Sunday, 28 July 2013

Istanbul or Bust - Bandit Country


New readers might want to begin here.

We were all a bit wary of Bulgaria, it not being somewhere that any of us had ever really felt a need to visit, but if you want to get to Turkey without taking a boat there are only really two options. One involves Bulgaria, and the other involves a serious detour through Greece, so there's only really one practical choice.

I'd made the mistake of reading travel advice issued by various governments, and they were full of dire warnings about criminal gangs, corrupt cops, dangerous driving, awful road surfaces and a general sense of doom about the whole country. We'd asked some locals in Romania what we should expect from their neighbours and they pretty much backed up what we'd already heard. Of course they did. Ask the English about the French, or the Dutch about the Germans, and you're unlikely to get anything useful. There's too much history and ingrained prejudice, and unless you're asking someone who's actually been, all you're going to get is second or third hand information and it's generally bollocks, all of it.

When looking at maps for the trip I'd been surprised to find there were only two places to cross from Romania to Bulgaria without going all the way to the river delta near Constanta. The reason for this quickly became clear: a huge river was in the way: The Danube. One of these crossings is a ferry between Călărași and Silistra, which was going to add delays. the other is an enormous Soviet-era bridge between Giurgiu and Ruse.

Crossing the Danube

Crossing the bridge brought us to the Bulgarian border post, where we were expecting some hassle. Happily, this was even easier than entering Romania, with the border guard just looking at our passports, reading our first names to us, and waving us on. We hung around for a bit trying to work out how to buy a vignette (required for all Bulgarian roads outside towns and villages) before a chap came over and told us we didn't need them for bikes. That was a little disappointing, as we were robbed of the chance to collect another sticker, but was easily dealt with by stopping at a booth just after the border where I changed some Sterling into Leva and spent five quid on a vignette for a car. The woman in the booth looked at me like I was some kind of idiot, perhaps justifiably, as my KTM clearly had four wheels, not two, but I wanted a souvenir.

Riding away from Ruse, we waited for the road surface to deteriorate and the driving to get more erratic. We were almost disappointed to find the road perhaps a bit rough but nothing our bikes couldn't cope with, and the driving was absolutely fine. There were no gangsters in massive saloon cars with blacked out windows, and the few cops we saw paid us no attention whatsoever. Lesson learned again: don't believe everything (anything) you read on the Internet.

The journey was punctuated by broken-down trucks and a stench of their burning clutches and brakes, depending whether they'd just gone up or down a hill, of which there were many. After a while we stopped for a rest at a cafe with a big shale parking area just off the main road. Bulgaria, like Romania, has a bit of a problem with stray dogs, and here we found a pack laying in the sun next to the forest. They went absolutely berserk when they heard the bikes, only calming down when Mark walked over and did his best north Wales dog-whisperer mind meld. At the cafe, the girl behind the counter spoke English and we were soon set up with cold drinks, coffees and ice creams to counter the heat. More illusions dispelled.

It still says beer, whatever the alphabet

A couple of hours' riding saw us pulling up outside our next stop, Къмпинг Вепико Търново, Camping Veliko Tarnovo. Entering Bulgaria brought with it a change to the Cyrillic alphabet, and I entertained myself while covering mile after mile by trying to learn it. It shares some characters with the Latin alphabet, some with Greek, and has some particularly wacky ones all of its own, but it's phonetic and, for the most part, not too tricky. There are a lot of loan words in Bulgarian so once you've worked out рзсторан transliterates as restoran, you know you're looking at a restaurant. It makes the place names look crazy though, with Sofia being София and Plovdiv being Пловдив, but it all makes sense once you get the hang of it.

The hellhole that is northern Bulgaria

Anyway, the campsite is one of very few in Bulgaria, set up a few years ago by a couple of brits, and it had the double bonus of being pretty well appointed and having English-speaking hosts, something I thought would come in handy after the culture shock of entering Bulgaria. They were rather busy, so I was given a tab number and told to pick a plot, get set up, and come back later when it had quietened down a bit.

While setting up our tents, we met our neighbours. They'd been on the road for 12 years and had been all over Europe and the Americas, blogging as they went at travelin-tortuga.com. I was rather tickled when they told us they were jealous of our trip, despite it only being a quick one, because we were getting to do it on bikes. If hardened travellers like that were envious, we must have been doing something right.

It's a hard life, this pan-continental touring

The campsite itself was a world apart from what I'd seen on Google Streetview when putting together some plans for the trip. Rolling hills, bright blue skies, a busy bar and an immaculate pool area, it was just what the doctor ordered after a few days of slumming it across Europe. After a quick dip in the pool we spent the evening around the bar, with a cheap and tasty meal, a few more beers, and using the wifi to post some more detailed updates to people at home. As I wrote at the time, "five days, seven countries, almost 3000km, and we're not even halfway yet. We are four very, very happy campers."

This stuff gets addictive

From Veliko Tarnovo we were heading to Burgas. Reaching there would mean we'd ridden the width of continental Europe in five days, and leave us a stone's throw from the Turkish border. We were hoping to get there early enough to go for a dip, which meant an early night and early start. Enter a bottle of rakia, the Bulgarian equivalent of the grog we'd been drinking the previous two nights in Romania, though at least this time it came from a bottle where the label matched the contents. Suffice to say, the early night didn't happen, and it was around noon before we finally got away the next day.

Fuel may only be stored in appropriate containers. Or empty beer bottles.

After fifty miles or so we stopped for fuel at a tiny rural petrol station in the middle of nowhere. Despite being a dinky one-pump garage, they had an espresso machine and free Wifi, so we loitered for a bit to let the caffeine fight off the last of the previous night's rakia. While hanging around, a local chap rode up on a moped to chat to his mates. Once the coffee had worked its magic we kitted up and made to leave, but not before Mark accidentally wheeled his bike backwards into this chap's moped, knocking it over. The paranoia came back for a moment, as I expected this to end in fisticuffs, but the bloke just picked the moped up, laughed, and shook Mark by the hand. Lovely people.

From there we for a couple of hours through the backwoods of Bulgaria, Mark taking the lead for a bit to give me a break from being on point. As we rode through small towns and villages, dodging drain and manhole covers standing proud of the road surface by a good couple of inches, kids and adults alike would wave at us, make go-faster gestures and just generally make us feel like kings of the world. The more we experienced of Bulgaria, the more we liked the place and, like Romania, we're eager to go back and explore properly. Everything we'd heard about the country seemed to be wrong. Everything. The cars were more modern than we'd been expecting too. Our host at the campsite the night before had told us that a couple of years ago, after Bulgaria joined the EU, getting credit changed from impossible to a doddle overnight, and the first thing everyone did was go out and buy a new (or, at least, newer) car.

While riding along, I tried to keep a mental tally of all the different kinds of animals we'd seen on or by the road along the way. In Romania we saw a lot of horses being used as working animals, and somewhere I clearly remember seeing an old chap standing next to a field with a scythe. In both Romania and Bulgaria we saw a lot of cows tethered by the side of the road. The trick seemed to be to tie them to a tree and let them eat the grass at the verge, then move them to another tree where there was some fresh grass. In Romania we had to dodge dogs, in Bulgaria it was chickens. It's amazing how short a distance it is from western Europe before you start seeing things you'd only expect to find in the third world.

The last stretch before Burgas was a brand new motorway, currently being built all the way to Plovdiv, Sofia and the Serbian border. Smooth and fast, the only thing missing was services, so we stopped at the first garage we saw when it ended to fill up. As we neared Burgas I noticed the advertisements alongside the road had switched from Cyrillic Bulgarian to English, and arriving at the edge of the city there was a sense of wealth that hadn't been apparent anywhere else we'd seen in Bulgaria. This was tourist town, with money pouring in, but we were heading elsewhere. Steve had suggested we head for Sinemorets, a seaside village right down near the Turkish border, so we hit the road away from town.

Garmin satnavs have a tendency to pick tiny short-cuts which don't really save any time and usually involve small roads covered in gravel and grass. I call them Garmin Specials, and we were about to experience the first one of the trip. Turning off the main coast road, we headed down a back road with a surface that quickly deteriorated into something that brought back the dire warnings about driving in Bulgaria. The road was more pothole than not, and clearly hadn't been resurfaced for a very long time. It was often easier to ride on the wrong side of the road simply because the surface there was less lethal. At times I had to resort to standing on the footpegs to let my knees soak up what the bike's suspension couldn't, but the KTM was still able to sail along at 60mph or so despite it being one of the roughest roads I'd ever ridden on. A fairly pointless detour, but fun nonetheless, and gave us a taste of Proper Bulgarian Roads.

Not nearly as black as the name might suggest

Eventually we were back on the main road and as we turned a corner, there it was: the Black Sea. I'll quote from a post I wrote nearer the time to sum up how that felt.
Getting to the Black Sea felt like the end of a journey (and indeed it had been the endpoint for the original plan). We felt absolutely elated to get there, and could easily have turned back at that point and felt completely satisified.
After a few photos, and a round of mutual congratulations, we hit the road again and headed for Sinemorets. On arrival, we were completely unable to find the hotel Steve had picked, and it looked like a real armpit of a town. Potholes you could drown sheep in, knackered old cars, and a real sense of a a place crumbling away. We were parked up on a corner long enough for a woman to appear from a nearby building and ask, albeit in Bulgarian, what the hell we thought we were doing.

Private parking

As luck would have it, the building was a guesthouse of sorts, and the owner showed us one of the rooms. It was more of a suite really, with a double bedroom, a simple bathroom and an area with a couple of sofas. She indicated that if we turned out the sofa beds we could get four people in there, and it seemed OK, so we asked the price. €20. Each? No, for the suite. Do you have two? Yes. So for less than a tenner each we had a couple of proper little apartments, albeit in a fairly grim looking town. Bulgaria delivers once again! We were told to bring the bikes into the garden, which looked a bit run down, much like the rest of the town, with a scattering of tired looking children's toys and a rusty swing that had seen better days. But at least we had somewhere to park and somewhere to sleep, so we unloaded the bikes and headed off to find the shore so the boys' own adventurers could go for a swim.

There was no sign of a beach, just a rocky, cliff-lined shore with boat huts and rusting slipways into the water. That was enough for them, so while they went for a dip I wandered back to a small bar we'd just passed, sat down with a cold beer and hunted for some free Wifi. I'd not had a mobile connection since we left Hungary, but fortunately everywhere in Bulgaria seems to offer free Wifi, usually with no encryption key required, and if the place you're at doesn't, the place next door probably has an open network anyway. After a while the others turned up and we necked a beer, then headed back to the guesthouse before going to explore the town.

Back at the guesthouse things were looking a bit more lively, with kids playing in the garden and a general bustle of activity. I started to realise that what had looked like a slightly dilapidated, run-down old pile was actually a rather charming, rustic cluster of holiday apartments. Those preconceptions again, six days in and I still hadn't learnt to open my eyes to what was actually there, rather than see what I thought would be there.

Feeling a bit more optimistic about the place, we walked into town, generally against a tide of people coming the other way. We walked towards wherever they were coming from, and ended up at a sandy beach, covered in sunbeds and parasols, with jetskis for hire and a cluster of modern hotels. Like the guesthouse, far from being an armpit, this was a small but pleasant beach resort with all the amenities you'd expect, and just a faint whiff of the communist era about it. And that, to be honest, was probably just my brain playing tricks with the cyrillic text everywhere. It was actually just what we were looking for.

When in Bulgaria, eat like a Bulgarian. Flames optional.

Walking back into town we picked a restaurant with some English text outside, figuring that we might have a bit of trouble if faced with a menu in Bulgarian, and sat down for dinner. The waiter clearly saw us coming, as he recommended a local dish of a whole rabbit served with fire, and a bottle of wine which, while delicious, cost us as much as a night's accommodation for four. Still, it was a pleasant way to round off a lovely day, and as Steve went back to the apartment to get an early night the rest of us went to find a bar for a quick beer. Or two. Or three. Or, well, I'm not sure how many we had, but the last thing I expected to find myself doing in Bulgaria was sitting outside a bar after midnight, drinking cheap beer with friends, while Dylan and Stones tunes played in the background.

The next morning we made it up reasonably early for once, loaded the bikes, and hit the road. We were heading for Малко Търново, Malko Tarnovo, the last town in Bulgaria before heading up into the mountains to find the Turkish border. Getting there meant doubling back along the coast road and then turning inland. There we found a road which was not only rather worse than the potholed backroad we'd done the day before, but had the added bonus of heavy rain. It absolutely tipped down, making the road deeply treacherous. Not only was there the surface to deal with, but we could no longer tell which potholes needed to be avoided because they were all full of water, and the deep ones looked just the same as the shallow ones. If they weren't full of water they were full of sand and gravel, and after an hour or so of hard going we were ready for a break.

A rare bit of road, with just the one pothole

A hot coffee and some snacks had us fortified and ready to face the rest of the road. The surface improved quite a bit at this point and it was a fairly easy ride from there to Malko Tarnovo itself, where we stopped for cheap fuel before heading for the border. Fuel prices vary wildly around Europe, and Bulgaria is one of the cheapest at about £1.12 a litre. Funny to think that this felt like a great bargain, when it's only a few years since fuel crept above the quid-a-litre mark in the UK, but cheap it felt, and once we saw the prices in Turkey we knew we'd made a good call.

90% of all photos taken on the trip were of petrol stations

While paying for the fuel we met a family of yanks who were apparently on their honeymoon. Or, at least, the younger ones were, the others being their parents. An odd arrangement, but not as odd as how one was dressed, looking like a gay sultan. Absolutely bizarre. Also parked up was an SUV with Russian plates, the first we'd seen on the trip. I'd just passed the 2000 mile mark since leaving home, which would have been reasonable mileage for a road trip in itself, and we were still heading away from home.

Target acquired

Once we'd filled up, we headed for the border. Our destination was now within sight: we were going to Turkey.

Read on here.

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