After our serene stay in the monastery in Macedonia we cycled up the mountain to the reach the (very quiet) border crossing to Bulgaria. That road took us downhill to Blagoëvgrad and from there we took the northern direction, as we are on our way home.
In a previous blog post we wrote about the fact that it’s strange not to have a set goal – and therefore route – anymore. After Tirana we knew which countries we would cycle through to reach Fryslân again, but we didn’t know exactly how to go through these countries. We can now say that we do have a first goal again, which is Arad in Romania. There, Ydwine knows some of her minority friends (the German minority) which we shall visit. After that we have to find a new goal and route through Hungary and then Slovakia.
To cycle back after we have reached our goal of Albania, which we looked forward so much, it is not only strange, it also feels like we cannot handle the negative things as well as before. Therefore, maybe ‘Murphy’s Macedonia’(a previous blogpost) was bound to happen to us, and Bulgaria didn’t bring the change we had hoped for either. On top of this, there weren’t (m)any Warmshower people in these countries, so we missed the opportunity to meet with local cyclists who could give us some much needed interaction and good advice.
We would have liked to say we had chosen a nice route through Bulgaria, but after Blagoëvgrad the tarmac grew worse and worse, and so did the traffic. In general, the drivers we have met (of course there were some exceptions, thank goodness) are not very considerate, to use an understatement. It’s hard to steer around a pothole and not to bang through a second one, when you also have to deal with the traffic whizzing past you at full speed with a minimum distance. We did search for minor roads, but most of the time there just wasn’t an alternative. Above that, the roads were surprisingly long and straight, which makes it appealing for drivers to go even faster. And if the condition of the roads wasn’t enough to deal with, we had quite a few showers, with buckets full of water pouring down without much warning ahead.
What didn’t make the cycling easier was that for us, there was an evident difference between the people in Bulgaria and the other Balkan countries. Where before we were constantly greeting and waving, Bulgarians gave us a cold shower on top of all the rain. Many people just stared, and only few of them greeted back when we said hello. Luckily again there were exceptions, but nevertheless we missed the openheartedness which we had grown so used to.
However, just like Macedonia, we ended on a high note and we picked up our spirits in the final two days. Maybe the behaviour we have seen before was mostly due to a snub “capital attitude” we can see in many countries, as we were indeed cycling in the direction of Sofia. With Sofia far behind us, we finally sensed a difference. The first major turning point was when we cycled through two Roma villages, when suddenly music blasted over the streets on Sunday morning and people in the streets shouted ciao, waved and laughed at us silly cyclists. We were also very happy to see that we had reached a part of Bulgaria where people finally weren’t speeding, as many people were riding horse and carriage – and the cars had to slowly drive behind them. It was striking to see however that the main (and only) road to the city of Vidin was open for any traffic – including slow cyclists like us – but not for horse and carriage. A very specific measurement to say the least, and again not the friendliest side of Bulgaria we have seen.
The Roma villages were the onset of what the region was next on our way. Suddenly, we passed village after village with people who didn’t just stare, but smiled and waved or greeted us when we passed by. The last town we were just before crossing the Serbian border, Bregovo, was bustling with life on the main square and streets around. While we enjoyed some ice cream which we had bought with our last Lev, people came by to chat or just greet. This last day full of these encounters made up for so many of the staring people, non-greeters and dangerous car drivers which had set the Bulgarian image for us so far.
We were cycling to Serbia simply because we could. We were nearby, had no fixed plan to cycle and therefore we chose to grab the opportunity to visit yet another country, albeit for a short time. And what a wonderful unexpected time it was. We spent the night at a small campsite next to the Danube, St. Mokanjac where we happened to be the only guests for the night. The owner heartily welcomed us with homemade schnapps. It was very tasty, but strong liquor after a long day on the saddle can have quite the impact, so we were a bit tipsy when we pitched our tent. But we weren’t tipsy enough to sleep through the dogs on the campsite, barking and running around our tent throughout the night. We were wondering what had set the dogs off, but the next morning during an offered cup of coffee for the broken night the owner told us that there had been a jackal lurking nearby (and we thought that we had been smart not to wild camp as to avoid animals around our tent).
That day we chose to do a scenic route on smaller paths/roads above a straight forward one, and again we were happy to do so. We had a break in a small village, sat at a bench in the shade. Immediately a man came out of his house and tried to make a small talk, though we cannot say much in our best Serbian. He gave us a bottle of cool water and when he saw us eating a tomato, he went back to his house and gave us two tomatoes from his own garden. We ‘hvala’ed’ him very much before we continued our route on unpaved roads (chosen to avoid traffic). People waved and smiled, and they were probably wondering why we had ventured off the main road and through their villages. The roads were bad, but the scenery was really nice, as we have experienced so often before. The short break to Serbia did wonders to us, and we enjoyed our choice to cycle this way.
But it’s not only ourselves planning our route with our navigation app, as coincidence has been part of our trip too. Right after the border crossing to Romania, we decided to have a break and because of this we met many cyclists, as it was rush hour there for cyclists biking along the Danube. Among them was a group of five (three from French and a Romanian/German couple), who had teamed up as they were going the same direction. We exchanged some experiences and since they came from the way we were heading to, they provided us with some advice about our route. The next city was Orsova, and after that we thought of heading north straight to Arad, but they strongly discouraged us to do that. ‘Follow the Danube a bit further, it’s longer, but there is less traffic and it’s very scenic.’ This chat of five minutes changed our route for the coming days. And they were absolutely right that the route was terrific. Above that, the fourteen kilometres from the border crossing to Orsova was the most dangerous piece of road we have cycled on this trip and seeing that the road to Arad would be more or less the same, we are very thankful to them that they suggested not to do that.
All in all, our lack of a specific goal and route has given us some disadvantages right after Albania, as it was more difficult for us to persevere when things got rough or when weather and people got colder. Luckily, it has also given us the opportunity to venture out and promptly change plans, which has lead us to visit Serbia and follow the Danube for a week, which have both been two great decisions. Above that, we are slowly picking up goals again, such as our visit to Arad, and the map with Warmshower cyclists is becoming more crowded again. Therefore, we now really hope we have shaken off the negativity of not having a set route and goal, as we are taking it bit by bit.