Whilst planning this trip I’d read about the Belitsa Dancing Bears Sanctuary and, as it was near Bansko, that was first on our agenda for day 18. Only 7km north of Belitsa according to the Rough Guide it had moved about 20km north, the last few being on a dirt road up into the hills. The trip took longer than anticipated and, knowing we had a longish day ahead, I was quietly hoping it would be worth the effort – and it was, every bit of it. Founded in 2000 to rescue dancing bears they now have 26 in a 30 acre beautifully laid out site. In theory there are no more dancing bears in Bulgaria to rescue so their remit has expanded to the rest of the Balkans as well as zoos and circuses throughout Europe. A cause well worth supporting.
We passed through a romantic (as long as you’re not living it probably) bucolic landscape of wild flowers, hay meadows, bee hives and walnut groves before heading up into the higher mountains via the Velingrad Gorge where a narrow gauge railway ran alongside for much of the twisting route, including some surprisingly steep inclines. Through Pazardzik where horses (seemingly not owned but in pretty good condition) grazed the kerbs before a brief motorway link between the north/south routes we wanted – it appears that most of the ‘flash car’ drivers took their lessons in Germany! We then took the Shipka Pass on a wonderfully smooth new twisting ribbon of tarmac (so new they were still laying it!) to Veliko Tarnovo, the former capital of the Second Kingdom and where Bulgaria’s first constitution was written. A thriving place with everything from ancient ramparts and cobbled streets, through art galleries and museums to a buzzing nightlife driven by the university students – which we avoided! We decided to stay for a couple of nights allowing a day to explore, spending longer in the medieval stronghold than anticipated; a huge and fascinating complex. The Cathedral, rebuilt in the 1980s, has the most amazing modern frescoes inside – very bold, very dark and incredibly powerful – and apparently the reason for the building not being re-consecrated.
The plan for Day 20 was a relatively short run through the Iskar Gorge to Vratsa with the intention of an easy following day across the border and into Romania. The gorge was a little disappointing, being more of a low level pass, rather than a ravine road, with a quarry railway running alongside. Also, our map wasn’t detailed enough to pick up the minor route indicated by the Rough Guide so, after a mystery tour, we ended up on the ‘wrong’ road into Vratsa.
Vratsa was about the worst type of city/town I can imagine – a dishevelled urban sprawl with too much traffic and too few signs (including those of hope!). We found a hotel of sorts, a four room family run place, with very helpful teenager using her Smartphone to translate but parking was an issue. We couldn’t decide if they were worried about the security of the bikes or of attracting unwanted attention to their place and the ‘covered parking lot’ we were directed to a few minutes walk away appeared to be a long unfinished hotel (?) now derelict and being used as a squat …. hmmm, not sure about the security! After about 45 minutes of trying to work things out we decided the best option was to move on so we made our apologies and headed out into the setting sun. The first alternative we found may have been a Youth Hostel or possibly a boarding place for young offenders, not quite sure as we never found anyone to talk to! The next place was the Dolce Vita Motel about 10 miles out of town; it was 5* in terms of welcome appearance, food and congenial host – and it had a swimming pool!
And so to Romania, our last day or so in Bulgaria (apart form the Dolce Vita) were a little disappointing; the area felt tired, the horses barely more than four legged engines, and we had our first sightings of ‘ladies’ plying their trade in the laybys (passing time on their Smartphones or iPads!) The fact that it was waaaay too hot for riding kit probably didn’t help!
Not wanting to leave Bulgaria on a ‘downer’ these few images are from better days ….
More or less as planned, we had an easy run to the border at Oryahovo, bought our tickets and waited an hour or so for the first ferry crossing of the day over the Danube into Romania. Our tickets were checked for boarding – and refused. It turned out that, in spite of our garb, we’d been sold tickets for bicycles! Thanks to a couple of other motorcyclists who translated for us we were able to make a quick dash back to the office, buy the appropriate crossings and be shuffled around the ferry a couple of times until fully loaded – about eight lorries/coaches, three cars and five bikes.
Bob and I had slightly different first impressions of Romania – mine being better! Many of the roads were newly surfaced with colourful, decorative houses set well back, a lot more in the way of horse and carts (most of the horses looking well cared for), geese and chickens roaming the streets and small children encouraging us to do wheelies (but not something either of us have ever done intentionally!) This part of southern Romania being cleaner than the north west Bulgaria we saw – except for picnic spots where everyone seems to dump their rubbish and anywhere less enticing I can’t imagine!
We had an uneventful run to Targa Jiu, our chosen launch pad for the Transalpina (King’s Highway) on Day 22 and, more by luck than design, parked up around the corner from the Hotel Europa so that was where we checked in. TJ was something of an unexpected surprise with spacious pedestrian areas and a serene wooded park, which played host to a number of Constantin Brâncuși’s monumental sculptures that led us on a gentle amble down to the river. For convenience we ate at the hotel, which turned out to have a very good restaurant; we finally had vegetables with our meat and the wine was served with a flourish and a lot of love from an enormous, flat bottomed decanter – not an enormous, flat bottomed sommelier!
The Transalpina, apparently the highest paved road in the Carpathian Mountains, is a ‘must do’ for most motorcyclists and we thought we’d done it on our previous visit to Romania – until we realised too late that wed missed the best bit! This time we managed the whole route and very spectacular it was too – and I have to confess to it still being a novelty riding above the clouds. (Riding in the clouds, ie. rain, doesn’t count!)
From it being so hot the cats lay in puddles to cool down (honestly!) the drop in temperature was a welcome relief but thunder cracking like a bullwhip and rumbling around the peaks wasn’t. Intending to ride the Transfăgărăşan (the second highest paved road) tomorrow we headed in that direction but the increasingly insistent rumbles of thunder and streaks of lightning ahead persuaded us to find somewhere to stay sooner rather than later. The ‘characterful’ motel that we stayed in on our previous visit is now on a major road junction and the chocolate box farmstead has a four lane motorway in its back yard; we’ve ended up in a bland modern motel and, with the restaurant closed, have been directed to the adjacent Subway for supper – and they call it ‘progress’!
Hot off the press: the alternative for supper was a Turkish restaurant (aka. Kebab house)/TIR truck stop advertising double beds at 60Lei (£10 – what for?!) so Subway it was with a very nice bottle of Negru de Purcari from the garage/store, otherwise known as “Queen of England’s wine”, because the Queen regularly orders it. Actually, the Subway wasn’t bad either – and it’s just as well there’s no such thing as too many multi-tools as we had a corkscrew! The weather forecast is not so good for the next couple of days so we may change our minds about the Transfăgărăşan – after all, we’ve already ’done it’ and may head up to NE Romania sooner than planned.
(All images are copyright to Noeline Smith)