March 13-16, 2015
Haegan: Even though we didn’t have a long day planned, we decided to try to get on the road early on the way out of Edirne, seeing as we had to cross an international border. The weather was nice and we rolled out of Edirne and headed towards the border. As we started getting close to the border the right lane was full of parked truck after parked truck. We got in the left lane and continued. Soon we had been riding past parked semi’s for over a kilometer when it dawned on us that they must all be lined up waiting to go across the border. The drivers were all just hanging out, it seemed to be a pretty normal thing for them. Some were sitting with their feet out the window drinking coffee, others sitting and talking on the guardrail. We even saw a vendor with a cart going around selling coffee and tea to the drivers. After about 3 kilometers and what must have been at least 300 or more trucks we were at the beginning of the border crossing.
There are a lot of little windows to go through. We snapped a picture on the way out, got two new stamps in our passports and were in Bulgaria!
We were pretty disappointed that there was no “Welcome to Bulgaria” sign anywhere, I feel that is something that should be at any border crossing. We continued on through the very nice Bulgarian countryside and through Svilengrad along the E8 towards Biser where we planned to camp for the night. A few kilometers outside Biser we ran into the tiniest, most runty kitten you can imagine on the side of the road. Autumn was really close to bringing it with us in her handlebar bag. It chased after us for a few hundred meters as we road off, mewing at us the whole way.
We arrived at the campsite in Biser only to find that it was closed for the winter. Apparently the website I looked at had the info wrong, so we headed into town to see where we might be able to set up camp. Biser is very small and very quiet. It’s a bit eerie because aside from an old man or two walking around we didn’t see anyone on our way into the center (if you can really even call it that) of town. We saw that there was a school and a church and thought we could ask if we might be able to camp at one of them. Everything looked empty but we could hear some faint music coming from up the road so we followed it and found a little store/bar with a few people in it, all chain smoking. An old man motioned to us to sit down so we did and he started talking to us in Bulgarian. We tried to explain that we didn’t speak any Bulgarian but we’ve realized that telling someone you don’t speak a language does not stop them from continuing to try to talk to you in that language as if you should understand. The only two things he said that I understood were “no problem” and “hasta la vista baby” which are not particularly useful for conversation. He had a lot to say to us and kept talking and talking even though it was clear that we had no idea what he was saying every now and then he would reach over the table and grab my hand. Eventually he started talking about Christ I think and grabbing his heart. He gave us some plastic coins that I have in my handlebar bag. Not really sure what the significance is though… Using our phones again we were able to communicate to the lady working there that we were riding across Bulgaria and needed somewhere to camp. We asked about the school or the church and they said to wait while the guy working there (Valco as we found out his name was) made a few phone calls. Possibly the funniest part of this whole ordeal was when this little old lady with a cane came in and after our friend “hasta la vista” guy said something to her she hit him on the back with her cane. She looked and walked like she must have been at least 100 and looked like the classic stereotypical old eastern european lady. Eventually they asked if we spoke Spanish which Autumn does fairly well and not too long after the Priest’s son showed up and he and Autumn talked some in Spanish. It was a bit bizarre to be in the smallest town you can imagine middle-of-nowhere Bulgaria and speaking Spanish. The kid said that his dad would come open up the church soon. Not long after they realized we couldn’t stay in the church but Valco assured us “no problem” we could set up the tent at the school. He walked us down there and unlocked the gate and we got the tent and everything set up and started to cook ourselves some bulgur.
While we were cooking, kids were zooming back and forth on mopeds and doing doughnuts in the dirt street. As we were sitting down to eat another man showed up and started talking at us in Bulgarian. The only thing we understood at first was something something police. At first this had us a little worried as he was motioning that we should pack up our things. Where were we going to sleep. We got him to type what he meant into the translator on my phone and eventually figured out that it wasn’t so bad after all. Valco showed up and after a while it became clear that they were concerned that it was going to rain so they had found us a place to sleep in a house. Great! we packed up our gear and followed Valco as he drove across the town to an old somewhat abandoned looking farmhouse. There were horses and some other animals outside but in the house it didn’t really look like anyone lived there. It was mostly empty with a thick layer of dust on most surfaces but it did seem like a farmhand might stay over every now and again. They told us “no problem” we could sleep here and put our bikes inside. We thanked Valco and his friend profusely and then they left. We finished our food and were just starting to think about going to sleep and that it was going to be cold when we heard someone coming up the stairs. Valco was back with another guy and a bunch of firewood. They proceeded to build us a fire in the woodstove, “no problem, no problem” and they were gone again. We set up and slept on the floor by the stove very comfortably until about 4 am when we were woken up by footsteps and saw someone walking out of the room. We both freaked out just a little bit. Someone walking around the room at 4 am? that seemed a little weird, but we decided not to worry about it and figured it was probably just a farmhand using the bathroom. We arent really sure who it was or why they were there but that stands as our best guess, someone doing early morning work on the farm had to pee. We got up at 8 or so and headed back to the bar/convenience store/cafe/only business in the whole town to get coffee, which the guy there insisted on giving us no charge. We waited around a bit hoping Valco would show up so we could thank him again but didn’t see him. Eventually we told the other guy working there that we wanted to thank Valco and he called him to come down. He told us “no problem” once again. We got him to write down his address for us so that we can send him something when we get home. It’s all in cyrillic so we have no idea what it says but hopefully we will be able to send something as a thank you. We said ciao which Valco also knew and rolled off in the dreary rain towards Haskovo.
The riding that day was pretty miserable. 50 km in the cold rain is never fun.
By the time we arrived in Haskovo we couldn’t feel our hands and our legs and feet were soaked. (our rain jackets did quite a good job however) We arrived where we thought the hotel was and the building was empty. Not what you want to see when you’re halfway frozen. We decided to find somewhere to warm up and regroup before figuring out the hotel situation. We found a little diner and went in. Autumn got some rice with chicken (which apparently is a traditional Bulgarian dish) and we both ordered coffee. We soon discovered that the norm for coffee in Bulgaria is a double shot of espresso, not exactly the nescafe we had become used to in Turkey. As the feeling was coming back into our hands the waitress saw Autumn sitting there shivering and brought her over a jacket to warm up. I ordered some lunch and the waitress gave us some tea because we looked cold. After just sitting and warming up for a while we figured out that we were looking in the wrong spot for the hotel and decided to go find it. We tried to return the jacket to the waitress but she insisted Autumn take it to the hotel with her. We got into the hotel which was ok, but not as nice as the last few places we had payed to stay at. But hey, it was dry. The next day the bad weather had passed quicker than expected and we had a nice dry ride into Plovdiv. We stayed in the Gramophone Hostel in Plovdiv for the two nights we were there which was really nice and surprisingly empty.
Autumn: The ride to Plovdiv was awesome. It was the first day of riding that was pleasantly uneventful. We rode into Plovdiv and were immediately struck by a house on a hill that was very close to the tunnel we rode through. The rocks on the hill were tied up, they looked as though the cables were the only thing keeping them on top of the hill.
Someone on couchsurfing told us about Gramophone Hostel so we decided to check it out. Gramophone is known mostly as musical venue, it used to house performers when they came to Plovdiv to perform. A little while back they added more rooms and turned it into a hostel with a joined bar and outdoor stage. It was pretty neat and the guy working there was very friendly. We were the only ones staying at the hostel, I guess Plovdiv is not a popular spring break destination. We got a bit cleaned up and then started to wander around Plovdiv. The hostel is in this pedestrian area with lots of shops, a few fast food restaurants, and quite a few cafe/bars. A few casinos too, those seem to be very popular in Bulgaria. Right in the middle of the pedestrian/shopping area is the Roman Stadium. It was built during the 2nd century AD, and a lot of it is still intact.
After wandering around the stadium and the area they’ve built around it (which is very cool: you’re walking along and see a giant hole in the path, in that hole is the stadium), we decided to go find some food. Earlier I had seen a kid with a giant pancake with stuff inside so I wanted to find that. Haegan got a chicken kebap which has thinly sliced chicken, tomato, onion, lettuce, pickles, yogurt, and fries. All in a wrap. He loved it. He loved it so much that I’m still hearing about how the design of the wrap and its contents are perfect. I had one too the next day and I have to say it was definitely very good.
I found the pancake place and was completely overwhelmed by the menu. It’s one thing to walk into a fast food place and not know the language on the menu… it’s another when you walk in and you don’t the alphabet on the menu, especially when there are over 200 options. I was completely overwhelmed and the staff could see my look of confusion so they pointed to me a small menu on English next to the register. I’m indecisive, so even that menu was overwhelming. I got a pancake with salami, mushrooms, and pickles and decided I needed to come back the next morning for breakfast. It was dark by then and we continued to wander around. Haegan found these rocks behind the shopping area and discovered there were paths leading up them. I don’t know why, but I’ve always been terrified of walking or climbing up, or even just on, rocks. My fear doesn’t really make sense, I know my chances of falling and actually hurting myself are slim, but it still scares me. I wouldn’t call it a phobia… but I’ll admit it’s probably close. Despite this, I followed him up a semi-maintained path of stairs and rocks to the top where we had a fantastic view of the whole city. I didn’t love the climb up but I loved the view, it was so neat to see the whole city lit up.
We were hungry after climbing so we went to find more fast food. Bulgaria has little stores that display pizza in the window. You just point to the slice you want, they grab it for you and you’re on your way. Window pizza, best thing ever, besides chicken kepab of course. Bulgaria is getting a lot of points for fast food.
The next morning we went to a little cafe at the mosque close to our hotel. I decided to order a latte because I now know that if I just order coffee, I’ll get straight espresso. I love coffee, and espresso, but I’m not that serious. It came in a neat glass with a straw, the glass I liked, the straw seemed like a bad idea. After coffee and tea we went to get pancakes, which were much better as breakfast food (go figure). We went to find the Roman Theater first, but stopped at two churches along the way. Bulgaria is Eastern Orthodox so their churches are set up differently from the ones we’re accustomed to seeing. People sit in pews on the sides of the church, facing the center. The back wall has beautiful portraits of Mary, Jesus, and many saints. The walls and ceiling have pictures depicting stories from the Bible. The churches are stunning and unfortunately you can’t take pictures inside. I’m excited to see more of these in Sofia. After the two churches we got to the stadium, got our tickets, and then were let into the theater. I was astounded at the lack of security. The theater is about 1800 years old and the entrance to get in is blocked only by a small rope and a sign that says you need to have a ticket to enter. After that you’re let free to roam around the ancient theater, there are no metal detectors or guards or anything. We were the only ones at the theater, no other tourists. We played around with the acoustics of the theaters and walked around on the stage and in the seats. It was crazy to think we were sitting where people sat hundreds and hundreds of years ago.
The theater and the churches we were at earlier are part of Old Town. Throughout old town there are plaques on most of the houses that tell about a politician or merchant who built the house and lived there. Each house is historic and has something unique about it, and in most them there is a museum about Plovdiv’s history. It’s a neat idea and liked reading all the plaques about each house. A lot of places were either closed on Mondays or just not open at all. We realized later that Plovdiv is in the process of making the city more tourist friendly because in 2019 they will be the European Capital of Culture. I’m guessing most of the work they’re doing is new so not everything was up and running. It was still neat to walk about the Old City. We went to another church, Church of St. Constantine and Helena. This one was my favorite of the three we saw that day, the colors were so rich and all the paintings were breathtaking. We continued to wander around and found some ruins on the edge of one of the hills. Plovdiv has six hills called tepes. It used to have seven but they destroyed the smallest one a while ago. Haegan and I were climbing on of the tepes the night before but hadn’t realized what it was. The Old City is built on one of the tepes and the ruins were at the edge of the tepe, there used to be a watch tower there. We wandered around the ruins and then just sat enjoying the view of the entire city, this time from the other side of town.
We headed back into the main part of the city and stopped at another one of the house museums. This one had displays of modern Bulgarian art. The guy running the museum let us in for free because the museum hadn’t been finished. Old Bulgarian houses in the Old Town are typically very symmetrical, the rooms and staircases all mirror each other. The ceilings and banisters had beautiful woodwork.
After walking around the house a bit we talked to the man running the museum a bit more. He is so passionate about the house and some of the art in it. We walked around a bit more and found another church on another tepe, which we wandered around and enjoyed some apples.
The rest of afternoon was fairly uneventful, we got in a little spat, made up, saw some Peruvians performing pop songs in stereotypical “native american” style (this was probably one of the most bizarre things we’d seen), and then found pizza and had fancy dessert.
After walking around and talking a bit longer (and witnessing a freaky cat interaction), we went to the bar right below our hostel. The night before we tried Rakia as a welcome from the hostel. We didn’t want to do that again because Rakia is disgusting. So I got a Bulgarian beer, Haegan got a cider and we played foosball for a while.