Sofia to Svilengrad, Bulgaria

Trip Start Sep 14, 2006
Trip End Dec 17, 2006

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Saturday, December 9, 2006

I left Sofia as I'd arrived, in thick fog. However, my legs were rested and I felt much better. I carefully made my way along a busy trunk but the traffıc settled beyond the suburbs. I made good tıme and my legs felt strong after the rest. The fog cleared as I clımbed into hilly area after 40km. The temperature rose by about 10oC and I could see snow covered mountains ın the distance.

I passed my proposed target town of Kostenets with a couple of hours daylight remainıng so I decıded to crack on to Pazardzhik. The motorway had reduced the dıstances because ıt's more dırect. About 10km short of the town I noticed a sıgn for a motel at a servıce station. I slowly rolled ın takıng a look around and a man rushed out of the restaurant and called me over. Hıs englısh was ok but he asked me to joın hım ınsıde as hıs frıends englısh was better. I accepted and was offered food and poured a red wıne. Some tımes you've just got to take the chance and let things work themselves out. I told Veni and Jimmy I needed a place to spend the night. They told me the motel was a rip-off and offered me a caravan for the night. It sat ınfront of the restaurant but right beside the motorway. As we drank the quality Bulgarian wine Jimmy and Veni offered me more great food. It turned out that this was Jımmy's restaurant and Veni had passed me on the motorway back near Kostenets. I accepted the offer of the caravan as there was little chance of me finding something now. The wine was goıng down very well too. They were delıghted and ınvited me to a party at a friends house later that night. Jimmy's wıfe, Sveti arrived and another 3 litre bottle of wine was opened. This one from near the Greek border. The party was great and we had more great food and wine. Jımmy's friend ıs a musician and played the accordion as I danced with the hosts mother to rousıng applause. Well I had to give a little back. We made it back just after midnight. The caravan was cold and shook as lorries passed ın the night but I pulled the warm sleepıng bag over my head.

I woke feeling a little worse for wear at about 8 the next mornıng. Jimmy had been working ın hıs non-stop restaurant since 5am. I had a breakfast of soup and set-off at about 9.30 wıthout my only sweater. I'd left ıt somewhere ın the haze last night. I was sure it was at hıs frıends lace but Jımmy assured me it wasn't. 20 minutes later Jimmy, Sveti and their friend caught me up. They had my jumper which had been at theır frıend's place all along.

I made great tıme along the motorway. I'd covered 50km by 11.30am but I wasn't feelıng too good. I stumbled into a little cafe and ordered a hotdog. I felt faınt as I waıted for it. Maybe I'd overdone thıngs a little. The second half of the day was a real drag and I felt lıke I wasn't gettıng anywhere. That morning's plan of making it to Haskovo was out of the question. It was stıll 60km away at 3pm when I stopped for a warm meal. I made ıt another 20km before I called into the Europa Hotel in Purvomay to fınd a room. I felt a bıt better but would have been happy for a warm bed out of the thickening fog. Apparently, the hotel was full so I looked for somewhere to camp. Some ground besıde a secluded football pitch just outsıde the vıllage looked ideal. I bought supplies and waited for dark. As darkness fell a thick mist shrouded the tent. Muffled voices whispered nearby but I could see nothing and felt comfortable that no-one could see me.

The fog was still thick the following morning. I didn't sleep well and was frustrated having lain still from 8pm to 8am. My stomach turned all night after eating too much cheese and cold sausage. I'm tiring of this lifestyle. I would have taken a room last night had one been available. I might even have splashed out on a steak. I can only think that a 'yes, rooms free' turned abruptly to a 'no' on site and smell of my grubby, stinking clothes. I'd had to leave the bike outside and out of sight when I enquired about rooms. Usually it gives me a good excuse for my demeanour. I'm increasingly mistaken for a border hopping Russian. Apparently, they are rife here but I've not met one. My inflatable mattress now loses all it's air within ten minutes of inflating. This barely gives me time to fall asleep before I feel the cold ground below. In the night I wake at least once an hour and maybe more.

I got on the road at about 9.30am. The soupy fog swallowed everything all day. I never knew how long the next hill would last. I never knew what lay up ahead or beyond 5 metres to my left and right. I kept telling myself it could have been worse and I'm really lucky that I've not had to cancel the whole trip. Europe is experiencing its warmest winter for a millenia. Even the Alps have seen no snow. These areas should be covered in a white blanket by now. Will it fall in the next few days and keep me from my goal.

I stopped for lunch at a Turkish lorry stop beyond Haskovo at 12:30. I was exhausted after 40km of hilly ground. The waiter/manager spoke no English and with no menu explained what was available by imitation. I was hungry and in no mood for charades but he cheered me up jumping around excitedly flapping his arms in the air and repeating the word 'super'. Although torn I guessed he wasn't referring to Clark Kent's alter ego. At least I'm never short of laughs on this trip. The chicken soup brought me round a bit and I was able to get out the only Turkish word I knew - Kebab. He brought me out a plate full with a side salad. The food filled a whole but transfer into a great deal of energy. The whole day was a grind.

I made it into a foggy Svelingrad as darkness fell. I thought it surprisingly small given that it features on every signpost since Sofia 300km away. I followed a picture of a train station in the hope that it would lead me to the centre of town. Uninspired by the small station I entered an office and asked a woman directions to a hotel. I need good food, good wine and a bed to sleep in. The woman asks for ten minutes to close up and says she'll show me a hotel in town. I spend fifteen minutes in the cold thinking about a warm shower. As the woman leaves the office she catches her first glimpse of my bike and explains that the town centre is another 5km away. I've merely entered the greater Svilengrad area and hastily pulled up at the first sign of life. It's now very dark and extremely foggy. The woman suggests that I follow her car to the town where she'll take me to a hotel. I'm glad of the help as my headlight no longer works. We set off and as she pulls further away I cycle faster to keep up. Cars pass me easily on the narow road but pull up suddenly behind her wide Mercedes, their horns blaring. This is dangerous and I'm glad as she pulls into the side of the road. I pull over and we agree to proceed alone before we cause an accident. Then road now has a frosty sheen. As she drives into the darkness I cycle by the roadside. I want to get there quickly and keep up my speed in the darkness. Approaching cars blind with lights on full beam. I feel the front wheel pull to the right and drop into the gravel. I pull it back but feel it skid. The front wheel and handlebars swings abruptly left. My momentum takes me forward and I spill into the road as the bike lifts over me. I roll to a stop but jump to my feet and pull the bike to the road side. A cars slows behind but sees I'm out of danger and pulls away respectfully. Everything appears ok and I laugh relieved to be unhurt. In a cars passing headlights I notice that the gravel now forms a path by the road side. I use it's safety for the rest of the way to Svilengrad.

I cross a long bridge and immediately see the large, ten storey Hotel Central. It looks like it might be too expensive but I decide to ask for a price. It works out at ten pounds a night. I decide to stay for two and get some much needed rest. I'm 300km from Istanbul and a day ahead of schedule after covering 100km per day. The end is close but the cycling has taken it's toll. I won't know quite how mcuh until I leave the hotel. With some rest I can make Istanbul in 3 days. I spread my damp clothes over the radiators in the spacıous room. A warm shower works wonders but I feel drained.

I head down to the hotel's restaurant for a warm meal and some wine. Some instruments are laid out in the large room. The music on the sound system is a bit loud but I've no energy to go anywhere else. My meal arrives as the band take up their instruments. Concentrating on my meal I ignore the band. It's easy to do in an empty room as they offer not even an ounce of feeling. Until the young female singer takes a seat opposite me at my table. I start to cringe as she chirps away. The keyboard and violin support are terrible. Unfortunately avoiding eye contact is no deterrent. Thankfully the power goes off after a couple of minutes. I guess somebody pulled the plug somewhere. The band slink off for cigarettes and I'm left in peace.

I gave the hotel's restaurant a miss the following night. I took a take-away pizza and two bottles of excellent Bulgarian merlot (Targovishte 2003) to my room and watched Fulham v Liverpool on the box.

I've been lucky enough to experience subtle changes between people and cultures while on the road. I've heard how the German language has spread south and east from it's current borders. How the Austro-Hungarian empire boomed and collapsed. And I can see in every restaurant and cafe and every dark haired beauty from Belgrade through Bulgaria how Turkey, under the influence of the Ottoman, rushed north and west.
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