This morning was tough. It was hot, I was tired and after cycling around the city to find a travel agent for Sarah, we still hadn’t left the city by 10:00. To make matters worse, the route Sarah had marked too us back into Bulgaria and what appeared to be 100km of dirt tracks and steep hills. I really wasn’t in the mood for it, but recognizing that much of that was due to tiredness I didn’t put up much of a fight. Also, Sarah’s maps and navigation skills had taken us all the way from Belgrade, so I wasn’t going to be difficult now and with just a few days until their trip finished in Constanța, having their company was much nicer than choosing my own route.
We crossed the large bridge over the Danube squashed in a long line of traffic on the east side of the town and the first half of the day was exactly as I feared – hilly, high-traffic and with nothing to see.
Stopping just before lunch to buy a fresh Melon from a roadside seller, we arrived in Tutrakan and settled on Chicken Kebab (and melon) as a rare alternative to Shopska salad and pizza. For this we were punished with three consecutive steep hills out of town at which point the EuroVelo route swings right onto a smaller path towards the river – shown as broken/dirt tracks on the map.
At this point, I was still convinced that the route through Romania would have been better, but almost every kilometer of track from this point on proved me wrong. Against all expectations we had a picturesque, fun and adventurous afternoon riding up, down and over muddy forest trails and right alongside the Danube. Tempted to get even closer, we followed on path along the waterfront for about 500 meters only to find that it ended in a bush. However, as we stopped to turn around a man who must have been about 45 came over from where he had been camping under a tree and asked if we spoke French. Sarah and Adriana’s faces lit up and a few minutes of animated conversion followed in which he explained that he had lived and worked in Paris for 8 years, and how he comes here every summer from Sofia to collect truffles with his dog. Earning 100 EUR per kilogram, his trips to the Danube were a nice little earner as his trusty dog, a noisy little white thing, could find 2-3kg per day.
The girls decided that they wanted to swim, so as they headed for the Danube, I joined our truffle-finding friend under the tree on the riverbank. Naturally, he offered me a Rakije (schnapps) and I politely refused knowing all to well that ‘just a small one’ never meant either ‘small’ or ‘one’. He called over his friend and his friends son who were camping with him and we chatted in broken Russian and English until the girls returned. The young boy was about 10 and was clearly enjoying the trip with his dad who he admired as a great fisherman. I asked if he was also a great teacher, to which he replied in perfect English: “yes, of course. Very good”.
After leaving and rejoining the main path we spent the next two hours winding our way through small dirt tracks and almost hidden paths which nature was doing her best to reclaim. It wasn’t easy, it was about 36 degrees Celsius and it was seriously bumpy but it was fun and really nice to be ‘off-roading’ for a while, even if thin tyres and a leather seat make it seriously uncomfortable.
We were now running seriously late, but we didn’t care. Life in the Bulgarian countryside was slow and relaxed and we were in one of the most scenic surroundings of the whole trip.
Desperately hot and thirsty, we stopped at a now-familiar village bar in a tiny little place called Malak Preslavets. To understand how remote this place is, take a look here.
We had just ordered three icecreams and two beers from the bar/shop (they share the same building) when an 80 year-old woman came over from the table where she was enjoying a beer in the evening sun and insisted on buying us each an ice cream. She wouldn’t take no for an answer and it sparked a long and amusing conversation between us and the locals. Some teenagers came in, bought some beer from the shop and then sat in the bar drinking it, the shopkeeper came out to practice his English and quiz us about life and our journey (his daughter is now in London) and three generations of villagers sat and laughed with/at us until we insisted on leaving to find our hotel.
However, not before Ariana introduced the old woman (Babushka in Bulgarian) to her iPhone 6. She loved it as much as any gadget-conscious teenager and watching what was probably her first ever selfie was priceless:
As the sun set and after each person in the bar had repeated the directions to Popina for us, we jumped back on the bikes and headed uphill, through the fields in the direction of our hotel.
By the time we arrived in Popina it was dark and our hotel was nowhere to be seen. It wasn’t looking good so we stopped an exceptionally drunk guy on a bike and asked him where the hotel is. He said something (or made some random noise) then composed himself, paused and said: “Hoteeel, taaam” (the hotel is there) and then shouted ‘I love you, I love you” in English and stumbled off.
The hotel was an oasis. It was large, had a swimming pool and restaurant an amazingly helpful girl running the place and everything we could have every wished for.
I was convinced that today would suck. It didn’t it was great fun. Well done and thank you Bulgaria.