A tour of two halves not three, Le tour de Greece & Bulgaria with the middle Macedonia bit sacrificed due to Farmer’s gastro irritations.
We (Bone & Farmer) didn’t want to leave the minimal warmth and sun of Corfu, but we had a schedule. A route across northern Greece to the border of Macedonia, avoiding the reportedly congested Syrian migration route. Then through Macedonia and on up to Sofia in Bulgaria to join the Smiths tour ten days later.
The crossing from Corfu to the mainland was sunny, but thick dark cloud was hugging the mountains right where we were heading. Waterproofs on, leg warmers on. We made it to Ioaninna with myself lacking energy on the climbs. A day off in Ioaninna didn’t change much. The next day to Konista was no different. Empty wide Tarmac roads all to ourselves and an abandonment for digs after just 60k.
The next 100k to Grevena was the same. I wanted to abandon the trip but Ron was always hopeful. A 100k bus ride to Veria got us back on schedule. Then a train to Thessaloniki the next day was a no go due to a seemingly antiquated system, so we rode the flat 90k route to the coast via as many farm tracks as we could find.
Then it was time to split, I’d had enough and just wanted to get back, so I sat on a beach for two days and flew home. Ron caught a bus to Sofia to join the official Smith tour.
Over to you Bone….
On Thursday morning it was time for me to leave Farmer to the comfort of the Hotel where we had spent 3 days. I rode to the Bus Station at 7.00 am with much anxiety, hoping to be able to get to Sofia to meet the Smiths. Opposite the Train Station I noticed somerefugees camping out, anxiety grew. I managed to get the bus fully expecting it to be full with refugees, but when it departed I was surprised to find that there were only about 12 people on it. The Border Crossing went well. A brief stop at what I thought were Services on the Bulgarian Border, I soon realised that it was really a large Duty Free shop. Bulgaria and Greece are both in the EU but the fact that Bulgaria is so cheap and still much like the old Soviet communist states the Greeks travel across to shop.
Thursday – I arrived at Sofia at lunchtime on a mission to find the airport and Hotel, not easy. I found the airport where the others would arrive the next day and tried to book into the hotel where we would be staying on our last night, but it was full. So I headed back to the Centre of Sofia and found a very nice Hotel where I negotiated a €50 to €45 reduction, but I was then charged my €5 saving to have my bike put in a safe place. A walk around to see the sights and a large Pizza and a few beers set me back €6. Things were looking good …
Friday – A sunny start. Tried to find the airport again, where the others were arriving at about 11.30 a.m, but now it was wet and cold. Their plane landed and It was really nice to see them all (Ray, Derek, Grant, Andy, Grumpy & Flup). Bikes assembled by the coffee shop in the airport. By the time we were ready to leave it had stopped raining and the sun was shinning. Things were getting better as up to now the weather had not been kind to me. We set off to a place north of Sofia called Svoge. Places to stay looked difficult, and we managed to find a hotel by the river that seemed to be closed. I pushed the door and to my surprise it was open, It looked like it was all set for a Wedding Party. Yes they just had 7 beds … all good … but no food. A quick scout around and there was somewhere close by to eat … sorted. Room, evening meal, beers, wine, and breakfast, all very cheap.
Saturday – off to Jablanica, a large town east of Svoge. A few tracks, lots of pushing, and visible poverty all around. One river crossing our shoes had to come off. It was getting late and was too far for some to go on to the next town to find digs. We were dragged down a road by an old boy holding his cup of coffee to a small house where someone spoke a bit of English. Ray was sent off down the road in a car to see a place were we could stay, only four beds and nowhere nearby to eat, lots of talking about what to do. Eventually another woman turned up who showed us into a house opposite to where we were, enough beds for us all. Two women were rapidly clearing the straw from the steps and rooms. Where to eat? We were told that the bar was very close by and that they would do food so we decided to stay. Some showered and some didn’t as the water would take a good while to heat up. Off to the bar and a very drunken evening for some of us which seemed to ease the thought of going back to the straw house. We left the bar at about 2.00 a.m. after watching some of the Eurovision Song Contest with the locals and Ray managed to pick up a new name (Uncle Bulgaria). Again a very inexpensive night.
Sunday – a few hangovers but back to the bar for a bit of breakfast before setting off for Trojan. The weather was damp and cold but we found a very nice Hotel with excellent food and they even did our washing.
Monday – Another day of mixed weather and of course lots of climbing. Arrival at Kalofer presented the largest statue we had ever seen. A beer stop was called and to look for digs. A woman at the bar got on the blower and Ray was sent away to check out accommodation. A very nice Family Hotel was offered, and she even did our washing for us. A good meal at a local restaurant and again excellent value at less than 25 Euros all in.
Tuesday – destination south to Plovdiv. Arrived and managed to find the Old Town. Had a beer stop and the hotel next door looked good. A walk around the Old Town including some Roman ruins. Food not as good as usual but then again it was a touristy area.
Wednesday – Smoljan, as far south as we can go before the Greek border. We found a nice small hotel and it was back to good food and good value. A late night and a bit too much to drink, but an easy day the next day to look forward to, however accomodation was a worry as there was only one hotel shown on the map. All worked out well in the end.
Thursday – Trigrad, a leisurely start with coffee and a few provisions for the day. A long climb up the mountain pass, where we came across a large building at a Junction, the sign said Border Police but we think it was now used as a Prison. Then a long descent into a village where we hoped to find maybe a food stop. As we approached the village, it was as you would have imagined a Russian village during World War I. A huge derelict farm building, with some signs of recent signs of use. When we arrived in the Centre we spotted a small Hostel, yes it was closed. We were approached by an old lady who offered us chai (tea), she took us to a small dwelling overhanging a river. We were all made very welcome while the chai was served. The lady made a phone call to her daughter who spoke English and the phone was handed to Flup. She asked if we needed food or beds for the night. We declined as it was only a short ride to our destination down the hill. No one spoke English and when we tried to tell them where we were heading there seemed to be some confusion. The road was rough but good, but got worse. Then it became overgrown with trees down and rock slides. We crossed a bridge that would have been unable to support traffic. Thinking the road would now improve we continued, but then the road disappeared into the river. What were we going to do, carry on or turn around? We all had survival bags and I had a lighter. We made the decision to carry on.. it must improve soon.. It didn’t. Six or seven river crossings of the cold water, over two feet deep in places. Under and over fallen trees we went, thick with vegetation and landslides, some great riding at times and some walking. The road was the correct one, it was marked on the map but couldn’t have been used for years. We did find evidence of it marked as a MTB track we found and a couple of abandoned huts with a few coats and shoes left behind, and calendars, the last one dated 2011. We eventually came to tarmac at about 7 o’clock in the evening. Then a long stunning climb up a gorge, and arrival at a very nice Spa Hotel as the daylight disapeared. A great, exhilarating day!
Friday – a warm start, a look around the Devil’s Throat and a descent the way we had climbed the previous evening. Then a long climb followed by a very wet and cold 25K descent into Velingrad, a Spa Town.
Saturday – a very damp start and another long climb, followed by an even wetter long 25K descent which saw me adjusting brakes while descending. The bike was shaking due to me shaking with the cold. Everyone problems with brakes wearing at a rapid rate. Into Belovo where we would catch a train to Sofia. Most of us stripped off in the station to try to put on some warm clothes. We caused chaos on the train with 7 of us and 7 bikes in First Class. The irritated ticket lady ushered us into Second Class and into the doorways with our bikes. Then a ride through Sofia and back to the IBIS Hotel.
Sunday – saw us all make our way home. A special thank you, to Ray, Dell and Grant for all their hard work in organizing a great trip.