People Bicycled With Us



Tony and Anne Holmes

July 2000 and 2002


      I have never understood how did Anne and Tony find out us, but summer 2002 – the second half of July we did a very well structured 1500 mile bike tour supported by van, crossing all the country and visiting most of the interesting places in it.  Nights we were only in beds.

      Bulgaria was the last country in Europe Anne and Tony still were not visit. They had an advertisement book for Bulgaria and they were pointed the places of their interest. So, after I knew it, it was not hard for me to arrange a tour makes it possible to fulfill this program,  so we visited most of all these places. The van support in this case was very useful – we combined bicycling and driving, and visited all the available museums at places we were. Both Tony and Anne were able to bicycle more than 50 miles per day, but often the rain did not permit us to do it. 

       This couple had so wide field of interests beginning with old steam engines, ancient coins, churches, history and on and on …. !!! I was so surprised to see Tony was able to read writings on the icons in churches  - amazing ! – I can not do it (questions connected with the religion out of the history are almost unknown for me) – on the icons an old slave language is written - common for all the slaves long ago; nowadays Bulgarian is quite different. Over more Tony knew very well mediaeval Bulgarian history, it was a pleasure to speak about it with him.  So we had many evenings of interesting conversations – both Anne and Tony spoke a slow and clear English, as if it was the easiest English for me. I believe, this several days Maya improved her English considerably.  I can not forget the finest Anne’s sense of humor.

      Will Anne and Toni come here again?, no, I do not believe. There are 10 – 15 countries in the world they still have not bicycled in ….. they must do it. We wish this marvelous couple to do it soon and to be happy !!! They always are welcome to bicycle with us !!!

 

 

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Ann&Tony's story

 

Bulgaria July 14th - August 2nd 2002  

Sunday 14th July                  Ingatestone - Sofia

            Up early to a fine sunny morning, all too scarce this year.  The Ingatestone taxi arrived promptly at 7.15 and we had a clear run to Gatwick.  Our driver used to be a fireman on the railway at Stratford, so we had an interesting chat.

            8.15 at Gatwick, very crowded.  We got coffees upstairs in the "Metro" (the Est Est Est declined to serve coffee without a full breakfast).  The Metro was well worth the £2.50 as it gave a grandstand view of all the aircraft movements, which were virtually continuous.

            We did not board until 10.30 and took off at 11.02, 32 minutes late; flight time 2 hours 40 minutes, 11.07 we were crossing the coast, probably at Brighton, 11.16 the French coast.  We are to fly via Brussels, Frankfurt and Vienna to Sofia, at 9000 m.

            We were given a good lunch at 11.40 - early by English time, but of course it was 1.40 by Bulgarian time - and generous beakers of splendid white Bulgarian wine.  At 1.58 we landed at Sofia (3.58 local time used from now on), 32ºC !!

            As we emerged into the crowd we saw a notice "Anne and Tony"" being held up by a very slim young man, Bob's son Stoyan.  He took us on the bus, many stops, into Sofia, passing through the central park with its obelisk.  An inspector made two Japanese girls pay again, because they had not punched their tickets in the little machine.  Then we got a tiny yellow taxi, lacking fixings for its seat belts, and made a long journey to reach Obilya and a large block of flats where we are to stay, on the 4th floor (but there is a tiny dark lift).

            We were welcomed by Katy, Bob's wife, who prepared tea for us (it turned out to be dark red, and is called Karkadya after the red flower from which it is made).  However she also gave us glasses of "iryan" which is made from yoghurt and water, pieces of baritsa, a sort of egg quiche, but not moist, and cake.  She teaches engineering to sixth-formers; Stoyan awaits an exam with a view to studying at University - he is 21 and has done his year in the army.

            Katy included us in their evening meal - shopska salad (tomato cucumbers and grated cheese), a local speciality, roast lamb with boiled potatoes, and tikvichki - a sort of zucchini, fresh apricots and white wine.

            We slept in Stoyan's room, which he had very kindly cleared for us, and he had put card over the window-sill to make it nice.

Monday 15th July      Sofia

            We had breakfast at 8 - hard boiled eggs, cheese, ham, banitsa, bread, apricots and cake, and left at 9.30, taking the no 1 tram at 9.40.  Fortunately we joined at the terminus and got seats as it was very crowded and hot - 33º today Katy said.  The approach to the city, as yesterday, presented a disheartening landscape of dilapidated concrete blocks of flats with tiny kiosks, which (as in Moscow) had a small serving hatch in a barred window so no one could snatch goods.

            We saw an obelisk in a park, and the Central station and got off at the terminus - Lifski Bridge.

            After changing money in a large bank, we looked at the small medieval church, St Peter of the saddlers (closed) and at the Rotunda, now the church of St George, but originally a Roman temple; it has frescoes of the middle ages.  In the adjoining area are remains of a much larger building, of basilican form; Constantine the Great was welcomed here on a visit to Serdica (the Roman name for Sofia).

            We happened to be passing the president's palace as the guard was changing; very smartly dressed, goose-stepping but like ballet dancers.

            We were able to enter the Russian church of St Nicholas far enough to see the interior and iconostasis.  The exterior, recently renovated and regilded, is very striking and Russian in its onion domes.

            We passed the mausoleum of Giorgi Dimitrov, who was head of state 1946-1949, but we could not see the mausoleum itself, probably under repair after vandal attacks in 1992/3.  We also enjoyed the fleamarket which had masses of modern icons - and a lot of coins, the good ones being unfortunately fakes.

            A rather ugly monument to Vasil Lefski stands on the place where he was hanged by the Turks in 1876 for plotting revolution.

            In the centre of a large square stands the cathedral of St Alexander Nefski, completed (after 42 years of work) in 1924.  It commemorates the 200,000 Russians who died in the wars that liberated Bulgaria from the Ottoman empire in 1877/8.  Byzantine in style, it has many resemblances to Westminster cathedral.  The interior is quite dim, lit by huge brass chandeliers so it is hard to appreciate.  Outside one gets different impressions from different views, and the main dome is in scaffolding, but the massed proportions of the east end are most impressive and well balanced.

            We went on to see the National Library, a large pleasing modern building, with the very appropriate statues of SS Cyril and Methodius outside (they are said to have invented the slavonic alphabet and so made books possible).  Our sandwiches were eaten in a park which houses the enormous Soviet War Memorial, not now regarded with much favour as Bulgaria was possibly less free after its liberation than before it.  It is popular for skate-boarding however (despite heat, now 33º in the shade).

            We made our way then to the Ivan Vazov National Theatre, quite a spectacular building, where we were to meet Stoyan; as we were about 20 minutes early we sat at the big café opposite and I had my first Bulgarian beer (draught) and Katya and Anne had bitter lemon.  Stoyan arrived after his 5 hour algebra exam.  It seems most unfair that after he has done a year's military service and then had 6 months doing odd jobs without tuition, he is now expected to perform in an exam at an advanced level; but one supposes call-up cannot be arranged to suit school exams.  (Anne thinks that he had given up on his studies and was now returning to them).  There being no toilets at the café we were sent to the nearby cabins, decorated with branches (40 stotinki, about 12p).

            We all went to Alabin Street where Katya and Stoyan left us and we visited Agato Publishers.  It was interesting to meet Anguelino Radeva and Atanas Koychev.  As I suspected they are a married couple, but as she was 32 at the time of her marriage and had become known under her name, she decided to retain it after marriage.  In fact they have two children, aged 6 and 2.

            They rang up Giorgi Gâlâbov, a collector of Bulgarian coins who immediately joined us and we had a great discussion; they agreed that I had raised with them some of the most difficult questions in Bulgarian Numismatics.  Giorgi's own collection is not unfortunately in Sofia at present, but a friend's might be, and books and coins might be found for me, but not soon enough for me to take them home (though I was given one as a present, having presented them with Grierson's Byzantine Coins - they were delighted with this as it is only the second or third copy in Bulgaria).

            We then came home on our own, managing to pick up the No 1 tram (very hot and crowded) and returned to find the flat in Obelia 2.  It is called that because the blocks of flats there are numbered in the 200's - in Obelia 1 they have blocks 100-199.  They are not given street names.  Each block of 8 stories plus basement has 64 flats.

            We were given another excellent meal by the kind Katya - pulmeni piperki, peppers stuffed with mince and rice flavoured with herbs and eaten with yoghurt, and shopska salad, with fresh melon to follow and wonderful Misket wine from Karlovski, where Stoyan did military service.

Tuesday 16th July                  Sofia

            We all (Stoyan Katya Anne and I) got the No 1 tram in to Sofia and Stoyan showed us some massive Roman foundations in an underground area, with some tombstones.     

            Then we went to the church of Sv. Nedelya, a fine building of the 1870's, on the site of the Roman praetorium (and later Christian churches).  It was much frequented by local christians and two priests were kept busy saying prayers over them, sometimes placing the end of their stoles on the head of the person prayed over.

            Then we went to the Archaelogical Museum formerly the Bujuk Dzamija (Great Mosque), of the late 15c.  It is not an ideal building for a museum and only a tiny portion of the 250,000 items can be shown, but what is on display is of the very highest quality, mostly of the Greek period, from Bulgaria and Thrace.  The great arches of the mosque survive although small galleries have been inserted higher up.  Basically however the museum is housed in one large room.

            After this we needed a drink, and the nearby café was too expensive, we were told, so we went back to the Café Teator by the National Theatre and drank a welcome Fanta lemon.  We were approached by a Swedish couple at the next table and Stoyan was able to advise them about local trips.

            Hardly had they left (they were travelling overland from Sweden to Greece, to sail there) when we were greeted by Bob Borisov, Maya, Susan and Stratton.  The latter are from Florida - but found it very hot here - again it was 33º and no air-conditioning!  They had enjoyed a most successful trip, reaching the Black Sea - and becoming a local sensation with their recumbent trikes, the like of which had never been seen in the remoter parts of Bulgaria!  It seems that the van has to be used quite a lot and cycling is restricted to mornings because of the great heat.

            We moved to another outdoor café for lunch - we had kebabchey - grilled chicken sausage shaped, and flavoured, but with no skin, with chips and grated cheese - only 80 stotinki (about 26p) for the meat, though I suppose the chips brought it to about 50p!

            When eventually the lively party broke up, we and Katya got a taxi to the National History Museum, which most inconsiderately has removed itself out of the centre of Sofia to a beautiful but most inaccessible site out of the town, with trees leading from it up to the mountains and nothing else in between.  There is no rail link and not even a direct bus route, and no taxis around to take one back (10km).

            However it is a most magnificent building with marvellous collections, though no coin gallery as such.  There were three groups of Bulgarian coins - one of Todor Svetoslav, one of Ivan Alexander and one of Ivan Sratsimir,and one mixed Roman hoard.  A special case is devoted to the magnificent gold vessels from the tomb of the Thracian king Southes II, late 4c BC.

            We did not do the third floor of the museum - the history of war - but got drinks in the museum café - which means in the open, behind the museum, with a superb view of the mountains, and then faced the return.  As there were no taxis we were guided by Katya to and across a main road, and we found the terminus of the No 2 trolleybus line.  This does not go to the centre, but by changing at "5 ways" road junction, you can get a No 9 tram to the railway station and on to Obelia 2.  A hot crowded and tedious journey, but we had seen the most important museum - and we were almost alone in it.

            Stoyan had had to go back to the University for an exam number he had forgotten, so the 3 of us dined alone, with white cabernet wine.  Even the rice was grown in Bulgaria!  Melons and fruit are plentiful in July/August, not at other seasons.

 

Wednesday July 17th                       Sofia

            We declined Katya's offer to see us into town as we now felt able to find our way, and got a tram at 7.55 a.m. - it was like a fine English summer day at that time, very pleasant, and the journey seemed somewhat different, most of the kiosk shops still closed and people going to work quite smartly dressed.  We got off at the church of Sv. Nedelya and easily found the office of Agato in Alabin Street. 

            Here we met Atanas, Anguelina and Giorgi Galabov, and they explained that Mr Ivanov's collection was at his house in the middle of the Zoo - as he is the director of the zoo.

            So we all (except Atanas) piled into a taxi.  It declined to start, so the lady driver got a stick, opened the bonnet and prodded the engine vigourously. At the second prodding it started and took us out to the Zoo.  We got in free, being on business with the Director, and it was interesting to see inside his house which is also his office; indeed while we were talking about coins he was getting messages about a male elephant he is getting from Chester Zoo to replace one of his two females, killed by the other female, probably because she was getting old.  About 2/3 of his animals come from Britain.

            I enjoyed seeing his coin collection, but declined to purchase it at $10,000.  Giorgi went home on his own; Anguelina showed us round the zoo, which presented an unkempt and dilapidated appearance, though where there were animals they were well cared for, within the limits of their cages, and you could see them close to.

            Anguelina then remembered she needed some signatures from the university, but we got on a bus together and she got a lady to tell us where to change to a No 6 tram before she got off.  By now it was extremely hot; the air coming into the tram was like the blast from an air-conditioning plant at home!  We could probably have got off earlier, but the first place we recognised was the Central station and we got off there.

            We had a quick look at the station and the underground shopping area in front of it, and photographed an old 60 m.m. gauge engine preserved on the great concourse.  We then got a No 1 tram into the centre, a 10 minute journey, and ate the same food at the same café we used yesterday, with ½ litre beer and sprite and 2 bottles of water - it cost 6 leva 90 stotinki, about £2.30.

            By now it was 3.00 so we had a quick look at S.Y.M., Sofia's version of GUM in Moscow - but much more modern and of high quality.  It was also air-conditioned!  We were allowed to look into the next door Banya Bashi Mosque, 1576 - we could have gone right in, if we'd removed our shoes, but we could see the mihrab opposite and the fairly plain oblong room, and three men praying on the fine carpet without needing to enter.  So "home" in Obelia 2 at 4,30, quite tired.

            Before dinner there was violent thunder and lightning, but no rain.  Maya came during our evening meal (moussaka - but made with a sort of egg and milk mix, not slices of potato), shopska salad, melon, Dimyat wine, deep gold in colour.  Maya is very nice but an absolute whirlwind of a girl!  She jumps and runs all the time and expresses herself in a very friendly, very excited way.  We discussed the route and went to bed.  A friend of Katya's called for a chat and a smoke!

 

Thursday 18th July                  Sofia - Rilski Monastery

            We rose at 6.30 and left in the "van" at 7.50, meeting Alexander the driver.  The "van" is really a wide Volkswagen Transit.

            Two bicycles go on top and two inside; there are seat belts in the front, worn when passing a police post.  After picking up petrol we drove around Sofia on the ring road, seeing a flock of goats and a few horses and carts, and at Pernik we started to cycle.

            Pernik is a big industrial centre, 75,000 population, on the watershed between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.  We rode 6.7 km along a dual carriageway and visited Bob's apartment, where he has made some lovely furniture and picked up water and a bottle of wine.

            We stopped by a field of sunflowers for a photo and rested briefly at Radomir, 20 km, taking a coffee break at the Arizona Café, 31 km.  We were on a busy main road with many lorries, which twice blew my cap off, and a number of drains had lost their covers, so there were deep 14 inch holes in the side of the road, as well as much gravel and humps and potholes, so we had to watch carefully where we were riding.  However it was a beautiful day for cycling, just the right temperature, mountains all around and masses of wild flowers, especially the light blue chicory and a light purple flower which flourished in masses of colour, but which was unknown to me; also a sort of cow parsley, hollyhocks, an unknown white flower, evening primrose and many others.  In one place four men with long handled scythes were cutting down the roadside vegetation.

            Most of the road was downhill - we reached 40 k.p.h. and Maya about 50 - we passed Dupnitza and Djerman and stopped at the Bistro Paks at 1.22, having covered 68 km.

            Our lunch of chicken noodle soup, huge rolls, beer and fanta cost only $5 for four people (I imagine 10 leva).  We decided to use the van from now on, as we wanted to get to the Rilski  monastery before it closed, and it was threatening to rain - and the latter part involves a big climb - the monastery is 3,500 feet above sea level.

            Somewhere along the road we saw the highest mountain in the Balkans, Mt Rila, about 9,000 feet.

            The side road to Rila and the monastery was lovely, climbing up the steep rocky valley of a tumbling river - we had passed through great areas of uncultivated  land but now it was heavily forested among the rocks.

            After buying provisions at Rila, and noticing that a small grocer's shop sold washing machines, coffee grinders, saucepans, bowls, sieves, mattresses and blankets and fertiliser, we reached the monastery itself.  This is most impressive, a high enclosure of rooms with staircases and galleries visible, a fine church and the oldest tower in Bulgaria ( 1335; the church is said to be of the same date, but all the rest has been burnt and rebuilt).

            In the church two very small choirs of monks were singing some sort of liturgy, perhaps vespers, very beautifully, and we got incensed.  The whole surface of the church is covered with paintings carving and gold leaf and is very fine.  In the museum are a crysobull sealed by Ivan Shishman and many 19c books, some hand written.  On a large bush just outside the painted gate were a number of red and white things.  Bob explained that these are "Martenitz" which you hang up, as a prayer for good health, on 1st March and attach to a budding bush.  They are always red and white as these are the colours associated with health.

            We drove a little further up the valley to the "bungalows" where we were to stay.  These are very pretty though in fact there is only a covered verandah and a simple wooden shed with two beds. 

            We had bread, lookanka sausage, cheese, a melon and two bottles of wine for our dinner on our verandah.  We did get some butter, which I'd asked for at lunch but was not available.  It was quite cool now and raining, with thunder and lightening!  The same mountain stream which runs past the monastery forms the boundary of our site.

Friday 19th July                         Rilsky Monastery - Melnik

            During the night I had a tummy upset but by morning felt better, though it was really cold and our clothes all damp.  Bob assured us they had been all right in their tiny tent and the heavy rain had not penetrated it.  I even went for a jog to warm up!  The sun just coming over the mountain  made it all very beautiful, and there was a little bird on the road and very many wild flowers, a number of them new to me.

            We went in the van to the monastery, but all the cafés were closed (it was about 7.50 a.m.).  It was decided to breakfast in Rila; Bob and I cycled, the others went in the van as it was chilly.  As the covering of the handlebars was wet, I rode Maya's bike, which had been in the van and was dry (ours were on top of the van and were wet).

            It was a wonderful ride down through the mountains, towering above, very little traffic; two pack horses, a donkey by itself, a flock of goats (the goatherd shouted allez! Perhaps they were French goats!).  Twice dogs tried to attack us but I shouted and they went.

            We stopped at Rila (22 km) - Maya had also had tummy trouble so we gave her some Imodium.  The ride on as far as the main road was wonderful, cool and quiet, nice country - at the village of Korshaika we saw three great storks nests, full of flapping inhabitants.

            Soon after this we reached the main road, which was much busier with many fast lorries; the tunnels were narrower and quite frightening, vehicles passing very close in the dim light.  Before long Bob had a puncture and put in a spare tube; then another puncture and the only other spare was put on so we had no more left.  We had coffee at 11.30 at the Monza Restaurant while the first tube was changed.

            The road follows the River Struma, as does a single track railway, and passes through the Krestninsko Gorge for 20 km.  Here Bob said a Romanian army was trapped in the Second Balkan War but the Romanians did a sneaky trick and escaped.

            At 12.15 we found a restaurant for lunch - at that time Anne and I had lost contact with Bob and Maya, delayed by his punctures.  Maya pressed us to have her favourite "stomach soup" but we preferred chicken noodle - though we did try her favourite, embellished with vinegar, garlic, rice and ground peppers.  She wanted to know what soups we had in England and was totally disgusted with the idea of ox-tail soup!  Different cultures!

            We did ride after lunch, though it was exceedingly hot, well in the 30's, and got through most of the gorge, but then found a garage to mend Bob's two punctures (for 1½ leva, 50p and all done in 5 minutes before we could finish the drinks we had ordered.)

            We now took the van and continued south to Sandanski, where we bought more petrol with a free hamburger for Alexander for buying so much.  All this time the border with Macedonia was only just over the mountains on our right.

            From here we turned east away from the Struma valley, into the mountains again and were grateful to the van for saving us a big climb.

            We arrived in the charming old town of Melnick about 4.15 and took nice rooms in the Mehana Rozhen (we were provided with towels here and share the shower/toilet with only a couple of other rooms; there is paper in the toilet too though the tiles are most slippery and the shower falls on the middle of the floor, wetting shelf, toilet and everything as usual).  Our room was reached by an outside stone staircase.

            The van then took us up a steep, narrow twisting, grossly potholed road up to the Rozhen Monastery (5 km.).  This stands in a steep valley in the Pirin range; it is a bit of a fortress, with high walls and windows only to the top storey on the outside.

            Inside, as at Rilsky, there are galleries all round on each floor connected by stairs, (as in the George Inn at Southwark).  We gave a donation but there was no suggestion how much it should be.  One is allowed to enter the refectory and church and see a monk's cell through a window.  The church is lit by candelabra glowing red (because red filaments are used) which at first, though pretty, seemed a bit kitsch, but maybe it does less damage to the many old icons.  The monastery is dedicated to the Assumption of the Mother of God, a doctrine never doubted in the Orthodox Church.

            We were told it was originally a Greek monastery, now Bulgarian.  In fact Melnik was a sizeable Greek town of 10,000 inhabitants under the Ottoman empire, but after independence (1876) was decimated in the struggles between Greek and Bulgarian nationalists; when the Greek army was driven out in the second Balkan war (1912/13) most of the surviving inhabitants left with them and now there are only a few hundred inhabitants.

            We climbed the steep sandstone ridge to get a birds eye view of the monastery in its valley; the mountains here are very loose sand, only lightly compacted, eroded into many fantastic pinnacles.  There are abounding wild flowers and we disturbed two semi-wild goats.  Maya had previously seen a wild tortoise here. 

            Just 400m away from the monastery we saw the church of SS Cyril and Methodius, (1914), and outside it the grave of Yane Sandarski 1872-1915, an IMRO guerrilla leader, so a terrorist from the Turkish point of view.

            We dined in our Mehana - in fact a Mehana is a taverna, primarily a restaurant, only sometimes offering accommodation (10 leva a night per person, no breakfast).  Unfortunately both bean soup and Russian salad were off so Anne had cabbage salad and I chicken soup.  I had Tartarskoe Kyufte (meat balls, actually an oblong rissole including mushrooms and cheese), and Anne had chicken shashlik, with red melnik wine.  A couple of Polish girls spoke to us in English - they are on a walking tour and had little food the last two days. 

            Bob Anne and I walked around the old village, up an unmade road which also served as a river in the event of rain. 

           Anne 55 km. I 76 km.

 

Saturday 20th July, St Elijah's Day - public holiday.                        Melnik - Bansko

            We were ready and loaded up at 7.30 but a goatherd and a dozen goats, bells tinkling were the main sign of life in the little town and the place for breakfast was closed - we found the only open one and had a "hamburger" between Anne and myself - a long roll with ham and cheese, heated.

            We then climbed up the rocky village street and up a very steep rock path to the Kordopulov house.  They were wealthy wine producers, 250-300 tons a year.  The house built in 1754, has a double overhang and tiled roof. Admission 2 levs for tourists, 1 for Bulgarians.

            Inside there is much Turkish influence, carpets etc. but venetian coloured glass windows, a sauna beside the main fireplace; a winter garden, probably roofed over with a sundial in stones on the ground.  There were long tunnels driven deep into the rock, cool for storing the wine.

            On the way we had seen the Turkish Hammam (bath) in the village, and the ruins of the church.

            We then found Bob's bike has punctured again, but they cannot see what has caused it, so departure was not till 10.05.  We had a lovely ride to the main road near Sandansky, only 2 hills and miles of down hill running, carts almost as many as cars on this quiet and lovely road.  A small boy managed to overtake us to his joy and precede us before turning back.

            We managed 20½ km and then the van took us north up the main road.  It became very dark and began to rain heavily, flooding the roads immediately.  We turned to the east into the mountains, in such pouring rain that it was quite dark at midday.  We got coffee and champagne flavoured croissants at an isolated snack bar.  The bar and shops probably owe their existence to the adjoining ski piste!  A flash of lightening put out the lights and set off the alarm!

            A little further, as it brightened, we could see snow still remaining in parts of the Pirin mountains, and arrived in Bansko to take lodgings in a house recommended by Bob - we got the last two rooms on the top floor, and shared bathroom and toilet but clean and attractive, and we have a nice balcony.

            The main road along the Struma valley was reconstructed, from Dupnitza to Kulata, with an EEC grant.  However the sections through towns and villages, being local responsibilities, remain unimproved and full of potholes, which compels drivers to slow down there.

             After a short rest, we tried to find a jumping insect which had got into our suitcase, and eventually killed it, after searching every item in the baggage, on our balcony.

            It was 2.45 before we set out, still in the rain, to the town centre - a big open square with rock-fountains and cafés and shops around.  We got pizzas at the "Rossi" pizzeria, very nice ones, with a lovely fizzy apple drink.

            We made our first ever visit to an internet "café" - as I feared, there is no coffee only computer screens.  Anne was able to access her "yahoo" site though there were no messages.

            We found the church and were able to go in.  It has a quite long nave with pillars and side aisles, round apse and a space closed off at the west end - a baptistery perhaps?  There are quite a lot of seats along the edges of the nave and aisles, the central area of each being left open for the standing worshippers.

            All around the town were death notices, computer produced, with pictures of the deceased.  Often several are gathered under a black bow of material.  Many of these people have been dead for some time e.g. 10 years.  Bob says it is normal in small towns in Bulgaria.  We had seen similar papers on a notice board in Melnik.

            Anne was just sitting on our balcony sending a text message to Liz and receiving a reply from her, when a man led a cow down the street past her, ancient and modern together.  Later more cows appeared unattended; they dawdled along, eating our neighbour's front grass for a few minutes before going on.  By now the rain had stopped and the sun had come out.

            We had coffee in the town and returned for a picnic meal in the basement kitchen of our apartment - where everything is provided for such meals, apart from food.  We had to sample the local speciality, a sausage called Bansky Staretz (The old man of Bansko!) - it was almost as hard as a bone!  Afterwards Bob played his guitar and sang Pink Floyd and Elton John.

            Bansko shows many signs of being a ski resort, and has a degree of tourist development.

 

Sunday 21st July                  Bansko - Panagjurište

            We met at 8.30 - Maya had been at a disco till 2.30 a.m. - and went to the Italian café for coffee and omelette.  Meanwhile Bob bought a new tyre for my bike for 6 lev in the market.

            We bought a T shirt, Allen keys and bananas, and walked to the station where we got the old type of card tickets.  To my great joy there were still three old steam engines in the sidings, which had been there nearly 30 years, since they ceased to be used for shunting.  One was a 1927 Czech built 2-10-0T and 2 were Polish built 2-10-2T of 1949. 

            The train is on a very narrow gauge, 76 cm and winds its way, first down the Mosta valley, and then through the mountains to Avramova, the highest station in Bulgaria, 1267m.  It is situated in the pass between the Rila and W. Rhodope mountains, and the train waits here 15 minutes to pass one coming the other way.  Local people were offering blueberries and raspberries on the platform meanwhile and passengers refilled their water bottles at the fountain.  A little man on the train had a sack of cans of drink for sale.

            Bob and I were allowed on the engine to the next station.  After starting the 5 coach train the driver shut off power and used only the brake for the whole journey, as it was so steeply downhill.  The driver showed us a spring where freight trains often stop so that the driver can drink the nice water.  There are lots of tunnels and curves and the train follows the very narrow track faithfully without coming off!

            After 3½ hours travelling through the most wonderful mountains, we arrived at Velingrad at 1.30. This is a normal busy Bulgarian town, and we walked through a market selling donkey collars and horse shoes and everything else, to get lunch at a little restaurant.

            Bob then changed my back tyre which was bumping badly and was able to adjust my handlebars with the Allenkey I had bought; the bike ran much better after this.

            It was about 3 o'clock before all this work was finished and we started to ride from the station out of the town, following the railway and the Maritza river, across a flat plain with one longish hill, then into a mountain gorge with many miles of the most wonderful scenery, the mountains towering above us, but always down hill, quite steeply, by the river.

            We got refreshments just before Varvara at a nice but quite crowded café with a view over the foaming river - and the railway on which we saw our train of this morning returning from Septemvri, growling away as it climbed the very steep gradient - it must be about 1 in 20, very difficult for a train.

            Soon after we were through Varvara and quite suddenly emerged from the mountains into a dead flat plain, with no foothills at all, sheer rock rising suddenly out of a flat plain.

            All too soon this brought us to the main road where the van was waiting with the patient Alexander to pick us up.  However after some difference of opinion we changed our plan and cycled on to Pazardzik, where we took to the van and bought really cold water - the water in our bike bottles was like lukewarm tea, but had been drunk already and this was like champagne to us!  We had done 47 km by 5.40, good going.

            We drove another 43 km to Panagjurište,; we did not quite know why, it is not a place of interest and Bob had never been there before, but it was in the right direction.  The very flat plain gave way to rolling hills, a bit like the Cotswolds, and then steeper hills.  We arrived at 7.20 and enquired of passers by for an "hotel".  This has not the same meaning as in England; it means a house which lets out rooms by the night, a bed and breakfast minus the breakfast, or any other food.  It was full but there was a second, the Hotel Kava, and luckily we got in there, just.

            We walked to the town centre and found a restaurant, the Neptune, open and willing to serve.  They offered us roast chicken or roast pork; we ordered the first, but the tasty meal that arrived had never walked on two legs!  We drank gin and tonic with it - 2/3 of a tumbler of gin and a bottle of tonic, a generous drink we thought!  Bob ate a dish of plain peanuts; he does not like meat now, he says.

            Our room is quite a funny little one; Anne has hung the washing, which did not dry at Bansko, on a hat stand which represents our total clothes area.

            47 km.

Monday 22nd July                  Panagjurište - Shipka Pass

            We got coffee and water at a café - they had nothing to eat but we ate our flapjacks and went to a bank - it did not open till 8.30, early indeed, so we strolled around, seeing a huge green library and a notice saying that we are not allowed to cross the road in front of moving vehicles!

            At the bank we went to one side with the dollars, took our receipt to the other side which did the calculations and then took the calculation back to the first side for the leva to be counted out.

            Alexander then replaced the windscreen wipers, which he removes to prevent theft, and we headed off into the mountains - not much of a mountain, Bob said, only about 4,000´, and we stopped to photograph opencast copper mining.

            Soon we were on our bikes, downhill for 18 kms, curving for miles among tree-covered mountains and across viaducts, where it felt more like flying than cycling!

            At Kurnavo we stopped at the Oasis café for coffees and drinks and Trepach bars (rice and chocolate) and I tried Bulgarian lemonade.

            We rode on past Iganova to Sopot where we visited a monastery.  Behind the parish church there is a gate into a secluded courtyard, vines overhead, as before galleries and stairs on the inside of the enclosure.  A secret trap door led to a place where Bulgarian rebels met.  A lady, perhaps a nun, appeared bearing a big key; she took us into a further enclosure around their chapel, which she unlocked for us.

            The chapel was small and very nice, a miniature iconostasis etc and candles burning - Bob lit some for us and we got postcards before setting off for Karlova.  The big hill promised turned out to be beyond the town so we reached it easily, and while we were looking for a suitably cheap restaurant Maya suddenly came across an old school friend who had moved to Karlova, so they went off for a walk and a chat and we and Bob went to the Bistro Gergana and had stuffed fried peppers and a "strawberry" ice cream in the street afterwards.  It was 32º now.

            The town has that open, wide-spaced look we had seen elsewhere, a big main square with a communist style monument and a superb background of mountains.  We visited the house of Vasil Lefsky, closed, and a chapel beside it where very attractive frescoes were being painted, and an old 15c mosque.

            From here we drove, along a long straight road, through the village Vasil Lefsky, Kalofer and Manolovo to Kazanlak where we turned north into the Shipchenska mountains, up a very long steep climb full of hairpin bends.  Just before we started the climb we glimpsed the shining golden domes of the Russian church of the Nativity, built in 1902 to commemorate the Russians who died fighting the Turks.

            The top of the pass is 1306m. above sea level - say 4,300´ - much , much cooler than the plain at the bottom.  There is one hotel which looks quite good from outside and a few cafés - no more, and we put up in the hotel. 

            We ate at a café just outside the hotel with a marvellous view over the mountains; Monastery soup (white bean and vegetables) chicken shashlik and chips and a white Traminev wine "Khan Krum".  The English menu included:- Bulls Milk with honey, 1.50 Cheesy-pastry peppers, 2.50  Egg a la minutes 1.80.

            There is a monument above the Shipka Pass to commemorate the battle fought there in 1877, when 7,000 Russian Bulgarian troops prevented 27,000 Turks from marching to relieve Pleven.  We climbed 890 steps to the platform, but the monument closes at 5 so we could not ascend the tower and complete the 1,000 steps!  The sun was just setting and there was a magnificent view over the dark mountains around.

            There are lots of lorries here; they come from Turkey and in order to avoid Yugoslavia go to Ruse to cross the Danube there.                40 km.

Tuesday 23rd July                  Shipka Pass - Dryanov Monastery

            A violent wind all night, rattling doors and windows - a bad night.

            For breakfast we had hamburgers and I had black tea and we rode off down the great pass, on the north side now.  We had to steer and brake carefully on the innumerable hairpin bends but no lorries overtook us, in 15 km or so, as we could go as fast as they could.  The scenery was superb, as far as we dared glimpse it!

            At Gabrovo we turned right to the Etar folk-museum - a replica of an old village, with an upper stream of water and a lower one; the houses in between can open a sluice and use the water power.  We saw knife-grinding, cloth-fulling, rotary washing pools, and a lathe; a blacksmith, a potter , a woodcarver etc.  Elevenses was Turkish coffee and sesame sticks and meringues.

            Bob's brakes had failed - luckily not on the big descent! - so after a repair session we left at 11.45 and reached Gabrovo at 12.15 to dine at the Cherven Kryst (Black Cross).  As usual we were presented with a fine menu but all our choices were off - in fact none of the 10 soups was available and we settled for an omelette and some salad.  There is a nice view of a pond with ducks rocks and plants and a heroic statue of Yustabanov, one of the Bulgarian independence leaders of the 1870's.

            We managed to follow Bob through the town, in unorthodox fashion, and once clear of Gabrovo and across the river Jantra we began a very long climb about 5 km, and at the summit we could see the monument at the Shipka Pass which we had left this morning.  A long descent brought us to the area of the Dryanovo monastery.  Bob had said, would we like to stay at the Dryanovo monastery, and we had enthusiastically agreed, but evidently he meant in the area of.  He tried two hotels but found them too expensive, so we went to the "Bungalows", tiny wooden cabins, toilets just a hole in the ground and water to put down it.  However we were promised we could use the sit down (but non-flushing) toilet at reception so agreed.  The shower has no door at all.

            We walked to the Dryanov Monastery, a small place burnt in the 1876 uprising and now rebuilt and fitted with a special shrine for the Bulgarians who lost their lives in the conflict.  The church survived, apart from the dome, the icons are homely, probably early 19c.

            We all crossed the river, where a water snake was trying to catch a frog.  Bob and I walked up to the top of the big cliff which overhangs the monastery and admired the marvellous view.  Then at a tiny café we had kebapchik with beer/sprite, and chips.  Bob was pleased it was so cheap - about 10 leva I believe.

Wednesday 24th July                       Dryanov - Veliko Tarnovo

            7.45 start; breakfast in a roadside café, coffee and hamburgers.  A lovely ride followed, warm but not hot, nice green scenery, rolling hills, sometimes rocky gorges and the river constantly beside us.  Apart from a few cows, the countryside seemed to be without people or crops, the fields full of wild flowers, so for grazing not hay.

            We had 26 km of fine cycling with a following wind and then made a rendezvous with the van and had coffee and drinks (the coffee is always tiny so it is normal to have a bottled drink as well).  The waitress actually got into her car and led us into the town, hair-raisingly, to introduce us to a nice hotel.  However it was $50 a day so we found lodgings in a 300 year old house, 70 Gurko Street - we are on the 5th floor, but as two stories are below street level, down the cliff, not too high up.

            Ours is a funny little room, with a piece where I can stand erect and a marvellous view across the river Yantra, to the Asen monument, the Tarnovo Hotel beyond (across a second loop of the river); to the left mountains.

            After a rest, we went at 1.30 for lunch, minus Maya who has stomach troubles.  The Ivanovskovo café provided "kârnachey", thin pork sausage rolled into a spiral, and very tasty, with drinks chips and bread, 11 leva 85 Stotinki for the three of us (about £4).  Bob accompanied us then to the Cathedral of the Holy Virgin.

            This is a good sized domed building, I would think late 19c; the icons have 19c faces.  A swatch of green leaves is used to scatter holy water over the congregation.  We found the archaeological museum with some difficulty; the part towards the road is now a library, but if you go down rock stairs at the left of the library and turn right, all steeply down, you find a huge façade at the back.  The doors were all locked but an assistant answered the bell and took our money, 5 leva each.  She then unlocked the galleries one by one for us, re-locking them behind us.  We spent a fascinating afternoon there, seeing historic Greek and Roman and Medieval objects, coins being strongly represented; of course there were no other visitors.

            After another coffee and drink we returned to our little eyrie.  Anne rested and I went out in search of two nearby churches.  I found SS Constantine and Helena easily - though closed and scaffolded with very rusty scaffolding.  It is of 1873, with a dome and tower; the parish has a priest and has organised a pilgrimage, but clearly has not used its church for years.  The other church St Spas is a ruin only the lower part of the walls remaining, full of bushes and creepers.

            We went for dinner at 7.30 but Maya was sick on the way and eventually returned home.  The three of us went to the "Architects Club" a nice little restaurant just above S Constantine and Helena church.  I had borsch and trout with hazel nuts, Anne had "Good Woman" (chicken Bonne femme) and we drank a "Gamza" red wine, good if rather dry and too warm.  The Borsch was nothing like true Borshch, but it was a decent vegetable soup with lots of carrot potato and peas in it.  Interesting, how Bulgarian dishes are not the same as you might think!  There was an English menu, but we did not try "salad of appetising corn" or "grilled appetising" (which leave much to the imagination!) or Quadrats on grill, more mysterious.

            We decided the Son et Lumiere would be too late - Bob thought, perhaps 11 oclock, so we returned to sleep.  I wore my new Bulgarian T shirt with the old Slavonic alphabet.       

            26 km.

Thursday 25th July                  Veliko Târnovo

            We breakfasted on banitsa and bazor (cheese and egg pastry, and a brownish-grey liquid made from corn, sweet and slightly alcoholic,) and water, and walked to the fortress-town of Tsarevets.  Admission free for Bulgarians on a Thursday.  Just inside we were welcomed by the figures of a king (Kaloyan) and a queen with a warrior and jester.  They welcomed us in English, which we thought very perceptive, told us about the intrigue leading to the (unhistorical) execution of the emperor Baldwin, and a puppet did a dance and squirted water when we gave 2 levs (66p).

            The fortress is a huge triangular area on a steep rocky hill, reached by an Ottoman causeway to the Third Gate. We followed the walls about ½ mile to the left to reach the Stone of Execution, beyond a little chapel, or rather the foundations of one.  Here in 1300 Patriarch Joachim III was hurled down to the river Yantra far below, for having collaborated with the Mongols.

            There is a vast area of ruins, dating in part from the 5/6c and so early Byzantine.  In the centre the highest point is occupied by the Patriarchal Church of the Ascension, rebuilt in the late 19c on its original foundations; it now lacks an altar or iconostasis and is painted in a very striking modern style.  The area around had its own walls and was a separate enclave for the Patriarch, his monks and his soldiers.  The remains of the royal palace lie near by.

            At the far corner we climbed Theodore's tower with an external stair, giving great views.  We had coffee and drinks (toilet excellent and free) and returned to the town.

            Here we spent some time in a coin shop, but failed to buy any coins, as they seemed very reluctant to sell.  We lunched at an Italian (Neapolitan pizza) and returned to rest till 3.

            A yellow taxi took us to the village of Arbanassi said to have been founded by orthodox followers of Skanderbeg (Albanian) in the late 16c.  The house of the Konstantsalievo family is open, and furnished with rugs and divans in what seems to us Turkish style.  There is a little hammock for the baby and 2 toilets (triangular openings in the floorboards).  The upper part is wooden, the lower thick stone walls.

            We managed to find the church of the Nativity, up one of the unmade tracks.  It was consecrated in 1597 and has never been burned (most unusual in Bulgaria).  They charge 4 levs for foreigners.  Inside there are twin churches under a single gabled roof, both absolutely covered with frescoes.  The church which has the door has a series of partitions with low arches through to the next.  We were told one nave was for men and the other for women.

            We also found the church of the Archangel Michael and St Athanasius.  Again 4 levs and again one door but two naves, the left one bare, the right much painted, in the 17c by monks from Mt Athos.

            The Arbad restaurant provided ice creams and drinks, enjoyed in a kind of tree house at the bottom of the garden.  It gives a view over a very modern swimming pool but it was almost deserted as the afternoon was dull and cloudy.  At least this made it easier for us to walk!

            Taxi back, again hair raising, and dinner delayed by a thunderstorm.  We went out to the Architects Club, rain not so heavy now, but found the restaurant, though open, totally unattended.  We went inside, where it is cut out of the cliff face, and shouted, to no avail.  Bob then played the piano, very loudly but there was no response, though a jacket was hanging from a peg and we could have taken lots of liqueurs and wines.  Bob was well into his second piece when the waitress came in from the "street" (actually steps) and her astonished face made us all laugh!

            Anne and I shared a shepherds salad, she had a mushroom and ham omelette and I had veal domeshev (with cheese and vegetables) and we drank a bottle of excellent chardonnay Targomiste (white) and I tried a small rakiya.  Bob insisted it must be drunk with a salad, but I refused an extra salad at the end of my meal; he also said to hold my nose as it had an awful smell, but I did not find it so and enjoyed it.

            We had a lively meal and Maya began a drawing for me, to illustrate our holiday in her special style.  We got home about 10 just before another downpour of rain.

Friday 26th July             Veliko Târnovo - Ruse

            7.30 start.  Quite sorry to leave our little attic-with-a-view, at 70 (General) Gorchko ulitza; it is clean, surprisingly cool, good shower though on bathroom floor, only 2 rooms to the bathroom, even a mirror in the bedroom!  We can give this one a qualified recommendation, especially for its excellent and picturesque situation.

            We stopped at Rusenskoeje Byalo for breakfast, very nice toasted rolls in a poor looking little box of a place.  Almost as soon as we had left Tarnovo we were out of the mountains, again suddenly and into long rolling hills.

            The van took us off the main road and up the hill to Borovo where we unloaded the bikes and began a lovely ride at 9.30.  It was cloudy and a very pleasant temperature and easy country, more agricultural, though the sunflowers were drooping their heads to avoid the rain.

            Coffee was found at Ivanovo, 29 km, at 11.10, and we saw a splendid gorge of the Ryskaya river, the last real river to join the Danube from the south.  Then there was a steep drop into Bosarbovo followed by a steep climb out; apart from my chain coming off I got up all right, but Anne's gear cable snapped delaying us for repairs.  Then we entered Ruse through an ugly industrial area and found a café (the café Boutique) for lunch.  All 15 soups were off so we had kebabche for lack of anything else.  Rain compelled us (and everyone else) to move under cover, while the usual stray cats patrolled the tables seeking food.  The lunch cost 8.80 leva, £3 for 4 people.  We had cycled 49 km.

            The place where Bob had intended to stay was closed for repairs so after attempts to find anything cheaper we took rooms at the Krystal Hotel, $35 for Anne and me, rather less for Bulgarians; room 303 is ours.

            Bob Anne and I went out through the very spacious town centre on our bikes, changed $200 into leva for the kitty and had a look across the Danube to Romania.  Some of the factories of Giurgiu were visible; the wind being mainly from the north, the pollution they cause has upset Bulgaria.  The great river is wide and deep and there are docks and shipping, though not much.  There is only one bridge just east of Ruse.  We rode on along the bank of the Danube around huge water-filled pot holes to reach the catholic cathedral of St Paul.  It was closed, opening a 5 - 6 we were told, so we continued along the Danube to a museum of steam trains and engines.  This is an old station and some sidings containing 8 old steam engines, mostly rusting to pieces as they have been in the open for years.  One was built in England in1866 for the first railway in Bulgaria, the Ruse - Varna line.  The royal carriage used by Sultan Abdel Aziz was here too though the Turks want to buy it.  Bob persuaded the curator to unlock for us, by telling a few fibs, and I had a great time investigating the engines.  The 4 cylindered ones had only two valves with crossed ports, each controlling steam both in and out of two cylinders.

            The catholic cathedral was still closed and now we were told it would be open 6 -7, so we found a café by the Danube and had coffee and drinks, a place Bob used to go to when he was a student here.  However the church remained firmly closed so we returned, having seen the famous Riga Hotel, the dilapidated Pridunavski Boulevard leading to it along the Danube, the National Theatre of 1891, the library and earlier the Town Hall (1950's, Stalinist) and the Liberation Monument of 1908.  Ruse was the largest town when Bulgaria separated from the Ottoman empire in 1978 (26,000, against 20,000 in Sofia, about 85% Turkish). We went to the Potsdam Restaurant for dinner (meeting Maya again on the way waiting for her friend).  Grilled chicken with gin and tonic and rakia.  Many people were walking up and down in smart casual clothes; the town centre has an atmosphere a little like Vienna.

 

 Saturday 27th July                  Ruse - Dobrich - Balchik

            We came down to breakfast in the hotel at 7.30 having loaded the van but a reluctant waiter slowly brought tiny coffees, slightly toasted bread, slightly boiled eggs, butter cheese  and honey; we had to pay extra for water (and no spoons for eggs).

            We made an early start at 8.0, riding out through the quiet centre of Ruse, past the bridge to Romania and a huge factory extending for miles.

            The road was very straight, the country very flat, the wind against us.  Some of the land was cultivated - vines, sweet corn, sunflowers; most seemed to be, so to speak, fallow.

            After 33 km we reached the first human habitation, Sliva Polya (Plum Field!) where there is a market.  At this precise point the rain came down - it had been grey and damp all the time - but we were at the one and only transport café and dashed in before we got really wet!  They had orange juice and choc bars and we met up with Alexander and decided to load the bikes.

            The van took us to Tutarakan, where we glimpsed the Danube, Lake Serebro, used by birds migrating from Africa to Russia and Silistra where we got lunch in a semi self service place - the food is on the counter, we chose moussaka and a large helping was put on a plate and passed to the cashier, who released it on payment.

            There was a market behind the restaurant where we bought and ate ripe peaches, beyond that a children's park and then the Danube, a splendid view with ruins of the Roman frontier buildings (it was the ancient Mesembria).  A monument to King Boris III recorded his recovery of the area - the Southern Dobrudja - from Romania in 1940.  This was achieved by giving his support to the Axis powers but as Russia was then one of them it was all right and the monument has been allowed to remain

            The van then took us south east, along the Romanian frontier, indicated by a fence with barbed wire on top - here Romania extends south of the Danube, even after the 1940 agreement.

            After about an hour of swinging ups and downs, the van was showing distinct signs of distress and gave up on one of the hills.  It seems it had run out of gas - we had not realised it used gas not petrol or diesel.  However it had a petrol reserve; it was reluctant to start but by letting it run backwards and throwing ithe clutch in, it was persuaded to start and we managed to reach the outskirts of Balchik, going very easily on the downhill bits, and reached a garage which could supply gas.  The bill here was so big that we persuaded the garage to throw in a free T shirt for Alexander and ice creams for the rest of us.  The area from Silistra to Balchik showed us more sunflowers than we'd seen in all our lives.

            Our intention of cycling from Dobric to Balchik was frustrated by a very strong head wind, so the van got us in to Balchik about 4.10 p.m. and we saw our first view of the Black Sea - very blue as by now it was hot and sunny.

            Bob introduced us to the house where he had stayed last year.  It is a long way above the beach - this is a very steep town, preventing our cycling as I'd hoped.  The rooms seemed to be occupied by some girls, but we were told they were leaving anyhow and the beds were remade while we sat on a ledge outside.  Bob says we should stay here 3 nights - $5 per night per person, so much cheaper than the hotel in Ruse - and he will prepare some food for us tonight.  It is rather a funny little place, reached by steep external steps instead of a staircase, with a family of kittens accustomed to using our room. The view would be magnificent, the dome of the little church against the blue sea, and trees and red roofs, but unfortunately it is criss-crossed by no less than 13 wires.

            We did go down to the beach, but it is a mile or so and very steep.  The beach is good sand, covered with many permanent umbrellas, quite full even at 6 p.m., the sea warm, Bob said, but with big waves.

            After a picnic on our balcony, serenaded by music from a 3 day gipsy wedding, it got dark and we retired to bed.  The guidebook says this whole area is an extension of the Steppe region into the Balkans.

Sunday 28th July                  Balchik

            A pleasant breezy morning on our balcony warm and sunny.  We got breakfast in the town - cheese and ham on bread, toasted, and coffee and walked 2 km to the summer house of Queen Marie of Romania.  This of course was built when the S. Dobrudja was Romanian, and came to Bulgaria in 1940.  There are charming gardens; the house is quite small with a minaret, wooden construction upstairs.  We saw her sitting room with its desk facing a lovely sea view, and her domed bathroom with stained glass windows (the bath is clearly worn out!).  There is a separate chapel, now a souvenir shop, but retaining its frescoes, a lovely waterfall, a sloping water cascade between shady cypress trees, and a lovely rose garden in bloom.

            One can go out on to the beach, where Bob and I had a swim - it is difficult to get in, down very slippery steps into big waves and broken rocks/concrete, which cannot be seen as the water is all very murky.  Once down the stairs, crowded with people going in and trying to get out, and many just standing, it is pleasant to swim, a sandy bottom and good view of the Queen's house.

            We walked back along the shore and had some excellent chicken soup for lunch; Bob then went to the local beach, but it was 32º at 11 o'clock (water temperature 26º, much higher than the Mediterranean) and we needed to go back, buying a fine melon for 1 lev 10 stotinki (about 40p for 2½ kilos!) wine and rakia.  There are high white cliffs here - and our house is still higher, at least 400 feet up, so we were very hot arriving, but had a nice sleep.

            We then sat on the "balcony" i.e. the entrance to our room and read our books with the comfort of a breeze; but then Anne got three very bad bites on her foot, so we had to cover ourselves in insect repellent.  Alexander has gone, and the van and bikes with him, so we cannot do the ride we hoped this evening.  He speaks no English so communication has to be through Bob or Maya.

            Bob returned at 6 with peppers tomatoes cucumbers and vinegar for a Shopska salad, we bought some extra wine and felt thus justified in starting the white Targovishte Traminer, a dry white.

            Bob made a fine Shopska salad and we made this our evening meal; after a short walk to see an old fountain, with a Turkish inscription, we retired to bed.

Monday 29th July                  Visit to Varna

            Light rain at 7.30; so we suggested delaying for breakfast at the café where we had such nice toasted "sandwiches".  They took the order but after we'd drunk the coffee said they had no bread yet.  Bob went to the bakers, as they would not do so, and presented them with a loaf so we got sandwiches.

            The van took us up the hill and we had a lovely ride along the level plain, through woods and fields and past horse and donkey carts.  Then a really long racing descent through woods and rock cuttings to Albeni.

            This is really an enormous seaside resort and very crowded.  A police control post levies a tax of 100 or 150 leva per coach, depending on size, and 4 leva per car (£30/55! And £1.35).  Bikes go free!

            There are many Russians here and some Germans, and menus are often in English though few come.  We got a coffee and drinks, loaded up the bikes and went to Varna.  The little mats in the café reminded us that the Bulgarian Black Sea coast extends to 378 Km. A lighthouse further on marks the former frontier with Romania, before 1940.

            As we approached Varna it began to rain; we parked just off one of the big streets and wandered around many streets looking for a suitable restaurant; the only one judged suitable had no place to sit out of the rain.  Eventually we had to use a self service; I got grilled chicken (which I had hoped would be fish!) and rice, Anne Moussaka.  Bob did not like this noisy crowded place and we left after only minutes.  Two barefoot gypsies arrived; they were made to sit outside and money taken first, but they were given food.

            We walked down to the sea and found the ruins of the later Roman baths, so covered in bushes that not much could be seen and no access is allowed.  We wandered all over the place looking for headphones for Maya; eventually to her enormous joy we found the ones she wanted and we paid for them as a present.

            As we wandered we came across the ruined catholic church, the roof fallen in, the Opera House and the large orthodox cathedral.  As usual it is late 19c, (1886, by Pomerantsev), a short nave and central dome.  We had also passed by the Naval museum, with a rocket launcher, a helicopter, a small patrol boat and a couple of artillery pieces for land use (they had "spades" which dig into the ground when the gun is fired).

            We walked and walked, not knowing where we were or where the van was, when suddenly Maya let out a whoop of joy - she had looked down a side street and spotted our bicycles on the roof of the van!  Bob then spotted Alexander in a little café, with a friend, and we joined them for coffee and drove the friend home and returned to Balchik.

            Another salad eaten with much wine (local Dobrughska) and merriment, outside our room; the rain stopped, but our room still very hot and airless.

Tuesday 30th July                  Balchik - Aheloj

            7.00 start; the coast road very beautiful this morning along the Black Sea, goats and sheep crossing the road in front of us, a man pushing a wheelbarrow of wood along the highway.

            7.50 in Varna, breakfast at a snack bar in a market; drove around searching for gas, asked a man who was crossing the road in front of us, crossed a big bridge to the port, crowded with ships and set off along the highway climbing into mountains.  Eventually we found a garage with gas, filled up and went on, stopped in the misty mountains to pick blackberries.  Further on we stopped to unload the bicycles, at 1300´ above sea level, and met a weather-beaten cyclist from Sofia, heavily loaded. Then we sped down the long hill to the sea, with a fine view of Nesebur across the bay, and down to a place called, rather surprisingly, Sunny Sands.  Here we cycled along the rear of the long beach and Bob got yet another puncture.

             On then through the busy modern part of Nesebur and across the causeway to the ancient part on the island, the Greek and then Byzantine town of Mesembria, for long a bone of contention between Bulgarians and Byzantines (this town did have the same name in ancient times as the modern Silistra on the Danube, which we had visited on 27th July).  The causeway leads straight to the gate, or rather gap in the Byzantine walls, of white stone banded with red brick.  A little man was playing the Bulgarian bagpipes at the entrance. 

            Bob says there are the remains of 39 churches in Nesebur!.  The church of the Pantocrator, 13c, lies just a little inside; like nearly all the churches we saw it is now an art gallery selling modern paintings and no one is going to repair the  huge crack in the apse.  Central plan, with dome and 3 apses, the exterior most beautifully decorated, one fresco of St Marina remaining inside.

            The church of St Spes (1609) is architecturally just a rectangle with a gabled wooden roof and one apse, but it contains superb frescoes and the tomb of a Byzantine princess, of the Cantacuzenos family, though the tombstone has been removed.  It charges admission 1 lev 10 st, but the custodian does explain the paintings.

            Near by is St Theodore, 14c, a gabled building with banded decoration and arcaded sides, also an art gallery, and the ruins of the Basilica of St Sophia, 5/6c, and several more churches, some mere ruins.  There are charming Ottoman period houses, with timber first floors, and an old fountain.

            We used the hot and crowded restaurant at the gate - I did get tsatsi (whitebait) at last, 80 stotinki (25p) with chips of equal value.  Anne had chicken.

            We had left our bikes at the gate and now mounted the hot saddles (it was about 31º in the shade once we descended from the mountains) and rode off further along the coast to a hotel, but Bob rejected it and rode on to Aheloj, where we found Alexander, and stayed with him in a café while Bob went ahead and booked a room in the camp where he always stays.

            The room is just a wooden shack with a tin roof, hot as an oven, reached over a muddy field with puddles after last nights heavy rain.  However we have an en-suite toilet and shower, the floor covered in water from the leaking shower, but clean even if no toilet paper or towels.  We did later manage to open the rickety windows and get some air in.  Perhaps if one were used to camping it might be like some English sites, and Bob is pleased it is only 20 levs a night (£7).  A dish of poison on the floor and a few beetles

            We went to the beach, very close, for a swim; sandy beach, warm water, though big waves and water murky.  We've been spoiled by the Med!  Then it began to rain, to our surprise, so we returned to our room.

            We had dinner at the camp - we declined to eat "chicken bowels" - pork fillet for Anne, fried cheese in batter for me and we shared a potato salad - which was solid potato and onion and 3 olives, and a bottle of red Targovischte (very dry).

            Then we bought ice creams and walked on the beach, and some young Bulgarians in the next room spoke to us, or one of them did, a girl from Burgas, who has just graduated in sociology and would like to work in England.

           

Wednesday 31st July                        Aheloj - Slivenski Mineralni Bani

            We got coffee and caramel croissants at the camp shop and went on the beach, paying 2 lev for an umbrella and something for chairs, and I had a couple of swims, very pleasant, the waves not so big as on previous occasions.  We stayed on the beach until 11.30, packed and had lunch in another little restaurant, ham and mushroom omelette for Anne, whitebait for me.

            We set off at 12.50, along a minor road rising gradually for 17 km into the hills away from the Black Sea; then we joined the main road to Sofia for a long way, in the heat.  Eventually we stopped for drinks at a roadside café, 3.00-3.20, refreshment greatly needed, though plagued by flies.  Bob told us that the marble tombstones we see along the road mean that someone died there, not that he is buried there.  Our route ran via Aitos and Kernovat, by-passing Sliven to Slivenski Mineralni Bani, on the river Tundža, where we found our accommodation.

            Here our room seemed cooler than last night's - though it is a much hotter day - and we have towels, though no toilet paper, and a fridge that works; it is our own toilet so the leak, common to almost all Bulgarian toilets, must be forgiven.  There is a swimming pool to Maya's delight!

            We swam in the swimming pool (2 levs each plus 2 more for a sun bed to sit on).  Later we went through the woods along the river Tundža (where we saw another water snake) to a little restaurant with a water wheel on the river; it was interesting to think that this water would end up in the Aegean!  We had a mixed salad and the curled sausage (Tanka Nidinski, on the menu) with a large bread roll made with cheese in the centre; gin and tonic and we allowed Maya her first Martini - which had to be a white one as there was no red.

 

Thursday 1st August              Slivenski Mineralni Bani - Sofia

 

            We left just before 7, the sun just striking on the tops of the mountains, and in the morning cool covered the distance to Novi Zagora and Stary Zagora, where we went into the centre of the town and had breakfast (packaged croissants, and I got some crisps, coffee, water and Fanta lemon), 8.00-8.47.  There had evidently been heavy rain here - we'd seen the lightening last night - and the café had evidently been flooded though apart from the wet carpet it was functioning all right.  The forecourt of the garage where we got gas (and a hamburger thrown in ) was largely covered in mud washed down by heavy rain.  Rocks and mud covered the road for a distance.  Traffic was heavy and some lorries very slow, especially one with the heads of a cow and a calf looking out of the side!  They were difficult to pass as even the main roads can take only one vehicle each side, and our vehicle has very limited acceleration.

            At 9.30 exactly we crossed the River Maritza and by 10.00 we were in Plovdiv, the ancient Philippopolis.  It was taken by Alexander the Great in 341 BC and named after his father who was still reigning.  It was taken by the Romans in 46 AD, was sacked and destroyed by the Goths in 249, and totally destroyed by the Huns in 447.  In the 6thc it was rebuilt and re-fortified by Justinian.  After Slav and Avar invasions it was in the First and Second Bulgarian Empires, with a return to the Byzantine Empire in between.  From 1364 it was in the Ottoman Empire.

            We soon found the remains of the Forum, all around the main post office (whose employees park cars in part of it).  Whilst there is not even a sign to say what it is, the grass is now cut and much can be seen though with no idea of its ancient use.  Across the square is the Hotel Trimontium; like the P.O. Stalinist architecture but imposing.

            From the shopping centre, the smart (pedestrianised ) Aleksandrov Street, we reached the remains of the Stadium, the turning point at one end, below ground, well preserved and complete with Romans in togas on the seats.

            Close by is the Dzhumaiya mosque, built under Sultan Murad II (1359-85).  From here we found our way to the magnificent theatre.  This has been somewhat restored, as it is used for performances.  As usual, the site was chosen to give a magnificent view, of the Rhodope mountains in fact.  It is all that remains of the Roman acropolis destroyed by the Goths in 249.

            We had a drink at the café here, which would give a marvellous view of the theatre and mountains were it not blocked out by advertisements, and went on through the old town with jettied Ottoman houses, some almost meeting across the street.  One bore a plaque recording that the French poet Lamartine was given hospitality here, on his journey to the Orient in 1835.

            The Turkish fortress of Nebet Tepe is very completely ruined though its commanding position gives a superb view of the city and we could see the Ottoman clock tower on its hill.  With a little more difficulty we found the Turkish Bathhouse.

            By now lunch was calling - a nice Marco Polo pizza at Dany's Pizza house.  We saw a graffito for the party advocating the extension of Bulgaria's frontiers to the Aegean Sea and the Adriatic, absorbing Greek Macedonia, the republic of Macedonia, Serbia, Albania and Montenegro, which would be disastrous!  We met Alexander a little after 2 p.m.; he comes from Plovdiv and had taken the opportunity of visiting his mother and sister.

            It was now very hot; we fought our way out of the city through swirling traffic and joined the motorway, at first through a flat plain with the Rhodope mountains visible among the clouds to the south.

            Then we climbed into the mountains - the Ihtimanskoye Srednagora - and it grew much cooler and cloudy and there was some heavy rain.  The second half of the motorway seemed to be mostly under repair, not that we seemed to go much slower on the wrong side.  Slow vehicles normally drive on the hard shoulder so they delayed us on the single-carriageway bits.

            About 4.30 we reached Obilia, again through wild traffic.  Katya was not in and Maya thinks she is probably staying at the seaside with friends.  However Maya let us in and from the window we saw the van go off with our faithful bikes, which have served us so well for 300 miles, on its roof.

            Maya made us spaghetti, and Stoyan came in - he has done very well in his exams and should thus get to University in September.

            We sat on the balcony with Maya watching the cows and people outside and the dramatic way cloud moved in and blocked out the mountains, while dusk fell and we made English coffee, boiling water in a round dish as they have no kettle.  Then our last night in Bulgarian beds.

 

Friday 2nd August              Sofia - Ingatestone

            Up at 4.30 - Maya insisted on getting up to make coffee and see us off.  At 5.00 the van arrived and we set off, saying good-bye to Maya who has done so much for us.

            Even at 4.30 buses and trams were running, but other traffic was light; we went in to Sofia, seeing the Lion Bridge and the Vasil Lefsky monument at about 5.15 a.m. and reaching the airport at 5.35; but although our check in was due, there were no staff to do it.

            The airport switched on at 6.15, though the customs staff made us wait till 6.30.  We met an American woman who was just finishing a year's travel - the third time she and her husband have done a year travelling!

            Take off 5.58 English time (7.58 Bulgarian time, 7.45 booked).  Breakfast 6.10, declined wine at this time (coffee, orange juice, cheese, ham and cheese rolled together, ham and a sort of cold gammon, bread, jam and cake were more than enough! We'd had coffee and croissant at the airport.  It was 2 lev 20 stotinki for 2 coffees!

            We slept a bit on the aircraft having had such an early start and poor night.  The plane landed at 9.04 - 3 hours 6 minutes - rather fast, and passengers clapped the pilot when he managed to slow safely.

            We then got a train to Blackfriars and were home at Ingatestone, by taxi from Shenfield, by mid-day.  Anne unfortunately was now suffering from a nasty cold.

Rate of Exchange:

£1 = 2 levs 89 stotinki


 

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