Bulgaria Bike Adventure: 1300 km cycling Bulgaria
Our cycling Bulgaria bike adventure during our No Plans Journey allowed us discovering a wonderful country, unexpectedly fascinating, where its recent history - being a satellite of the Soviet Union - is now fading into the big changes brought by the European influence. In the villages dispersed on the mountains of the south, life seems to have stopped still two centuries ago, while in the towns and cities, an example among all is Plovdiv European Capital of Culture together with Matera in 2019, modernity and globalization have contaminated the style of life of the inhabitants and Bulgarian traditions. The bicycle, a slow and meditative means of travel, allows you to deeply enter the Bulgarian identity and visit the treasures of this Eastern European country in a closer way.
In this article
- Starting our Bulgaria Bike Adventure in Melnik, city of the wine and the Pirin mountains
- The Rhodope Mountains and the Pomak villages
- The Iron Curtain of our Bulgaria Bike Adventure
- Cycling Bulgaria and wild borders
- Plovdiv, city of culture 2019
- Central Bulgaria by bike, Kazanlak and the Buzludža
- Towards the Black Sea by bike
- Madara Rider
- The Thracian tombs and the Srebărna reserve
Starting our Bulgaria Bike Adventure in Melnik, city of the wine and the Pirin mountains
Melnik is the first city of our Bulgarian bike trip. After crossing the border between the Greek and Cyrillic alphabets in the rural - hilly area not far from this small town, we decide to stop among the vineyards of the smallest town in Bulgaria with its 385 inhabitants. Melnik, where some people tell Spartacus was born, is basically two perpendicular streets with big red rock pyramids on the background, two eroded rock formations. The white houses laying next to the river bed shine when hit by the sun's rays; tourists, wine lovers and non-wine lovers bask in cafes and restaurants where you can taste the tasty Bulgarian pillow, a successful fusion between the Mediterranean and Balkan gastronomic culture. The first day of our Bulgaria bike trip begins from the pretty Melnik: at dawn, we start to go around the pyramids reaching the Rozhen Monastery before taking a suggestive and challenging dirt road towards the heart of the Pirin mountains. A little hike-a-bike section - in these parts the slopes on uneven ground are no joke - and then we can grind some kilometres. Reached 800 m of altitude we continue on the saddle enjoying this secret corner of Pirin, which further north, in the area of Mount Vihren (2914 m), the highest in the reserve, is a National Park. Down and uphill again: from the valley, we gain meters towards the outpost of Pirin without ever reaching it. Our road climbs up to 1420 m, a silent and wooded place where two or three shelters have been built. Another breath of authentic nature at high altitude and, with a quick dive, we land in Gotse Delchev, a town that took its name from the Bulgarian revolutionary. This centre without particular attractions, but with a bike shop, is the watershed between the mountainous area of Pirin and the Rhodope Mountains.
The Rhodope Mountains and the Pomak villages
If you happen to visit Bulgaria by bicycle coming from Greece, you will surely be amazed as we are by the large number of places to discover. The Balkan nation shares with the nearby land of Aeneas and mythology a wide protected belt of sparsely inhabited mountains, hidden places where karst is the real architect of the territory. 83% of the Rhodope Mountains are based in the land of Bulgaria; the remaining 17% occupies the northeastern part of Greece and is a national park. The biodiversity of this border area is truly varied: a naturalist can recognize 60% of European plant species, while a passionate and patient visitor will be able to see the brown bear, the Balkan chamois, the mountain francolin and other typical animals of the Balkan mountain areas.
But let's get back to cycling Bulgaria.
From Gotse Delchev we cycle towards the east, soon forgetting about the city traffic and entering secondary roads where there are towns whose names are still difficult to understand.It is amazing to think how quickly one goes from noise to silence, from chaos to quiet, from modernity to tradition... of the Pomaks villages, the Bulgarian Muslims who populate the villages of the Rhodopes and other areas of Kosovo, Turkey, Albania and of North Macedonia. Kribul is a tiny town with 387 inhabitants. We arrive here after a long day of cycling in Bulgaria that leads us from a mountain range to another, making us pass a small enchanted valley where tobacco is grown and stones are broken.
We are hosted by Fahme and Agush who spoil us with the typical hospitality, before starting a new day cycling Bulgaria. From Kribul, our track goes into the woods on a dirt road climbing without escape towards a repeater. In Fargovo we find the asphalt and the track of Eurovelo 13 that accompanies us for many kilometres to the east, through the mountains of the Green Belt, the line that for decades has divided the West from the East and which today is an almost uncontaminated strip of nature. Something seems to prevent travellers from deviating from this route and so you continue to have the sun on your face in the morning and behind you in the evening and to breathe an intense smell of resin and the scent of dishes cooked on the side of the road in the rare houses.
The Iron Curtain of our Bulgaria Bike Adventure
In Dospat there's a lake, difficult or almost impossible to see it from the road. Beyond the city there is a long canyon, the canyon of the Vacha River, and then dozens of streams, rest areas and continuous bends until a return to civilization with the reappearance of villages, playful screams and grocery shops... then again silence.
In the belly of the Rhodope Mountains, where resisting falling in love is the prerogative of a few, cycling Bulgaria has an unexpected naturalistic face that disconcerts us. And what about resilience? In the villages in the mountains, the days are tiring, the seasons are bad, the agriculture is not very productive and yet the villages shine with life.
After a night next to the tiny cemetery of Grohotno, and a scented awakening from the East with a talented muezzin, we leave again along the Vacha and the Iron Curtain. The Rhodopes are a tourist attraction for Bulgarians and the picturesque mountain villages that dot the mountain range also survive thanks to the lazy comings and goings of travellers by car.
Shiroka Laka with the typical houses and the bridge on the back of a mule stands right on the road, which coincides with Eurovelo 13, and it is impossible not to stop in the city centre. Dating back to the 17th century, the village has little more than 500 inhabitants, a carnival known as kukeri and the use in local folklore of a bagpipe called kaba gaida.
At the crossroads for Pamporovo, the Eurovelo 13 turns sharply south and we follow it. The climb to the Bulgarian ski resort where wild construction devastated the beauty of the forests is challenging, but the 1700m high point is conquered. The valley beyond the pass once again leaves us breathless with the clinging villages, the accommodating sound of the water, a cycle path, the well-kept rest areas and... the presence of the bear. From the green heart of the basin, the road leaves the Rhodopes going down towards the squalid Rudozem and then leaves it quickly and continues along another silent canyon to the east.
The mountains of the Pomaks remain behind the cyclists and, inevitably, a bit of nostalgia comes to the heart.
Cycling Bulgaria and wild borders
Slowly advancing east on our Bulgaria bike adventure, Zlatograd appears. It is a very cheap frontier town. Located a few kilometres from the border with Greece, it is a stop for many travellers who decide to visit the Rhodopes between one nation and another. Enraptured like many others by the absorbed charm of the town, we decide to stop for a couple of days to recover our energy before resuming the journey cycling Bulgaria. Between planning doubts and hot chorba we decide to approach Kirkovo before turning sharply north towards Plovdiv, city of culture 2019 together with Matera. Following secondary roads we find ourselves drinking a fresh drink in remote villages among big toothless men with moustaches or surrounded by sweet stray dogs. The most used means of transport in these parts are the horse-drawn carriages that shuttle from one village to another and are a little faster than a loaded bike. We cross Dzehbel, a town 75% populated by families of Turkish origin and Kardzhali, lively and busy. Beyond the city, the road climbs hard, whipping the already tired legs, but the sounds of the mountain return to envelop everything. Cows, streams, leaves that dance in the wind, branches that creak, the scent of freshly baked bread. Bulgaria is like this, unpredictable: coffee is sometimes tasty, other times it leaves such a bad taste in your mouth that is difficult to forget, people sometimes smile, on other occasions they stare at you astonished without moving a single muscle, stray dogs often bark and then reveal themselves cuddly, other times they just don't consider you.
Plovdiv, city of culture 2019
In Bulgaria by bike, every time you approach a big city, the traffic becomes nervous and sustained and the desire to escape far away, to return to the welcoming woods of the night just passed is great. Before reaching Plovdiv we pass through towns where the past as a satellite country of the U.S.S.R. left a clear mark in the architecture, murals and decorations: red stars, portraits of Lenin, Soviet brutalism and many "CCCP" along with Cyrillic characters almost incomprehensible to us.
In Asenovgrad - such an eloquent name! - we manage to get around the chaotic centre passing by the cemetery where two children are climbing over the iron fence. We approach the right orographic bank of the Chepelare River, where the dirt road is cluttered with litter of all kinds, the air stinks of a corpse and the continuation of the trail seems anything but auspicious... but what alternative do we have? Risking the death on Route 86? The fear of cars lying in every slow traveller is very much alive, pushing us further and further north along the route and allowing us to witness the incredible flight of a group of rare black storks.
Plovdiv awaits our arrival, lively and carefree, young and restless, a city in full swing, a little old and a little cosmopolitan.
Being the second city in Bulgaria, Plovdiv extends from the banks of the Marica river to the six hills of the area and deserves to be visited calmly, without haste, to reveal itself in the depths, among historical alleys, the buildings of the Roman era - the theatre, the odeon and the amphitheatre - and the ancient palaces.
Central Bulgaria by bike, Kazanlak and the Buzludža
Secondary roads and dirt roads accompany us even further north of Plovdiv, making us immerse ourselves in a rural atmosphere of small villages, sunflower fields and rivers populated by amphibians. Bulgarians are by no means expansive or intrusive and show a real sense of hospitality on certain occasions. In Pesnopoy we meet Maria who lived for several years in Italy with her family to be able to return and buy a grocery store in her native country, a real point of reference for the community. The smiling lady hosts us under her closed gazebo, saving us from a strong storm.
A little further north of Pesnopoy begins the National Park of the Central Balkans, a mountain range that occupies the heart of Bulgaria.
Kalofer was built at the foot of the mountains and has a peculiarity: it is the birthplace of the Bulgarian poet and hero, Hristo Botev, to whom a great monument has been dedicated, a destination for onlookers from all over Bulgaria. Bike touring from Kalofer, you can cycle away from the traffic between agricultural villages, breathtaking views, flocks of sheep and the artificial lake of Koprinka in the surroundings of which (and under which) the Thracian city of Seuthopolis extended, the capital of the Odrysian kingdom.
From the dam, after witnessing the predation of a poor toad by a snake, we reach Kazanlak, famous for hosting a vaulted Thracian tomb, UNESCO heritage. In reality, the real tomb cannot yet be visited, but a faithful reproduction gives an idea of what a marvel the valley of the Thracian kings was, a name attributed to the Kazanlak valley by the archaeologist Georgi Kitov for the large number of burials found. Also in this part of the country, Bulgaria by bicycle manages to surprise us with a beautiful cycle path to safely exit the city and head towards the monument of Buzludža (1441 m), a sort of spaceship built according to the canons of brutalist Soviet architecture of the '70s. The Buzludža commemorates the place where a group of socialists secretly gathered in 1891 to form an organized movement that eventually led to the creation of the Bulgarian Communist Party.
Towards the Black Sea by bike
From the gigantic Buzludža we reach the forest to follow a tiring - but fun - dirt track in the direction of Tryavna, a town with typical Bulgarian houses, with wooden frames and white-plastered walls. Ups and downs, dense bush and men with cart accompany us to the village of Yakovtsi, where we can try Kamenitza beer before pitching our tent by the lake and enjoying the fiery sunset. From the small basin we reach Elena, a dilapidated, devastated and depopulated city on the outskirts, but alive, teeming and emancipated in the centre. The Balkan mountains envelop us in their embrace made of villages, forests and climbs, up to Kotel, in the province of Sliven. The city, due to its position and tradition, has always been a point of reference for nomadic shepherds who practice transhumance. The Black Sea is not so far from the city: as always we try to identify secondary roads that would keep us safe from motorized vehicles and this continuous search leads us to discover enchanted places, small remote rural corners, glades that the stars light up with fervour, all in the belly of Bulgaria. Ravda is the city that welcomes our arrival on the Black Sea before Nesebăr, the ancient Mesembria, a delightful and ancient UNESCO heritage peninsula. Among the alleys hidden from the big masses of tourists, Nesebăr kept its ancient Thracian soul. And then the churches of all eras, the wooden houses, the old windmill, the promenade and the ancient fortifications make the city a must on a Bulgaria bike adventure.
In Šumen a medieval bas-relief was declared UNESCO world heritage site: it is a knight who, 23 meters above the ground, is driving a spear into a lion under the watchful eye of a dog.
To reach this hidden place in rural Bulgaria from the Black Sea, you will cross areas that are not very touristy but pleasant to ride, such as the artificial lake of Tsonevo where suggestive rock formations make even the most sceptical ones marvel. Madara, the place where the austere knight is, we are tempted by a small structure with swimming pool located in a remote village, a real mountain cul-de-sac in Cherni Vrah, a haven of peace and quiet where you can eat very well!
The Thracian tombs and the Srebărna reserve
From Madara, our bikes are pointing towards the north. Isperith is an uninteresting location, but the proximity to the Thracian tombs of Sveshtari makes this city an excellent starting point for exploring the site. Fun dirt roads branch off towards the hills, the secret hiding places of the tombs. One of these burials can be visited and accessed only after passing an unthinkable technological control and conservation system. Entering the tomb tickles the innermost emotions linked to the sense of discovery, it feels a bit like an archaeologist in front of a pyramid never explored before. From the Thracian tombs, you can already smell the pungent scent of palinka because Romania is really close. The last stop on our Bulgaria bike adventure is the Srebărna nature reserve, a small area of ponds declared a World Heritage Site, located on the ancient Roman road via Pontica.
The area is populated by many species, a paradise for birdwatching.
The reserve is also the worthy conclusion of our long exploration called "Bulgaria Bike Adventure" cycling Bulgaria that lasted almost a month, but before our entry into Romania we cannot miss a last ride on the dirt... a further off-road experience to definitively close the circle in the Bulgarian land.
- The Pirin Mountains: off-the-beaten-path tracks to discover by bike starting from the wine town of Melnik;
- The Rhodope Mountains, the border villages, in the Green Belt, visiting the Pomaks villages (and enjoying their hospitality!);
- Following theEurovelo 13 on the old Iron Curtain visiting Bulgaria by bike;
- Plovdiv, sparkling city of culture 2019;
- Madara Knight, the medieval bas-reliefs;
- Thracian tombs: the old burials (some are UNESCO heritage) from Kazanlak to Sveshtari;
- Buzludža: a Bulgarian communist era spaceship;
- Typical Bulgarian architecture: from village to village, breathing the most authentic Bulgaria;
- Bulgarian kitchen: tasting the specialities, ending the meal with a glass of Rakija.
- Cycling Bulgaria is pretty cheap so you can find some bargains… like in Cherni Vrah, where we slept, had dinner for two and only 35€. Structures are mainly cozy and well-kept. In some areas you might find bears, so before going to bed make sure you put away on a tree your food supplies.
- Wild camping in Bulgaria is forbidden, but actually it is tolerated and accepted. Please consider cleaning the area you occupy, or ask for permission to place your tent in a private front door.
- There are some alternatives like AirBnb apartments where you can have some discounts if you're not registered yet.
- What can I eat in Bulgaria? Traditional dishes in Bulgaria are close to the Mediterranean ones and the Balkans ones, so it's very variegated. Try the different chorba (soups) like tarator, the meat-dishes and the boiled meat different area from area, the salads, the banitsa in many variations, the sauce ljutenica and the desserts like baklava.
- Where can I eat in Bulgaria? To try the best typical kitchen in Bulgaria pick small restaurants in medium villages or cities, following the locals.
- The Bulgarian beers not to miss are: Kamenitza, Zagorka, Shumensko, Pirinsko and Astika!
- Bulgaria travel: Official English website about tourism in Bulgaria;
- Map of Bulgaria 1:375,000 Bulgaria Travel Reference Map or more detailed maps;
- Suggested books about Bulgaria before leaving: East of the West by Miroslav Penkov, Street Without A Name: Childhood And Other Misadventures In Bulgaria by Kapka Kassabova .
ITA - Ho 33 anni e sono piemontese, anche se da qualche anno vivo e lavoro in Lombardia. Dopo un inizio da totale inesperto in questo campo, mi sono avvicinato al mondo dei cicloviaggi e della bicicletta sempre più. Oggi posso definirmi "cicloviaggiatore", e assieme all'altra mia passione - il videomaking - non mi fermerei mai! Cyclo ergo sum, pedalo quindi sono, per cercare di capire perché andare in bici sia così bello, terapeutico, ricco... E ogni volta che provo a capirlo, non ce la faccio, e sono costretto a ripartire sui pedali!
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