End of the Line

A lot has happened since we went olive picking so a quick run-through is in order.

We left Thessaloniki by bus to the slow-paced capital of Bulgaria; Sofia. Autumn finally punched into our realities with a vengeance as we stepped off the bus, laden with our multitude of grocery bags, into low single-digit temperatures. However, since this was our first taste of impending winter, we had that excitement that accompanies the first really crisp day each year.

In Sofia we stayed with Americans Jackson and Emily overlooking one of the main traffic circles in the city. It was mesmerizing to look down from above at the endless turning of cars while a huge neon sign blinked “Be Happy” at us day and night (and there certainly is a lot of night at this time of year). From Sofia we attempted to hike up the neighbouring mountain “Vitosha” but arrived at the base by bus to learn that the gondola that would have made this possible was under repair. We had been accompanied by a fellow couchsurfer and also American, Paul. We still enjoyed a pleasant Fall walk around the base of the ski area and some backroads.

Paul, the fellow surfer, and Emily, the mutual host, in the kitchen in Sofia.

Sofia itself is quite beautiful and the weather was perfect for enhancing the grey-feeling of the city. Is grey-feeling positive? I mean it to be. Nobody seems hurried and the lack of a major body of water coupled with the yellowish surrounding mountains had a Calgary-like feel. It was also eerie to fly out of an airport that seemed almost deserted. Perhaps that is why they had the time to confiscate our roll of tape.

From Sofia we returned to Vienna to reunite with our backpacks (stored since August), and more importantly, to see Johanna and Paul. This time we were not preoccupied with locating lost luggage so we were able to do a much better job of seeing the city. After two months of eastern countries, the sterile feeling of Vienna was a blast to the consciousness. Is sterile positive? I mean it to be. Vienna is all beautiful architecture with accent lighting and no graffiti or overflowing trash bins. I don’t think that makes it feel soulless, rather you are overcome with romantic notions as you stroll through the city by day or night.

The most interesting thing we did in Vienna was participate in St. Martin’s day with Paul and his friends. Traditionally children make paper lanterns and walk down the street singing songs about St. Martin. Apparently some grown-up children make elaborate lanterns (such as a working foosball table lantern) and go on a pub crawl. The other difference is that they seem to shout songs rather than sing them. The final stop on the crawl was a music club where some members of our procession performed the play commemorating when St. Martin gave half of his cloak to a beggar. We also stood on the stage to sing a few of the songs though I mostly had to fake it since I knew exactly 3 words in just one of the songs.

My peach tin elf lantern.

Lindsay with her rainbow spiral effort.

From Vienna we took a train and a tram way out to the edge of the city, we were actually standing next to the city limits sign, to try to hitchhike to Prague. With a sign in both German and Czech we waited for a little over an hour with nothing to show for it except for a few encouraging smiles and waves. We trudged back to public transport for the hour long trip to one of the train stations where we tasted the bitter taste of defeat in the form of 120 euros worth of train tickets.

A beautiful fall rose garden in Prague.

Prague lived up to its reputation of beauty with the majestic and plodding Vltava river being the central focus. In this way the city more closely resembles Budapest than Vienna. In Prague you can find the largest castle complex in the world perched on the a hill to the west of the river. You can also find the oldest operational astrological clock. Prague is interesting since it is geographically “Eastern Europe” but is one of the most-visited cities in Europe. This means there are around 100 hostels to choose from and the prices are much higher than other cities we have visited. The biggest anomaly is beer, which continues to be priced around $1.50 CAD for the pint in a restaurant. The Czech Republic is known for its beer consumption so it was surprising to learn that the majority of establishments serve only a light pilsner, a strong pilsner, and an unfiltered beer. Supposedly the other plethora types of beers have only started gaining popularity in the last two years.

The Charles Bridge in Prague on a misty morning.

And now it has come to the end of our last post about our shared travels. As many of you will already know, Lindsay and I have gone our separate ways. Lindsay left yesterday to Berlin and I headed to Munich. Ironically, I have never been to Berlin but I have been to Munich and for Lindsay the opposite is true*. At this point we expect to meet in Athens in a month to pack our bikes and then each of us will likely head to our respective home towns for Christmas. We will continue to update individually, Lindsay next week and me again the following week. Don’t lament even if you have only ever known us as a couple! The past five years have been unforgettable and I, for one, will look back on them fondly.

*This may be inaccurate. I’m now pretty sure that Lindsay has been to Munich.

The view from the apartment in Sofia and some good advice.

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Bulgaria

Facts:

1.2 million of the 7 million population live in the capital Sofia. Bulgaria, independent since 1908, has had several changes in political structure with the most recent change to democracy in 1990 from a communist republic with a single-party system. The official language is Bulgarian which is written in the Cyrllic alphabet and the currency is the “lev” (lion in archaic Bulgarian).

Route

We were in Bulgaria for several hundred kilometers but really only travelled on four different roads: the E70 and the 2 from Ruse to Varna, the 9 from Varna to Burgas, and the 99 from Burgas to the border at Malko Turnovo. The E70, 2, and 9 were all undivided highways with light to moderate traffic and good pavement. However there is no shoulder so it is difficult to talk to each other and sometimes being passed by a truck can be a little too close for comfort. The 99 is very poorly paved for the most part especially as you get closer to Malko Turnovo but since it is uphill here (you need to net 600 meters by the time you reach the border) it is less of an issue.

The section from Ruse to Varna is mainly rolling hills. Varna to Burgas involves some larger hills and a mountain pass of 443 meter. Once you leave the coast near Tsarevo on your way to the border, the route mostly climbs in the mountains separating Bulgaria from Turkey.

UPDATE: We returned to Bulgaria by bus from Thessaloniki in early November 2012. The bus takes 6 hours to Sofia and costs 20 euro for under 26 (the train company runs the bus. They were the cheapest we found). We stayed in Sofia for three days and hiked in/around Vitosha one of them. We left by plane back to Vienna ($89 one-way).

Impressions:

Bulgaria is a beautiful country. The changing landscapes keep interest high as you are cycling and the cities are larger with more to offer than those in Romania. We detoured into both Razgrad and Shumen which are both beautiful and calm.

The black sea coast in Bulgaria is mainly resort town followed by resort town with some truly impressive 5-star establishments. The love of this section may have been influenced by camping next to the sea with a full-moon lighting night swimming.

Since our route did not pass through many small towns, there were fewer interactions with people as we cycled. Our main interactions were with trucks honking to signal that they are overtaking. Our interactions with people off the bike were positive as usual though.