Sofia to Surdulica

We spent the our last night at Hostel Mostel and got the amazing breakfast of fresh warm waffles, yoghurt, cereal, fruit, vegetables, toast, jam, coffee, tea, cheese, sausage, fruit juice and milk. When we sat down, we started having a conversation with a young Japanese guy who had just bought a bike and wanted to go cycle touring through Eastern Europe and asked for some advice on where to go and what to avoid. We were happy to help him and half-way through our conversation an American girl joined in who had been cycle-touring with her ex-boyfriend for more than 1000 km before they broke up. She was lovely and the conversation about cycling just rolled on, we ended up comparing bikes and gear. She wears her flip-flops riding an old mountain bike, and she put her gear together on the go in Croatia. I felt really privileged for having a new 20-gear MTB and clips – they are key for going uphill.
We set off after Mike fixed some things on her bike and it had come to be about half past 1 pm. We had planned to go ~80km that day. Safe to say that would be hard to accomplish.

We went to a lidl on the outskirts of Sofia to get some food and chocolates, and then followed the country road towards breznik. There was a fair bit of climbing involved in getting to Breznik which we really hadn’t been on the maps, which set us back in time quite a bit but by onetime we got to the top of the hill before Breznik, the downhill was just lovely to cycle through landscape-wise. We managed to get to Breznik around 4 pm and had lunch at a cafe with two really shy stray dogs that we fed when the waitress wasn’t looking. Think I may have mentioned before that I would be hopeless if I lived in a place that had many stray dogs as I would take them all in. All of them.

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Roadsign Breznik

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Me cycling uphill toward Breznik

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The top of the hill to Breznik

We wildcamped that night, well away from the view of cars passing and went to bed without eating, we were too tired after having gone up and down all day for 60 km. We were both really cold that night and despite our tiredness neither one of us slept particularly well.

The next morning we packed everything away, had a quick breakfast and set off around 9 am towards the Serbian border. We hadn’t gone our planned 80km the day before so we were planning on catching up to that the next day, even though we already had another 80km day planned. Not only that – we knew that this day we had planned on going up a 1365m mountainpass. Our elevation that morning was at about 500m. So we had to climb 850m and go 100km in distance.

We got to the border after cycling about 25km. The road was incredible, there were hills all around us and fields of rape (the yellow plant that they make rapeseed oil from.). The bottom of the hill was also where Bulgaria and Serbia bordered and as we went through border control we were asked to pull over and empty our bags. Now, considering that since we left Hungary all our border crossings were non-schengen and there had already been five of them, I have to say that the border control is really a little bit lenient when it comes to cyclists. Maybe in general. I’m not saying we would, but smuggling anything across a border on a bike seems like the way to do it.

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Road to the border with Serbia where we got searched

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Bulletholes in a building just before the Serbian border

We cycled on to Tran in Serbia where we thought we might stop but as soon as we did a few 20-or-so-year-old’s started walking towards Mike immediately so we decided to leg it quickly. The town seemed heavily policed but it was in a remote inaccessible valley that just recently has a new road thanks to EU money. Then we started our ascent.

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Roadsign for Tran

We were at 770m when the hill properly started. We took breaks at 1000m, 1100m, 1225m, 1300m and finally reached the top at 1368m. It was tiring. And let me revoke my earlier statement about music. I now used it as a motivational tool and it is fantastic.

We reached the top at about 3.30pm and when we finally saw the lake we had worked so hard to get to, I got so overwhelmed by its magnificence that it made me cry a little. Also I was just really relieved that it would all be downhill from then on. This day was our physically most challenging day so far and that was not only due to the massive climb.

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Lake vlasina at the top of a 1368m hill

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check out the elevation on that B!

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Coming down the hill just before it started throwing down rain

We had a lunch of crisps, chocolate and pasta that we wolfed down, then washed everything in the stream nearby and set off on our descent. The clouds had started to form into a big black menacing mess and, lucky as we are, it started to really throw it down as we were just gathering speed. I was wearing my stupid red emergency poncho that flew around my ears so much in the headwind it almost deafened me, no need to say I could hear absolutely nothing mike said to me. We rolled downhill in this cloudburst for about an hour, going 20km far until we got to a town called Surdulica. Picture us: me, wearing the hell out of flowered cycling shorts combined elegantly with a goretex green jacket, size large, and perfecting the style with an XL 2€ red poncho, a cycle helmet and a pair of dark-shaded primark sunnies. Drenched. Like a drowned rat. I have hardly ever looked better, even when I tried. On a good hair day. And mike, equally elegant with an orange-glassed pair of sports sunglasses, a goretex rainjacket, a helmet and sad-because-wet curls. We were a pair for any Serbian street style blog. And just like that we walked into a hotel, after 60km, 850m of ascent, and falling asleep standing up at 6pm.

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The view from our hotel room

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Hagia Sofia

The journey from Vidin to Sofia was in parts breathtaking and we were initially excited to be spending 2 nights in the city but once we arrived we realised we’d left the GPS in Vidin and waiting for it meant the two nights quickly turned into 4. As it turned out this was not a disappointment. We stayed in a hostel called Hostel Mostel which offered free pool, a great free breakfast, free evening meal with beer, free WiFi and computers to use plus some of the most helpful staff we have met. We met a good group of people and had a great time.

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The gorge from Vidin to Sofia, it was hard to take it all in with a camera.

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The ladies market was one of the highlights but it’s called the ladies market due to selling fruit and veg mainly, sorry ladies but not many clothes!

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The oldest and the only mosque in Sofia

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Sofia is lucky to have a 2500m mountain overlooking the city which had snow on top at this time of year and can easily be seen from the high street.

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Food from the local monasteries in one of the best restaurants I’ve ever been to.

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The new pedestrianised high street

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Sorry for the lack of text in this post but we cycled up to 1400m today and are both shattered!

96km, 3 countries and a sunburn later….

This morning we woke up around 7.30 and set off at 9. We are definitely getting better at packing our things away. We cycled back down the sandy banking we had camped on and continued down the road towards vidin, a town in Serbia on the other side of the Danube that we were on. We decided to take the road that goes across an island back into Serbia instead of trying the get a ferry from Calafat, the town on the opposite side of the Danube from Vidin. Upon exiting Romania, the border police took our passports while a customs guy stayed and talked to us. He said it might take a little while because they didn’t see many Austrian citizens coming from Romania so they werent sure about the procedure of checking my passport. He joked I might be the first Austrian even in their country.

We had cycled about 40 km by the time we got into town where we decided to have lunch, check train times to go from Vidin to Sofia and check the remaining distance to the Bulgarian border and to Vidin.

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Cafe culture in Negotin

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Negotin main square

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Wild tortoise number 2

The cycle path sign near the border said it was another 18 or so km to the border but the ever so friendly Serbian locals told us if we stayed on the main road it was more like ten. the headwind was strong but luckily a farm so truck was going our way and the farmers thought it was amusing to carry us along in their slipstream. The lady at the Bulgarian border told us Vidin was only another 30 km away – by that time we had already done about 60 but it was only half past 2 pm and the train from Vidin went at 6 pm so we had plenty of time. Or so we thought.

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Wild pig on the an island between Romania and Serbia

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Through Serbia the cycle path has been incredibly well sign posted but our favourite bit is that each sign has a quote at the bottom, some are wise and some even funny but it’s a pleasure to stop and read each one. Mike’s favourite is ‘do not worry if you run out of money in Serbia, everybody does!’

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Bulgarian border

On a cycle trip like this one you do surprise yourself at how far you can go but you also find out a lot about your personal limits. My breaking point was at 80km, where I had to stop because I couldn’t go any further, I was crying and annoyed at myself for doing so and thought I would never ever be able to make another 20 km in an hour and a half. 80 km does not seem that far, at least not to experienced cyclists, but bear in mind that it was our fourth day of cycling all day in a row without a day’s rest, and that I was not just carrying my own weight plus the bike’s but more like 85kg.
Anyhow, after a little break, some water and some sugar, Mike and I continued on and Mike offered to sing me a song, so I asked him to sing “the one with the dog” (the title song to the UK kid’s tv show “The Littlest Hobo”). Three times. If that wouldn’t cheer you up, I don’t know what will.

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Onwards to Sofia

We made it to Vidin at 20 minutes to 6, according to our GPS, just in time to comfortably catch the train to Sofia. The clock in the train station was displaying 20 minutes to 7 which was clearly wrong, we had done everything to get there on time for the last train of the day. Except that we did not know that Bulgaria runs an hour ahead of Serbia. We hadn’t considered the time difference.

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A very tired looking kathi

We found a hotel online we wanted to stay at that night and tried to find it three times, adding an extra 8 km to our trip.
So there you have it. We cycled 108 km in one day. After cycling 75km, then 50km, then 85km for three consecutive days, respectively. You may think getting the trains cheating. You do it, then we’ll talk. 🙂

Through the Djerdap

Not sure quite where to start with this one, the last days have been so amazing. After leaving Golubac we cycled through the fortress guarding the entrance to western Europe through the Carpathian mountains and on into the national park. The gorge carved out by the Donau is the biggest in Europe (not the highest, that’s in Montenegro) and in the narrowest points the river reaches 80m deep. I guess I expected the Donau to be much more powerful and just get bigger and bigger but it seems so much water is lost in the great plains of Hungary that the river seems smaller than in Vienna.

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That night we were struggling to find an accessible place to put the tent (being in a gorge) so Kathi opted to ask a local couple we cycled past if we could camp on their land. What a stroke of luck that was! I’m not sure we have could have met more hospitable strangers. They were a Serbian couple and their friend who lived across the road in a big house, who was there to do some fishing – they spoke a small amount of German. They fed us rakija, cake, biscuits, coffee and fruit juice plus talked us through the family photos and told us about the area. In the morning we were offered a shower, given more of the strongest Turkish coffee I have ever seen which would’ve sent me crazy if they hadn’t given us even more rakija to wash it down with.

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We were off by 9:30am and had a really slow morning taking pictures and cycling some big climbs. I realised the next time someone ask me how far we cycle in a day my answer will be ‘as little as possible’ for if the road is not boring then why even try to gain distance.

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Later on, exiting the gorge it seems the main thing protecting the gorge from the Ottomans was just a scary face carved into the rock wall. No wonder they made it to Vienna. 😉 Shortly after we had a long downhill (65kmph on a 65kg bike with a trailer is a scary thing to do) and exited into Romania. We can’t wait to get back into Serbia already.

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We stopped in a typical Romanian town with no discernable town center, had lunch and moved on.

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The evening wild camping was amazing. We heard wolves not so far away (no problem for pepper spray) and even saw a wild tortoise which also didn’t like the pepper spray… 😉

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Mike got a tick on his back but luckily Kathi’s mother is a doctor and we had a tick removal tool so just screwed it out and disinfected it, not even a mark left today hopefully there is no infection. Cycle touring, and especially wild camping makes your relationship with all animals much more profound. Ear plugs are a necessity due to all birds, cuckoo’s and cockerals especially and the grasshoppers can be almost deafening too. You always have to be aware of mosquitos and dubious of wild dogs.

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We cycled 85k yesterday and today will aim for 100 to get us into Bulgaria before 12pm.

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