In the weeks leading up to entering Bulgaria, we were continually warned by Hungarian’s and Romanian’s that we would be attacked and robbed by locals and gypsies. Either we were very lucky to escape with all our belongings intact or it’s a load of crap. We are going with the latter. Although the people of Bulgaria weren’t overly forward in their welcoming of you, they certainly weren’t unfriendly.
Cycling into Bulgaria
Entering Bulgaria over the Danube
As for our route through Bulgaria, I think perhaps we chose the most boring but quick way through the country. Many people have since told us that the Black Sea coast is nice and so is the scenery of the mountains through the middle, but the route we chose there were only a few noteworthy things. We cut across the plains for the first half, then climbed what was left of the mountain range as it peters out towards the sea, then we were at the border. We didn’t meet any other cycle tourists on route except for Moshe of course, who continued with us until Shumen where he headed east to Varna on the coast. We also met a big group of 7 cycle tourists at the border with Turkey.
The Founders of the Bulgarian State monument. Apparently it’s the only monument to show an entire countries history in one go! Okay so that might not tempt you, but it is worth a look. We first noticed it as we cycled down a steep hill into Shumen, you keep looking at it (not good when you’re going down a hill on a pot holed road) trying to work out what it is. It’s a huge concrete structure (about 6 stories high) overlooking the town on a big hill. You can vaguely make out the lion from afar but it’s not too obvious. Up close it’s really cool, check out the pictures.
The impressive Founders of Bulgaria Monument, Shumen
Shopska salad. Bulgarian’s eat one of these with their main meal and it’s a welcome change from the meat and cheese of Eastern Europe. It consists of cucumber, tomato, grated goats cheese with an olive or two, sort of like a Greek Salad. We craved them on a daily basis.
Ruse town centre. Possibly the most unsightly border crossing yet is from Giurgiu to Ruse. The mighty Danube stinks of crap, there’s wild dogs everywhere, the road on the Romania side is falling to pieces and there’s a haze of pollution hanging over Bulgaria. As we crossed the bridge, the condition of the road and bridge improve drastically Bulgarian side and we felt excited that we’d reached a new country. Then we turn off onto the back road into Ruse and our lungs filled with the most disgusting, filthy air we’d breathed on our trip. It was a battle to keep your heart rate low enough whilst cycling through as quickly as possible so not to take in much air. Then we reached the outskirts of the city filled with ugly communist apartment buildings. Welcome to Bulgaria! Then by mere chance (because all the road signs are in Cyrillic) we happened across the town centre…and it was great: A happening square with lots of modern, hip people; café’s; banks; and the centre piece of any good post communist town – a fountain!
You can wild camp. The good news is you can wild camp anywhere in Bulgaria, the bad news is we found few places we’d actually want to do it on our route. There was a lake we took a detour past one day on a dirt track that looked good, but again there was a lot of rubbish around and there was no shop or facilities nearby. We also cycled through some forested area’s but beware the Flies of Burgas.
Hotels are cheap and good value. As with Romania, there are many new, good quality hotels in small towns in Bulgaria. We happily parted with our 20 euros to stay the night in these establishments. The only downside of these places is that in another 10 years, they will look very dated and worn due to the cheap fittings.
Lack of camp sites. The Tourist Info Office must have laughed their arse off when they recommended me our first and only campsite in Bulgaria. They told me it was a lovely site on the edge of town with nice little cabins to rent if we didn’t want to camp. It turned out to be communist horror camp that stopped functioning as a campsite in the 80’s. The girls who worked there would stand on the side of the road luring truck drivers into the bar for “a drink” or a “nap” in one of the cabins that could be rented by the hour. Although it was unconventional, we got a warm shower, the non-English speaking staff were lovely and we couldn’t have felt safer camped there. For the rest of the trip through Bulgaria, because it was quite hot (30+ °C) we really wanted showers at the end of the day, so we resorted to the cheap but quality hotels.
Scenery was a tad bit boring. People we met told us that the Black Sea coast was nice (if you like that sort of thing) and also the mountains to the west were nice. But we managed to miss both and go through the dull part of Bulgaria. There were a few nice areas but compared to the other countries we’d been through there was nothing spectacular and it was very hot and dry.
Dry Bulgarian landscape
The rubbish and pollution. Come on Eastern Europe, take some pride in your environment and pick up your freakin rubbish! Entering Ruse via the industrial area takes a good 6 months off your life.
The Flies of Burgas. When we did eventually come to some more interesting scenery just south west of Burgas, we were attacked by swarms of flies. It was incredible, I’ve never seen anything like it, not even in Australia. The problem was going up hills as you slowed down enough for them to congregate around you. Firstly it started with maybe 20 hanging around, then slowly increased. At their peak, there must have been around 200 flying around each of us. We made fly swats out of branches and had to continually swing it side to side whilst ascending the hills. We stopped at a restaurant and were too infested to walk in for 5 minutes whilst the flies dispersed. We met some other cycle tourists who had the very same problem.
Distances on roads signs are nearly always wrong!
There are no cycle paths as far as we could see.
The main roads were quite good but there did not seem to be many new EU funded roads like we found in Romania and the shoulders weren’t very wide. We did have a problem between Razgrad and Shumen where the road became ridiculously narrow with no shoulder and lots of trucks who didn’t care to slow down for you. A couple of times they passed really close freaking me out so we decided to have an adventure and go cross country up some minor roads. We found a great wild camping spot by a lake (but had no food and water so couldn’t stay there) and ended up cycling through more villages, a bit more pleasant than the main road.
Our last day cycling through Bulgaria was to follow what looked like a main route between villages south. The road turned out to be potholed and pretty much dirt in some places. Very few people actually drove along it, there were few to no shops and it took forever! We then made it on to the Route 9 that turns south towards the border and thought it would be easy riding from here, but we were wrong. After such a long days riding we just wanted to make it to a hotel as it was getting dark. This road was in an absolute mess, there are detours everywhere, the surface is bad and it often drops to one lane. Luckily on this occasion, the distance markers were higher than they should have been so we arrived in Malko Tarnovo sooner than expected.
Food & Drink:
There are not many restaurants in Bulgaria, presumably because people can’t afford to eat out. But there are loads of bars and cafes serving drinks outside in the sun. So your choice for food is usually eat at the hotel, pick up a kebab or cook in your room.
We did pass some truck stops roadside restaurants whilst riding which usually sold salads, kofte and the bean soup they love so much.
Shopska salad is the best food in Bulgaria, and we loved having it with every meal. Shumensko beer is really good after some of the horror beers of Eastern Europe.
Out in the farmland, there are lots of springs to refill your water bottles at. We only did it in the middle of nowhere where we were pretty sure it wouldn’t be polluted.