Well isn’t time flying. Today (9th May) marks 6 weeks since we left our house in London. In some ways it doesn’t feel like we have been going that long, but in many other ways our lives back in London almost feel like a lifetime ago. It has to be said that although we miss a few specific things such as friends and family, overall neither of us is sure why we were nervous about starting the trip, so far it is proving to be a great experience. Anyway we are now in a town called Pleven in Northern Bulgaria. After Belgrade we headed south east, taking 2.5 days to reach the Bulgarian border. It was a hard couple of days though, because we encountered our first serious hills since the Black Forest in Germany. Indeed on the second day we had a long afternoon with 10km of solid uphill to a pass at 900m. Admittedly this is nothing compared to what we will face in Turkey/Iran/Central Asia, but hard going nonethless. However the physical exertion was countered by great scenery, nice weather and good roads with hardly any traffic. A further bonus was that at the end of the first day, when we were fully expecting to wild camp as we were pretty much in the middle of nowhere, out of the blue appeared a brand spanking new thermal spa hotel complex. It advertised camping, but it turned out that the campsite wasn’t ready yet, however it was only 30 euros for a room in the hotel so we decided to treat ourselves. The hotel had several pools both inside and out as well as a jacuzzi and mud bath so we had a nice relaxing evening. The hotel manager was also very helpful, thankfully he spoke quite good English and was very interested to talk to us which was nice. Apparently we were the first tourists from Western Europe to visit the hotel and so were something of a novelty. We even thought about staying for a second night but couldn’t because we didn’t have enough cash and they don’t take plastic – the hotel manager was very apologetic about this, explaining that they don’t even have a phone line yet because they are out in the mountains.
The next night we were able to find an actual campsite – quite an achievement considering that according to the Serbian tourist board there are only 12 registered campsites in the whole country; when you consider that Serbia is bigger than Wales it seems that camping is not a popular pastime here. The campsite we did find (15km north of Bor, for anyone that is interested!) wasn’t that great either, its main downfall being that the owner has 3 dogs who wander about freely and take it upon themselves to guard the loo block, baring their teeth and growling aggressively to all those who dare try to pass. Pete and I resorted to visiting the loo block together as it was quite scary going alone! To be fair to the owner, having dogs wandering freely seems to be par for the course in the countryside. Not great for cyclists as dogs absolutely love to chase us, and we have already lost count of the times that we have had to put in a sprint effort to get away. We are learning that avoiding eye contact and not making any sudden moves helps, but nonetheless we have ordered a Dog Dazer (a small device that emits an ultrasonic sound unpleasant for dogs) for my friend Sarah to bring out when she comes to meet us in Istanbul. Hopefully this will help us ward off future dog attacks.
The Serbian/Bulgarian border was a bit strange, being well manned but eerily quiet. Indeed on the 11km road that connects the last Serbian town with the border, we didn’t see a single vehicle. Currency exchange proved to be a bit of an issue here – because we knew it might be a day or two before we reached an ATM in Bulgaria, we took out a reasonable amount of cash on our last day in Serbia, with the intention of changing it at the border. However not only was it impossible to change Serbian dinar directly into Bulgarian lev – we had to change the dinar into euros, then euros into lev – right scam – they only had 25 euros worth of lev at the border! We took all of it, so I hope nobody else wanted to change money that day. Thankfully Bulgaria is a very cheap country and that gave us more than enough money to last until Belogradcik, where we were able to take more out. Belogradcik proved to be a pleasant surprise – we were treating it only as a stopover, but ended up taking a rest day there as it is in a beautiful location and is surrounded by fantastic rock formations (check out the photos), as well as having a fortress that was worth spending time at. It was a small but friendly town and we were glad we ended up there. Our visit was also well timed in terms of weather, because it had been rather humid for several days and in the afternoon of our rest day the heavens opened and there was an almighty thunderstorm which lasted for hours – would not have wanted to be out in that! The stop also gave us time to fix one of the two gear failures which both happened on the previous day – first one of the cleat clamps (not sure of the technical term) on one of Christine’s pedals came loose and fell off before she noticed, meaning that now she cannot use the cleats on her right pedal (not a disaster but a tad irritating), then later on during a particularly pot-holed downhill bit of road one side of Pete’s front pannier rack collapsed (considering that the rack was new for the trip, we are not impressed). Thank goodness for bungee cords which meant we were able to attach the affected pannier to the back of Pete’s bike until we were able to fix the rack using a combination of gaffer tape, cable ties and a couple of bits of wood. Hopefully it will last until Istanbul where we should be able to get it replaced.
The weather was fine the next day so we cycled on. We spent another night wild camping courtesy again of a non-existent campsite (it has happened several times that campsites marked on maps turn out not to exist, quite annoying really), unfortunately we didn’t pick the best spot because the track we followed was a lot more muddy than it looked so everything was quickly caked in mud. To make matters worse, just after we had off-loaded all the bags we spotted a dead sheep in the bushes right next to where we were hoping to camp! Needless to say we moved further up the track! We then moved onto a town called Pleven which although not particularly exciting from a tourist perspective is really very pleasant, with a lovely centre which is pedestrianised and filled with street cafes and fountains. The plan was to move on today, but when we woke up it was pouring with rain so we decided to stay put another day – we are a little ahead of schedule for meeting up with our friends in Istanbul so no problem to do this – and have spent a lazy day sleeping, eating, visiting the mall to do some shopping and try the massage chairs (50p for 5 mins, couldn’t say no!), and just generally chilling out. Plus we have found a strong contendor for best kebab of the trip so far, which we will probably be having for dinner again tonight!
Tomorrow we move on to Veliko Tarnovo, which is meant to be a very pretty little town, and then onto the Black Sea where hopefully we will have time for a day or two on the beach before heading into Istanbul. We recently applied for our Iranian and Uzbekistan visas, which we hope to pick up in Istanbul if approved, so are crossing our fingers and toes that they come through ok otherwise a radical route rethink will be required – wish us luck please!