It was so hard to leave Jabukovac; mainly because we’d gained some good friends and been treated with so much kindness, but also partly because there was a really steep hill that we had to cycle up to get out of the village. I don’t know if it was because our legs were in shock following three days of rest, or perhaps it was due to both of us having gained a few kgs after sampling such a feast of Serbian treats while we were there, but by the time we got to the top (not that far!) we were huffing and puffing and had to stop for a break. We knew then it was going to be a tough day. It didn’t help that we’d been putting off leaving and by the time we were on the road it was close to midday and the sun was blazing down on us. We made pretty slow and tortuous progress south on undulating roads and were relieved to make it to our destination, Zaječar. Even though it was a short day by our standards (around 70km), it had felt like one of the toughest. This was a timely reminder that although we are much fitter than when we started, we can’t underestimate how much our mental willpower as well as external factors affects our ability to travel in this way.
The next day, we were continuing south and then taking a shortcut on a smaller road towards the Bulgarian border. We had been told by a number of people that this road was very steep so we felt a certain amount of trepidation setting off early in the morning to tackle a 100km plus day through the mountains, especially as the previous day had been so tough. We need not have worried; it was hilly but our spirits were high and we powered up the inclines and sailed down the other side. Nothing was too much for us. We pedalled through sleepy, tumbledown villages, old men snoozing in the shade, animals stretched out in the middle of the road untroubled except by the occasional ancient tractor trundling slowly by. The road wound its way through a gorge, a river surging noisily below us, its tumultuous passage amplified by the rock walls towering above us. Yellow butterflies spiralled and danced above our heads. It was idyllic.
It was a nasty shock to hit the main road from Niš to the Bulgarian border close to the end of the day. An endless stream of dirty, noisy trucks was thundering along the single carriageway. We quickly developed the tactic of waiting for a quiet moment, racing as fast as we could go and then pulling off the road to let the traffic past. This was all a bit stressful after such a nice day and we were very happy when a huge, part built 6 lane motorway appeared next to us. It was untarmacked but that didn’t matter to us; most importantly it was entirely traffic free and we eagerly hopped onto it and continued our journey in a less fraught manner. It also provided the perfect cover for a wild camp down the bank on the other side, away from the busy road. It was a beautifully clear night with fantastic stars that brought a sunny but freezing morning the following day. For the first time on this trip, we felt properly cold. Steven even put his down jacket on for a bit. I, being made of tougher stuff, managed without ☺.
It was just a short hop from here to Sofia. The roads were much busier in Bulgaria, and more than once, I was very glad for my shepherd (aka Steven), who cycles just behind and slightly wide of me, protecting me from anything following and overtaking us and leaving me to concentrate on what is in front (that hasn’t stopped me from falling into some huge potholes every now and then though!).
Neither of us had any expectations about Sofia and we were very pleasantly surprised. It is in a bowl surrounded by mountains, in particular Vitosha mountain, one of the symbols of the city, which towers above it at 2,290m. As there aren’t many tourists, prices are low and we found we could actually have a few beers, freshly squeezed juice and yummy salads at the street side cafes without blowing our budget – a rarity in the rest of the EU! We really enjoyed our stay here, in fact, probably our favourite city of the trip up to this point.
There was nothing nice about our ride out of Sofia however. Four lanes of speeding traffic was what we had to deal with until the road turned into a motorway. Then at least we were gifted with a wide hard shoulder. I wasn’t totally sure we were allowed to be cycling there until we passed a policeman and he just gave us a friendly smile and a wave. It was certainly a good way of racking up some kilometres but after a few hours we were tired of the incessant noise and pulled off onto a side road. This proved to be a good plan as the road we had picked ended up being downhill all the way. In fact, we barely had to peddle again for the rest of the day! Along the way we met a Serbian couple who had been cycling home from Kuala Lumpur for the past 8 months – with their very small child in tow. They had a trailer each and were laden down with all manner of goods. We felt very sleek and lightweight when we left them after a quick roadside chat. Later on we passed through a town where we thought we could buy some food for dinner but bizarrely every shop in the whole place only sold toilet roll and kitchen roll. I’m not talking just one or two shops here; there were at least twenty and they all had their wares stacked up outside on the pavement. It was one of the strangest places we’ve ever been. I don’t know what the inhabitants did for food but we quickly abandoned all hope of finding any after cruising the main street.
That night we camped in a petrol station after cycling until it was almost dark and finding no suitable hiding spots. The attendant just said, “I don’t care, as long as you don’t mind being on top of the underground gasoline tanks…oh and watch out for the bees”. There are even beehives at petrol stations in this part of the world. We thought it best to keep the highly flammable stove safely packed away and instead dined on ham and cheese sandwiches from the comfort of our sleeping bags.
The next morning, having avoided gasoline explosions and swarming bees, we had a very chilled out 30km pre-breakfast cycle to the city of Plovdiv; our home for the next few nights. Again, Plovdiv is one of those places that we knew nothing about before our visit but we found it awash with Roman ruins (including a 240m long stadium which seated 30,000 and an amphitheatre with views towards the distant hills), beautiful Ottoman architecture and ornate Orthodox churches. We stayed in the Old Plovdiv Hostel, which has to be one of the best, most beautiful and friendliest hostels we’ve ever stayed in. It was also a great place to meet some other travellers and we had a couple of good evenings filled with meat skewered on swords and cheap beer with Robert; a fellow East Anglian who has been living in Istanbul for over two years. He kindly gave us lots of tips for Istanbul and we’re looking forward to meeting up with him again while we’re there. We also met Ivan; a Kiwi who has previously cycled around the south island of New Zealand in winter, while dressed as a lemur. The world is full of people having incredible adventures of their own and it is so inspiring to hear their stories, learning a little (or a lot) from each.