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: Preparations start in Totnes

My big bicycle adventure on the Sultan’s trail from Vienna to Istanbul is still two month away, but given other trips in the meantime, best not to leave key preparations to the last-minute. Most importantly I need a touring bike (my old one is probably still chained up in Canary Wharf) and a bit of cycling outfit as well as repair and safety gear. So I was off to Totnes, Devon.

Totnes is right in the southwest of england, not too far from Exeter. I found a decent hybrid/touring bike on ebay with the caveat to pick it up down here. The chap selling the bike, as his father told me, is currently travelling in New Zealand. Good deal overall. Just the 5 Ortlieb panniers would have set me back the same amount that I got all-in. Well, i needed a few extras which the ‘hot pursuit bike shop‘ in town happily supplied. All sorted apart from the pre-tour overhaul i will do in london (chain, sprocket, etc).

Since the handover was quick and my nightbus not on for a few hours I took the bike for a little spin. First stop at pub for beer and sandwich (which i had to defend from rather aggressive seagull). From there you pass through fields in all their lovely colours, little villages with mostly ancient stone cottages and cosy pubs that invite you for a stop. Very pretty and enjoyable. Fitness levels on the other hand need a lot of work. I hope the Elbe canoeing and more so the hike on the Scottish National trail preceding the bike journey will get me up to speed.

I didn’t leave it too late to get back to town in order to dismantle the bike still in daylight. Taking off wheels and mud-guards and a bike bag were necessary to travel  on the bus. Hanging out in Totnes while and after packing up the bike and waiting for the bus turned out rather full of conversations…  Covering all topics with older and younger folks alike. Hopefully the way to Istanbul will turn out similar.