The ride down to the Struma valley was easy, as was most of the rest of today’s ride. Not far from the city of Petrich I spotted a mini turtle on the road – and safely carried it across.
Petrich itself didn’t impress us much and we didn’t stop at all despite being in dear need of sun cream and a properly working battery for my phone.
Instead we continued along the valley of the river Strumeshnica towards Macedonia. The border crossing was easy and the border guard happily stamped our passports as souvenirs.
We are camping near a reservoir lake above the city of Strumica that has lots of plastic waste floating in it and looks too dirty to have a swim in. A bit disappointing, not only after a sweaty day of riding.
Melnik is located in an amazing area where wind, water, and sun have eroded the ‘sand stone’ hills to form interesting pyramidal shapes. In the afternoon we left for a little round-trip.
We cycled on paved road to Rozhen, then up a hill to its monastery. We had a grand view from there.
Then we tried to cycle a hiking path, but that turned out to be impossible, so we pushed the bikes. The path first followed a dry riverbed, and then, all off a sudden, emerged at the top of one of the ‘sand mountains’, offering a spectacular view of the surrounding impressive landscape in the evening sun.
The ride down on the other side of the mountain was quite exciting. We followed the hiking path again, which went down steeply.
Back in Melnik we enjoyed extremely loud, somewhat traditional Bulgarian live music with our dinner.
Top speed: 70km/h
We cycled along the eastern shore of Lake Kerkini, then turned east, following the river Strimonas to Bulgaria (where it is called Struma).
The last 10km before the border to Bulgaria where a bit of a challenge at times. We rode on dirt tracks that were located between the new motorway and the river. Those tracks had been flooded recently and where still quite muddy in some places.
The tracks ended and we turned east again, into the mountains, to avoid the motorway, but soon were stopped by two members of the Greek army. They ‘commanded’ us in an very arrogant and unfriendly way to turn around as there was some kind of army outpost on that hill. (I believe we were still on a public road and they had no reason nor right to force us…) So we ended up cycling on the motorway for the last couple of kilometers.
Right after the Bulgarian border we left the main road and cycled north-eastish on quiet backroads. Eventually we reached Melnik, where we are staying in a ‘tavern’.
My contact at the shipping agency had told me to be at the ferry terminal in Beloslav at 10am on Friday, June 10. Beloslav is about 25km from Varna, at the south-western shore of Lake Varna.
Had a strong head wind but managed to be there on time. Was then sent to passport control, to the ship, to the agent, to customs, and finally back to the ship where I had to wait for another 30 minutes. Paid my fare (but got no receipt or ticket) and got permission to board at noon. Even got some lunch.
With me in the cabin were Zoltán, a Hungarian Romanian, and Alex, a Georgian French. Zoltán speaks English, but Alex doesn’t. Apart from French and Georgian, Alex speaks some Russian. Zoltán understands some French, due to its similarity to Romanian. I do, too, and I speak a tiny bit of Russian. So communication between the three of us was a weird mix of at least two languages.
Everyone else on the ship was either crew or truck driver.
Waiting for departure. Watched trucks and rail cars being loaded ’til we could watch no more. We were not allowed to leave the ship. By 11pm the ferry hadn’t moved so much as a centimeter.
We finally departed on Saturday morning at 8am, after almost 22 hours of waiting.
The journey was uneventful. We anxiously watched our progress on my phone’s GPS, but at 20kph there is not much progress to report within a few hours.
The most exciting sight, besides the three meals we got each day, were the dolphins that accompanied the ship.
Today, on the third day of the journey, about 35km from Batumi we were able to identify the first buildings of the city at the horizon. And the mountains behind it. Holy crap, those are mountains! And that’s only the seaside end of the Lesser Caucasus. How mighty must the Greater Caucasus be?! I started to have some doubts about bringing a bicycle to this country.
We moored in Batumi around 6pm. Immigration and customs, we were told, would take about two to three hours, but in fact it was pretty much hassle-free. My passport was checked and I got a neat stamp that permits me to stay in Georgia for up to 360 days. We left the ‘Geroite na Odessa’ (‘Heroes of Odessa’) after almost 82 hours and touched Georgian soil at approx. 8pm Georgian time. Another passport check, and Zoltán and I walked towards the city center just around the corner.
Checked into the Batumi Hostel, identifiable only by a tiny label made of duct tape on a nondescript door.
Batumi is a very nice little city of about 120.000 people. Located very close to the border with Turkey (about 20km), it is the capital of the Autonomous Republic of Adjara within Georgia. Again I’m awestruck by the architecture in the old town (where the hostel is conveniently located).
Contacted the ferry operator. It turned out the ship leaves on Friday, June 10th, not tomorrow, and goes to Batumi instead of Poti. While the different port of call is not really a problem, the change of date is unfortunate.
The boat trip takes 2.5 days. The distance is about 1150km, roughly the same as what I’ve cycled from Budapest.
So, I guess I’ll have a lot of time to finish my todo list, and to relax for a few more days.
Had dinner with Ari and Elad, two Israeli guys. One is 70 and has some unfinished business to take care of here, the other is 27 and is going to open a yoghurt bar in the city center.
I made it to Varna. In time for the ferry to Georgia.
Left early but the road was hilly and hard work. I’d just had a short break in the shade of a tree and was moving again when a refreshing drizzle started that became a full-blown shower within seconds. No place to hide and too warm for rain gear, and too late anyway as I was soaking wet within the minute. Dirt, sun creme and sweat washed into my eyes, visibility was 3 meters tops. Not really the best conditions for cycling.
Another heavy shower later.
Climbed what should have been the last hill before Varna. Varna in the distance in front of the blue Black Sea. A ray of sunshine poking through the clouds illuminating the white-washed city. Well. Nope. Grey suburbs in the faaar distance. No Black Sea. No romance. More hills. Prostitution on the road side.
Finally arrived in the city and stopped at the curb to look at the map. Was approached by a woman who helped me find a lovely hotel right in the city center.
Had a stroll around the city center. Varna is nice, I really like it. It’s a mix of old and new architecture (I prefer the old, semi-desolate houses), lots of people on the streets, the main pedestrian zone ends directly at the Black Sea.
Left early-ish. Roads were mostly very good and the countryside wasn’t too hilly. Had a bit of a tail wind and did more than 30kph easily at times. Using the road I was riding on from Pleven wasn’t permitted for either cyclists nor horse-drawn carriages. But not even the police seemed to care when I rode past. Traffic was OK. Temperatures peaked at over 40°C (in the sun) again.
At Byala I retreated to smaller roads with less traffic (and lower quality at times). There’s a ‘lateroman’ fortress called ‘Kovachevsko Kale’ near the road, of which only (restored) foundations are visible.
I’m now in Popovo, about 160km from Varna, a sleepy town of about 15000 inhabitants.
Music in Bulgaria (the contemporary pop I’ve heard so far) has a Turkish/Near East-ish touch to it.
I’ve been asked why I do this trip.
Why do I do trips like this one in general? Because I’m interested in other cultures, other countries, other people. Because I want to see how people live in non-western societies. Because I’m curious. Because I can. ;)
Why do I do this trip? Because I want to see the Georgian and Armenian medieval towers and churches.
Got up at 7.30am or so because it was too hot in the tent already. The site we’d picked was indeed great. Secluded, private beach, nice view at the bridge that is being built across the Danube.
We all had breakfast and a quick swim in the Danube and left at 11am. I took the ferry across the river to Calafat, Romania, while the Funny Five continued their ride on the Bulgarian side. I’d have liked to cycle with them, but reaching the next ferry in Varna has highest priority for now. The Romanian road cuts off a bend of the Danube and my hope is to save some time here.
Border formalities were hassle-free.
For some reason the phone/GPS died shortly after the crossing and I wasn’t able to revive it for the time being, so I was unable to (re-)visit degree confluence 44°N, 23°E near Calafat.
So I rode directly to Bechet, from where another ferry brought me back to Bulgaria. Staying near the town of Oryachovo, which is located on a hill-side facing the Danube.
The Romanians are very friendly. Kids high-fived me, elders sitting in the shade in front of their houses greeted, and girls waved when I rode past.
From here the Danube is forced to turn north due to some hills. It continues to form the Iron Gate Gorges. I turned south instead to cut off that bend. First the road followed a number of small streams to a high plateau, then descended to Negotin, the last city in Serbia before the Bulgarian border.
In the center of Negotin I met 5 other cyclists traveling on Eurovelo 6. Frank & Franka (going to Indonesia), Sabine & Vincent (going to the Black Sea), and Piet (going to Iran). Joined them for lunch and for the rest of the ride to Vidin in Bulgaria. They’re a fun bunch to cycle with.
Piet went across the border first because he didn’t have a Serbian entry stamp in his passport. The grim-looking and unfriendly lady who checked our passports noticed this fact immediately but let him through eventually. On the Bulgarian side the officers where much friendlier and they even stamped our passports just for the fun of it (Bulgaria is a EU member).
Bregovo, on the Bulgarian side of the border crossing, is a pretty run-down village. We missed the turn-off to the Eurovelo6 along the Danube and cycled straight on to Vidin.
Shopped for food in Vidin and then started looking for a suitable camp site at the Danube. Got stopped by the police and our passports checked. They probably tried to tell us that camping wasn’t possible/allowed here but we continued anyway and found a place after nightfall. Cooked some fine dinner, had a quick swim in the Danube and went to bed after midnight.
Fun Fact about Bulgaria: The meaning of nodding and shaking one’s head is reversed, that is, Bulgarians shake their head in agreement and nod in disagreement.