People Bicycled With Us



Stratton and Susan Smith

July 2000 and 2002


        It was almost in the end of December 1999 I was bicycling in a cool gloomy afternoon, when in my mind a thought appeared, that maybe it will be possible to invite bicyclists to bicycle together with us in my country. But where do I find them, will somebody want to visit my country, almost unknown especially for people living out of Europe?, how can I suggest them that touring in my country by bike is not dangerous and it may be even exciting?

        Soon, after no long surfing in Internet, I was surprise to find out, that too many people are practicing a bike tourism especially in USA and UK united in plenty of bicycle clubs. Soon I listed more than 300 E-mails of bicycling clubs in USA, GB and no more than 10 in another countries in North and West Europe but here the language barrier here was hard for me.  And in the end of January 2000, I sent to all them my short message:

          “SUMMER 2000 – exciting and inexpensive bike tours in

          sunny Bulgaria. If interesting, more information is available.

          Bob”.

        Will somebody be interested? Yes of course. For not long time I got more than 15 requests for more information, I contacted with touring bicyclists seemed to be just like me and they behaved so friendly!  And at the 2nd February 2000 Susan and Stratton Smith living in Tampa, Florida, after asking me for more information, represented themselves and we had begun to plan a tour in BG; we changed many many messages and yes, in the end of February they booked airplane tickets to Bulgaria.

       Maya was so excited (she was just learning English in a preparatory class), each day both we waited for Susan&Straton’s messages, evenings both we red and translated letters and did our answers together, so she decided to join us, so in the beginning of April I bought her a bike and we began to exercise bicycling – in the town between cars, up the hills, down the hills (she was so afraid in the beginning to do it!) and after several weeks she was ready for the tour.

        It was 29th June 2000, if I remember well, both me and Maya met Susan and Stratton in the Sofia airport. In the beginning I felt not fine because of my poor English - it was the first time I had to speak it – up to this moment I had read and written English only. In this moment Maya really helped me too much!  - already she had an year of studying English, and she was not afraid to speak it – right or not, it was another question. Thanks to Susan and Stratton 2-3 days later I felt a little more self assured.  And will they like our tour? – this question was of the greatest  importance for me. Very soon I felt as if we were known always and things had gone much better. Never mind, all the tour I felt under strong tense – the tour HAD TO END HAPPY -  all they, Susan, Stratton, Maya had to feel comfortable, out of any danger and went back home feeling they spent a great time … I remember, when in the end we saw them to the airport, I went back home and slept 26 hours … At next my tours situation was different. Already I believed, that our tours are really exciting, bicyclists like all we do and many of my fairs disappeared. Now I can say, Susan and Stratton helped me very much, encouraging me to do it.

      For little more than 2 weeks we did a wonderful self-supported bike tour across Bulgaria in this so hot summer – often temperatures exceeded 42 C. The photo shows our Ist touring day – just coming in Veliko Turnovo town – the capital of the IInd Bulgarian Kingdom. For me and Maya it was our first such a tour and we spent an exciting time together with this obviously the most adventurous American couple. There were so many interesting things to share each other, I believe it was a great chance for us to meet these high educated and intelligent people. It was the time we still had not a digital camera, so it is the only photo I have to put here.

 

        Below is their article of this amassing tour

      Bulgaria in several points, as Susan and Stratton saw it:

 

      - Your country is not overwhelmed with tourists, and relatively scenic. In some areas it is unbelievably beautiful. 

     - Your people are friendly, and seemed to welcome us as visitors.

     - The costs of food and lodging are very low by western standards.

     - The flights are convenient and also relatively inexpensive for Americans

     - Your food is good, and of a nature that most Americans will be comfortable.

     - Lodging which is acceptable to Americans is readily available.

     - Your wines are truly excellent.

     - Traffic is generally considerate of cyclists.

    - There are some remote, untouched areas which are especially interesting.

     - Shopping is interesting, with good variety.

     - We NEVER felt in danger; crime doesn't seem to be a problem.

     - Your government seems stable, and unlike the other Balkan areas, there is no open hostility.

 

      This is the article we have written for our bicycle club newsletter. Please feel free to give our telephone number to any possible cycle tourists.

      Susan&Stratton

 

      Bulgaria by Bike

      Touring cycling is different from typical club cycling activities. It surpasses other methods as a way to see a country and meet its people. You can cycle tour with professional touring companies, including baggage cartage and hotels, or by designing a self-contained tour, which may involve camping, hotels, or any combination. NOTE: Self-contained tours are not for the faint-hearted, rigid or inflexible.

      For the past several years, we have vacationed by cycle touring - Spain and Portugal with BackRoads; West Virginia on rails to trails routes; England with six other TBF members; and our most adventurous to date, to Bulgaria in the former Eastern Block, on a self-supported basis.

      For years we had talked about cycling behind the former Iron Curtain, especially the Balkans. A chance e-mail arrived from Borislav Borisov (Bob), one of Bulgaria’s few active cyclists, soliciting cycle tourism to his country from among 300+ bike clubs. We quickly became aware that of all the Balkans, only Bulgaria was not at odds with itself or its neighbors, enjoying a stable democratic and capitalist government. In a dialog over several months, we discovered that Bob is a professor of Engineering at the University of Sofia, one of the more prestigious universities in Eastern Europe and that his 15 year old daughter, Maya was a cyclist as well and would join us on our journey. He wanted to meet and ride with people from other places, and begin a guide service. We took him up on his offer to be our guide, translator, banker, and fellow cyclists as his first "test subjects" for his summer tour-guide business. Maya enjoyed practicing her English and even though she is a teenager, she was not your typical US teenager and we very much enjoyed her company. We could not recommend a better guide than Bob, or do we recommend attempting to travel Bulgaria without a guide. The language difficulty is compounded by the Cyrillic alphabet, and practices and customs differ enough to make it imperative to have a guide/translator. For example, Western forms of toilets are not prevalent - instead, "squatters" with cast footprints so you know where to stand are the more common "public convenience", but bring your own toilet paper.

      We planned for two and one-half weeks of cycling, choosing to ride first through mountains and small villages, then jump to ride along the Black Sea. Although the offer of van support was made, we elected to self-support with the aid of the antiquated railroad system, carrying our personal items and clothing in panniers and a bike trailer. With remarkably changeable weather, and at a latitude equivalent to New England, we had to take clothing for both hot and cold weather, adding to the load. Camping appeared to be necessary, although cooking was not.

      Flights were easy, with British Airways direct from Tampa to Gatwick Airport in London, then a change to another BA direct flight to Sofia (say So’-fia), the capital of Bulgaria, where Bob lives. BA allows a boxed bicycle as one checked-in bag - no extra charge. Our bike trailer separates into two pieces about 15" by 36" by 4" each, easily packed in a duffel bag surrounded by clothing; its wheels squeeze into the bike boxes. Amazingly the price for round trip was approximately $1,000 apiece.

      Mother Nature does not always cooperate with a cyclist’s plans. We had anticipated normal temperatures of 85E F during the day and 55E F at night. While we were correct for the overnight low, mid-day highs were at 100 year records, reaching over 110E F. Prior to taking the train to the mountains, we reconsidered our route to lessen the mileage. Far from considering this unpleasant, it became part of this memorable adventure. Our load increased by the several liters of water that we had to carry. Once we left the valleys, mountain streams provided fresh cold water at frequent intervals, but in the heat you could never be sure you had enough.

      Our introduction to various versions of Bulgarian coffee was in the town Gorna Orjahovica (Gorna) upon arrival by train. Concentrate Cuban coffee and take away the bitterness, and you have Turkish coffee as served in Bulgaria. Open-air cafés are in every village; they serve coffee, sweet rolls, local salads, soups and sandwiches made mostly with pork (beef and chicken are also available). Except in the larger towns, early morning breakfast is difficult, and usually not available until 9 a.m. We began quickly to keep something edible for the first few hours of the morning when riding was at its best. One memorable morning we were able to arrange in advance for hot soups and warm bread at the beginning of our day. Fabulous!

      Although we thought we had modified our gearing enough to accommodate mountains, we found we needed even lower gears or better legs and aerobics. Over time, both legs and aerobics improved, but the gearing still needed to be changed. On our way into Tarnovo, the original capital of Bulgaria, we did considerable climbing and considerable downhills. One particularly long downhill proved that both sides of a mountain can be difficult. The speed limit was 40 kmh, about 25 mph, but Stratton unwillingly reached 40 mph. Our rims were so hot that when we stopped, we had to use precious water to prevent a blowout. We spent a week in the mountains, we once again used the train to travel to Varna, and from there cycled south along the Black Sea stopping at various towns along the way until we reached Burgas.

      We had planned on camping part of the time, due to uncertainties about accommodations, but modified this plan by staying in private homes, guesthouses, B & B’s disguised as "hotels", a generic term in Bulgaria), bungalows, and even once in a brand new three star "true" hotel. Our costs ranged from about $4 US per night to the exorbitant price of $30 US for the real hotel (including breakfast foods that would feed about 10 people). There are frequently two rates, Bulgarian vs. non-Bulgarian. Even at that, the rates are wonderfully low if you are on a budget.

      We have mental pictures of various high points: the Bulgarian Orthodox priests and monastery at Dryavnovo; fields of sunflowers and wheat; the dusty trains that run through the Central and Southern Balkan ridges; the officious, somewhat laughable, railway matrons, right out of black and white movies; the remote, lonely and stony 2 track along the Black Sea, crossing the Northern and Central Balkan ridges - six miles traveled in four and one-half hours; the clothing optional beaches where they will sell you a half a bathing suit (or none); the curiosity of the villagers and the friendliness of everyone we met; a basement restaurant in Tryavnovo; incredible local wines for $2 - $4 a bottle; gourmet meals for four, wine included, for $15; the physical attractiveness of Bulgarian men and women; the courteous treatment generally given to bicyclists; the unabashed thrill that Americans would want to visit their country. The bike shops were unimpressive, and comparatively primitive, with ATB only inventory, few accessories, and no repairs. Internet cafés were frequent and inexpensive, and useful to keep in touch, as the telephones were unreliable.

      The experience was incredible. The Bulgarians genuinely like Americans and things American. Despite being a poor country, it is not impoverished - food, shelter, clothing and medical care are available to everyone, and the educational system is fantastic (if you have the ability, the education is there for you). The people are proud, glad to be out of the Communist system, and patiently learning to be capitalists. We never felt in danger, or any of the resentment or envy we have occasionally experienced elsewhere.

      If you want to know more about our travels to Bulgaria or you have questions, please do not hesitate to e-mail us at susan@strattonlaw.com or call Susan at (813) 251-1624.

 

      Stratton and Susan Smith

 

     Yes, in the end we were good friends who will really meet one day again. It happened two years later – summer 2002 -   we did a big van-supported tour.


      Summer 2002, July, Susan and Stratton came in BG again bringing recumbents with them. These types of vehicles are not known in Bulgaria and everywhere we were, the people’s interest was great.

      Often, Stratton bicycled down the hill by more than 55 m/hour taking turns by sliding the wheels. The van driver and even Maya were not able to follow him. I was really a little afraid when I saw the worn tires of his recumbent after one such down hill bicycling.

         Me and Susan preferred to descend slowly enjoying of the scenery. Supporting by the van, we did a big tour across the country – more than 1400 miles.

      In this tour my best friend Boyan Arsov, living and working in USA since many years, joined with us.  He was the boy showed me the pleasure of bicycling many years ago – we still were students.

      From time to time to us were joining another our friends, and sometimes we behaved as a big noisy crowd.

      It seems, it was better we were supported by van this summer –  there was a rain almost each day in the beginning of journey.  In both tours – 2000 and 2002 we stood only in beds for nights.

      The most favorite place in BG for Susan and Stratton it seems was Bansko – a winter skiing resort located just below the highest part of Pirin mountain.

      A typical view of Bansko – narrow streets covered by stone plates, restaurants almost in each home offering one of the most tasty meat meals in the country – it is Bansko today.

 


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