It all started some years ago during one of the ski touring trips abroad.
We were sitting at the bar with glasses of beer in hand, after a wonderful ride in the mountains, when one of my clients told me:
“Plamen, look, we are a group of friends and fans of mountain biking and we would love it if you could arrange for us a bike trip somewhere. I’d anticipate that we would appreciate a proposal for a cultural and culinary tour.”
Mountain bike tour …!? Yes, I occasionally ventured into cycling, but in my work as a mountain guide I had never thought of offering such a thing.
I used to go mountain biking with the guys from CAI Bormio. We rode every Wednesday evening to get to some “peak” (mountain home) owned by some of the guys. We ate a hearty dish of pasta, the rest of the belly was filled with beer and then down in a wonderful descent to Bormio in the light of the bike. Every now and then I went on my own in the woods and trails of Alta Valtellina, but nothing more.
I was wondering: A cultural and culinary tour…!? Why not in Bulgaria!? - I answered myself one day.
Bulgaria is my country of origin and I can say that I know the history, culture, art cities, the great flavors of the cuisine and fine wines. Bulgaria ranks amongst the first countries in the world regarding cultural heritage, after only Greece, Italy and Spain.
Here I want to open a parenthesis and make clear that this is not a contribution of the Bulgarians. The territory which Bulgaria covers now belonged to the ancient Thracians. Both Slavs and Bulgarians, who founded the country in the 681st year after Christ, moved and settled on the Balkan Peninsula.
OK, I had a goal!
I revised my old mountain bike, loaded it on the plane and only with a backpack with some clothes, a spare inner tube, a canister with foam to inflate tires quickly and my GPS Garmin “Summit”, I landed in Sofia.
During the winter I had studied a possible path on the maps. The route crossed the highest mountains in Bulgaria, following dirt roads and through the most important Christian Orthodox monasteries, leading to Melnik (famous city in past centuries for its thriving local trade in wines).
Here we go! Now there was nothing left but to ride.
I started from Dragalevtzi (one of the residential neighborhoods that surround Sofia).
Soon the road imerges into the intense green of the forests of Mount Vitosha. From the village of Jelesnitza I enter the interstate and after about three km, I stop for lunch at a restaurant.
Two km. of descent and here we go, away from the asphalt, in the woods and meadows, towards the village of Jarlovo.
Easy to say, but not so easy to do. I am struggling with the most insidious problem which from now on will haunt me on the roads of Bulgaria. The country has changed greatly during the transition from communism to free market. The roads that once led to a farm or a cooperative estate, have been abandoned, almost vanished, because the structures themselves no longer exist.
The map I have of this area goes back to 25 years ago. For the umpteenth time I follow one of the roads, which I think is well engraved on the ground, but after a while I notice that it either leads in another direction or is lost in the woods. I go back, try again and eventually with some help from the sky, take the right path and arrive at the village of Dren (set point to spend the night).
I am a guest of a family-run farm, which has two comfortable apartments. The easiness of conversation with the people who live in the countryside and the family atmosphere, take away the tension built up during the day. Even the sense of failure which began to pervade after several rides off course now disappears and I go to sleep.
Breakfast with fresh milk, butter and cheese and homemade freshly baked cake. I greet the family and get back on the pedals.
The road takes me through farm fields and small, isolated rural villages, which seem to have fallen asleep in a long deep sleep. Before me stands the chain of Mount Rila (the highest mountain on the Balkan Peninsula) that I will have to face in the coming days passsing a 2166m pass.
I start the ascent towards the high end of the field, where in the valleys of Rila crouch a few villages. In the afternoon I stop in a beautiful villa with a swimming pool and rent a room for the night.
Being a mountain guide, I am physically very fit, but cycling is a whole new story. I feel a bit of pain in the back and legs and I go for a swim in the pool. Swimming makes my muscles relax and I go to have dinner.
Following the road in the woods of pine, oak, hazel, I arrive at the town of Rila (the native village of St. Ivan of Rila, the founder of the most famous and largest Monastery in Bulgaria).
After another 20km. on the road I enter within the picturesque courtyard of the monastery. In the middle, there stands the church in Byzantine style, with walls painted with beautiful frescoes, representing scenes from the Bible. Here, in the 18-th century the two most famous painting schools in Bulgaria met - the school of Bansko and Samokov school. Although on the paintings in the church have worked more than five painters, all the frescoes appear to be made by the same hand.
I find accommodation in one of the small hotels near the monastery. In the menu of the restaurant I find grilled trout: the specialty of this area.
I proceed in the valley of Iliina Reka in a gentle ascent for approx. 10km. A bridge across the river, turn to the right and I start the ascent towards the Makedonia mountain hut, located right on the pass at 2166m. The ascent through the forest is beautiful.
Too bad that this road has been abandoned. Every so often I am forced to climb over a few fallen trees or some great mass of rock. For approx. 2km. I push the bike on a section ruined by the rivers that flow on the road, because the ducts have not been cleaned for years.
By lunch time I arrive and I stop at the hut.
A descent for more than 15km., then a short ascent and back down to the village of Bania.
The horizon is closed in front of me by the chain of Mount Pirin. According to the legend, the Pirin mountain was the abode of the god Perun (main God of the ancient Thracians). The legend says that the God lived in a castle of marble on top of the mountain. In fact, the chain of Pirin is composed of white marble, which reflects the light of the sun and it appears to have snow even in summer.
Approx 6km. of a gentle ascent and I reach the town of Bansko (the stronghold of Bulgarian culture in the times of the Renaissance and the most famous ski resort on the Balkans).
To restore my strengths - I enjoy one of delicious dishes offered in the restaurant “Bariakova Mehana” - a gold award winner for best cuisine in Bulgaria.
From Bansko, the road leads me into the woods of Mount Pirin.
Overnight stay in a private facility that rents rooms and in the morning I proceed towards the town of Melnik.
At lunchtime I arrive at a restaurant that I already know, having passed through many times with groups of trekking. The owner recognizes me only when I take off my helmet, then puts on the grill for just a big steak for me.
A short ascent and I dive in a long descent to the village of Rojen. Three curves of steep killing-leg climbing until amongst the green of the trees I start to see the roof of the monastery of Rojen (one of the oldest in Bulgaria). The small courtyard that houses the church conveys a sense of order, peace and simplicity, in full respect of Christianity.
After the tour I continue for another 6-7km. to the town of Melnik (famous city in past centuries for its wine culture and its fine wines). I’m going to spend the night in a typical small hotel that I know well from previous hiking trips.
I wake up with the dawn light coming through the window and with a little of nostalgia because my adventure ends here. The last several days I was in complete sync with my bike. The ride had become a daily riutine for me. I felt strong and my legs felt like I was able to pedal up to infinity.
I go out on the terrace in the inner enclosed courtyard and begin to descend the stairs towards the restaurant for breakfast.
My nostrils capture a scent I feel that I know. A light fragrance, which comes from afar, but it is unmistakable.
I make another two steps and stop again.
Is it the scent of the sea?
Yes, the Aegean Sea is only 70 - 80 km. away in straight line.
My mind begins considering: what if my trip were over at the sea instead of here …!? It would be great …! No, I have to go back to Italy. I am very busy with work.
However, I am self-employed. It means that I am the only person who can give myself a permission to prolong my holiday. For more than twenty years that I’ve lived in Italy I have never been on a vacation. Only worked.
It doesn’t take much to convince me.
I call my friend who was supposed to come pick me up and bring me back to Sofia and tell him:
“Look, can you come in a few days and meet me at the Aegean Sea in Greece?”
The answer is “Yes”.
So off we go … …!
I pedal on secondary roads that connect various villages in the plain, and soon arrive at the border.
I know that immediately after the border there are the southern Rhodope Mountains, but I have no map of the area. I comfort myself: - If there are mountains, there will be dirt roads.
I cross the border and stop at a shop in the village first. I can’t find anything better than a road map of the Greek province of Makedonia, with a 1:250 000 scale, but it’s still something.
I pedal for approx. 10km. on asphalt then stop at a nice hotel in Aghistrò. Thanks to the tips of the owner of the hotel, in the morning I take a dirt road to enter one of the most beautiful Greek mountains.
I arrive at a pass. The scenery is gorgeous. I feel free and happy. I smile. It reminds of the movie “Forrest Gump” and phrases spoken by the protagonist:
“One day I started running, and so a month after I arrived on the Pacific coast. I said to myself: Now that I’m already here, why not go on to the Atlantic coast, and I continued to run. When I was thirsty, I drank. When I was hungry I ate. when I was tired, I slept. "
I smiled again and dove into a beautiful descent towards Achlodohori.
I proceed after lunch, but I lose the road many times. The map I have is what it is. The dirt roads are not marked. Thanks to the directions of a shepherd, I arrived in Vrontù in the evening. On my map, the village seems large enough, but I can’t find any hotel.
I go up and down the village, but nothing.
I decide to enter a bar and ask if there’s someone who can offer shelter for the night. I enter and greet. The owner of the bar, a robust woman, turns around. Her face grows even more with a smile, she looks at me with mischievous eyes and says:
“Ti kanis edo meta esorouha?” (“What are you doing here in underwear?"). I’m wearing cycling shorts.
I smile and ask if anyone can rent me a room for tonight. From her, I understand that there is a small new hotel in the village, but is a little outside - about 2-3km.
I climb back on the saddle and quickly arrive at the hotel. The owner, a person passionate about mountain biking, rock climbing, rafting, martial arts, has transformed this place into a paradise for sports and relaxation in nature.
Today I ascend the last mountain pass and go down into the valley of Drama. Through villages, fields, meadows, a little on dirt roads, a little on asphalt, and in the early afternoon I arrive in Lefkotea.
I stop at a tavern in the shadow of a large walnut. Near me there are four men dressed as workers who are finishing their lunch. A person comes out the tavern apologizing and tells me that it’s a bit late and the kitchen is already closed, but if I want, they can prepare me a Greek salad.
“All right.” - I answer. It’s better than nothing.
I order some bread and enter to wash my hands. I’m amazed right at the door. The tavern is more like a musical instrument store. On all the walls are hung bozuki and baglama. Near the bar the owner and a boy are adjusting two instruments.
I return outside and see two of the men collecting my objects from the ground that I had on my table. A slight breeze had flown my map, glasses and other things. I thank them and I apologize for the inconvenience. They ask me where I come from and invite me to sit with them.
Suddenly we hear music from the tavern. It’s the bozuki accompanied by the sound of the baglama. It feels like the sweet rhythmic sound of waves that reach the sea beach on a beautiful sunny day.
One of the men gets up, opens his arms and starts dancing. He looks like a falcon in flight. He makes the rounds around the table, leans his body and head forward, kneels on one leg and with a gesture of respect with his right hand, invites his friend to dance.
The other one gets up, mimics the movements of the falcon flight and leaves room inviting the third one.
Now it’s my turn and I can’t resign.
We say goodbye with hopes to meet again.
From the valley of Drama I enter in the rich in crops valley of Strimonas and in the late afternoon I reach the shores of the Aegean Sea.
The excitement of having reached the sea is great. I feel like I’m lighter. I feel that fatigue is disappearing in the muscles and with my lungs full of iodine air I pedal fast the approx. 10km. that separate me from the hotel in Asprovalta.
I dive into the sea. Dinner based on fish and then I go to sleep.
Before leaving for Ouranoupolis, I wait for the opening hours of a hardware store. I need a flash tube # 14. Yesterday my bike, after 20 years of impeccable service, has started to give me trouble. A bolt in the central movement unscrewed and I risk losing it.
I purchase the key, fix it and for about fifteen kilometers I ride along the sea and along the beaches of Stavros Asprovalta. After Sravròs I enter the main road towards Ouranoupolis (the last village before the border with the monasteries of Mount Athos).
The main road is not very busy and I travel well, just that my bike is showing signs of fatigue. In fact, this tour is a bit challenging for an old lady like her. Each 5-6km. I have to stop and screw the bolt back.
Finally, with an agonizing and groaning bike beneath me, I enter Ouranoupolis. The bike manages to hold up until the swim in the sea. Then I have to push it to find a hotel in town.
In a secondary street, a very simple but clean construction, surrounded by flowering shrubs, attracts my attention. I approach and read a sign on the entry gate that says “ZIMER”.
Sitting in the garden, three people are speaking German among themselves.
I have no doubts, I’ve found my hotel. Around the world German tourists, with the precision of a barometer, mark the right value for money. The Germans always find the places where there is good quality for a good price.
Chatting with the girl at the front desk I discover that she is passionate about running and is a veteran of the marathon of Athens. I tell her how and where I come from and gain her respect, as well as a 50% discount on the price of the hotel.
In the morning I’m going to take a boat that goes around Mount Athos. Mount Athos and its monasteries is the symbol of the union of the Orthodox Christian churches. It’s like the Vatican in Italy. It’s a state within a state. To enter its territory one requires a visa, obtained after a period of 3-4 months waiting time. I’m happy with the trip around the monasteries aboard a catamaran.
I’m back in the afternoon and see at the entry of the hotel parked the jeep of my friend. I fast load what little I have to be loaded and I’m ready to go.
Leaning against the wall and left there alone is my bike. No, I can’t leave my companion in the adventure like this. I ask my friend to move the seats and load the bike.
P.S. With this journey I discovered a new way to explore and discover the world. This is how I fell in love with biking. After my return to Italy I bought a beautiful new mountain bike. My old bike stayed in the house of my dad, and when I go there, I use it to go to buy bread. Every now and then I tighten the bolt and think with a little of nostalgia about the wonderful adventure that she and I have lived.