In Bulgaria, all the roads lead to

the highway!

Here’s the road I took from Sofia to Sunny Beach. I’m posting it here so that you can zoom in as I tell you what happened.

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I pleaded not to take highways anymore and with that in mind I set off. After trying and failing to get Scottoiler oil in Bulgaria (the official dealer seems to think that selling the thing is enough and doesn’t stock oil), I went to Tatiana’s workplace to give her back the keys of the appartment (Thanks Tatiana!). That’s where it all starts. I had said before (to Tatiana, btw) that it is easier to get lost in cities than outside of cities. Silly me! It’s just as easy.

She gave me a couple of indications on how to get to the road from the center but I wasn’t worried: the signs saying “tsentar” had taken me to the center and to her office and I was sure that other signs, hopefully blue ones, would take me out of the city. And yes, I said blue ones. See, contrarily to France, in Bulgaria the highway signs are green and the national roads signs are blue. I knew that already when I came from Romania so no confusion there, thought I. There are two roads leading to Burgas, roads 6 and 8, pretty much of the same length. I had decided to take road 8 and see Plovdiv and Stara Zagora on the way so I went on to leave the city by the highway. I knew I had to use the highway to get out of the city quickly, I glanced at the map and decided that I would ditch it as soon as I saw signs for Novi Han and I did… only to find myself in the midst of (amateur?) road blocks made of piled up dirt in the middle of the road. This is what you see on the map when it look like I took two roads at the same time. I went there, tried to continue and finally turned myself around after going around the 5th or 6th road block.

And I turned back so inexpertly that I ended up on road 6. But I didn’t want to take road 6. I lost some time buy finally managed to be on my way again. It was highway until Ihtiman then. At Ihtiman I tried to ditch the highway again, got lost in the town, found a kebab shop, asked some guy who directed me to his friend who did speak English who finally told me how to get out of the town and take the small road to Plovdiv. And I had my kebab of course. I followed that road happily for a short while until I saw a blue sign (Blue, national road!) indicating Plovdiv to the right. Where did I end up? On the highway again! Arghhh!!!

Ok, ok, calm down, it’s not so bad. After all you are already late, a little highway won’t hurt. You’ll ditch it again in Plovdiv. That’s what I was telling myself all the way to Plovdiv and I did. At Plovdiv I managed to enter the town, go through the center and leave the town without taking the highway. Only I wasn’t on the road I wanted to be. At the first town I looked at the map and saw I was on a much smaller road than the one I wanted to take. I slowed down so abruptly that the car behind me thought that I had a problem and stopped some 20 meters ahead of me. Some guy came out of the car and I couldn’t hear what he wanted. Instead of keeping telling myself that he was pissed off by my sudden stop, I turned off the engine and finally could hear him say “Vous parlez français ?”. Together we figured out where I was and I decided to stay on that road.

It was an interesting experience for a couple of kilometers, the road was excellent in the surroundings of some towns and immediately became pothole paradise in the surroundings of other towns. That wouldn’t have been so bad if it hadn’t run absolutely parallel to the highway. I took the highway. No use being on the highway without the benefits of the highway.

Finally, in Chirpan, I actually managed to take road 66 or 6 and not end up on the highway. I got lost in Stara Zagora but still managed to stay on road 8 and not the highway. If you look at the map now you will see why it was so easy: there is no more highway after Stara Zagora. Until there is. And you join it automatically and have no other option near Karnobat.

By then, it was 7pm, I was tired and had decided it was time to rest. Bad luck, there was no gas station or rest area at all for at least 40 minutes. Finally rested, I undertook the final stretch to Burgas and Sunny Beach and got to the hostel safely.

That, dear friends is what the road feels like. On a bad day.

Warnings

I’ve been warned. Don’t sleep there said the hostel lady in Cluj-Napoca when I told her that I planned to go to Sofia by the shortest road and spend the night in Craiova. What about Caracal? No. Slatina? Maybe, why don’t you spend the night in Pitesti? Pitesti is only 140km away from Brasov, that would take me nowhere.

White Church
Cluj-Napoca’s white church behind the abundant aerial cabling

When I got to Brasov I asked a similar question to the hostel guy and he said about the same or worse, it was more like: no, don’t stay in Slatina either, that is the most dangerous part of Romania. If I were you, I would speed through it and get to Sofia, there’s no telling how the adjacent Bulgarian side would be.

Some biker
Strange biker in Cluj

Both times the reason was the same: that’s Rom region. Rom, gipsy, tsingari, egyptians. Who are they and why are they feared that much? I guess I will not find out by going into their region of the country. I have rearranged my route, heading another piece of Romanian advice: “don’t go to the beach in Romania, go in Bulgaria”. Really, what is it with Romanian beaches? I guess I won’t find out this time either. This morning I’ll head to Bucarest and then to Sofia from there. Pity to take such a detour but it will give me the chance to spend the night in Bucarest.

Today was a sort of short riding day but the day before was long. I’m starting to feel the road on my bones and muscles and I will welcome the shorter riding tomorrow and the rest days in Bulgaria and Istanbul. The road was even nicer than the previous days with trees on the side providing some shade but there was a lot of road work that slowed the traffic a lot. The fact that it’s a twisting single-lane road with lots of trucks that you can’t overtake without putting someone’s life in danger (the motorcyclist’s usually) doesn’t make it any faster but I’ve found a solution for taking pictures on the way. Actually, the camera was inside 2 layers of bags up to now and taking it out for picture taking was a drag. Now it’s just in my tank bag without any particular other bag and taking pictures is as easy as stopping by the side of the road, opening the helmet, opening the bag and pushing the shutter button. I don’t even need to open the helmet if I don’t care what’s in the picture and what isn’t :P. Or I could use LiveView. Hum, there’s an idea!

Somewhere along the road to Brasov I saw a sign indicating a fortified evangelical church and I followed the 6km dirt track leading to a small village (Valchid was the name), which must have been enjoying a collective nap to get them through the scorching heat of midday (Seriously, who rides in this heat? Me) because I couldn’t see anyone and of course the fortification was closed, that’s what fortifications are for. Out of the blue came a car with a Netherlands plate and the driver asked me if I was up to what I was up to and said he would ask the keykeeper to come open the church. Not even a minute later I was entering the fortification and the church. That was some sight! The church was not particularly beautiful or anything. It’s just that there was the walls and the church, very close to each other. Inside the fort, there was only the church, nothing else. Strange thing to build, I must remember to read why they did that. I tried to ask in what passes for Romanian in my head (it’s most certainly not Romanian) when was the church built. I didn’t understand the answer. Once at the hostel, I tried numbers in Google Translate and now I think he said XVI or XVII century.

Fortified church
The church’s outside shell

Today, I also chose the roads that were marked “of scenic interest” on the map. The map conveniently omits to say that they are not of asphalt interest, especially the road from Iernut to Medias but it’s alright. At some point the quality of the roads is going to start to fall, it might as well be now :|.

Bike in town
Some biker came to wake the town up

World domination

One discount store at a time… So I am in this border town in Hungary trying to spend my last Forints. Mostly on water for me and gas for the bike and I see this shop:

No, no, not the red sign. That magyar-something-something obviously means Hungarian supermarket chain (fluent Hungarian anyone? Thank you Google Translate) but look closer, at the yellow sign: “Kinai diszkont”. Any guess as to what it may mean? My guess is as good as yours: Chinese discount store! Ok, it was funnier in my head but still, it was a tiny border town in Hungary, can’t remember if it was Vámospércs or Nyirábrány and the Chinese discount store was there!

In all truthfulness, I haven’t seen so many Kinai diszkont but the remoteness of this one called my attention.

By the way, I’m happy to be back in a place where I can at least guess what stuff means. Hungarian is so… so… unguessable?

Wake up in Slovakia, have breakfast in Hungary…

…then buy some food in Hungary and picnic in Slovakia, only to finish the day 30km from Budapest.

That was pretty much the summary of our day yesterday. We woke up where we had camped, in the nice camping by the lake in the north of Bratislava. I woke up after a night in the hammock, there was no mosquitoes and I took the chance. It was pretty nice.

Bike and hammock in Prague
I didn’t sleep on it in Prague

Without further ado (save a shower of course, with boiling water though) we set off on the road to Budapest by the highway. Yes, the highway, but not for long. We stopped for breakfast at a gas station just past the border of Hungary where I bought the most useful piece of kit so far and instantly realized why I had been taking so many highways: because I didn’t know were the other roads were!!

From then on, the day was completely different to the previous days, we took the national roads following the Danube along the Slovakian-Hungarian border. Stopped at a supermarket on the road to buy some food for lunch that we would eat later on the road. When we arrived to Komárom, we wanted to have lunch and decided to cross the river into Slovakia again and set up our picnic in a nice park in Komárno, Slovakia. I enjoy crossing borders with the bike, it gives me a feeling of the distance I’ve travelled.

A long way from home
So far from home…

I especially enjoy these European borders, which are just lines on the ground with no one to stamp your passport even if you wanted to. Although here in Hungary you are supposed to buy a vignette for your vehicle to pay for road use. I’m not so sure if I had to buy it if I’m not using the highways but I bought it anyway, just to be on the safe side. By the end of the day, we had stopped for a couple of pictures in Ezstergom, visited Kisoroszi where we wanted to camp but decided against it, mainly because we didn’t have cash and it looked like a party camping. Back to the mainland and with some cash in my pocket, I was so tired of riding that we stopped at the first camping sign we saw just across the river in Tahitótfalu. It turned out to be a nice camping managed by a  very nice Hungarian guy who had hung a French flag in his house as decoration. So we offloaded the bike and went for a pizza in the surroundings.

Although the hammock was there too, it slept on its own that night because it was full of mosquitoes and I didn’t want to wake up itching everywhere. Today, I am writing this from a hotel room in Budapest (I needed to sleep on a bed) as I am about to leave for Debrecen or maybe further. Alice has just left to take her bus back to Prague. She’s such a great friend has helped me so much with all the preparations that I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to repay her. Thank you again, Alice!

Alice and a new friend
Alice and her new friend

Now, off to the bike before it’s too hot to ride again!

Too many highways

Sunset at the gas station
One for the road, almost in Prague

I have been speeding through Western Europe in order to reach predefined destinations at predefined dates. 150kph in France to get to Metz, 150kph in Germany to reach Dillenburg. It’s not funny, I get tired a lot faster at these speeds. Now it’s finished, today I arrived to Prague from Dillenburg and I had decided that even if it took me the entire day to get here, I would not speed through it. It was a lot more pleasant! I did get tired, after all I rode for the whole day but the road was much nicer: no turbulence in the helmet, a lot less vibration in the handlebars and if it’s not too windy I can ride the helmet visor open and smell the road… The fields, the woods, the other vehicles exhausts. Ok, that last one’s not so exciting but the other too are really worth it.

I set off from Metz quite late on Wednesday (it’s becoming a habit) still with this idea in my head that I should get an off-road helmet only to find out 20 meters later that I had broken the zipper on the right leg of my riding pants. Instant budget reallocation happened there and I no longer need an off-road helmet. All the shops were closed in Thionville because I arrived 10 minutes into the lunch break. The shopkeepers were all there in the shops but refused to open the doors. Bye bye France!

I arrived in Luxembourg too late for lunch with Boris so I wend straight to the bike shop to get new pants and the Portuguese sales guy tipped my decision to the no off-road helmet needed camp. And this is were I sped my way to Köln in order to arrive before off-the-road closed its doors and get  the last tools in my kit: tyre levers and chain breaker+rivet tool. I also tried to get a new air filter and brake pads but off-the-road doesn’t take anything but cash at the shop. Bikers beware, place your orders on the web or pay cash. Unfortunately the guy at the shop was too much in a hurry to wait for me to go to an ATM or place a web order. Thus, I decided to come back the next day. Little did I know (or remember) that Köln and Dillenburg are 125km away :(.

Sarah and Hugo were waiting for me so I sped again and there they were. More good friends, this is a great way to start an adventure. They had delayed their otherwise Germanic-scheduled 6 o’clock dinner to eat with me. They are so nice, I bet they were starving. The next morning, after breakfast with Hugo, I set off to Köln. This time more relaxed, I knew I had time and after getting my stuff from the shop I wanted to see the Cathedral. I saw it’s backside, it’s right side and I even saw it from across the river but I never got to see the façade, never managed to get there and I was cooking in my riding gear so I stopped for a brat wurst and I was on my way back to Dillenburg through the small roads. This was a good and a bad idea. Good because I enjoyed the road a lot but bad because I first had to get out of the city through what seemed like 50km of suburbs full of traffic lights and pedestrians and cars and I was still cooking like an egg in the microwave inside my jacket: about to explode!

Some nice roads later, in Dillenburg, I installed the headlight cover and the foam air filter. The bike’s first reaction was to not start. Panic! Alright, it only lasted for a few seconds until I turned the throttle a bit and kept it on until the correct air flow was re-established. But I did panic for a moment, it’s my first mod that gets so close to the engine. Then I was dragged to the neighbors’ living room to see a football match. I couldn’t say no because they said I could bring my laptop and play anti-social (anti-football actually). Yay! I had 90 minutes to put music on my phone, now my phone is full of Argentine music, ready for the road ;-), which takes me to today.

In Dillenburg
With Hugo, just before leaving Dillenburg

Alice is waiting in Prague for our 2-day trip to Budapest where she will take a bus back to Prague so I woke up a bit earlier than usual and still set off only at 11am. What’s the problem with me and early morning? :-P. Anyway, after breakfast, while I was preparing to leave, Hugo prepared me a lunch box. Thanks Hugo! I ate it at 2pm by the road, it was very nice. Actually, thanks Sarah and Hugo for the wonderful welcome you gave me.

This is the road I did almost completely without leaving the 95kph-105kph range, a very pleasant experience with a bonus. I have finally experienced the fuel autonomy that Yamaha promises in their brochure. Whilst in the city sometimes I have to fill the tank after 280km, today I could ride 420km without hitting reserve. I filled the tank only because I was getting nervous that the gauge could be malfunctioning. It wasn’t, there was still 1 or 2 liters left before the reserve.

Now I’m lying on my hammock at the camping in Prague, hesitating whether to sleep on the hammock or get into the tent. I think I’ll go for the tent, there are mosquitoes here and although they don’t usually like my blood, I don’t want to tempt them. So happy to have brought a hammock :-D.