In the afternoon right after crossing into Bulgaria we stopped at a gas station to borrow their wifi and have ice cream. We realised we now have roaming again which we’d been without through all of Serbia. Sweet! Also, the snack selection in Bulgaria was much bigger than Serbia.
Thea was inside shopping the gas station whilst Daniel heard a shout from a man – Hei, er du norsk? He’d seen the flag on Thea’s bike and were interested in talking to us. His name was Georgi and it turned out he had actually lived with his family and worked in Norway, super close to where we previously lived and worked. What are the odds? They were super friendly and invited us to stay at their home in Dimitdrovgrad if we ever passed by later. It turned out that their city actually on our route so we kept that in mind.
Five minutes after they had left us, two Swedish cars rolled up to fill their gas tanks. They were two families who were driving from Sweden to Istanbul for vacation and again they also noticed our flags. It was fun to talk to Swedes in person again for the first time in ages. They had some spare waffle crackers from Sweden that we got to take with us, along with some delicious ripe peaches. I guess we look like hobos sometimes?
With very good moods after meeting them we set sail towards a camp spot for the night. Halfway up a climb, before the valley surrounding Sofia, Daniels bike came to an abrupt stop. There was a tiny tree branch that had gotten stuck between the derailleur and the cassette, bending the hanger along with the derailleur towards the spokes. It rendered the derailleur completely unusable and it had to be bent back by hand. Luckily the spokes seemed to have survived as they weren’t caught by the derailleur.
So with one barely functional derailleur Daniel had to continue with an unpleasant squeaky mechanical noise and crappy shifting. Shortly thereafter we at least found a beautiful camp spot on top of a hill. Now we had a task of finding a new derailleur. With Sofia being the only candidate to find quality bike parts, and being about 35 km away from it, we had to seek a little help from the internet. We eventually found a big bicycle shop online that had the exact same Deore 9-speed derailleur in their assortment so we put that on our map for the next day.
Since we were passing through a large city, we also decided that we would get a new camping stove before the possibility disappears, seeing as we’d had so much trouble with the old one. And Thea wanted a Kindle. So we had three errands to make in Sofia in one day, before heading out to camp somewhere outside the city. We also had to eat lunch and shop groceries. Turns out it wasn’t a very clever decision to try to do all these things in one day and at the same time find a way out of the city to camp.
With relative ease we found the bicycle store, but it turned out they didn’t have any of the products listed on their website, and they called around other shops to try to find the same derailleur which was on Daniels bike. 9-speed quality parts are slowly getting phased out and are hard to come by. They have since been replaced by 10 and 11 speed which are more common nowadays.
Without any luck we had to replace it with a lesser quality one that even they were unsure if it would last through our journey since some of the structural components were in composite material instead of metal. With no alternatives we agreed on that one and they switched it along with bending the hanger back to a usable state. The shifting isn’t as good as it was previously but at least it works. They were really helpful though.
Thea has also had some problems with the adjustment of her derailleur for some time but they didn’t manage to make it better, only worse. So we spent quite some time here before we had lunch, bought groceries and tried to get ahold of the Kindle in a nearby shopping mall. Of course they didn’t have it either, despite saying so on the website and having pre-ordered it with click & collect at the store. They told us to go to another shop that were to have it in stock. It was on the way out of the city, so that was fine.
So we tried to navigate to the next destination – an outdoor store that had the Primus stove. It lied in the heart of the city in a small back alley. At this point we learned Sofia is the worst city trying to navigate with a bicycle. It has three or four lane one-way main roads which are rather unsuited for cycling, and they are filled to the brim with cars. There are no cycle paths whatsoever, no signs, tons of construction blocking off segments and footpaths that we tried to follow. We got lost a couple of times and had to push our bikes up a steep gravel dirt track. Eventually we made our way there and they did actually have the stove! So now we have one that works properly!
Lastly we struggled our way to the final electronics shop. It was the same as with the last shop, they only had a used demo sample. This one was discharged and wouldn’t boot. They told Thea to wait for it to charge, so she did for 40 minutes before they offered a discount of 3% on a product that still wouldn’t work. After some complaints she gave up and bought the previous years Kindle model that they did have in stock and was sealed/new. At this point we had spent about six hours in Sofia, covered about 8 kilometers, and we hadn’t even gotten out of the city.
With summer heat and a lot of stress that we handled poorly we were a bit on edge all day long. It didn’t help that another thunderstorm had rolled in around us at dinner time, surrounding the entire valley along the mountain range as we were going to exit the city.
There’s no good roads to exit the city by bicycle here either, so we ended up taking the A1 highway. It wasn’t really that bad once we had come outside the city, since there was a 3 meter wide safety shoulder. We eventually managed to get on the smaller road 8 where we found an abandoned concrete building near a catholic shrine where we took shelter for the night and avoided the thunder.
The following days we were lucky to cycle just outside the borders of thunder and rain showers. Bulgaria is, just like Serbia, full of crazy dogs so we had a few scary encounters every now and then. At least it keeps your mind awake. After a short climb in the center mountain range we got to descend for 800 meters towards eastern Bulgaria, where we helped a tiny turtle cross the road.
Some day before we passed by Dimitdrovgrad we contacted Georgi whom we met at the border and told him we would love to visit him for one night. It was alright with him and we agreed on a place and a time estimate to meet in the city.
On the day we were close to the city we sent a message to him saying that we were nearby. He then came with his car to meet us and gave us the address to his business, a tile store, where we could safely store the bikes. He also told us that he’d booked a hotel treating us to it. We were very surprised about this, but he told us we could relax more at the hotel, since it was crowded in their apartment with three cousins of their children visiting. They were headed to a children’s birthday party that night and we were a bit too tired for that after 12 days of no rest, so we politely declined and instead scheduled a meeting for the next morning to have breakfast and lunch with his family.
We slept well here with air condition and got to shower for the first time in twelve days since Osijek in Croatia so it was an appreciated gift. The following morning we checked out and carried our bags to their home just five minutes away. Here we were greeted by Georgi, his wife Svetlana and their two kids plus their three cousins. We had a long breakfast and chatted for hours about their life in Norway and the cultural differences between our countries. It was very interesting and funny to discuss. We also got some insight into Bulgaria as a country, corruption, and sometimes the lack of trust people have for each other here. Whilst we were chatting we got to borrow their laundry machine so we could have fresh clothes again.
They are very funny and generous people who are still young in their mind and have good values. They made us feel completely comfortable and part of their family. They also taught us how to be polite in Bulgaria when you want something that someone offers – food for example. Decline at least twice, hesitate once then accept it. So when they asked us if we wanted another espresso we instinctively said yes.. (who can say no to coffee?) but immediately we remembered what they’d told us and changed our answers to no.
At noon we went out to have lunch at a restaurant which of course they insisted on treating us to. They told us to try the Shopska salad for starters, which consists of tomatoes, cucumber, onions, paprika and grated cheese – simple yet delicious. This restaurant had a lot of weird stuff on the menu and Georgi had lamb brain. We stuck to the less intricate roasted pork neck so they didn’t have to translate the entire menu for us.
Then we headed back to their apartment and had a final coffee before packing our bags and driving back to their business to take out and load our bicycles for travel. They asked what route we were taking towards the border of Turkey and as it turned out, they told us that road we had picked was under construction for many kilometres. They even drove us there with the car first to check with us if we still wanted to go there. You guys are among the most relaxed and kind people we’ve met along our journey and it was a pleasure to get to know you.
With rough gravel and gigantic rocks lying around we opted out of cycling the planned route. So we said our good byes to our newly found friends and decided to take a longer route, the only alternative to the main highway which we were tired of by now since we’d followed it through almost all of the country and its highly trafficked. The road we now followed was a small introduction of what was to come in western Turkey – rolling hills. It was very beautiful and no cars at all. We pitched our tent and had our final night in Bulgaria right before the border and were excited to experience something different compared to Europe.
The following days we met a lot of friendly people, a few long distance tourers and were also introduced to Turkish hospitality, but more on that in the next post.
Until next time!