Part 9: Rila Round the Mountain

This post is dedicated to Mr Steven Patrick Morrissey for making it possible for Mr James Thomas get the sharpest haircut in Sofia without speaking a single word of Bulgarian. Happily James is a bit of a Smiths fan and so lacing this entry with lyrics, song titles and album titles should be a breeze. Every so often we take a break from the daily slog of cycling and spend some time in a city, usually staying at a hostel – taking time out to eat well, rest up and get a few ‘jobs’ done. Quite often we have a beer too. Up until Sofia we’ve been on the road for nine days straight so we were more than ready for the luxury of a proper bed. Ever since Munich when Adrian got his hair smartly cut at a barbers in the Turkish Quarter, I’ve been talking about getting a trim. Eventually I had to concede to the weather, stop procrastinating and get to a hairdressers. Now bear in mind that I speak no Bulgarian – this is no mean feat. I dutifully enquired at the reception of the hostel where would be a good place to get a haircut – I was given directions to a salon some 15 minutes walk away that would fit the bill. So off I went, following the instructions via a simple map, to the salon marked with a star. Down the road in the pouring rain I went, past the posh salon, beyond the bakery and just on the left there is the place described to me by the hot receptionist – a local hairdressers at the end of September Street. Even before I walked in I knew this was the one. A very friendly looking woman, sat in one of her chairs reading a book the size of War and Peace, waiting for me to arrive. Definitely the right choice.

While it may seem like I’ve gone to town to describe how I got to the hairdressers, its a good cut and I’m sure you’ll agree when you see it. I must take a minute now to talk about Bulgaria. Lush, dense, green forest. Long, winding roads. I must admit that I am quite in love with Bulgaria. Absolutely head over heels. More than any other country we have been to, Bulgaria brings together all the key ingredients that make a country outstanding to cycle in; low traffic volume, low cost of living, excellent roads of a high quality surface and devastatingly beautiful scenery – mountains, forest, lakes and rivers. I have already made two of the roads we’ve cycled since entering Bulgaria part of my top ten. To say that this country is a cyclists paradise is to understate the completeness of the package that Bulgaria has to offer. While Bulgaria may not have the totally overwhelming hospitality that Serbia boasts, it does have an unspoilt beauty that emphasises its ancient and intriguing past. After only a few days cycling through the rugged wilderness of the Bulgarian countryside it was clearly going to win a place close to our hearts. Something like a week later and we have not been disappointed. Rarely is a country so glorious in its natural beauty; our ride today is a very good example of this. Every climb has to be treated with the respect it deserves, underestimate the ascent at your peril. A slow start, a visit to the town at the foot of the climb, Sestrimo, to collect supplies for the day and off we go. Like all good climbs this one had the locals in the village exclaiming the name of the lake at the summit, Belmeken, and pointing with astonishment at the mountain – brave boys! Least I think that’s what I think they were saying. You might think that we sometimes exaggerate the madness that we encounter on the road, we really don’t, we tell it how it is. Nothing can prepare you for the joy, the excitement and humility that you find along the way. Our journey has shown us that people really can be terrifically generous and kind, which is humbling, particularly when you understand how little many of these people have. This is what makes the experience so real, so rewarding and dare I say it – character building. However much you think you know about life and the rich tapestry that it consists of, life on the road will still surprise, amaze and inspire you. It is one of the greatest things that you can do to learn about other cultures, see how a place really is and to remind yourself that life isn’t just nine – to – five then the pub and a bit of a grin at the weekend – there’s more to life than books you know, and the road has it all. Now for a little bit about our ride through the wonderful Bulgarian mountains. Greece is next so stay tuned – we’ll be celebrating reaching the furthest point of our trip with some special photographs, maybe.

So it’s Friday today and we’ve already climbed more this week in Bulgaria than during the rest of the trip put together, so another day, another mountain. Our destination is Greece, so we’re headed south and our intention is to pass through the Rila National Park, I say intention because we climbed halfway up, perhaps a 1000 metres, only to be stopped by a twenty four hour security guard with a wolf for a dog and told to go back to the town (Samokov, 30km) and go around the mountain. My initial reaction was of disbelief – I said to myself; ’24hr security for water protection? he’s pulling our legs…’ turns out he was serious and refused to have his photograph taken – charming! Easy come, easy go. Gliding down to the town we pass all the walkers we passed on the way up – all smirking – knowing full well that they would see us again. In ten minutes we’re at a junction that will put us on a road to go around the mountain, and off we go. Rila National Park is without doubt one of the most beautiful parts of the world that I’ve had the privilege to visit, truly breathtaking. Like many beautiful places that we’ve seen on this adventure the simplicity of the landscape is what makes it so attractive – bold rocks of the mountainside, the crystal clear water flowing serenely down stream, the density and colours of the dozens of species and many varieties of trees – all of these natural aspects conspire to create the most striking settings. Some way up the next climb – the real climb in the Borovets Hills – we meet a chap called Zachary, he’s off work and has just set off from Sofia for a week in the mountains. After a few words discussing the finer points of climbing through the Alps, we three head towards Sestrimo, as mentioned earlier, and a camping spot that Zach has used before. Right from the off we like Zach and he guides us to a fine camping area with a vista spanning out East as far as the eye can see. Even by our high standards this is a terrific spot. Bright and early next morning Zachary is up and away, we sleep in for another hour and pull ourselves together for breakfast at around 8am. In no time at all we’re ready for another big day and we hit the road for Belmeken. Getting up has been a pleasure on this trip, no two ways about it, why would you snooze when there’s all that fun to be had cycling? Getting up two hours earlier than we have been is going to be interesting – to make the most of the day, cover the kilometres and benefit from the maximum daylight – this is what we must do, wish us luck! Everyday is like Sunday, we are tempted to roll over, snooze an extra hour and make a leisurely breakfast, not this Sunday. Really Big Bike Ride don’t take weekends off, well, not this weekend anyway, today is Sunday and we’ve made an early start and once again taken to the hills. Three consecutive days climbing can take it out of you but we’re made of tough stuff and even with yesterdays climb to Belmeken, the highest climb of the tour so far (2000m), that’s two kilometres above sea level, we were ready for more uphill action. Having started the day with a climb, climbing for lunch and finishing the day with a climb we are pretty much done in – I’m writing this from a hotel room in the town of… just kidding, we’re not phased by a few days in the mountains, we love it. After a long day we’ve just rocked up to a roadside camping spot; picnic table under shelter (two of), fresh mountain spring water on tap, barbecue fireplace and a trio of uber friendly Spanish geezers having a chilled out Sunday arvo. Not wanting to seem unsociable having been whistled to pull over, we approach these fellows and are immediately handed a beer, swiftly followed by baked pork and fresh bread then a quick round of show and tell – maps make the perfect prop when you’re a bit thin on lingo – the Spaniards are impressed, muy bien ….! Our banter continues for an hour, we share the rest of our food and begin to set up camp. Then, as we begin to put up the tent, they carve up some insane tinder and light a fire for us, as this is happening a shepherd loses control of his flock and hundreds of sheep are scattered all over the road, chaos ensues – the Spaniards also leave all their food for us, insisting we take it for our dinner and just as they came into our day, they disappear into the dusk – muchos gracias! Happily fed and watered we are sat by the first camp fire of the trip enjoying a classic Eric Clapton concert on Bulgarian National Radio, the perfect end to a brilliant week in our new favourite country. Every good thing must come to an end, and our story is no different, alas we must leave this place in the morning for Greece, what a drag! Really, Bulgaria has totally blown me away, there is little more that I can say than this – get on a plane to Sofia and see for yourself – its super cheap, there’s lots to do and it’s big fun! So with that, I’m signing off for another week and handing you over to Adrian and the next stage in our REALLY BIG BIKE RIDE. DONATE TO RE~CYCLE NOW HERE OR VIA TEXT to 70070 – RBBR99 + £25 and your donation will be added to your next phone bill.

To see our journey through Bulgaria see MAP 8