Conquering the Balkan mountains…and then we met aliens!

12 October 2018

We left VT on a very grey and overcast day towards Gabrova, which is the entrance to the Shipka Pass that will take us right into the Balkan mountains.  One of the things we learned on our walking tour yesterday is that Bulgarians never refer to their country in terms of east or west.  The country is split north and south by these mountains, which are the biggest mountain range in the Balkans – and we are going to tackle them on our bikes!

Getting out of VT involved some monster climbs and we then followed a route which took us into a quasi- industrial and very inproverished rural area.  But not for long, as we were back on a main road that wasn’t too busy, but pretty hilly for the rest of the day.  Emil our host in VT had told us that trucks over 10 tonnes weren’t allowed on this road, but we soon discovered that wasn’t the case as there were quite a few – and it was only as we got to the outskirts of Gabrova that we saw that it was from there onwards through the mountains that the truck restriction was applicable.  But all in all it wasn’t bad, and despite the grey day it was fairly pleasant…if uneventful.  Some nice scenery en route and a snack stop alongside a statue of Communist workers as you can see from the photo…

Arrived at Gabrova around 2pm and had lunch in the centre before checking into our very basic accommodation.  Gabrova is an industrial town (which might explain the trucks!) and doesn’t really have a lot going for it, but we had a nice wander around before finding the local Chinese for a massive meal to prepare us for the giant hill climb ahead of us tomorrow.

Woke up with a bit of nerves about the climb ahead through the Shipka Pass, but once we were on our way the nerves went.  It wasn’t long before we were into the climb…3 full hours of this…

For the first hour I thought “is this it??” as the elevation was nothing like we had experienced in Norway and was quite manageable. But after another 2 hours of winding upwards it started to take its toll, so I was glad to make it to the Shipka Freedom Monument which was one of our planned stops for the day.  By then we had climbed 800m over 22km – so we were ready for a break.

While we were climbing, the temperature was perfect, but when we stopped it was freaking COLD with a sharp wind plus a bit of our own sweat cooling us.  We stopped to change shoes and have a coffee and snack to fuel up and set off for the monument, which was another climb of about 1,000 steps.

What we have learned about Bulgaria so far is that 1878 is their most important historical date as it’s when Bulgaria was liberated from Ottoman rule.  Bulgaria was part of the Russian Empire then (along with Romania, Serbia and Montenegro) and it was the Russo-Turkish war fought 1877-1878 that finally liberated Bulgaria from Ottoman Rule. The Shipka Freedom monument is an impressive monument that was built to commemorate the fallen Russian soldiers and Bulgarian volunteers who died during four different battles at Shipka Pass during this war ..and both flags are on display here.

It was another grey day, as well as cold, but there were still some fantastic views by the monument…

…but we were pretty chilly by the time we got back down to retrieve our bikes.  It’s the first time we have left our full-loaded bikes relatively unattended on our trip, albeit locked together, but being off-season, the place was pretty quiet and a young girl in the coffee shop said she would keep and eye on them, so we took a chance…and it’s paid off – they were still there! We decided to have lunch to warm up and keep fuelled, so warm drinks and food in our bellies we headed off to our second stop of the day about 10km of up and down along the mountains away ….-Buzludzha…which can only be described as a concrete alien ship.

It is the weirdest thing to see in the middle of nowhere, and because we were so high up, the mist and rain clouds made it look even more sinister…and there were times when it completely disappeared from view behind the clouds, which made it all the more mysterious…but in a good way! It is a monument to commemorate more fallen soldiers in a battle that took place there that apparently inspired in the Liberation of Bulgaria from the Ottomans (see above), as well as the fact that it was the site for the first congress of the Bulgarian Communist Party.  You can’t actually go inside the building because the structure is not safe and it’s manned by a security guard who must have an incredibly boring job on a day like today when we were the only visitors.  But it’s an amazing thing to see and look around….Nigel kept singing the theme tune to “close encounters of the third kind” as we walked around it….

Back down to rescue our bikes, which we had been locked and hidden in trees this time (twice in one day, we are getting brave!)…

…and then we had a VERY cold downhill descent of 17km to take us into the village of Shipka, where we were staying for the night. Not content with seeing two war memorial monuments for the day we decided to go for a walk in Shipka to visit another one. The Shipka Memorial Church – dedicated to fallen Russian and Bulgarian soldiers.  To be honest it was because it looked so impressive on our ride in as we had seen the golden domes from miles away that we decided it must be worth a look – and it was.  But only from the outside as it was closed.

Just as well because we were starting to get hungry, so it was back to base for dinner – and a glass of grape Rakia with our slightly odd but friendly landlord, before bed.

One thing to comment on in general in Bulgaria is that our all accommodation spots have been so quiet…no barking dogs or strange night time noises (with the exception of the motel on the first night!) to wake us up – even in the towns we have stayed.  Let’s hope I’m not jinxing it by writing this….!

Up and out early on Friday morning to make our way to Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second largest city after Sofia, which was 100km way.  The road passed alongside the mountains that we had come through yesterday and when we had time to look at them, they were really impressive…

…but the road got progressively busier so it wasn’t the nicest cycling.  The thing about mountains and hills is that there are limited passes and roads through, so it means the roads are busy…and going into a big city like Plovdiv on a Friday afternoon it was full of fast cars and big trucks. Such a contrast to the day before – and also with the weather as it was perfect cycling temperature of mid-20s.

We did have a nice coffee stop in the the little town of Karlofer, which had a nice cafe outside a museum dedicated to a poet who was born there.

Cycling into Plovdiv itself was a bit of a nightmare on two- and three-lane roads, but we made it to the centre around 3pm, having covered 100km since 9am…..some  pretty fast pedalling going on there!

And not far from Plovdiv we reached the 10,000km mark on our trip – a major milestone we think…and one that we have achieved with no punctures and only pumping our tyres 3 times since we left England!

We were pretty knackered when we reached our accommodation, so a snooze and a quick stock up at the supermarket for dinner as we were too tired to go explore the city. But we are here for 3 nights to rest and chill out, so we have plenty of time to look around.

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