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.

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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