full with drunk old men. But they were nice and my food/drink was on the house! Off to Serbia…

My first border crossing was smooth (other than locating my so far not required passport in my panniers). Just a curious question from the Serbian border guard as to where i am headed and that was it. I was in Serbia and miles were flying past me. I stuck to the road all the way into the small town Sombor where i finally enjoyed a decent meal.

From there it was a mix of small roads and dirt tracks along corn fields that were being harvested. Quite amazing scenery be it dusty as hell at times.

J just continued to Sivac that day (80km in total) and arrived by nightfall. There were no camping or booking.com options so it was wild camping that night. I did some shopping and picked a spot using google maps satellite.

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Situated near a canal a bit off the main road, it turned out more busy than expected. It was dark so i dont know for sure, but i think a harvester broke down and the repair work was pretty noisy. I was tired enough though to fall asleep anyway after munching away my sausage and cheese sandwiches.

Cycling in the rain

I woke up to rain drumming on my tent. I wasn’t in a rush and decided to wait for a dry window and did some planning for my Jan/Feb trip in South East Asia. At least some warm thoughts. By mid day the rain stopped long enough to pack up. Once packed, it rained again. So i rode in full wet gear. It was fine. Not wet. Not cold. Loved the waterproof gloves and trousers Laura and I bought after a pretty wet day up in Aberfeldy, Scotland.

My target for today was Novi Sad. Some 80km to go. I made good progress on the wet roads. That was until i stopped for a coffee and met Miro. He is 70 years old and used to be a Gastarbeiter for 10y in Bonn. We chatted for two hours about his life and mine until we had to say goodbye. Owe him a postcard and thanks for the beer Miro!

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Off to Novi Sad

The clouds had vanished by the time i continued and the sun peeked through. Nice. A wet morning makes you appreciate warmer weather even more. Riding was smooth on little roads all the way into Novi Sad, which i reached 75km into my short day. The landscape of endless fields was magnificent and the drivers actually quite respectful towards me cyclist.

In Novi Sad it took me a while to locate my hostel. Either battery dead or no wifi around. Eventually i arrived and got myself sorted. I ended up going for a few drinks with Alexander from Gdansk. He (a lawyer) and his girlfriend (a sound engineer) were on their way back home from a hitchhiking trip through the Balkan’s.

After a beer in the more upmarket Petrus bar we went to another local place for the famous last beer. Well, that was until we met a Bosnian guy with his Serbian friend and another Serbian couple. After some lively concersation in the said bar they dragged us into another Serbian restaurant with traditional local music. It was monday night yet it felt like prime time saturday. It was mainly young people there. Very enjoyable.

Alexander checked out after another beer while i stayed out. We ended up in the appartment of the serbian fellow, a fitness instructor, and continued chatting away. The serbs take hospitality very serious and wanted to make sure i took away some good memories – well, job well done! Thanks guys.

Uphill with sleep deficit

The first people left the hostel already around 8am. Not so my polish friends who also decided to sleep in against their objective of an early start to catch a ride towards poland.

I was slow and still pretty tired when i hit the road after 10am. Worst of all, right after Novi Sad a seemingly endless climb into a smaller mountain range made me sweat. The last thing i needed that morning! Well, at least it was sunny.

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After the first 25km and a well deserved downhill stretch i found a nice restaurant in the middle of nowhere. The souo with veal was excellent, but i was dead tired. I cycled a little further and decided to take a nap in one of the fields. Now that felt great.

I must have slept two hours until traktor noise woke me up. I sat up and looked. The farmer was wondering over. Trouble ahead? Quite the opposite. He asked me if i was hungarian or german. I said the latter. He also enquired as to my route in bloody good german and asked me if i eat apples. I said yes and had to follow him to hia trailer full with boxes of fresh apples. I took five and thanked him.

With fresh vitamins in my stomach and sleep caught up the journey to Belgrade continued. Another 50km and it was already after 3pm. Thankfully no more hills, some breaks to rest and overall good speed so that i got to belgrade center before 7pm.

When my 2,500km feel suddenly so little

Once in the center, the routine kicks in. Wifi, hostel, shower… Just this time someone asked if i needed help while looking at my phone. Her name was anne (well, short version) and she is from Belgrade. She was also on her touring bike though not fully equipped. Turns out that she has been riding around europe and asia since 2011 and writes travel novels to make money.

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As you can imagine, we had a great conversation. She even invited me for a serbian hamburger (Pljeskavica) before we said goodbye. You can find her travel stories http://www.snezanaradojicic.com. Very impressive. Good luck for your panamerican journey. Am sure we’ll meet again.

A day in the white city – hello Belgrade

The first time i got excited about Belgrade was in a British airline magazine. Their is always a travel colomn which argued that Belgrade is a great destination with fantastic nightlife. Sounds just right! Years later i was finally here. Technically my schedule only had one night here, but intrinsically i had already decided to stay a biy longer and catch up one day by train. No stress.

The first night was quiet after i checked into Yolohostel – central but certainly not one of the nicer ones i been to. Well, a bed is a bed. I enjoyed breakfast on a sunny morning next day and went for a city tour as I usually do. The politics of the region, present and past, are dazzling and the city raised to the ground many a time (one other tourist mentioned 40 times). Definitely a lot of work to do to restore buildings and streets. Maybe joining europe will one day help, but there is the question of kosovo to be solved.

My last morning came quick and I headed for the train station after another breakfast to catch up with my schedule and make it to Niš.

Over to Niš

Serbian trains run very slow and so the two hundred odd kilometres were scheduled to take more than 5 hours. I got round to reading 100 years of solitude meanwhile. Close to Niš, the train crashed into a car that was a bit late on the rail wail crossing. By the time all was sorted with police we had lost two hours more. Should have gone by bike!

The day ‘n night hostel I checked into the evening was very pleasant and well thought out. I met a Turkish guy and we ended up grabbing some food, drinks and chatted away until midnight in the hostel. Great evening and an invitation to Ismir.

Next morning I managed a little sightseeing (yet another fortress) after agreeing to leave my bike in the hostel garage. Probably the safest option in town. I will find out in a week. First back home via Bratislava for a school reunion, time in London and a wedding.

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