People Bicycled With Us

14 years later

Marty Cooperman and John Mikolich

May, June 2018

      Fourteen years later … not easy to realize how fast the time is passing … May - June 2004 I and Marty toured in Bulgaria for 3 weeks .... Together with us were Laura - Marty's daughter, Ann and Steve ...


      When at September 2017 Marty told me that next late spring he intend to come again in Bulgaria to tour together with me for 3 weeks, I felt as if we were together very soon … Needles to say, I was so glad we will tour for 3 weeks spending nights in tents – my favorite bicycle tours.

      Together with Marty this time will be John, Marty’s friend, I was sure, I will have one more friend in the end.

      So, I decide this time we will explore the north part of the country, heading toward Belogradchik along Iskar River Gorge, then we will visit Vidin, we will pedal along Danube River for a while, then we will reach the Black Seaside along the north side of Balkan. With the tour progress we changed a little this plan, next exposition slows how it happened.

      Our camp places. We had the great chance that in this raining period of the year there was not any rain in the nights.

Iskar River Gorge and Belogradchik

And Marty's article:

1. Industrial camping





      A well deserved lunch stop at a town where wifi has arrived. Well deserved because it's a hilltop town with the attendant climbing required to reach it. An old Roman ruin is here, where the Roman army garrisoned what was then the border with the barbarians. They had no internet but lots of luxurious baths, something we have foregone for the past several days. We've been cycling past lush Bulgarian landscapes, small villages, farms and forests, occasionally climbing steep hills, our biggest, a 1,500 ft. switchback to a pass that we then descended in some state of anxiety as the other side had swatches of sand and gravel on the blind turns. It was wonderful to see Borislav after a 14 year hiatus. Back then my daughter Laura was with me along with my friend Ann and her uncle Steve. His was the first Bike Friday I saw in action and led Edie and I to eventually buy our own. Mine rests alongside a stone wall next to the restaurant, whose menu was over a dozen pages, amazingly, all in English!

      Borislav told me that on our last trip, taking a train back from the Black Sea coast, the station master insisted that I remove my panniers before getting on the train. Borislav told me that I objected, as they are Nashar cheapies and not so easily removed as the more modern ones. Apparently, unbeknownst to me, the station master was about to call the police when Borislav intervened, telling him that I was the  And now for the industrial camping...after several days of bucolic camping in fields alongside quiet creeks where we bathed, ate our dinners and set up our tents, we finally met up with an afternoon of rain that looked like it would stretch into evening.


      Cycling in the hilly hinterlands we had not yet found a site for camping, which would have been pretty wet anyhow, when we passed a huge concrete structure that looked like a parking garage, but Borislav identified as an old Communist era truck depot. I am not one to pass up a dry indoor lodging on such a day. Hoisting our bikes over the low iron gate we found a dilapidated 3 story high building housing a couple of old farm trucks, some aged furniture, a fair amount of trash and a very leaky roof that, fortunately held water back from an area big enough for our sleeping gear and bikes, and there we set up for the night, hanging clothing up to dry from bikes, tents and old metal fittings. In the morning we were cheerily greeted by the fellows who were loading timber from a forest cutting and to whom the trucks belonged. 'Yes, they seemed to nod approvingly, it was a good idea to take cover in the building on such a wet night'. And, despite the sorry record of Communist rule over Bulgaria, I must compliment the Party on their decision to locate so fine a structure just where we need it most, and on the roofers who managed to make at least one small section of roof waterproof.

      And now, downhill to the Danube.

Secretary from the U. S. embassy and not a person to be trifled with. It worked that time, and, as we are likely to return to the Black Sea by train, the station master likely to be equally stubborn and I equally reluctant to remove my still cheapy panniers, we have decided that Borislav will introduce me as a Rap Music impresario looking for local talent, and John as a former astronaut consulting on Bulgaria's space program.




Our Industrial camping :)))))))

Toward Danube River and my broken hub ...

2.    A bath, my kingdom for a bath





      We were riding on a busy road paralleling the Danube when we met our first touring cyclists, 2 guys from near Turin, Italy. Of course they were riding racing bikes with thin tires; no self respecting Italian would be seen on a touring bike. They started about 1 - 1/2 weeks ago and had already passed through the northern and western coasts end of the Adriatic, part of Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Romania and we're now heading for Constantinople. Note 'Constantinople', not Istanbul. They were following the road along the Danube, and, despite sounding like an illustrious route, was far busier and less interesting than most of the roads we'd taken. They were only able to spend a few moments talking to us despite Borislav's offer to help them with quieter routes. They were in a hurry. I wonder how much of any country they were able to see.

      John and I rode ahead for a bit expecting Borislav, who had stopped, to quickly catch up. Not seeing him, we stopped at a tiny gas station. And suddenly Borislav arrives, in the back of a truck. He has suffered a breakdown and was offered a ride and spotted us at a gas station. It couldn't have been more serendipitous. 

      Borislav's rear wheel was wobbling uncontrollably. He needed to remove the freewheel to diagnose it.


       He had the freewheel tool but where to find a big 24mm wrench? Why at the gas station, of course, also a hammer to hit the wrench to break the freewheel loose. And then to discover that the rear hub had fractured. Where to get a replacement? Why in Lum, just a few kilometets. away. And what is waiting at the gas station? A taxi, and off went Borislav to return with a new wheel, while we had lunch an entertained a passing German cyclist touring from Stuttgart, having done much of the route the Italians had at much the same pace. He had only a few moments to chat with us and grab a snack from his panniers and he was off in a rush never did find out. 

      And the next day 2 Ukrainian cycle tourists heading 2,000 km for Greece and needing to arrive there soon to catch their flights home. 

      We've been on the road for a week now, camping each night in a lovely field, ditch, backyard, playground or hill. Usually there is a creek. nearby and if not, a large bottle of water strapped to our racks, filled from roadside fountains which gather water from the mountain streams. A big washcloth at day's end allows for some semblance of cleanliness, but it's time for a real bath and tomorrow we are promised one at Borislav's sister's apartment one more day's ride east.



My broken hub:

Danube Plane and Marty's article:

3.  Where the poppies grow 



      Butterflies... pale white with thin black strings woven within their wings. Dozens, hundreds flutter past, feasting on roadside flowers, lying in groups near puddles, clouds of them enveloping us as we ride past. I have to keep my mouth closed so as not to swallow one. Then, later, dozens more lying dead in clumps by the side of the road.

      We are above the Danube plain with gigantic farms of corn, wheat, rapeseed and sunflowers, none ripe, all low to the ground, no bright huge yellow sunflowers yet. The farms stretch as far as we can see and beyond, measured in square miles rather than acres.

      Right on the Danube are fine views of the river, perhaps 1/4 to 1/2 mile wide, but also a wet, humid environment that breeds mosquitos, who had a fine time with us at our campsite one night. Instead of our usual routine, where Borislav would lay out a tarp for us to sit on and enjoy our evening meal, we all frantically set up our tents and dive inside, happy to be safe from the ravenous hordes, if a bit hungry.


      Splashes of red dot the roadside weeds: wild poppies growing in profusion. And growing on low hanging trees are mulberries ripe for the picking and delicious in our breakfast yogurt.

      Many of the villages are sparsely populated with what appear to be abandoned houses. There are old folks, some school aged children, but many young working aged people have left for the cities or to go abroad for work. There is little for them to do in the small villages and towns and it appears that much of rural Bulgaria is depopulating.

      Just in case you were wondering what Bulgaria looks like, my phone seems to have trouble transmitting photos. So, instead, go look at Borislav's Facebook site. It's public, so you just have to click on the link and it should get you there. Or else copy and paste it to your browser. Or else just use your imagination ... 



 4.   The Stork





      John just caught my tent as it started to tumble away. Even though all my gear was inside, the 25 mph gusts easily caught the tent broadside and tipped it over. 

      A few minutes earlier we were lounging on Borislav's tarp, finishing a quiet dinner right next to a lovely creek, when Borislav looked up and said 'I don't like that cloud'. And moments later we were scrambling for our gear. In the end, my tent stakes, quickly inserted, did their job, as did each of us, diving into our tents and holding them down with our body weight. We all discovered that our tents were waterproof that night.

      In the morning we climbed up to a pretty town, Tetevan, where Borislav's sister, a doctor, lived. She spoke no English but we managed just fine, sitting on her patio with snacks. She took our clothes, well used from 8 days on the road, and tossed them in her washing machine while we found the nearby hotel and our 3rd floor room with a spectacular view of the mountains that began right at the edge of town.   

      This was our rest day, which we spent drying our tents in the hotel's backyard, strolling the town and touring a waterfall high in the mountains. The town, surrounded by peaks some 1,500 - 2,000 feet above us, without foothills, rising vertically from the edge of town, resembles pictures I have seen of Ashville, N. C., a well known tourist town at the foot of the Smokey Mountains. I asked Borislav, while eating dinner on the hotel's terrace, with cliff faces thousands of feet above, catching the rays of the setting sun, if this was a big tourist town also. 'Ah, no tourism here, no one comes to this town'. 

      It was hard to grasp that a place with such pretty houses and mountain views in every direction held no interest for tourists. Imagine a place, say 5 or 6 times the size of Chagrin Falls surrounded by Appalachian sized peaks and... no tourism. But Tetevan did provide one special opportunity; the street leading up to Borislav's sister's apartment was so steep, I finally needed to use my granny gear on the Bike Friday. 


And then back to the grubby life of itinerant bike tourers. Our biggest climb yet over the passes of the Balkan mountains. So far we had climbed a 1,200 foot pass, then a 1,500 foot pass, now we had a 2,500 foot pass to tackle. Borislav kept our effort in context when he mentioned climbing on his bicycle,  the highest paved pass in the Balkan mountains, some 3,600 feet up. He failed on his first attempt, having not brought sufficient water with him and returned with enough to drink the next time, to successfully make it over the top. It took him 4-1/2 hours.

      As we descended our own pass, Borislav stopped at a break in the trees. 'See that high mountain far in the distance? That was the pass I finally climbed. And you see that square bump on the top? It is a huge monument erected by the Bulgarian government. It is a monument to me for my bicycle climb'. And indeed it was. The Bulgarian government offered to erect a monument at the top of the highest paved pass, to the first Bulgarian cyclist who could successfully climb to the top of the pass... and not brag about it afterwards.

      As we descended our own pass, Borislav stopped at a break in the trees. 'See that high mountain far in the distance? That was the pass I finally climbed. And you see that square bump on the top? It is a huge monument erected by the Bulgarian government. It is a monument to me for my bicycle climb'. And indeed it was. The Bulgarian government offered to erect a monument at the top of the highest paved pass, to the first Bulgarian cyclist who could successfully climb to the top of the pass... and not brag about it afterwards.

      And speaking of monuments, every town seems to have a left over monument from Communist days with someone's hand outstretched to the sky and the other holding an oversized rifle or scythe or heavy tool. And atop each of these monuments sits a huge nest of branches. And atop that? A stork. 




5.  The Rebellion



      John has finally rebelled. After 2 weeks foraging for grubs, worms and grasshoppers and sleeping in swamps and drainage ditches, John has had enough. He insists on a hotel, a day off the bike and a visit walking through one  of the 15 'Best Things to see in Bulgaria' which he spotted on someone's travel web site.

      It turns out we are near one of those places, Velike Tarnovo, translated as 'The Great Tarnovo'. With a name like that, it is immediately suspect. 

      But Tarnovo turns out to truly be a great place, a small city of 100,000, the town arranged in the shape of an amphitheater on cliffs facing down to the river and a huge memorial statue of four horsemen depicting four 12th century brothers who won a war against the Byzantine empire, liberated Bulgaria and then went on to found a Bulgarian empire that spanned from northern Greece to the Hungarian border. 

      As is usual in such cases, the statues show gigantic horses rearing upwards, the brothers in heroic poses with swords drawn, etc, etc. But, all in all, not a bad thing to look down on from several hundred feet up, over dinner on the patio.

      The town also has an enormous fortification on an island at a horseshoe bend in the river, with 4 foot thick stone walls stretching for 1/2 mile around the lower reaches and more walls higher up. It looks like a formidable place to attack. Just climbing the hundreds of stone steps up to the top had us wheezing, much less having to do this in armor, carrying weapons and having to dodge a rain of lethal projectiles from above. Which is probably why there was a replica of a stone throwing catapult below to batter down the walls and spare the infantry the unpleasantness of a frontal assault. 


Our own assault on the fortress was buttressed by a horde of other invaders, probably half the Bulgarian middle school population, who were much more agile than we, storming the ramparts. And much more high spirited as well. They knew the alternative; another fine spring day stuck in a classroom. 

      The town was a delightful mess of irregular stone streets coming from all angles, with beautiful old stone houses, newer apartments, and hundreds of small shops, not one of which appeared to be a chain store. One little storefront displayed refrigerator magnets with such notables as Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Putin along with wise homilies rendered in Cyrillic, likely proclaiming such universal truths as: 'You should eat your dinner before it gets cold' and 'Never let some silly little country get in the way of your ambitions'. 

      Our taxi fare each way was $12 and spared us what appeared to be a harrowing ride on a fast road with lots of blind turns and heavy traffic. And gave us far more time to explore the town. And instead of cycling 3 more days to the Black Sea, we are now taking a morning train to the seaside resort town of Burgas, another place on John's '15 Best' list, and a day or two later, taking the train back west to see more great towns, interspersed with some cycling, some camping and some hotels. Not a bad idea this rebellion.





      So, next several photos illustrate the beautiful area from Teteven to Troyan to Apriltsi to Sevlievo. It is one of my favourite routes in Bulgaria: nice roads without any traffic.





Next we leaved wilderness and thanks to John we visited towns along our routes, paying attention on some of touristy places in Bulgaria

Several photos of Sevlievo: 

Dryanovo and Dryanovo Monastery.

We spent a night in Dryanovo and next day we visited Veliko Tarnovo by a taxi, the traffic there is very intensive. Several photos from Veliko Tarnovo:

 By the train and bicycling we visited Burgas.

Toward Nesebar, Photos from Nesebar and Sunny Beach Resort:


After visiting Nesebar we took on the train back to Pazardjik, we enjoy a day of the thermal water in Varvara, next day we walked in Plovdiv.

And our pedaling was over. We loaded bikes on the car, visited Koprivstitsa and were back in Sofia. Several photos from Koprivstitsa:

And our final walk in Sofia, we met Maya here ...

 That's all ... I hope one day to tour again with this guys ...