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20 May 1998

Touring Around Bulgaria Part III

30 April:
Cherven Bryag – Montana: 91.0 Km, 976 Meters, 6:41 Hours
Stopped at a tire shop that we had passed yesterday and asked when he would open; he said that he would open at 7:00 which was perfect – not open at 7:30! Hand pumped the rear tire which seems to have a slow leak and got away early because Karen was going to work. The climb into the first village, at 8 Km, had a section that exceeded 8% and by the time I reached the half way point for the day I was already over the days projected climbing per the trip sheet. Every village during the day was a drop down into it and a steep climb back out; the trip sheet missed a lot of these. Hard stiff climbs for the first 30 Km then long gradual climbs with sharp down hills for another 30; last 30 was 50-60 meter up and downs. It rained in the late afternoon yesterday and heavy rain during the night. There was a lot of water and mud on the road; therefore, I was a mess when I arrived in Montana. Also started to rain again about 30 Km out and pored some 5 Km later. Very wet but not too cold plus I got to wash up all my stuff at Kerry’s [Teacher Volunteer] when I got in. Note: There are no directional signs in many of the villages; must stop and ask someone or risk taking the wrong turn. Also, many of the signs that do exist have the old town names [some towns have changed their names since the fall of Communism; many street names have also changed]. The distances shown on many of the signs means nothing; it is not uncommon to see a sign indicating “x” Km to town “Y” and 5 Km later see the same distance to the same town shown. Photo#28 (no Photo #29)is of the Balkans from the first big climb out of Cherven Bryag. Was the first clear day available for distance shots!

1 May:
Montana – Vidin: 89.5 Km, 564 Meters, 6:08 Hours
Photo #30 is of the steam or fog rising from a sunflower field in the early morning as the sun heats up the land. Very clear this morning but as the morning vapors increased it formed cloud banks in all directions. Photos #31 & #32 of the Danube from near Archar. The road stays near the river for about 15 Km but trees hide the view much of the time (fall would be a better time to visit along the river). Although I was following “gold roads” there was fairly heavy TIR [European long haul truckers] traffic and a lot of Sofia cars. [The next day out of Vidin I discovered why this was so. I had selected the alternate, that has become the primary, route from Montana to Vidin for all traffic.] I found the Center easily and called Erik [Business Volunteer]. He walked down to meet me and lead me back to his apartment; this seems the easiest way of all to find someone’s place. I am not recovering as much as I would like with just the one rest day. Considering that I drop Pomporovo and go into Smolyan. Also need bike repair in Sofia if I am going to continue.

Another picture of the Blakans in the far distance after climbing back up onto the plains. The ground is starting to dry out after the many days of rain. Two pictures of the Danube River downstream from Viden.

2 May:
Vidin – Belogradchik: 57.8 Km, 740 Meters, 4:42 Hours
It rained again during the night and looked like it was clearing at 6:00; could still see some blue sky when I left Erik’s. But, started raining while I was having coffee and I got rained on for about an hour. When it quit raining I got a few moments of sun but the day continued to be very gray and hazy and couldn’t see the mountains that I was riding into. There were no signs from road E-79 that pointed to Belogradchik and the highway map that I was using was little help so I missed a turn. I did a little extra distance down into the village of Bela and a very stiff climb back out to join the correct road but didn’t have to backtrack to the missed turn. I rested at 300 meters elevation and at 500 meters where I pumped the back tire again; I had pumped it up at Erick’s in the morning. I also pumped it again when I stopped to take photo #33 at first sight of Belogradchik. Pumped it two more times before getting into town where I stopped and asked the first person I saw where an autoservice was. He in turn stopped the first car to come past and it was the local tire repair and balancing guy [ Enio Yordanov Milenkov]. We found the hole in the tube had been caused by a broken spoke head and then discovered four more broken spokes. It is amazing that the wheel didn’t collapse! The roads of Bulgaria have taken their toll. Enio has a friend with spokes and a friend with a private hotel. I’m in the hotel and waiting for the guy with the spokes to return from a picnic(?) at 5:00. When I went to the shop at 5:00 they had discovered that they had no spokes of the proper length and Enio said he would go to Vidin tomorrow and buy some. He then drove me to the two restaurants that were open, I selected the second one, and he returned later with his wife [Elza] to pick me up. I had told him that my friends were expecting me the next day so he took me to his apartment to use the telephone. From there I called Molly [Peace Corps medical officer] in Sofia and told her that I would be a day late and to relay that message to other Peace Corps staff. Elza is a real knockout and they have a very nice son, maybe 8 years old. Both Elza and Enio are attractive, caring people; living in a wonderful part of Bulgaria. He owns the tire shop and has considerable skill as a furniture builder if his table and beds are any example. What is their future? Maybe tomorrow I will get some pictures of this area with no rain. There are blessings with every problem.

3 May:
Wheel Building Day:
I woke up twice during the night to heavy rain. It was raining again around 6:00 this morning and is another gray, cloudy day – but I’m not riding. It was drizzling rain when I went out for breakfast at 8:00 and again at 11:00 to find some water. I have been watching the low clouds/fog drifting past the buildings about a block across from me and sometimes they are completely hidden. There will be no pictures if this continues! I saw a few of the nearby rock formations that this area is famous for earlier when I was out looking for breakfast and water and they appear to be a very dark red sandstone. But, that is not exactly correct either; more like a red clay that has solidified with rounded river rocks mixed in. The weather has then sculpted them into some very strange forms. Enio has driven the wheel to Vidin for a bike mechanic to rebuild. This is a very good example of who you know and how everything that gets done in Bulgaria is because of connections. While I was at his apartment he received 2-3 telephone calls and wrote down numbers. He then made a couple of calls and wrote down a number; I could understand enough of the conversation to know that he was talking about my wheel. So it turned out that he knew someone, that knew someone, who knew the wheel builder in Vidid and therefore I could get my wheel rebuilt on Sunday. The bike was back with a rebuilt wheel, plus six spare spokes, and two punctures fixed by 2:00. Enio had driven round trip to Vidin, paid for the rebuild, cleaned the bike up, oiled the chain and brought it to me. He was then almost apologetic when he said that he had to charge me 25,000 Leva; that is about $15 at the current exchange rate. A huge, huge thank you is in order; Bulgarians can be so good, so nice – why not to each other? Photos #34, #35, #36, #37 are all of the rock formations to the east of town. I will be riding down through the canyon that they tower over tomorrow, I hope! Photo #1, second roll, is of the fort walls from the center of town; taken in low light, cloudy, and far away even for telephoto – it is a Maybe shot. [The fort was built by the Turks and utilizes the natural rock formations that were above the town as part of the walls. I was not able to walk up to it because of weather, shoes, and general laziness but on a nice day I think it would be a worthwhile stop. There is a Tourist Hotel in town that was open to accommodate visitors but there is no other evidence that this is a tourist town as we would know it.]

This was my first view of the town and the famous rocks. Then three pictures of the rock formations that surround the town. The unique shapes have all been named but I have given my own names to the two in the second picture – Popeye & The Raven. The picture on the far right is of a garden area next to the state owned hotel (it was open while I was there but I saw no one around). The second row center is a shot over the rooftops in town of the fort walls in the distance.

4 May:
Belogragchik – Berkovista: 83.5 Km, 728 Meters, 5:58 hours
I left Belogradchik in a very heavy fog and saw almost nothing of the rock formations in the canyon. The first big climb was two gradual 80 meter climbs that were truly gradual over the 10 Km versus the trip sheets normal 80 meters in the 10 Km and then flat for 4. However, the 200 meter climb that started at Dolni Lom started off with 70 meters at 12 % the got the other 130 meters in the remaining 5.5 Km. Good time and good down hills until Gavril Genovo; at the top of the pass it was face on into a very strong head wind for the rest of the day. Because of fog and clouds; no pictures for the day. Forested foothills of the Balkans again. Photos #2 & #3 were from Mark’s [Teacher Volunteer] balcony and show the canyon, over the hill in the foreground, that I will ride tomorrow. The pictures were taken between rain squalls that are blowing in hard from the south. If this continues tomorrow I am in big, big trouble. The bike felt good today. The ride was so hard into Belogradchik because of the spokes going. Wheel flopping into brake pads etc. I am still amazed that I rode it into town with five spokes gone. God looks after drunks, fools and apparently us half drunk foolish bike tourist! I talked to Mark’s Advanced and Beginner Adult English Classes – a combined effort that probably was not as effective as separate, but we tried. They had some of the same questions as Karen’s Preps but are more reserved in their questioning.

Two pictures of the mountains and Petrohan Pass, the second highest pass in Bulgaria at 1,444 meters. The third picture was taken after the Tour to show the road where it begins the climb.

5 May:
Berkovitsa – Sofia: 40.9 Km, 1,148 Meters, 4:30 Hours
Into Sofia, but the climb out of Berkovitsa was a death march. I met with a combined Prep, 8th and 9th class of Mark and one of his colleagues at 7:30. Answered the typical questions and left town at 8:30 in a light rain that became heavy as I climbed. Finally got out of it at around 800 meters elevation but into very heavy fog that I was afraid to ride in. Visibility was about 30 meters so I walked the bike some 3 Km and 160 meters until it lifted. Then when I toped the pass at about 1,400 meters it was back into rain and freezing on the downhill. Climbed a steep little 70 meters out of Rintsi that was not on the trip sheet and then the 220 meter one that was to be at 5% turned out to begin with 1 Km at 9%. I quit! I could not have ridden into Sofia on the route that I had selected in the best of conditions and on my best day. I need to look at the map again on this one. I then caught the very first truck that I waved down after deciding to hang it up. The driver and his assistant were going to Pernik and dropped me very near Molly’s, but I got a taxi to the Peace Corps office, dropped off baggage, and then to the bike repair shop. Cleaned up at the PC office and then went with Molly to visit a sick friend, pick up her daughter, McDonalds, the commissary, and then to dinner [gives you some idea that the expat community lives a little different than we Volunteers]. The washer and dryer at Molly’s is in full swing with shoes and panniers drying on the balcony. I will go into the PC office for Living Allowance in the morning with Molly and then pick up bike in the afternoon.

6 May:
Rest Day in Sofia:
Visited with PC staff in the morning and got April and May Living Allowance. Saw Ryan [Ecology Volunteer from Pernik] briefly and went to Chinese restaurant with Katie [Teacher Volunteer from Novi Zagora] for lunch. Waited around at PC until 2:30 when a driver came back and we picked up the bike. He then took me to Molly’s where I set off the alarm upon entering the house [she had said that she would not set it but force of habit prevailed]. It was an exciting few minutes with the alarm screaming, the dog howling, and me scrambling for a telephone and Molly’s number; all the time expecting big security guard goons to come and beat hell out of me. Had pizza dinner with Milka [former counterpart] and Valeri Lazarov [her friend that provided me with the data for the daily trip sheets and the profile maps]; they had planned on taking me to a real nice place but it was full because of St. George’s Day [he is very important in the Orthodox church].

7 May:
Sofia – Kustendil: 78.0 Km, 756 Meters, 5:12 Hours
I left Molly’s a little earlier than normal hoping to avoid some of the morning traffic in Sofia but wasted about 10 minutes messing with the bike computer sending unit. It was not registering Velocity of Distance; finally realized the computer was not making a good connection at the handle bar bracket. Later in the day I saw again that it was not registering and repositioned the sending unit once more and think that it is now OK. The bike mechanic in Sofia didn’t have the computer and I thought that he had moved the sending unit while working on the bike. Note: Always check the handle bar connection FIRST!! While in Sofia I had the following done to the bike: New head set & crankset bearings, new chain and brake pads, oil and grease everything, adjust and tighten everything, including my sagging Brooks saddle. Total cost was $30; everything is more expensive in Sofia. No photos, no interest and very hazy because of clouds. Rained again last night but I got in today without getting wet. I went to the Business Center office and John [Business Volunteer] was not there. A note on the door said “Ed, I will be back”. No information about when or where he might be. After waiting about 45 minutes Rod [Ecology Volunteer] stopped by and said that John’s parents had come into Bulgaria and I was welcome to stay at his place because John was involved in trying to get them settled [John’s father was a Peace Corps Volunteer in India in the early 19960’s; he told some great stories at dinner]. Because I started at Molly’s I cut off some 8 Km from the trip sheet distance and maybe 150 meters of climbing – a good thing. The first climb of the day hurt a quite a bit but the bigger one didn’t seem to match the trip sheet data and only a short segment was painful.

To be continued: