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Lone tree in the fog

Unwelcome Welcome to Bulgaria

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Waiting out the storm, debating whether we should make our home below this abandoned shelter for the evening.

I stood below the patchy cover of tree branches as I waited impatiently, as larges drops of water pelted my back and head, willing my water to boil. After a failed attempt at lighting the stove due to the buckets of rain pouring from the sky, I finally managed to maintain a flame long enough to prepare a gourmet meal of pasta and some sort of spicy Balkan red sauce. I think there were tomatoes and carrots in it.

My hands hid clenched in a fist inside my soggy, no longer waterproof rain jacket. I kept my focus down and shoulders shrugged, so as not to invite water onto my face or feet. Sora stood by my side, tied around my waist, whining, equally miserable.

Meanwhile, Dave wrestled with our tent some 30 feet away, trying to remember how to erect the rain fly before the tent, in an attempt to prevent sleeping in a puddle.

True to the adage, a watched pot never boils. Fed up with the slow speed of my water, I dumped the noodles in before the water began to simmer. I was too cold and too wet to just stand there.

Several minutes later while helping Dave with the tent, I heard the sound of my water finally at a boil. While it seemed to take hours to reach that point, it took only seconds for the water to boil over and extinguish my flame. I wasn’t about to wait the five minutes required before restarting my stove, so I drained the water from the undercooked pasta, dumped in the mystery red sauce and divided the noodles into our bowls. Shivering, we changed out of our sodden garb in our tent vestibule, and ate by headlamp light as the rain pounded our tent.

The beginnings of the goat path. This was the easy part.
The beginnings of the goat path. This was the easy part.

Bulgaria wasn’t exactly welcoming to us over our first several days. As soon as we crossed the border, the country greeted us with thunder, lightning, and the inevitable downpour. Typically border crossings are located in the middle of nowhere with very little nearby. This was one such border.

Dave and I found ourselves faced with a messy cocktail of storms, isolation, and dwindling daylight. The several people with whom we spoke in regard to shelter (read: Can you spare a room for two wet and cold cyclists for the night? How about a small patch of your many, many acres of land?) said one of two things, 1) cycle 20 kilometers into Petrich, the next big town, where we’ll find a hotel, no problem, or 2) try knocking on the door of that crumbling, clearly vacant, shady-looking building across the street. It’s a hotel.

Since neither option appealed to us, we took shelter under an abandoned store, contemplating our choices, prepared to camp right there among the trash and broken windows.

Eventually, the owners of the crumbling, clearly vacant, shady-looking building appeared and beyond the massive wooden door lay a beautiful patio with a pool, restaurant, and yes, a hotel.

An organic winery we happened upon after the storms.
An organic winery we happened upon after the storms.

They had a room and we had a home for the evening. Except Sora had to stay in her trailer for the night. Outside. After a bit of pleading and explaining with no budging, the man agreed to allow us to camp in the shelter of the covered patio.

A few days later, after staying at the delightful Kamping Kromidovo, nestled in a wine region in the foothills of the Rhodope mountains, we set out to continue along Euro Velo 13. We knew the route ahead would be difficult in terms of hills and lack of amenities like food and shelter, but it took us through the mountains. Despite the difficulty, we craved mountains.

Sora's new friend, Poppy from Kamping Kromodivo.
Sora’s new friend, Poppy from Kamping Kromidovo.

We wound around curvy bends uphill in intermittent rain. The air hovered at a temperature that left me shivering without a jacket, yet I sweltered upon donning my rain gear. I took my pants and jacket off every 20 minutes.

We climbed for what seemed like hours before entering a village just 10 kilometers ahead of a fabled mountain hut destination for the evening. Just a black dot on our GPS, we really had no idea what to expect from the lodging. It could have been a crumbling shelter for all we knew.

As we passed through the town, the roads turned to jutted cobblestone. And mud. There was sand mixed into the equation as well. The thick type that consumes one’s tires.

Our decently-paved road had morphed into a herding path, as evidenced by the blaze of poop eliminated by the herding trifecta: sheep, goats, and cows. We acknowledge that Euro Velo clearly indicates the route as “unrealised,” however, the description of the journey made no warning about roads intended only for hoofed animals or hikers.

As our pace dwindled, the skies darkened, impregnated with clouds threatening to break water at any moment.

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In an effort to set up camp before the deluge, we asked a farmer if we could stay on his land. Again, this was a family with a clear abundance of unused land, surely they could provide a corner for a couple of desperate cycle tourists and their pup.

He told us that his dog bites and that we should heave our bikes back uphill to ask someone in town.

We continued on towards the mountain hut, now six kilometers away.

Slogging through the messy path, we crawled forward in a game of leapfrog as we helped one another push our bikes up and over hills and rocks, through sand and puddles.

The skies opened, soaking us instantly. Four kilometers away.

With our snail’s pace and night approaching, we decided to set up camp along a creek. This particular evening happened to signify our 100th destination on our route map. There’s really no better way to celebrate such a momentous occasion than  hunkering down in a puddle of mud and shivering yourself to sleep.

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After eating, we cozied into our sleeping bags after dinner and listened to the rain pelting our tent. I slept restlessly as the rain drummed intensely throughout the night. I would awake in a panic, wondering if flash flooding occurred in this region of Bulgaria, concerned we might be swept away into the woods, never to be seen again.

By morning, the rains had temporarily ceased, and we discovered that the majority of our gear was soaked. Our tent, our bags, the items inside our bags. Everything.

With the break in the rain, we took advantage of the weather, packed quickly, and continued our way up and over the mountain.

Sora hiding from the rain while we stop at the market.
Sora hiding from the rain while we stop at the market.

High in the hills, the clouds whispered through the woods like a smoker releasing his breath after an inhalation. The serenity of the bubbling creek, thick forest of pine trees, and signing of birds brought me little peace as we heaved our heavy bikes over this horrendous hill. 

I cursed the creators of this route. Who designs a cycle touring route over which it is impossible to cycle? The goats didn’t even dare traverse this path, for the poop had disappeared. Bracing my body, I put every ounce of energy into pushing my bike up and over rocks. I’d make it about 50 feet, then have to stop for a rest.

Another 50 feet. Rest.

After three hours, we had traversed three kilometers. Three kilometers. With little food, we felt the pangs of hunger and polished off some leftover dinner from two nights prior. I ate it in a huff while planted on the ground throwing rocks across the road, complaining about the hill. As soon as we finished eating, the rains began.

Finally, we peaked and began our descent. While certainly easier than inching our way uphill, descending down a gnarled bumpy path isn’t exactly easy riding. With the slippery rocks and constant threat of fishtailing, we still had to walk our bikes downhill, which meant constant depression of our breaks. My double-jointed fingers became stuck and my wrist cramped. Every several hundred feet, I’d stop to shake out my right wrist and wiggle my fingers back into place.

After completing the four kilometers we had set out for the previous afternoon in four hours, we happened upon the mountain hut, making itself known by a tiny sign on the left side of the road.

We ditched our bikes in the middle of the goat road and scrambled down the steep and narrow path. Passing a decrepit, undoubtedly haunted stone edifice, we both silently convinced ourselves  that it would suffice for the evening. After all, it couldn’t get much worse than our accommodation from the previous night.

We ventured further to find a large building with a playground, soccer field, and a family of adorable resident felines. I peered inside and found the friendly host who showed me a room containing the coziest bed upon which we have slept during our entire journey, a warm kitchen in which I could cook, and space to store our bikes and dry our soaked gear. All for $15 per night. Sold. 

Mountain Hut-1

We stayed for two days.

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As promised by our host, just three kilometers downhill, we found the end of the goat path and glided over pavement. Asphalt. It’s the same word in Bulgarian. It was marvelous.

To Be Continued….

 

Jen Sotolongo

Jen is the Chief Storyteller and Photographer for the Long Haul Trekkers. Born with the travel bug, she has lived in Spain, Chile, and New Zealand. When she’s not galavanting around the world by bicycle, she is running long distances in the woods, exploring nature, or whipping up delicious vegan meals. She is always planning her next adventure.

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