This post has been forming in my mind for months, ever since cycle touring Bulgaria last fall. The country won us over and it ended up on the top of our list of favorite countries from our European cycle tour. We followed the Euro Velo 13, or the Iron Curtain Trail, for the majority of our tour, which runs along the Bulgarian Rhodope Mountains before getting into the lowlands along the Turkish border and continues onto the Black Sea.
Having no idea what to expect from the Balkan country, we found unexpected surprises at every curve in the road. We feel strongly that Bulgaria should be at the top of every cycle tourists’ list and below, we share our reasons why.
The Rhodope Mountains
Bulgaria’s Rhodope Mountain range, which sets the border between Bulgaria and Greece left us in awe for a week straight. Sure, the hills were steep and grueling, but it was worth all the effort to guzzle in the beauty of the landscape. One evening, we camped at the base of a ski mountain just outside of Smolyan, engulfed by mountains all around. At night, the sky glittered with one of the clearest skies we had ever seen. With rivers cutting through gorges and verdant forests spanning for miles, we felt at home in the virtually untouched nature of this part of Bulgaria.
Water, Water Everywhere!
At least once every mile, it seemed, we’d come upon a beautiful stone structure dispensing fresh, potable water straight from the mountain rivers. Sometimes, these structures would include a covered picnic area, a barbecue, and grassy areas for wild camping. We never once had to worry about finding water along the route and we could easily locate tables to prepare all three meals nearly every day.
If we didn’t feel like camping one night, price was never a worry. We could handily find clean, comfortable accommodation in any of the small mountain or spa towns dotting the Iron Curtain Trail for as little as $15 per night. Dog and bike-friendly options were abundant throughout the route.
We were happily surprised to discover the ease of finding vegan Bulgarian foods like guvech, a vegetable stew cooked in a clay pot. When we explained to restaurant staff that we were vegan, they were only too happy to accommodate our dietary needs rather than turn us away. Also, since Bulgaria is an EU member, it means that one can find supermarket chains like Lidl in nearly every town.
Throughout the majority of our cycling in Bulgaria, the roads were virtually free of cars. Aside from coming and going out of small towns, we could essentially take the lane. Any cars that did pass, gave plenty of space and let us know of their presence with a light tap of the horn. It was by far, one of the most calming share-the-road experiences of our entire cycle tour.
After months and months of searching in vain for real peanut butter, we finally stumbled upon a storefront in Petrich, where the proprietor sold freshly made peanut butter that she ground herself. No added sugars, oils, or any other junk, just peanuts. Despite adding to my already heavy load, I purchased the most giant jar I could find. And it was worth it. I made the Raw Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Balls shown above. I don’t remember the name of the storefront, but it is located a few doors down from the Billa supermarket.
Did you know that Bulgaria produced wine? Neither did we. Apparently, it was the world’s second largest wine producer in the 1980’s, but declined along with the fall of communism. We discovered Bulgarian wines when we visited Kamping Kromidovo right in the heart of Bulgaria’s Thracian Valley.
From the campground, it was an easy walk to boutique winery Orbelus Organic, where even Sora was invited on tour. There, we sampled new-to-us varietals like Melnik and Hrumki. A longer walk took us to Villa Melnik, a larger winery that offered bold merlots and syrah, and chardonnays. Like the food and accommodation, purchasing wine was much cheaper than other European or American wines.
The Iron Curtain trail skips from one spa town to the next, including Gotse Delchev and Devin. With over 200 natural mineral springs flowing throughout the country, the warm waters and spa treatments are certainly attractive after a tough day of riding. Hour-long massages cost a whopping $25, definitely worth the pampering.
A few days after arriving in Bulgaria, our Euro Velo bike route directed us to a goat path. A rocky, muddy, and steep trail that slowed our pace to a whopping four kilometers in four hours, as we pushed our bike up and over the mountain. By the time we reached the top, we were exhausted and I wanted to throw my bike into the ravine below.
Fortunately for us, mountain wanderers are never far from one of the many Bulgarian mountain huts, and we found the nearest one just a kilometer down the path. This particular hut came equipped with a warm, comfortable room with a cozy bed, a kind host who made us lunch and dinner every day, and an adorable kitten who followed us on dog walks. For the price of $15 per night, we felt the service was well worth the price.
Off the Beaten Path
We spent about two weeks cycle touring through Bulgaria and saw no other cycle tourists and few foreigners, even in the touristy spa towns. This means no kitschy souvenir shops, no vendors accosting you as you walk by, no mass-produced “artisan” goods, and best of all, no hoards of tourists. With Bulgaria virtually to ourselves, we were able to better immerse ourselves into the culture, get to know the people, and amble around in peace.If You Go:
Route: Euro Velo 13 or the Iron Curtain Trail. The entire route spans 20 countries over 10,400 kilometers. The Bulgarian section begins along the Serbian border, crossing borders into Macedonia, Greece, and Turkey for a few sections before terminating at the Black Sea.
Distance: The total distance within Bulgaria totals 677 kilometers.
Road Condition: Overall, the roads were well-maintained and paved. We did encounter some poor road conditions shortly after Kromodovo and before Gotse Delchev when we found ourselves on the goat path, pushing for several kilometers over a mountain.
When to Go: Between May and September for maximum sun and warmth.
Difficulty: Ranged from easy to challenging, with the goat path and several passes involved.
We can’t recommend cycle touring Bulgaria enough. The quiet, low-traffic roads meandering through the verdant hills made this Bulgarian route one of our favorites of our European tour. Even with a few days of heavy, chilly rains and two days of pushing bikes up goat paths, aren’t enough to deter us from highlighting this beautiful country.