From Canadian lakes to Spanish badlands

Day 28 – Thursday 25th August – From lake Batak to Vergina (389km)

My days on the motorbike kept getting longer now that I was travelling on my own, and by now I was pretty much into the long distance mind-set. This was going to be the longest riding day so far, but I did not intend to do too much at once – the AT is less comfortable as a long distance tourer than both the V-Strom and the Super Ténéré, so I had promised myself that I would take breaks after no more than 100km.

It had been raining all night and I don’t like folding the tent when it is wet, but there was no sun in the morning, so it was useless to wait for it to dry. I wiped as much water off as I could, took it down and left with all the layers on the suit on, as it was rather cold.
In true Frost style, I took a road less travelled south to a small border crossing, at one more time Bulgaria offered its best landscape – thick forests and mirror-like lakes that would not have looked out of place in Canada.

20160825032650_1When I reached the border there were only a few cars and two lorries in front of me, but as I had already experienced on my way into the country, Bulgarian border policemen seem to be the slowest in Europe. Once everything was sorted, I rode a short distance to the Greek border, was quickly waved in with the usual Barça comments and rode into what seemed another world.

20160825062942_1If you had told me that I had teleported to the hills in central Spain I would not have doubt it. What had been lakes and green forests just an hour ago were now golden brown hills, with very few trees, a dry smell in the air and the temperature rising fast.

Despite the contrast, it was still very beautiful, particularly through the route I had chosen, avoiding large towns and main roads. I went near a place called Drama, but turned south before reaching it, and it was not until near Serres that I started to find bigger roads.

My first good impressions of Greece quickly changed. The landscape was now mostly flat and scorched by the sun, everything had an abandoned air about it, and the roads were no better than what I had found in the previous countries. The ring road around Serres looked like a Russian ring road – with catastrophically bad tarmac, junctions with traffic lights every few hundred metres that made fast progress all but impossible and the worst drivers I had found so far on this journey. Greek drivers seem to be very bitter about being overtaken – I would pass a 15-year old car and I could see it accelerating in my mirrors, trying to catch up again. I would stop first at a red light and the car next to me would be in gear, slipping the clutch and ready not to let me get ahead once the lights turned green. For God’s sake, even middle-aged women in crumbling little hatchbacks did it… how on earth did they expect to outrun a motorbike?

I took the motorway from there on to try and save some time, seeing there was no landscape to appreciate and the main roads were turning quite nasty, and was surprised to find a row of toll booths after riding a few kilometres on it. There was absolutely no sign anywhere before entering the motorway that announced that it was a toll road. First time I saw it. It was not a lot of money, but I paid it gingerly seeing how bad the tarmac was even on the motorway forming foot-tall folds under the heat and the weight of trucks, not to mention the hordes of nasty drivers. Oh, and they would not take credit cards to pay the toll.

A good while later I was glad to get off the motorway and head into the small town of Vergina, where I had found a cheap room in a small pension. At least this was a good ending to the day – the place was quiet, the room good, the girl in reception very nice, and they let me put the bike in the garden, where I could see it from my balcony. The only negative note was that they would not take credit card either, and all the money I had left were a few Bulgarian Lev, so I ad to go find the only ATM in the village.

20160825103754_1It took me a good while, as the town seemed to consist of detached houses and no centre, but in the end I managed to find the ATM and a small supermarket where I got some food and the end-of-the-day beer.

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Lake Batak

Day 27 – Wednesday 24th August – From Idilevo to lake Batak (259km)

Bulgaria, which at first was only planned to be the place where Nat would fly home and I would start riding back home too turned out to be much, much more interesting than I had expected. The next step in my very general plan was to be in Athens by Friday to meet my sister and her husband, who were starting their holidays there, so I had about two and a half days to spend between Bulgaria and Greece.

I decided not to push too far, and after asking for advice in the Motocamp I decided to head straight south instead of going west to meet the main road coming down from Sofia. That motorway went through the Blagoevgrad valley, where we had hit 37 degrees of heat the week before, and I was not keen to repeat the experience. The route south would take me on small mountain roads, a much less busy border crossing and into relatively unpopulated areas in northern Greece. Perfect plan.

I don’t like taking border crossings late in the day, and there did not seem to be much to choose from in terms of campsites or accommodation on the Greek side, so taking advice from Peachy, another British expat in Idilevo who knew the area, I decided to stay on the Bulgarian side and go to a campsite by a lake called Batak.

20160824050038_1I left Idilevo with the rain layers in my suit, as it looked as if it was going to rain again, and it was rather chilly. It got colder as I crossed the Central Balkan mountain range, and by the top of Beklemeto pass, at 1,520m, there was such thick fog that could enjoy the views at all. What I did enjoy was the road, another great one, and the ride down the southern side of the mountains where the sun came out and the temperature rose quickly. By the time I had reached Kamare, the first town at the bottom of the mountains, it was already so hot I had to stop to remove the rain liner in the suit and open all vents.

20160824051130_1From there all the riding became a lot more tedious. It was hot, and the landscape was nothing more than a huge plain of brown fields. The road was good and straight, which meant a lot more traffic going faster and not much fun on a motorbike. In the outskirts of Plovdiv I went through a place called Trud, to which I give the Ugliest Place On Earth award.

As you can gather, the heat and the rather featureless landscape were not doing much for my mood, but that changed quickly a while after I left Plovdiv behind heading west and turned south in Pazardzhik to go up into the mountains once again. The number on my GPS altimeter kept increasing and I started to fear that if the lake was higher than I had thought it would be, I was going to have an interesting night on my sleeping bag…

Lake Batak was beautiful, and the campsite had a small island in front of it. I stopped by reception, which was nothing more than a tiny wooden hut, but there was nobody there. The camp was half empty, there were only a few caravans and no tents, and the few people I saw were far away fishing or walking along the lake shore. I was wondering what to do when I saw a small sign on the hut window with a phone number and a message saying to call if there was no one there. I did, and a very helpful guy told me that I could put my tent up anywhere I wanted and gave the wifi password. Wifi? There were a few showers and toilets behind the hut, but that was it, no bar, no common room, no kitchen… but there was wifi, and from what I found later, it was accessible even from my tent. What a luxury! It reminded me of a campsite in Finland I has stayed in some years before.

20160824101611_1I put my tent up and sat down to write on a wooden table nearby when the owners appeared and we arranged the check in. He told me I was supposed to fill in a form with quite a lot information because the authorities were growing more wary of refugees travelling through the area, but he said that my name would me more than enough and even gave 15% discount when I told him that I had found out about his place in the Motocamp.

20160824094118_1I thought about going for a walk along the shore, but by then there were dark clouds coming fast from the north and I could hear thunder, so I stayed and cooked an early dinner on my stove in order to be ready to get tucked up into the tent when the storm came.

20160825025243_1It did come right after it got dark, and with it came pouring rain and winds that shook my tent all night, but I was so tired that with some earplugs on I slept through the night without barely noticing.

A communist UFO

Day 26 – Tuesday 23th August – From Idilevo to Buzludzha and back (162km)

The night before a storm had started while we were having the barbecue and had raged all night while I comfortably slept tucked under a duvet hearing the rain pelting against the window and the roof. The following morning the sky was still covered in clouds and there was a forecast of rain at some time during the day, so I could not plan on venturing into the mountains and find some trails, everything was muddy and a few days ago one of the British girls who spent the summer in the village had had a fall while offroading and hurt her shoulder.

I decided to pop into the Sevlievo, the nearest big town, to get some oil for the chain oiler and do some housekeeping on the bike. Once that was done the weather seemed to improve a bit, so I decided to go and visit Buzludzha, which was about 60km away by paved roads and it was something I really wanted to visit.

Buzludzha is not a town, but a mountain peak, and the reason I wanted to go there was not to do some hiking, but to visit the monument that is located at its top, more than 1400m above sea level. This is no ordinary monument, but a concrete monster built in 1981 to commemorate the founding of the Bulgarian Communist Party in a secret meeting that had taken place there a hundred years before.

20160823070612The building is an enormous round concrete structure that resembles a flying saucer with a high tower behind it, and it housed an arena intended for state functions and celebrations. Not proud of its communist past, the Bulgarian government let the building fall into disrepair and now it sits slowly falling to pieces in the middle of nowhere.

20160823070800After riding up the Shipka pass, another amazing road to add to my list, I took a smaller road that led to the monument. This one was in quite bad conditions, possibly also forgotten by the government, as it only leads to the building.

20160823064016It was a rather heavy morning, and after some tight corners I reached a col from where the imposing structure first came into view. At the col there was another monumental construction, two hands holding torches, from where a footpath led up the mountain to the building. The road continued, though, so I went on until I reached the end of it at the foot of huge stairs that raised to the entrance.

20160823065516Up to no long ago, the building had been open, but in recent years the roof had deteriorated considerably, so the government had decided to weld the doors shut. Even so, people had managed to break through some window panes into the staircases, and from then on a kind of battle had been taking place – someone cut open the iron bars blocking access and a few days later the authorities would go and weld some new bars on. Being able to see the inside of the building was a matter of being lucky with your timing and going there at the right window of time.

DCIM123GOPROAt the Motocamp, the latest info going round was that it had just been closed again, and sure enough, when I got there I could find no way of accessing the interior despite going round the building several times. I was very disappointed, but I have to admit that it was still very impressive from the outside.

DCIM123GOPROI escaped the rain on the way back made it to the camp dry, where I spent the rest of the day catching up on my writing and chatting to the people there.

The Sofia miracle

Day 25 – Monday 22nd August – From Sofia to Idilevo (273km)

When I was planning this trip I saw a thread about Bulgaria in the HUBB and I asked about places to visit, since it was the country I had researched the least. Someone mentioned Doug’s Motocamp there, which sounded like a similar concept to the Biker Camp I had stayed in when I was in Budapest. I had really enjoyed that experience, so I as very keen to head into he country’s central mountains and see what it was about.

Now, the Motocamp should have been the story of the day, it did turn out to be an amazing place, if it were not for something else completely unexpected that happened in the morning long before I set off.

In fact, the story begins the night before. I was posting the blog’s articles and pictures on Facebook and I saw that I had a friend request from someone called Julian who lived in Sofia. As far as I could remember, we had not met anyone in the last few days, so I did not accept it and went on writing.

The following morning, when I grabbed my phone from the bedside table to stop the alarm clock, I saw a notification from one of those annoying apps that come with the phone and that you can not uninstall. I was about to ignore it, but then I saw it was from the same guy who had sent the Facebook request, and I got curious to see who was so insistent to contact me. I opened the message and it read ‘Hello, I think I found your camera, I’m trying to contact you through your Facebook account’.

I could not believe it. Still half asleep, I had to read it twice more before I frantically typed a reply. He asked me whether I was still in Bulgaria, and when I told him I was in Sofia, not in Bansko, he replied that he was also in the capital. He sent me an address and I saw that it was to the south of the centre, so I told him I could be there in an hour. I was still in my underpants, and so stunned that I did not even think of asking him how he had found me. I got dressed, went down to the cafeteria for a quick breakfast, loaded the bike, checked out and followed the GPS directions to his address. It was not until I was riding through the Monday morning rush hour traffic that I asked myself the question – there were no contact details on the camera itself, and the pictures and videos it contained did not mention my name at any point. Maybe the bike license plate? But how can you get someone’s name in Bulgaria using a foreign vehicle number plate? I was mystified.

When I got to the rendezvous point he was already waiting for me, and sure enough, he had my camera. I was so happy to have the pictures and videos back that I immediately launched into an endless profusion of gratitude, and once again, it took me a while to ask him the million dollar question – how did he find me?

20160822024914By an incredible succession of lucky events and sheer investigative talent, that’s how. He said that he had thought of leaving the camera in Vihren hut, but then he thought that whomever had lost it may already be gone from there, so he left a note with his contact number and took the camera with him to Sofia. Then he looked at the pictures to see if there was something that could help him identify the owner. Going through them, he saw that I had a badge on my riding jacket that says ‘Rider1000’, and thought that it might be some kind of club, so he googled it and found its website. As you may know if you follow this blog, the Rider1000 is an endurance riding event that consists of riding 1000km around Catalonia, and as luck would have it, the list of last edition participants was still posted on their website.

But wait a moment, you might think, he did not know your name, so how could he find you in the list? Good question. He had also seen my motorbike in the pictures, and he knew it was the new Africa Twin. On the Rider1000 participants list they post the name of the rider and the make and model of the bike, but not the license plate or any other information, so I was very lucky not only to have had my camera picked up by someone who knew enough about bikes to identify the make and model of mine, but to have that particular type of bike. You see, there were 850 people on that list, and only two had entered the event with a new Africa Twin. Thank God I hadn’t bought a GS!

a383a578So now he had two names, and in the same website you can find the picture that is taken before the start line, with each rider on his bike in front of a sponsor board. He looked both names up and then identified me from the pictures in the GoPro. Voilà, he had my name. After that he only had to search on Facebook and he was able to contact me.

He had to go, so we did not have much of a chance to talk more, but he restored my faith in humanity for a good time to come.

But that’s not the end of the adventures of owning an AT … after he left I stayed where we had met to send a message to Nat, who was thrilled to hear the news and could not quite believe it, particularly getting such a story on a super condensed version through WhatsApp. I was sitting on the bike by the side of the road on a big avenue, with the warning lights on, fumbling with my phone, when a guy on a scooter stopped by and asked me if everything was OK. It turned out that he also had a new Africa Twin, we got talking and he told me that he lived just round the corner and invited me to see it. In the nth coincidence of the morning, when I mentioned that I was going to the Motocamp in Idilevo he told me that he had just been there the day before, he was friends with the people who run it, and he got a map out and recommended the best roads to get there avoiding main routes. Unbelievable. And it was not even 11 in the morning.

20160822032326After exchanging contacts I left Sofia following Nikolay’s directions, and I had a great time on the small roads through the Central Balkan mountains, travelling through small villages, forests… all on my own, no traffic to bother me at all.

20160822060324I saw an abandoned truck scale by the side of the road, and next to it, a couple of tables, a barbecue and a small shrine with a fountain, all by the river, so I thought it was a good spot for lunch. When I parked the bike on the scale platform I saw through the broken windows that the scale was still there, unlike most of these devices when they have been left unused, and the door was open.

20160822060109Curious, I went round and entered the building. There was a small, toilet, a room with a sofa, a bed and the remains of a kitchen and a bigger room with a desk and the scale, which looked in quite good condition and it seemed to work. I played with it a bit curious to see how heavy the bike was with all the luggage on and an almost full petrol tank. The scale was very precise, it could be adjusted down to the kilo, and after fiddling with it for a while it read a bit over 280kg. Hum…

It was early afternoon by the time I reached the village of Idilevo. A few km off the main road, it was a tiny village, I was out the other end almost before I realised I had arrived, and right before the end of it, I saw an old motorbike with a Union Jack painted on it, and on the opposite side of the road, a gate with a carved wooden sign that read ‘Doug Motocamp’.

P1280484I stopped in front of the gate and Polly came out to receive me. She was the only one there, she told me, the other two owners, Doug and Ivo were away. She showed me around the place, there were four rooms for guests (Yamaha, Honda, BMW and Harley), I got the Yamaha one, since the Honda was already taken. There was also a common room/bar in a barn, a barbecue area and a workshop with tools and space to store motorbikes.

20160823032938I had a shower and sat down at one of the tables next to the barbecue to write a bit when other people started arriving. There was going to be a barbecue that night and Polly had invited me to join in. Before I realised, there were more people there than could possibly fit in the four guest rooms, and the beer from the help-yourself-fridge did not help me remember all the names I had been told in a matter of minutes.

20160823042113Talking to different people, I realised that most of them were not guests, but travellers whose paths had taken them to this little village in the middle of Bulgaria at some point in their lives and they had realised that it was the perfect base both for exploring this part of the world (Greece, Turkey, Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro, Kosovo, Romania, etc. are all very near) and as a starting point for longer trips east.

Some of them had left a bike here and flew from Germany or the UK (where most of them were from) to spend the summer riding here instead of wasting a week coming and another going back home, others had even bought an old house in the village and were doing it up, since both the price of property and labour were incredibly cheap.

The evening and then night were spent eating meat, drinking beer and sharing countless stories about bikes and travels. This was a little haven, a Shangri-La for all bikers who roam the world, a place to find a moment of rest, comfort and great company with like-minded adventure riders

Departures

Day 24 – Sunday 21st August – From Sofia to Sofia Airport and back (12.6km)

Sofia is a very nice city, but as a capital city we did not enjoy it as much as Skopje. Maybe it was because we had no expectations for Skopje and it surprised us, maybe it was because we were still feeling a bit down after having lost the camera and the pictures, but I guess that it was mostly down to the fact that in the afternoon Nat was taking the plane back to Barcelona. Her holidays were over, she had to be back at work the following morning.

20160821044215She kept telling me that now it was time for me to have all the fun on my own and go truly adventure riding, but we had had three wonderful weeks together and I felt we had seen all that we had set out to see. I was meeting my sister and her husband for a weekend together in Athens in a week, and I had the impression that I really did not know what to do with the days in between.

20160821055337After visiting the city, I took her to the airport, we kissed goodbye and I went back to the hostel, feeling terribly empty. The room looked too big now, and I sat down to plan the route for the following day and try to write a bit.

The Vihren catastrophe

Day 23 – Saturday 20th August – From Bansko to Vihren hut to Sofia (189km)

At 6:00 the sky was already blue and after leaving a couple of bags at reception we checked out and headed straight for Vihren hut. There were already several cars parked in front of it, and more came as we got changed and started the walk up Vihren peak.

20160819232630The sun came out over the high mountains as we gained altitude through a well trodden path, but nothing as touristy as the seven lake trek in park Rila.

20160820014215Even though this was a relatively easy peak – the way was clearly indicated in red marks and there was not need to climb at all, just walk to the summit – the way the path gained altitude was unforgiving. It went straight up right after setting off from the hut, and it kept going that way for most of the 900m ascent.

20160820015850We reached the col before the peak in good time, having passed several groups of people who had started earlier but were making slower progress, and from there we saw that the peak was covered in clouds.

20160820025531Fortunately, they were not think enough to be a visibility problem, and we could still follow the trail to the top. We reached it in two hours sharp, an hour less than the sign in the hut said.

20160820030648The temperature was a lot lower there, and it was quite windy, so we just took a few pictures, had a snack and glimpsed at the views through the occasional gap in the clouds.

20160820031203The way down was even faster, and we only stopped two or three times to takes clothes off as the temperature rose again during the descent into the valley. We were surprised by the high number of people that kept coming up the opposite way – this was clearly a popular peak, but I have seldom seen people starting a climb so late. Not only was it way too hot on the way up at this time, but there were clouds gathering over the surrounding mountains, and the weather can change very quickly in the afternoon in the mountains. We had started walking at 8:30, and there were very few people ahead of us. If you start walking at that time in the Pyrenees, you are likely to be among the last.

When we reached the hut I checked my watch to see what time we had made – four hours total, up and down. It was a great time, and I reached into my backpack to get the GoPro out and take a picture of the time on the watch with the hut as background. I rummaged about and was not able to find it. I emptied the whole backpack, turned all pockets inside out, and realised, to my horror, that the camera was not there.

I remembered that I had taken the last picture on the col, right after coming down the rocky slope from the peak, and after we had only stopped once – the first time I put my neck warmer into the bag, the second time Nat took out some stuff to get some tissues. Either I had left the camera on a rock on the first occasion, or it had fallen out of the bag on the second. Most likely the latter.

That had happened about 300m above the hut, so without thinking twice, I told Nat to wait for me and went running back up the mountain. I reached the spot a while later, covered in sweat and out of breath, hoping to find the camera lying on the ground, as it was a bit off the main path, but it was not there. The other place where we had stopped was much higher, almost two thirds of the way up to the peak, and that time it had been right on the path, so the chances of finding it were slim… However, I did not want to go back without trying, not because of the camera itself, I could always buy another one, but because the SD card in it contained many of the pictures and videos of our holiday so far.
After catching my breath for a moment, I went on running up until I reached the other spot, but the camera was not there either. Defeated, I started to walk down the mountain, still fast, because Nat thought that I had only gone up the lowest spot and I guessed she might be starting to worry that I was taking so long.

I reached the hut exhausted, having passed people up to three times – on the normal way down, then running up for the camera, then running down again – I don’t know what they might have thought I was doing. All in all, I had climbed 1600m, lost all the time advantage we had gained when we first came down to the hut and now we had to pack things up and ride all the way to Sofia.

With our mood at an absolute minimum, we picked our stuff from the hotel and left Bansko. Nat was feeling very sad about the pictures, and I kept trying to make light of it and telling her not to worry, but between the stifling heat down at the Blagoevgrad valley, my state of exhaustion and the ride ahead of us, I snapped at her when we stopped at a petrol station. I felt miserable about it for the rest of the way into Sofia.

With such a mood, our first impression of the city was not the best one, not helped by the fact that we entered through what I later learned was the ‘gypsy neighbourhood’, where we saw street after street of people carrying waste in donkey carts and cars half dismantled every two corners.

20160820131442Things started to improve a bit by the time we reached, our hotel, saw the room, had a shower and went to see the famous Alexander Nevsky cathedral in the sunset. By the time we had found a nice grill restaurant, had a marvellous meal and two gin and tonics for dessert, we were finally smiling again.

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Lakes, rain and hail

Day 22 – Friday 19th August – From Bansko to Vihren hut and back (32km)

The weather forecast turned out to be accurate and the following morning the sky was overcast and we could not even see the mountains up the valley. Every ten minutes or so there were strong showers, so we had breakfast and sat in the front terrace of the hotel to read a while, write a while and generally kill the time waiting for the weather to improve a bit so that we could at least ride to Vihren hut, 16km up the mountain, and see the lakes.

By midday the rain finally gave us a break and we quickly got on the bike and rode up as some blue patches opened in the sky. We reached the hut through a beautiful mountain road and were surprised to find quite a lot of cars parked there despite the rain.

20160819061127We started walking to see at least the first two lakes, which were an half an hour and an hour and a half away respectively; the mountains looked higher and with a sharper profile there, the park felt more serious than Rila.

20160819063259We reached the first lake, also called Otoko, which was rather small, and went on the second one with clouds closing in around us again. By the time the second lake was in sight we could hear thunder over the mountains, so we just took a couple of pictures and started heading back to the hut.

The rain started before we had even reached the first lake, and we got soaked in five minutes. By the time we reached the hut it was pouring down and there was even some hail. I grabbed the motorbike suit and boots, which were dry, from the panniers and got changed quickly in the hut’s porch, in full view of everyone who had taken shelter there, to avoid getting pneumonia.

20160819074925When the rain finally stopped we got back to our hotel and called it a day, sad not to have seen more of the park. One thing gave us hope, though – the following day we were going to Sofia, which was only about 150km away, and we had seen signs by the hut saying that the climb to Vihren peak took three hours. The weather was supposed to improve, so we decided to wake up really early, see if the sky was clear, and then try to climb the peak before heading to Sofia.

Ghost town

Day 21 – Thursday 18th August – From Blagoevgrad to Rila to Bansko (135km)

We were going to move to a different town to be closer to Pirin natural park, but as once again we did not have much information about treks there yet we knew that we would not be going into the mountains today. That, and the fact the town we were going to was only about an hour away, made us decide to go back to Rila in the morning and try to visit the monastery before heading there.

This time we had done our homework, and found the monastery without any problems – it was just a matter of going further up the valley, but we did not have the time the previous day and in any case we would have found it closed.

As with the road to the chair lift, we found cars parked on the road a while before reaching the monastery, but when we got a policeman let us park the bike by the side of the road on the corner of the building. We saw that he was not the only policeman, there were quite a lot of them, as well as private security guards and several vans with satellite dishes belonging to TV channels.

DCIM123GOPROI asked about it and it turned out that the most important religious leader in the country – bishop, archbishop, pope… I don’t remember – was giving mass that day, and the president of Bulgaria was there as well.

20160818033204Fortunately, aside from the police and media presence, the monastery was not particularly full, so we quite enjoyed the visit. Walking through the main archway and into the courtyard, the contrast between the tall outer stone walls, which are almost like those of a fortress, and the painted arches that sustain the different residential levels is stunning.

20160818032651I knew this was the biggest monastery in the country and one of its main tourist attractions, but I must confess that it exceeded my expectations.

20160818032613After the visit we headed down the valley back to the Blagoevgrad area and the heat, and then up into the mountains again, this time to Pirin national park, glad for the cool air.
We had found accommodation in some sort of ski resort hotel in Bansko, which we had chosen because it was said to be the main gateway to the natural park. As we approached the town, we kept seeing countless billboards advertising not only spas and sports shops, but casinos and nightclubs. Not my kind of place…

We reached the hotel, parked the bike and walked into the reception area, with people looking at us as if we were aliens. There we were, helmets in hand, riding trousers and jacket, sweating the summer heat while guests wearing all-inclusive bracelets walked past us with a cocktail in their hands, heading for the pool area where loud pop music blared out of the speakers. This was definitely not the place for bikers nor for hikers, but hey, it was ridiculously cheap, breakfast, dinner and drinks were included in the price and we had a small studio all to ourselves.

In the afternoon we walked to the centre to try to find information about the trekking routes in the park, and were surprised to see how empty it was. Aside from four or five big hotels like ours, which offered cut-price all inclusive deals to attract customers in the summer, the rest of the town was dead. We saw streets full of hotels, restaurants, ski rental shops, bars, night clubs, casinos, shopping malls, even a sex shop and a strip club… all closed. Only a few sports and souvenir shops remained open in the centre, with very bored looking workers behind the counter. The ski station beyond the town looked enormous, so I am sure that all this facilities must cater for a huge number of people during the skiing season, but I had never seen such contrast before. We could not even find an open supermarket, and in the end we bought a few things to take to the mountain the following day in a small overpriced grocery store. What do people who live here eat?

20160818101929We also found the tourist information office, where they told us about another lake trek and the highest peak in the park, mount Vihren, which is the second tallest mountain in Bulgaria. Our intention was to climb it the following day, but the weather forecast did not loot good.20160818101935

Eight lakes and a peak

Day 20 – Wednesday 17th August – From Blagoevgrad to Panichishte and back (165km)

So far on this trip we had spent time on the beach, on boats and ferries, kayaking, and sightseeing, and now we wanted to do a bit of hiking in Bulgaria, a country which, with its many national parks, provided the perfect opportunity, but as you can imagine, travelling by motorbike does not allow us to carry much gear, so we were a bit limited in our ambitions. After some research we found a very popular route – the trek of the seven lakes in Rila natural park.

The route starts from a ski lift some kilometres past the village of Panichishte, part of a ski station that works as a bike park in the summer. You can either take the chair lift to Rilski Ezera Hut, where the trek begins, or walk up from the car park, which adds between one and a half and two hours to the five to six hours it takes to visit all seven lakes.

20160817032809It was clear that this was a very popular site when we started seeing cars parked on the side of the road a good while before we reached the car park, for which you had to pay. As we approached the guy charging the cars he said ‘moto free’ and waved us past, and when we got to the end of the car park, the man who was at the chair lift turnstile signalled to us to park the bike just past the lift building, where the staff cars and the snow cats were. Once again, it’s a pleasure to travel by bike.

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The chair lift is worth taking not only for the time it saves, allowing you to spend more time on the lakes trek, but also for the views it offers over the valley as it climbs higher and higher. Once we reached the hut we understood why we had read that it was impossible to get lost on this trek – not only was there a long line of people slowly creeping up the mountain, but the path itself was well trodden and impossible to miss.

20160817044218We started the trek counter clockwise, as most people did, walking on a steep path with a drop to the left from where we soon had a view of the two last lakes and another hut, this one bigger and surrounded by hundreds of tents.

20160817053906The path levelled off on a grass plain where we saw the first lake, called Babreka (the kidney), and also a big group of people standing in a circle engaged in some kind of activity that I could not tell – it might have been yoga, it might have been some sort of ritual, but to me it mostly looked as if they were trying to strangle themselves.

20160817052542That, and the fact that they were standing in he middle of huge concentric circles marked on the ground reminded me that I has seen a book for sale in a road café a few kilometres before the chair lift titled ‘The Esoteric Guide to the Sacred Rila Lakes’. After that I started seeing that among the many tourists walking around there were a fair number of people rather peculiarly dressed, as if they had just come back from a year of meditation in some remote monastery or had teleported across time and space from Woodstock.

20160817055352Just past this curious sight the path started climbing steeply until we found the second lake, Okoto (the eye), called like that because it forms a perfect oval. There we should have turned left and continue climbing to a high rock outcrop on the top of which we could see even more people, their silhouettes cut out against the sky, but I saw another path that went right and probably led to a peak we could see not far away. We had reached the second highest lake sooner than expected, the day was glorious and I thought ‘why not?’ and we started the climb.

20160817061003An hour later and 300m higher, we were standing on top of a mountain with 360 degree views over the whole park. My altimeter read 2714 metres, and later I found that we were on a peak called Rilec. From there we had the privilege to see an eighth lake on the other side of the mountain that most people doing the route don’t see.

20160817064616We went down to lake Okoto again and climbed the outcrop, from where we saw the third and highest lake in the trek – lake Salzata (the tear), and had a view of all seven lakes at once. We had lunch there, contemplating the views and chatting to a Bulgarian family that lived in Pamplona and had come back to their country on holidays.

20160817075707After climbing down to the point where the waterfall coming from Okoto met the stream coming from Babreka and turned right to go back to the chair lift via the remaining four lakes – Bliznaka (the twin), Trilistnika (the trefoil), Ribnoto Ezero (the fish lake) and Dolnoto Ezero (the lower lake).

20160817092025As we passed the hut we had seen from the distance on the way up, by the shore of Ribnoto Ezero, we got a better view of the number of tents that had been put up around it. You could count hundreds of them, sprawling around the hut and up the slope on the opposite side of the lake. On the way to the chair lift we came across more people walking up carrying tents, clearly with the intention to camp there as well, but not looking like the kind of person who is there to hike at all. Most of them were ill-equipped for the mountain, both in terms of clothing and footwear, and I wondered if it had something to do with the book I mentioned before and the people performing that circle-yoga-meditation thing. Maybe this area was considered to have some kind of healing powers, or it was a UFO sighting spot…

20160817095955We took the chairlift back to the motorbike, glad to have chosen this option, as it had given us enough time to climb peak Rilec, and started heading back to Blagoevgrad. We took a detour on the way back because we wanted to visit the Rila monastery, which we had heard is the biggest in the country. The problem was that we had not researched where it was exactly, road signs in this part of the world are between few and none and people in small villages don’t speak any English, so after riding up a valley past the town of the same name for a while and not finding it, we decided to turn back and head for the city, as it was getting late and we needed to find an open supermarket to buy some food for the following day.

While Nat was doing the shopping I stayed with the motorbike and as I was waiting a small kid came, ogling at the bike. He did not understand a single word I tried to tell him, and I did not understand what he was asking, but the love for motorbikes is a universal language, particularly among kids, and he was delighted when I sat him on it and let him fiddle with the horn and indicators. When Nat came back with the shopping I showed him which button to press to turn the engine on – you should have seen the look on his face when he pressed it and the engine roared to life. It probably made his day, week and even year. I hope things turn out well in life for him and one day he can ride his own bike.

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6th gear

Day 19 – Tuesday 16th August – Skopje to Blagoevgrad (225km)

Today was – maybe for the first time in a while – a rather quiet day regarding visits, excursions and exploration. We rode up the hills on the south of Skopje before leaving the city to see the sights from the Millennium cross, a huge 66-metre high cross built to commemorate 2,000 years of Christianity. To our disappointment, the cross could only be reached by cable car, not by road, but there was a good viewpoint from the car park where the road ended and we had a beautiful view of the city that added one more item to the list of places my impressions of Skopje drank from – Barcelona seen from the hills of Collserola.

20160816043255We left the city via the motorway and on the dashboard I saw something I had not seen in quite a while – 6th gear! We covered quite a lot of (boring) distance before running out of motorway, which by the way was not in great condition for what it cost us in tolls. The motorway ended in Kumanovo and from there a regular road, culminating in a really nice stretch of long sweeping corners up a hill, took us to the border with Bulgaria.

Of all the borders we had crossed I was expecting this one to be by far the easiest and fastest – leaving a country usually takes no more than a couple of minutes and then we were re-entering the EU with EU passports and an EU registered vehicle with EU insurance, but for some unknown reason the Macedonians took ages to check each of the few cars on the queue and their occupants paperwork, and it was even worse on the Bulgarian side. I was tempted to do that thing you see in movies, where whenever Americans are abroad they shout ‘I am an American citizen!’ at the first sign of bother, and start shouting ‘I am a EU citizen, let me in!’

Once on the other side we still had quite a way to go before our chosen destination – Blagoevgrad, a small city located between the natural parks of Rila and Pirin. At first this was only a one-stop place before we could find information about the area and decide where to go next, but the hotel turned out to be really nice and cheap, and we saw that the trek we wanted to do the following day was only about an hour away, so we decided to stay a couple of nights.

20160816113552In the afternoon we went to visit the city and get some provisions for the trek, and Nat got another good dose of working-class Eastern European neighbourhoods.