I had no expectations of what in my mind was simply “the country before I get to Turkey.” Bulgaria was just a bit on the map that I had to go through before I got to Istanbul, and reaching this city was all I could think about at the time. The original plan was just blitz through it on the relatively boring plains between the mountains in the west and centre of the country and the coast to the east in 4 days.
This plan all went wrong by the end of the first day and I couldn’t have been happier. With the advice and unconditional hospitality of the local expat community I happened to bump into, I spent a few days staying with Andy & Marina, a great couple who hosted me in the home in the countryside as well as taking me to their apartment in the old capital of Veliko Tarnovo.
All this meant I ended up further away from the Turkish border but it was such a great experience that made Bulgaria one of the best experiences I have had on this trip so far (sorry, Romania).It’s also a case in point of the wonders of open-ended cycle toruing; had I a schedule to keep, I would have had to decline Andy & Marina’s offer to visit “VT” and missed out on actually seeing what Bulgaria has to offer. With my map and Andy’s local knowledge, I was sent on my way via the scenic route over the mountains to Turkey along stunning, empty, and perfectly smooth roads.
Bulgaria had really offered everything for a cyclist which usually boil down to three main things: good food, good roads, and good places to sleep.
- Food (or, in other words: Shopska Salad): After several weeks of meat/cheese/bread that seemed to be the main food I could find in Eastern Europe, I got a little over excited about the prospect of eating an actual salad. The combination of cucumbers and tomatoes covered in goats cheese is ubiquitous and served as a starter/side dish. It was never absent when I found a café for a bit to eat.
- Roads: Bulgaria is about the same size of England but only 7 million people share the space. Car ownership is very low which basically means you have the roads to yourself. The main roads, which are completely smooth, are quiet and you only have to worry about sharing the the minor roads with the occasional horse and cart. I really don’t know why cycle holidays in Bulgaria haven’t taken off yet…
- Sleep: It was slow going to reach the Turkish border mainly because there were too many wild camping spots in the mountains that I couldn’t pass up. I mostly set up my tent on perfect grassy fields used by cattle to graze on with cool streams of water running off the mountains. No one seems to mind you sleeping in fields if you are spotted and there are also freshwater springs dotted all over the countryside that made wild camping pretty easy. Camp near one of them and you’ve got drinking water, a launderette, and a bathroom at your disposal so you nearly feel as fresh as if you’d stayed in a hotel (which are dirt cheap by the way, if you want a break from sleeping under canvass).