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Cycling in SE Bulgaria PDF Printable Version E-mail

 

CYCLING IN SOUTH EAST BULGARIA

Six Rides on the Borders of Greece and Turkey

Barry and Margaret Williamson

June 2009

For more images of these rides, click: Bulgarian Cycle Rides

For details of our bicycles, click: Paul Hewitt Tourers

For more information about the area, click: Biser, the Sakar and Rhodopi Hills

For more images of the area, click: Bulgarian Slide Shows

Introduction

The bicycle rides vary in length from 35 km to 240 km and the time taken varies from 2 hours to 4 days, taking in three countries!

The base for the Sakar_(24).JPGrides is the English-owned and managed campsite on the edge of the village of Biser, midway between the towns of Harmanli and Lyubimets. The campsite has its own website: www.sakar-hills.com and provides excellent accommodation for tents, campervans, caravans and motorhomes. With advance notice, it may be possible to find a room with a local villager. Biser itself contains grocery shops, a couple of simple restaurants and a bar or two.

The nearby towns of Harmanli (10 km west) and Lyubimets (10 km east) both offer good hotel accommodation and a range of supermarkets and restaurants.

The Area

Biser lies on the Maritsa River, which forms a wide fertile valley, running west to east. At the Turkish border, just west of the Turkish city of Edirne, the river turns south to become the Evros River: the border between Turkey and Greece, entering the Aegean to the east of Alexandroupolis in a wide delta.

North of the Maritsa River lie the Sakar Hills: high rolling countryCountryside_3.JPG much used for agriculture and dotted with many small villages, each with a café and perhaps a shop. South of the river, the foothills of the Rhodopi run in ridges of increasing height, each separated by a river. The last valley is that of the Arda, which makes its way through spectacular gorges to join the Maritsa just before Edirne. Beyond the Arda River, the Rhodopi Mountains rise to form the rugged border with Greece.

The Rides

The main road linkingCountryside_2.JPG Harmanli to Lyubimets continues to Svilengrad and the border crossing into Turkey at Kapitan Andreevo. It is often busy, carrying local traffic as well as Turkish trucks which prefer this route to the alternative of the unfinished motorway. It is also narrow, with only 2 lanes and no hard shoulder. So, on this main road, take care! We always use our handlebar mirrors, ride in single file and wear lightweight fluorescent jackets (the kind that it's now compulsory for motorists to carry in some countries of Europe). Be prepared to leave the road and get on the verge when two trucks coincide.

Elsewhere the roads are almost always much quieter, but keep a watch for cracks and potholes which are an inevitable part of Bulgarian road construction methods - even on new roads.

But don't let this detail deter you. The scenery is diverse and often spectacular; the people friendly, refreshments frequent and costs very low. This is the very furthest corner of the European Union and offers the cyclist a unique experience.

RIDE ONE: A 32-km circuit through Cherna Mogilla

 Bike_Ride_1.jpg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Biser                       0 km
Cherna Mogilla       9
Lozen                     7
Lyubimets               6
Biser                     10
Total                     32

The Route:

Turn right out of the campsite gate and ride through Biser vilCycling_(11).JPGlage (shop, café/bar, small restaurant), dodge right and left round the village square and continue uphill on a very quiet road south to Cherna Mogila (meaning Black Hill). Turn left in this hamlet (at a disused shop opposite the bus shelter) and follow an unsigned lane (roughly surfaced and initially downhill) to Lozen (pleasant café/bar with garden – sometimes closed during the early afternoon).

Turn left on the slightly busier road to Lyubimets. After crossing the railway line, go straight on for the town centre, looking out for a park and square on your right (cafes etc). Continue to a T-junction with the main road and turn left to return to Biser.

Or, you canLyubimets_(10).JPG bypass the town centre by turning left immediately after the railway crossing, follow the road parallel with the tracks to the end of the bitumen, then turn right along a potholed road that soon joins the main road. Turn left. At this point (2 km west of Lyubimets, 8 km east of Biser) on the south side of the highway there is an excellent fast food restaurant 'Snack Bar Boliarka', complete with ATM cash machine and WiFi internet. The plate of Ham & Eggs is recommended!

RIDE TWO: A 55-km circuit through Kolarovo

Bike_Ride_2.jpg

Biser                   0 km
Lyubimets         10
Jerusalimovo       4
Castra Rubra    11
Kolarovo            7
Bulgarin              9
Harmanli             4
Biser                10
Total                55

The Route:

Turn left out of the campsite gate and then right when you meet the busy main road (care needed) to Lyubimets, where we paused at 'Snack Bar Boliarka' for breakfast. Soon the road forks, signed Greece or Turkey - follow Turkey (left) and cross the bridge over the Maritsa River.

Taking care not to join the new motorway (Harmanli–Svilengrad).Cycling_16.JPG Ignore the first right turn, which joins the new motorway (Harmanli–Svilengrad), but take the next right, signed in Cyrillic for the village of Georgi Dobrevo. Then turn immediately left, following the large yellow sign for Topolovgrad. Watch out for Turkish trucks and Bulgarian potholes along the hilly Topolovgrad road, passing the village of Jerusalimovo (Jerusalem – marked by a cross on a hilltop).

Four km after thCastra_Rubra_(21).JPGis, turn left along a very quiet narrow lane through the vineyards, signposted for 'Castra Rubra' - a small Roman fort on the Via Diagonalis. If you wish to visit the site and a short section of Roman Road, take a one-km side-trip by turning left (signed) a short way along the road to Kolarovo. There may well be a team of archaeology students at work (try French if they don't speak English).

The last 3 km into Kolarovo is gravel, though quite rideable. Sadly,Cycling_21.JPG the village does not have a bar or café. There is a large commercial winery using the 'Castra Rubra' label but it's not open to visitors. After another 3 km (sealed though rough), turn left for Harmanli when you meet the main road at a T-junction. There is a smaller friendlier winery at this road junction, where you can buy the local rosé or merlot.

The next village going downhill along the main road, Bulgarin, has a café/bar and a shop. Then there is one last small hill to climb before twisting further downhill to reach the busy bridge, over the Maritsa and into the town of Harmanli. Return to Biser on the main road, following signs for Svilengrad, Lyubimets and the campsite (unfortunately, there is no alternative).

RIDE THREE: A 66-km circuit through Oreshets

Bike_Ride_3.jpg

Biser                     0 km          
Harmanli              10
Ivanovo                 9
Varbovo              11
Oreshets                6
Malko Gradishte    8
Lozen                    5
Lyubimets              6
Biser                    10
Total                    61

The Route:

Turn left out of the campsite gate and left again when you meet the busy main road (care needed). Just after entering the town of Harmanli, turn left signed 'Madzarovo'.

Follow In_the_Country_(12).JPGthis quieter road as it climbs steadily away from the Maritsa Valley, through open fields and woodland. At Ivanovo, the first village, there is a choice of café/bars and a shop. We rested over coffees and orange juice, waving to passing donkey carts, their friendly drivers wearing curious caps fashioned from a tea-towel. One kindly offered us a lift but we soon overtook him as we set off again.

When the road divides, take the left fork (still signed for Madzarovo) and continue south to the hamlet of Varbovo. Turn left (east) here for Oreshets. We ate our packed lunch in Oresshets village, sitting outside the small supermarket which sold coffee, as well as cold beer or soft drinks. Shops often provide outdoor chairs and tables for customers.

Continue east to the cross-roads on the edge of Malko Gradishte,In_the_Country_(19).JPG where there is a police control box. (Remember to carry your passport in this border area, though we weren't asked to produce it.) You can go straight over the cross-road into the village for a shop, or just turn left (north) for Lozen, where there is also a chance of refreshment at the café/bar with garden. (Maybe closed for siesta in the afternoon.)

From Lozen, you can return via Lyubimets and then the main road towards Harmanli, as in Ride 1. This we did, as a leaden sky was heralding a terrific thunderstorm, which overtook us for the last couple of very wet miles.

Alternatively, we could have returned via the rougher road to Cherna Mogila, reversing the first part of Ride 1. The distance from Lozen to Biser is the same (16 km) but this back road is slower and more hilly.

RIDE FOUR: A 92-km ride to and from Mezek and the Tower

Bike_Ride_4.jpg

Biser                       0 km     329 ft
Lyubimets             10           270 ft
Lozen                     6           367 ft
Malko Gradishte     5           675 ft
Siva Reka               7           380 ft
Mezek                    6           490 ft
Mezek Fortress      1.5        750 ft
Picnic Table           6.5      1,627 ft
Tower (2,250 ft)    4         2,250 ft 
Return to Biser     46            329 ft
Total                    92

The Route:

Turn left out of the campsite gate and then right at the busy main road (care needed) to Lyubimets. Just past 'Snack Bar Boliarka' and the petrol station, turn right (signed for the railway station or 'Gare') and follow the rough potholed road to a T-junction before the tracks. Turn left towards the town centre, then right (signed for Ivailovgrad) and over the level crossing. Continue to Lozen, where you can have a break in the café/bar garden (or earlier in Lyubimets, or later in Malko Gradishte).

Keep riding southCountry_(35).JPG up to Malko Gradishte, then turn sharply left past the village. It's downhill to the next hamlet, Siva Reka, where you continue onward towards the historic frontier village of Mezek. Strategically placed for access to the Valley of the Arda River, as well as the road to Constantinople/Istanbul, the very name Mezek means 'border'. The cycle ride could, of course, finish here (with refreshments in the village and a choice of return routes) but if you enjoy climbing, read - and ride - on!

Shortly before the centre of the village there is a right turn leading upMezek_Fortress_(10).JPGhill, signed to Mezek's fortress. This quiet road climbs very steeply for 1 km to a little Tourist Info cabin, tucked away among the trees on the left. It has toilets, some maps and postcards on sale, and leaflets about the Restoration of Bulgaria's best preserved medieval fortress. The fortress itself is a little further up the hill, on the right, accessed by a short path. Entry is free and it's worth a look, with a view over the village.

You could turn backCycling_2.JPG here and freewheel to Mezek village – or continue upwards and onwards along the well graded forest track, shadowing the Greek border for over 10 km. There is a shaded picnic table on a ridge for a break before a final steeper section, hairpinning to the end of the lonely road. It culminates in a well-guarded hilltop microwave tower at 2,250 ft – a landmark for miles around (visible from Biser on a clear day). Steps and a short track lead up to a War Memorial to those who fell in the Balkan Wars of 1912-13.

A well-earned 12 km descent leads backCycling_6.JPG to Mezek village, to eat, rest and refill bottles. The supermarket on the square has outdoor tables and doubles as a simple restaurant. The friendly assistant there speaks good English and willingly makes excellent chips, salad and kebapche (the ubiquitous mince-sausages) to order. Oddly, she fetched the ingredients from the smaller shop across the large square, run by her husband! Their son is studying to be an English teacher and she actually remembered us from our visit a year ago (by Land Rover with friends, on that occasion).

We returned to Biser by our outward route, keeping to the quiet roads (more gipsy carts than cars) until Lozen. It is possible to take a short cut back by riding 10 km north from Mezek to join the main highway near Svilengrad, then left for 8 km to Lyubimets. This route is 6 km less in total but means riding an extra 8 km along the busy highway, which we prefer to minimise.

RIFE FIVE: A 2-day, 132-km 3-Country ride to and from Edirne in Turkey

Bike_Ride_5.JPG

The Outward Route:

Biser                                  0  km
Lyubimets                        10
Bulgarian/Greek Border   16
Ormenio                            8
Kastanies                        26
Greek/Turkish Border       1
Edirne                               9
Tuna Hotel                        2
Total                               72  km

Turn left out of the campsite gate and then right at the busy main road (care needed) to Lyubimets. We turned right into the town centre to post some mail and have a coffee – an optional detour.

Soon the main roadCycling_(67).JPGdivides for Greece or Turkey – take the right hand fork for Greece and follow a quiet road alongside the railway for 14 km to the border. Exit Bulgaria with a wave of the passport, ride across a mile of no-man's land (a remnant from a former era, before Bulgaria was admitted to the EU) and enter Greece.

The only hitch in this process was an over-zealous Greek border guard, who tried to insist that cycle helmets must be worn in Greece! Helmets are officially compulsory for motorbike riders (a law the Greeks largely ignore) but certainly not for cyclists – in common with all EU countries. We tried to explain this, failed (since the guard spoke only Greek) and rode on. He didn't shoot.

The road surface was immediately better – a smooth dual carriageway with a broad shoulder and astonishingly little traffic. We turned off into the first village in Greece, Ormenio, for a picnic lunch, taken sitting on the steps of a little chapel to St Marina. A friendly woman came over to unlock the door, light a candle and tidy up. Our Greek vocabulary ran to agreeing it was hot. We thought it wise not to mention Turkey!

Continuing east and south, the highway (direction Orestiada) bCycling_(41).JPGypassed the villages of Dikea and Spileo, then crossed the broad Arda River, on its way to join the Maritsa/ Meriç near Edirne. We paused for photos on the bridge, then 5 km later turned off the highway for the border, signposted Kastanies-Turkey.

KastaniesCycling_(42).JPG is a sleepy village just before the Turkish frontier. It's a minor crossing point, closed to heavy goods vehicles, which must use the Kapitan Andreevo crossing from Bulgaria, or the Ipsala crossing (to the south) from Greece – but we have crossed here with our motorhome. Note that if you need to buy Green Card vehicle insurance for Turkey, it is not available at Kastanies (but not necessary for bicycles).

Again, there is a stretch of no-man's land between the Greek and Turkish guard posts. It was very quiet, with no queue at all - in marked contrast to our experience last summer, when all the Turkish entry points from the west were crowded with the migration of Turkish 'guest workers' (mainly from Germany) visiting their families. Entering Turkey, we had to buy a 3-month multi-entry visa at a cost of €15 each. Previously we had paid the fee in sterling (Ł10 each) but now British currency was not acceptable – only Euros. The queen on our proffered notes looked distinctly embarrassed!

Heading for Edirne, we turned left after 4 km by a mock-watermiCycling_(43).JPGll fountain, then followed the cobbled road for 2 km to the graceful old bridge over the Meriç (Maritsa) River. We avoided the cobbles by riding on the pavement, leaving the horse-drawn taxi-carts to rattle along the road! There are inviting tea-gardens and restaurants along the river on both sides of the bridge and we tried the tea-garden Cycling_(47).JPGon our right, before the bridge. Would they take Euros – certainly (at an exchange rate of €1=2 Turkish Lire, slightly in their favour). It was a lovely place to sit with cold orange juices and hot tea (the ubiquitous çay).

Over the long Meriç Bridge, pausing to Cycling_(46).JPGadmire the view from the Ottoman kiosk in the middle, we continued into town, crossing a humped stone bridge over the Tunca River, busy with cars, horse-carts and school children on bikes. The road goes under the railway and past the market on the left, through the original medieval town into the busy modern centre of Edirne. Continue through a pedestrian shopping area, past the post office, banks etc, to Freedom Square (Hürriyet Meydani).

There are a few littleCycling_(53).JPG hotels on Maarif Cad (Caddesi = Street). To find it, turn left at Freedom Square along Talat Pasha Cad, the busy main east-west road. Maarif Cad is the next left, a narrow street running south to the ruins of Edirne's once-great synagogue. Along its length are fine 19th century wooden houses, some of which provide good places to eat or stay (see Lonely Planet guide). We passed the Karam, Park, Efe and Aksaray Hotels before reaching the Tuna Hotel. This was on our left at the quieter end of the road, opposite the Melek Anne Restaurant. A double en-suite room, with air-con and an elderly TV, cost a total of 70 TL (or €35) including a generous breakfast buffet in the pleasant inner courtyard (where the bicycles spent a safe night).

The Melek Anne (= Mamma Melek) was a simple all-day restaurant Cycling_(50).JPGin an old whitewashed house, offering home-cooked food. They accepted Euros at the usual 2:1 rate and we dined in the breezy walled garden, sitting under a cherry tree. A 'mixed plate' consisted of savoury pancakes (gözleme) stuffed with mince mixture, flaky cheese pie, potato salad and yogurt, served with a basket of deliciously soft white and brown bread. We followed this with chocolate cake and apple pie, before returning to the hotel to watch an old episode of 'House MD' in English. An even older James Bond film (starring Sean Connery!) in Turkish soon sent us to sleep.

Note: If you want to pitch a tent, Grand Omur Camping is located about 8 km south-east of Edirne along road D100. Convenient if you're heading on to Istanbul, though not our favourite Turkish campsite.

The Return Route:

Edirne                                 0  km
Turkish/Bulgarian Border   20
Svilengrad                         15
Lyubimets                         15
Return to Biser                  10
Total                                 60  km

After the Tuna Hotel's breakfaCycling_(55).JPGst buffet (cheese, boiled eggs, olives, salad, non-pork salami, bread, butter, jam, honey and endless çay), we walked round the nearby Bazaar Ali Pasha, the largest of Edirne's covered bazaars. This beautifully kept airy building with its lofty roof was designed by the great Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan in 1569. The city is known for its scented fruit-shaped soaps and we bought an assorted basket. The bazaar also has an abundance of clothes, shoes, fabrics and furnishings, but no fresh produce.Cycling_(59).JPG Peddlers approached us with post cards and fake watches but were not aggressive or over-persistent. We generally find Turks extremely friendly, interested and polite.

Sinan was also responsible for the grandest of Edirne's several mosques, the magnificent Selimiye Mosque, built for Sultan Selim II and completed in 1575, the year after his death. It's smaller but more elegant than Sinan's Suleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul (1550) and the architect himself considered it his masterpiece. Its 4 tall slender fluted minarets are the landmark of Edirne, approaching from the west.

Edirne (founded as Cycling_(58).JPGHadrianopolis by the Emperor in the 2nd C AD) was an important Roman and Byzantine town on the Via Egnatia from Rome to Constantinople. It became the Ottoman capital in 1363, until Mehmet the Conqueror set out along the Via Egnatia to take Constantinople/Istanbul a century later. The impressive range of well preserved historic architecture includes the Roman Macedonian Tower, imperial mosques and baths, a caravanserai dating from 1550 (now the Hotel Kervansary) and a range of museums. It's a surprisingly compact city, like Istanbul in miniature, which we've explored on previous visits. Well worth a day or two's investigation, with a Tourist Info office on Talat Pasha Cad, near the entrance to the Ali Pasha Bazaar.

As we sat by the Selimiye Mosque, refilling our water bottles (boCycling_(64).JPGttled water is sold at every mini-market), we were joined by a couple of friendly women wearing long raincoats and headscarves, despite the heat. Each spread a pocket handkerchief before sitting alongside on the wall. The younger generation of girls were bare-headed and short-sleeved, but still modestly covered in jeans or long skirts. None appeared to object to Margaret's shorts (unlike the hostility received when cycling in Tunisia and Morocco). There was a long queue at the bank machine across the road – perhaps Friday is pay day?

Setting off back, weCycling_(62).JPG rode west along the busy main thoroughfare, Talat Pasha Cad, past the shoe-shine men who were doing good business. Soon we had left the central traffic behind, as the road – signed 'Bulgaristan' - became Londra Street and crossed the Tunca River on another graceful stone bridge.

Riding to the Bulgarian border at Kapikule, the road was wide with a good shoulder. We passed several service stations, pausing at the last one for cold drinks and chocolate. The small amount of Turkish currency we had left (after changing a little money for shopping) didn't quite cover our bill but the proprietor dismissed our apology - and threw in free glasses of çay.

The border crossing was unbelievably quiet, with only a short line of lorries to cycle past. We exited Turkey, crossed the no-man's land and entered Bulgaria at the village of Kapitan Andreevo, all without problem. After 5 km of Bulgarian tarmac (sadly much less smooth than Greece or Turkey), the road divided and we turned left for Svilengrad. It was immediately quieter, as most trucks went straight on for Sofia via the (incomplete) Cycling_(66).JPGmotorway, which bypasses Svilengrad (meaning Silk Town).

Riding through gentle hills in the noon-day sun, we paused for a roadside brew up before arriving in the town. Here we stopped again for cold drinks at one of the many pavement cafes, before crossing the 16th century Ottoman bridge whose 13 arches span the River Maritsa.

After 4 km we came to the junCycling_(67).JPGction where we had turned off for Greece yesterday, but now continued straight on for 11 km to Lyubimets. Here we met the highway from Svilengrad, at the junction just before the 'Snack Bar Non-Stop Boliarka', where we couldn't resist a late lunch of MNX (ham & eggs).

The final leg, along the Lyubimets-Harmanli road, was busy as ever and it was a relief to turn off into Biser and its peaceful campsite. We could hardly believe we'd just ridden from Turkey in a little over 3 hours' cycling time. Hard riders could of course make the 132 km return trip in one day, though Edirne does deserve some time.

RIDE SIX: A 4-day 240-km ride through the Rhodopi Mountains via Ivailovgrad, Krumovgrad and Madzharovo, climbing a total of 10,924 ft

Note: This is a much more strenuous ride, for cyclists who like climbing (and freewheeling!) The first day is the hardest. The only hotel accommodation after Lyubimets is in the 3 towns where we stayed and there are no official campsites on the route, though 'wild camping' is possible. Carry plenty to drink and food for lunches, at least.

4-day_All_A.jpg
 
4-day_Whole_A.JPG

DAY ONE: Biser to Ivailovgrad and the Hotel St Konstantin and St Elena

72 km of cycling and 3,549 ft of climbing
Maximum height 1,710 ft. Minimum height 218 ft

4-day_1_A.JPG
4-day_1_profile.jpg

The Route

Turn left out of theCycling_(69).JPG campsite gate and then right at the busy main road (care needed) to Lyubimets. Just past 'Snack Bar Boliarka' and the petrol station, turn right (signed for the railway station or 'Gare') and follow the rough potholed road to a T-junction before the tracks. Turn left towards the town centre, then right (signed for Ivailovgrad) and over the level crossing (10 km). Continue 6 km to Lozen, where you can have a break in the café/bar garden (or earlier in Lyubimets).

Keep riding south for 6 km, uphill (350 ft to 680 ft) to Malko Cycling_(71).JPGGradishte. At the cross- roads by the police control box, keep straight on, climbing more steeply. After 5 km, at 1,350 ft, there is a picnic area, spring and shelter on the left. It's another 2 km to the top of the pass – the first of 3 climbs on the way to Ivailovgrad.

At the top Cycling_(70).JPG(1,730 ft) there's another picnic shelter on the right, where we were ready for a lunch break. A track leads off from here to the ancient site signed as ГЛУХИТЕ КАМЪНИ (= Silent Stones) but it's a long detour more suited to walking boots and 4WD – the way we've visited it previously.

A welcome 10 km freewheeling descent then took us down throughCycling_(78).JPG the village of Dabovets to 550 ft, followed by a 7 km climb to 1,560 ft. The whole route was extremely quiet, with glimpses of the River Arda now below us as we stopped to help a tortoise across the road. Over the next 13 km the road dropped to meet the river, following it round to the Lambouh Bridge at the hydro-electric dam down at 470 ft. There is a checkpoint, so carry your passport – though no-one was on duty today.

A little park Cycling_(81).JPGon the left before the bridge was a good place to rest and brew up before crossing the Arda. Over the final 9 km the road climbed away from the river, dropped again, then climbed relentlessly, reaching 1,114 ft at a weary road junction. Our onward route will be right here for Krumovgrad, but first we needed to turn left for a 3-km downhill to a night's rest in Ivailovgrad (around 600 ft).

The small and unremarkable town of Ivailovgrad held a wonderful surprise – the brand new hotel/restaurant 'St Konstantin and St Elena', on the right of the main road, Armira Street. You can't miss it: it's the grandest cleanest building in the centre.

A splendid double room, with bathroom and TV, cost a mCycling_(80).JPGere 32 leva (€16). The bicycles were locked away in the boiler room, the receptionist was pleased to see us (the only guests) and the restaurant provided good pork steaks, salad and chips. The English version of the menu also offered 'Nervous Meatballs' and 'Chicken Mills', but we never unscrambled what they might be, as none of the staff spoke anything but Bulgarian.

The Villa Armira, a few km south of Ivailovgrad, is a partly restored Roman villa complex from the 2nd century AD. It's well worth the small admission fee and those interested in history could easily stay an extra night at the hotel and pay it a visit. However, since we explored it last year, we shall move on tomorrow.

DAY TWO: Ivailovgrad to Krumovgrad and the Hotel Via

58 km of cycling and 2,877 ft of climbing
Maximum height 2,648 ft. Minimum height 588 ft

4-day_2_A.JPG
4-day_2_profile.jpg

The Route

Breakfast is not a Bulgarian speciality! Down in the hotel's restaurant, one table just had a round or two of coffee and cigarettes, while the other ordered unappetising-looking thin greasy soup. Scouring the menu (the one from dinner last night),we ordered 'boiled eggs' with bread and coffee. Cold hard-boiled eggs, garnished with a little cheese and lettuce, arrived with dry bread.

After the 3-km climb out of Ivailovgrad back to the junction at 1,114 ft, we forked left for Krumovgrad and followed a good road through oak forest. The only traffic was an occasional truck loaded with timber and there was not a single shop, café or fuel station along the whole way to Krumovgrad. Eventually the woods gave way to open rolling countryside, planted with wheat or dotted with copses where a few cattle clustered round a waterhole.

At regular intervals, a minor roaCycling_(83).JPGd would lead off on our left towards the Greek frontier, each serving a remote Muslim village in the border zone. Every junction was marked by a bus stop and an abandoned guard post from the Soviet era, when local travel would have been strictly controlled.

At 14 km from Ivailovgrad, we stoppCycling_(84).JPGed to brew up on the roadside by a walnut grove, opposite the turning for Kobilino, at 1,540 ft. Another 11 km along the road, now at 1,970 ft, there was a brand new little Orthodox chapel (unusual in this country of neglected old churches). Outside was a war memorial with a wreath from the Consulate of Edirne in Turkey, while the porch gave shelter to a cluster of swallows' nests. A tower commemorating the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 crowned a nearby summit.

After the next 7Cycling_(82).JPG km, still climbing, we reached 2,550 ft and stopped to make lunch in a bus shelter, opposite a small cemetery and turning for the village of Popsko. The large bird we saw flying overhead was probably an eagle or vulture – there was an absence of storks up at these heights.

7 km later, now at 2,220 ft, we came tCycling_(87).JPGo a right turn signed Haskovo: the first road since Ivailovgrad that crosses the mountains to the north. We considered taking this route to Madzharovo but decided to continue another 16 km to Krumovgrad for the night, then a longer route from there to Madzharovo tomorrow.

Heading towards Krumovgrad (mainly downhill now), we passed a couple of gipsy encampments on the edge of the woods: horses tethered, children playing. Friendly waves and calls of surprise followed us down the road.

On the outskirts ofCycling_(89).JPG Krumovgrad we passed the very first shop in 56 km (35 miles). Turning left off the main road into the cobbled town centre (at 750 ft), there are several cafes and we bought orange juices, coffees and choc-ices in rapid succession. It had been a hot day.

Krumovgrad is an ethnically Turkish toCycling_(92).JPGwn, largely Turkish-speaking and Muslim. Here too we found a good new hotel, the small Hotel Via opposite the mosque and next to a modern Bistro/Bar. The bicycles were stored safely in the basement laundry room and we had a double room with air-con, bathroom and TV for 45 leva. The only other guests were a party of Dutch bird-watchers who arrived in a minibus.

In the adjacent Bistro we sat in the small courtyard by a fountain, to avoid the high-volume music in the bar. The freshly cooked pizzas were excellent.

DAY THREE: Krumovgrad to Madzharovo and the Hotel Rai

55 km of cycling and 2,534 ft of climbing
Maximum height 1,392 ft. Minimum height 402 ft

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The Route

After a very good breakfast of cheese omelettes and coffee at the BistrCycling_(94).JPGo, we rode west from Krumovgrad on the main road towards Momchilgrad. Less than 2 km along, we turned right (uphill, signed for Haskovo) and continued through Vransko village.

4 km of rough road later we reached Kovil village and a height of 1,350 ft. The terrain was becoming rocky with fewer trees. (Note: these 2 villages were incorrectly placed on our map, causing some anxiety as to whether we were climbing the right road!) In the next 4 km to the top of the pass (1,392 ft) we paCycling_(126).JPGssed an abandoned village, its pastures still grazed by horses and flocks, tended by shepherds and dogs.

Descending through Djanka (one of a series of tiny impoverishedCycling_(135).JPG hamlets, devoid of shops or cafes), there were deroded deforested expanses of land once used for mining zinc, lead, gold or silver. Pausing on a bridge over a tributary of the Arda, 7 km below the col, we saw a pair of Black Storks fishing in the river (slightly smaller and less common than their white cousins) – and a pair of women doing their laundry. It was another 2 km to Potochnitsa, a larger village with a café/bar, a school and (the only new building) a mosque with its minaret pencil reaching for the sky.

Here the rStuden_Kladenets_(17).JPGoad turns suddenly west for 5 km to Studen Kladenets, where we stopped to make lunch in a handy bus shelter. It's not so much a village as a settlement for those working at the hydro-electric dam on the Arda. Turning north, we climbed for 2 km through the Studen Kladenets Nature Protection Area to the top of the dam, then east across its eerie guarded bridge (called Devil's Bridge on our map).

We were surprised to find that the villagesCycling_(136).JPG across the river were also Muslim, each with its new minaret. Rabovo, 3 km after the bridge, had a shop for welcome cold drinks. Climbing to tiny Golobradovo, 2 km later at 720 ft, we were greeted by a woman clad like a Turkish villager. She was filling a bucket at the taps near the mosque and offered us good water.

Pchelari, 2 km further north at 924 ft, had a few shops and another mosque. Mineral mining has given way to subsistence agriculture, supplemented by a few hens, sheep and cows. We saw fleeces stacked in a yard but the main crop is tobacco, whose cultivation was introduced by the Turks. Women worked in the fields tending the young plants, while long wooden racks for drying tobacco leaves stood ready for the late summer harvest. In some villages, new racks were being built from slender tree trunks.

In the next 2 km we reached 1,000 ft just before we came down to a junction, signed left for Haskovo and right for Ivailovgrad (the road we might have taken yesterday if we'd turned off before KrumRock_Niches_(12).JPGovgrad). We turned right (south) and continued for 4 km to the car park and picnic shelter on the left, with an information board about the Thracian Ritual Tomb Complex (dating from 1000 BC) in the Kovan Kaya Massif along this part of the Arda Valley. A good place for a lunch break.

Continuing, we passed a cliff face studCycling_(138).JPGded with Thracian Rock Niches just before we crossed the Arda. Ignore the first left turn after the river (to Dolno Cherkovishte) but take the second left, through Kotlari to Strandzhevo (a large village with café/bars, 5 km after the picnic shelter).

A difficult sAround_Madzharovo_(13).JPGection of stony unsealed road began 3 km later, in the hamlet of Bryagovets. The track divides as the gravel begins and we almost missed an arrow with the letters MA (for Madzharovo) painted on a wall, indicating the left fork. Taking this lane, our bumpy way roughly followed the south bank of the Arda, though it was by no means level. Out of respect for our spokes and rims, we walked some of the next 7 km until we reached tarmac again. We met an English couple who were bird-watching with a Bulgarian guide and a separate party of Dutch ornithologists, brought by minibus, who we'd seen at our hotel in Krumovgrad last night. They told of eagles nesting in the crags above but we saw none.

A final 4 km climb Cycling_(139).JPGon a sealed road brought us into the back streets of the depressed mining town of Madzharovo, where there is just one pretentiously grand hotel looking down on the grim grey apartment blocks.

The Hotel Rai (also known as Paradise, which it isn't) proposed charging 80 leva (€40) for a stuffy double en-suite room, with no air-con, and smaller than the room for which we paid 32 leva in Ivailovgrad! Visit their website, if you really must, but at least it is in English and the receptionist spoke just enough English to understand our complaint. We were moved to one of the very few rooms with air-conditioning. Once we had recalled her to make the TV work, we settled in. The bicycles went in the garage (for which there is an extra charge for cars or motorbikes that she generously waived!)

Admittedly, we had a good meal of chicken in the restaurant (for a price), dining alone. The hotel was completely empty, the bird watching party staying more economically in the next village of Borislavtsi.

DAY FOUR: Madzharovo to Biser and Camping Sakar Hills

53 km of cycling and 1,964 ft of climbing
Maximum height 1,722 ft. Minimum height 226 ft

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The Route

This last day had the shortest distance and the least climbing (just one major pass), though it was by no means easy - or were we wearying of the heat?

After a hotel breCountry_(15).JPGakfast of ham & eggs with toast, followed by an attempt to get 2 cups of hot coffee with milk (we failed and settled for orange juice), it was downhill through Madzharovo. We passed the Vulture Information Centre on the right beforCountry_(21).JPGe the bridge, then crossed the broad River Arda – a total of 3 km. The Centre (www.vulturecenter.bspb.org) has a café and a display about the birds of the Arda Gorge, one of the few breeding grounds in Europe for 3 types of vulture, as well as 5 kinds of eagle. Accommodation and meals can be provided but have to be booked months in advance, as they are mostly taken by groups of students or ornithologists.

Over the bridge, weCountry_(24).JPG took the very first right turn for Borislatsvi, climbing along a road with views of the river meandering below us. Another baby tortoise was rescued along the 9 km to Borislatsvi village, where there are a pair of simple shop/cafes offered cold drinks and better coffee than the Hotel Rai! A polite young schoolboy came across, sent by a woman who was selling tee-shirts in the tiny market. 'My grandmother says I must come and practise my English' he explained! Nice not to be taken for German or Dutch, as we usually are when cycling in mid-Europe.

The next village, Malki Voden, 3 km later, had no shop or café. After anoCountry_(25).JPGther 5 km we met the main Lyubimets-Ivailovgrad road that we had ridden southwards on Day One. It was noon and very hot. Before turning left (north) for Lyubimets, we made a drink in the forest, sheltering in a former police box, then climbed the 4 km to the top of the pass and the beginCycling_(141).JPGning of the Silent Stones track. Here, at 1,730 ft, we made our lunch in the same picnic shelter – another circle completed!

After the 7 km descent to Malko Gradishte, we continued via Lozen (7 km) and across the railway line into Lyubimets (another 9 km), both of which have cafes. Then we turned left at the main road to head back to Biser, arriving at Sakar Hills Camping mid-afternoon.