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.