Part III – Greece to Bulgaria

Day 16

The looping road out of Delphi very quickly dropped us down into the valley bottom, silver green with olive groves. We passed from one valley to the next, threading our way through the ranges of hills until we reached the agricultural flat lands around Lamia where everything, other than olives, seemed to be thriving. There followed a relatively unpleasant couple of hours or so through a semi agricultural/semi industrial area with all the usual associated grot, the main highlight being that were able to bypass most of the towns and progress was good.

By mid afternoon we reached Kastraki, a small town at the feet of the Meteora and our chosen base from which to explore the area.

We found a room on the way into town and, as it was still relatively early in the afternoon, headed back out for a few hours to explore the incredible landscape (and I tried to get at least one decent photo!).

As it was our wedding anniversary we put on our glad rags for supper with the intention of finding somewhere a bit ‘special’. The restaurant was pleasant enough but perhaps we’ll have to save our gastronomic blow out until we reach France – again!

Our plan for Day 14 was to take the Katara Pass through the Pindhos Mountains to Metsovo. Maybe it’s just us but mountains always seem to be more enjoyable and this was no exception; a gently winding road through Plane trees took us up onto a higher plain (in the purely geological sense!) and the start of the pass – only to find the road ‘closed’ with a STOP sign and earth mound half way across. The road to Metsovo is now a dramatic new highway, partially funded by the EU, that literally goes through the mountains. We considered our options for a couple of minutes before deciding to ignore the signs and take the old road over the top.

It soon became apparent why it was closed as some sections had simply disappeared down the hillside and large patches of tarmac were replaced with dirt. Still passable it was obviously more of an ‘elf n safety’ thing and we’d be warned! The summit café was well and truly closed as were the couple of snow plough stations but a thoroughly enjoyable ride and, perhaps unsurprisingly, traffic free!

Our coffee stop after the pass was in the ‘Country Café’ – a slightly surreal experience drinking strong Greek coffee in the baking heat in a vaguely western themed café listening to Nashville’s best.

We decided to look around nearby Metsova and perhaps find a different route home but we got lost in the Cyrillic sideroads that weren’t on our map and eventually decided the best option was to retrace our steps as we were running low on fuel with not a petrol stop in sight. A good excuse to ride the pass again and it was great in both directions!

The next day we had a pleasant ridge top road with valleys and mountains to either side before picking up a more major road past Thessaloniki towards Kavala on the coast. Progress was very good but we decided to stop a little earlier than intended, ending up at Akrogiali. Obviously a hive of activity in season we were definitely nearing the end and the sea front had an air of putting its feet up after the hustle and bustle of a busy summer. Much of it seemed to be holiday homes or long term lets with few hotels or B&B equivalents, amongst which we found the Hotel Angela and ended up with our own two bed apartment with kitchen, VERY compact en-suite and extensive balcony. As the sun set we walked down the curving beach, empty apart from the fishermen, to the nearby restaurant Elena where, other than family we were the only customers. I had fish, which couldn’t have been any more fresh, whilst Bob had the most amazing stuffed burger ever – the definition of ‘burger’ needs changing!

So, Day 16 dawned and we headed for Bulgaria, stumbling across the Amfipoli Lion en route – an incredible 4th century stone lion monument to mark the tomb of one of Alexander the Great’s right hand men. Our coastal plain narrowed into a valley which then led us through a series of hills to the Bulgarian border and a queue of …. one car. We were waved through with a cursory glance at our passports and stopped to buy a vignette only for the border guard to catch us up and tell us that motorbikes were free – a friendly gesture and yet another benefit of motorcycle travel!

We wound our way sharply up to our first coffee stop of the day at Delchevo, a wonderfully rustic little village high up on the side of the mountain with the most incredible views across the valley below. Made up of only about 50 houses and a bar where two old guys and a woman were discussing life and smoking home grown.

We then had a fairly leisurely ride to Bansko, apparently an up and coming ski resort, although none of the charm of the old town has been lost and the new pedestrian areas and squares are a great place to have a beer! Our accommodation was a family run ‘pension’ in the old town with the bikes securely locked away in the garden courtyard – no thanks to the Rough Guide; generally they work very well but our 2008 edition is proving to be a little out-dated here.

We stayed in Bansko for two nights enabling a leisurely visit to the Rila Monastery, tucked away in the mountains; a really beautiful place which retained an air of serenity in spite of us grockels! The church was in a wide courtyard surrounded by the monks’ cells and the frescoes adorning its exterior were fascinating – we could probably have spent a whole day (or more!) looking at them alone. However, considering St. John of Rila (the monastery being named in his honour) spent the last 20 years of his life in a cave there was something ‘not right’ about the opulence of the church interior – but I guess that’s often the case.

After a coffee at the end of the road higher up the mountain we headed back for Bansko, the temperature seeming to rise exponentially as we descended.

Bulgaria has, so far, been a fantastic experience; it feels a very ‘up and coming’ place with a really positive vibe. There are obviously poor areas and a great disparity in wealth but national funds appear, on the surface, to have been spent well in terms of developing the infrastructure and transport links between rural communities as much as important urban areas. People seem very positive and proud of their country and it has been a perhaps unsurprisingly different experience to Greece considering their current issues.

In response to the requests for ‘interesting’ details about the bikes: so far we’ve covered 2585 miles, used a bit of petrol (cheaper than UK!) and no oil, no punctures, no breakdowns, no problems – and I’ll probably regret saying that! Bob’s decision to downsize from his Tiger to the 650cc Versys has (thankfully!) been a huge success.

PART IV ….

(All images are copyright to Noeline Smith)

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