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

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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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Wrong keys

Day 1 – Saturday 28th March – Barcelona to Villarroya de los Pinares (415km) – [MAP]

It was 8 am on Saturday morning and loading the bike was taking longer than expected… Besides my stuff I had to carry Nat’s riding suit, boots and helmet, and I had also decided to take my camping gear just in case, as I had not booked hotels or hostels for every single night. My bike sleeps in the street, by the main entrance to my building, so I could not put everything on it the night before and just get up and ride away. By the time I was done, I was already late to meet my riding mate for the day.

A friend of mine had recently bought a V-Strom and we had talked about doing something together for Easter, but he only had four days off, so I suggested riding together on the first day all the way to a house my family owns south of Teruel, and then he could ride back to Barcelona and I would go on to Hervás, on the other side of Sierra de Gredos.

We arranged to meet at 8 o’clock and I got to the meeting point about 20 minutes late… to find that he was not there! I checked my mobile and saw that he had called me and sent a text: he had forgotten some parts of his new GoPro camera and had gone back home to get them. I had also just got a GoPro for my birthday, and unlike the one that was stolen on the big trip, this one came with a WiFi remote that I had mounted on the handlebars so I could record while riding without having to reach for the camera and risk crashing, and I was looking forward to trying it on this trip, so I could hardly blame him for going back to get his.

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In the end we set off at about nine, a bit later than expected, but no big deal, we had a place to sleep that night and the whole day ahead of us. I have to say that I had been a bit overoptimistic in planning the route, and the initial idea of riding only secondary roads all the way down seemed a bit too much now, especially since I was not riding on my own and we would be stopping quite often to test the cameras, so we decided to skip the bit that was closest to Barcelona (we could do those roads any other weekend) and take the coast motorway to get to the interesting bits faster.

Oh, did I regret that decision… Not only was the motorway tremendously boring, but on that particular day it was also very windy, and we had a couple of scares when sudden gusts of wind almost blew us off the bikes. We made it to Reus in the end, and from there to Flix to start the first interesting bit of road of the day.

Past Flix there is a road that goes to the town of Riba-roja, first along the reservoir that carries the same name, and then up the hills where some of the decisive battles of the Spanish civil war were fought. It is a small winding road that nobody takes, and after the long slog of motorway and with the wind already gone, we finally started having fun. Once the road reaches the top of the hills there is a small dirt road to the right that goes to the remains of some tranches built to defend the area during the war. It seems that a lack of coordination and bad intelligence meant they never saw action, even though the fascist troops broke through the lines nearby. The place is well worth a visit, not only to see the trenches but also to admire the views over the reservoir.

We took turns to ride in front and record each other, and I was happy to see that my setup was working well. I first tried the camera mounted on the topcase to record myself from the back of the bike, and then I mounted it on the helmet, which I preferred, because it gave me more flexibility to point it different ways. It was on one of the stops to check the cameras, while I was waiting for my friend to change the position of his, that I checked my tank bag and realised that I had taken the wrong keys to the family house.

I could not believe it… it was almost lunchtime, and we were too far from Barcelona to even consider turning back. I called my father to see if there was any neighbour that might have a copy of the keys, but there wasn’t. I told Gerard and we decided to keep going anyway and find a place to sleep. More of an adventure.

His family is from a small village in the area where we were, called Bot, so he suggested stopping for lunch there, as he knew a good restaurant. While we were having some rather excellent grilled meat we checked some places to stay that night on the mobile phones, but everything was either expensive or already full. In the end we got the address of a backpacker’s hostel in Teruel and decided to stay there.

The excellent meal took its toll, and we were feeling a bit heavy back on the motorbikes under the early afternoon sun. We rode on to the beginning of the Maestrazgo, a mountain range that extends from the south of Catalonia all the way near Teruel, and offers a maze of backroads that wind their way up and down valleys and gorges, and rises to the high plains and passes to offer excellent views. It is a very sparsely populated area, and one can ride for hours without coming across another car, which makes the area a perfect place to enjoy a motorbike to the fullest.

After riding to Valderrobres we took a tiny road up the mountain, where we switched bikes. It was an experiment I was very interested in doing, since both bikes were the exact same 2007 model (even down to the colour), but mine had done over 130.000 km and his was barely run in (he got a hell of a deal). I was very happy to see that other than a smoother throttle and clutch action (entirely my fault, I should have changed the cables or at least lubricated them a long time ago), there was virtually no difference. I remembered how many articles I had read praising other bikes “quality” and wondered where that perceived quality would be if I treated one of them like I treat mine. One difference I noticed was how soft the standard suspension was, diving noticeably under braking, when compared to mine, fitted with stiffer Hyperpro springs. Swapping your springs for better ones is definitely money well spent on a V-Strom.

We swapped again and rode on to find the consequences of the recent heavy rains that had affected the area all around us. Fields were still flooded, mud had washed over the road in many places, making it tricky to ride around blind corners, and there were rocks on the road at some points. Turning into an even smaller road that had to take us back to a main one, we came across a sign that said that the road was closed. It was only a sign, the road was not physically closed, so we decided to risk it, wanting to avoid a long detour. We took it slowly and after some kilometres we saw the reason – there had been some mudslides that covered half the already narrow road, so a car was unlikely to fit through, only a big 4×4 might have made its way driving with two wheels on the pile of mud. A while later we also saw a small section of road that had been washed away by a stream, leaving only half of it.

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Back on a bigger road and heading south, I wanted to stop at a place called Santuario de la Balma, a church that had been built under a huge rock. I remember seeing it for the first time on my previous trip in that area, but there were some roadworks in the access and I could not visit it. I feared it would be the same story again because of the rains, but this time it was open.

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Getting off the bikes at the entrance we almost had a shower under all the water that was dripping off the mountains. Inside church it was even worse – water was seeping through the walls and leaking from the roofs, mostly where the ceiling joined the rock face. I was surprised they had kept the place open. On the way out we stopped to play with the “guard” dog and take some pictures, and off we went again.

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By now it was clear that we were not going to make it to Teruel in daylight, which was a pity, since the last part of the ride through the Maestrazgo offers sensational views of the sunset. We pressed on trying to catch some shots in the dusk light, but shortly after Cantavieja, which is about half way the night caught us. The temperature dropped fast, and at this point we were high enough to see some snow by the road. On a long, fast stretch of road, with me riding first, a couple of dogs walked out of nowhere and onto the road. I braked hard and fortunately they decided not to cross. It was a close shave, the brakes on these bikes are quite a joke and hitting a big dog at speed means a nasty accident. A bit later it was a rabbit and then some goats by the side of the road. By then I had decided that enough was enough, we were still an hour away from Teruel, it was pitch black and there was no point pushing it on the very first day of the trip. Time to find a place to sleep.

I thought it would be complicated, as there are only a few villages in the area and they are all very small, but on the second one we came across after me making the decision to stop for the night I saw a sign on the side of the local bar that said they had rooms, and we stopped to ask. The locals looked at us as if we had just landed from another planet, at that time of night and in full motorbike gear, walking into a bar where nobody but the few people who live in the village go. We got a cheap room with two beds for the night and after some deep fried local specialties, a few beers and a gin and tonic we crashed into bed.