We had planned Bulgaria with a pretty good itinerary for the next 4 or so days that we would spend there. We would not be visiting the capital of Sofia in favour of some attractions in the South East.
We chose to cross the border from Macedonia into Bulgaria in the far South West just above Greece. The plan was to head East towards Smolyan Province.Our first impressions of Bulgaria were not that great. We had obviously chosen a very small border crossing as the main road was narrow, windy and in bad condition. As we drove through the small villages they were all run down. The austere, partially dilapidated buildings sat there nestled in amongst a severe backdrop. It was early December, winter had set in and the landscape was barren; not a singe leaf on the trees or any greenery to be seen. It was misty, cold and grey.
So now that I have painted such a charming picture we can move on!
Our first stop was going to be the Daisy Hotel in Borino, a good few hundred Km’s over the border. Jerome had got pretty sick back in Macedonia after we spent a few nights camping in minus 10 temperatures. It looks like extreme temperature changes (such as getting out of a warm car to set up camp) aggravated his UTI so we decided to play it safe and stay in hotels most nights going forward.
I was driving and the trip to the hotel left heaps of time to sight see en route. Turns out there wasn’t much to see at all. The dark drew in fast and we soon found ourselves navigating tiny squiggly roads with mist lingering low below the treeline.
We eventually reached the hotel and managed to buy a meal. One thing that the Bulgarians do so well is their food! A word to the wise though, if you order pork chops for your meal, you only get pork chops. The menus are very literal; you don’t get veg and salad without asking. That suited us just fine so we feasted on pure meat.
The next morning we made the short journey towards Trigrad Gorge, our first bit of Bulgarian sightseeing. There is a well maintained road running through the gorge which leads you to the The Devils Throat Waterfall which is inside a network of caves. Unfortunately the caves weren’t wheelchair accessible at all but we knew this in advance. Instead of taking the ‘main’ road to the gorge, we consulted our Bible (Pocket Earth) on the iphone. We found a series of access tracks traversing the hills for loggers that would take us cross country and spit us out just before the gorge road.
We spent the best part of the day exploring these tracks, getting bogged in mud and snaking up and around hills. The tracks had been completely churned up by the equipment used by the loggers.I would say that they had only just finished cutting the trees and taking them down to the villages for winter. We had heaps of fun getting decent run ups to the hills before sliding down the other side and covering the car in yet another shade of delicious brown MUD!
OK so enough mud (again). We eventually reached the road and drove through the gorge which was a nice, quaint little drive covering about 7km.
To be honest the gorge wasn’t anything special so we were grateful that we had gotten sidetracked with unplanned off-roading to get there. We picked a nice spot by the gorge for lunch.
Jerome climbed in the back to lie down because of a sore back. I took over the driving and as I reversed out and onto the road we heard a huge crunch noise. My stomach sank as I looked over the bonnet to find that I had just ran over both of Jeromes’ wheelchair wheels. F*ck!!!!! Normally the chair is disassembled and the wheels get chucked in the back on top of the bed. But we had chucked them outside the car so that Jerome could lie down and had both assumed the other person had reloaded them. I was horrified, those wheels are worth over $1000 each easy. Not to mention the fact that breaking those wheels are like breaking someones legs. The only saving grace was that we had a spare set of wheels on the roof with chunky ‘off road’ tyres on them. At least Jerome could still use his chair for now. We decided to have a proper look at the wheels later on but the rest of the day was seriously marred, leaving us quiet and withdrawn.
We continued our journey eastwards and to our next sight, the Marvellous Bridges. The bridges are massive marble rocks that the River Erkyupryia flows through. The marble rocks used to be one solid mass with caves inside where the river went through. At some point there was an earthquake that broke the mass up and the river washed away the debris. It left a bunch of rocks with holes in them that rounded off over time and now resemble huge bridges.
Hikers can walk over the stones, or like us you can drive up real close and walk underneath them. There was a ton of jagged rocky steps leading both down and then back up to the viewing platform.
Two locals approached us as we parked nearby and clocked Jerome’s chair. They motioned for us to hop back in the car before showing us a bush-bashing route through the trees that skipped all of the steps leading down. We jumped out again and Jerome was able to get halfway up the other steps to the platform which left him with a teasing glimpse of the rocks. I went ahead and explored briefly before we headed off for our next hotel about 70km away.
I think that the drive that evening was the hardest drive that we have done so far! The roads were atrocious and there was not a single straight section. We went from corner to corner at about 30km p/h and then the fog descended. Jerome took over driving about halfway as the dark joined us. The fog was so dense that it was easier to drive without the headlights on. We couldn’t see more than a few meters beyond the bonnet. Our pace slowed considerably and I ended up relaying the direction and severity of each corner from the map to Jerome just like we were rally driving. The drive took about 4 hours and we eventually found our guesthouse conveniently situated in the middle of absolutely nowhere.
The building was huge and empty. We were the only guests and the owner kindly made dinner for us and brought it to our room. I sampled her homemade red wine that would be better used as toilet cleaner (sorry but it’s true!) Jerome grabbed his damaged wheelchair wheels and the off road set from the car. He spent the whole evening taking both sets apart and swapping grab rails, rims, tyres etc until he had a functional set of lightweight wheels again. It looked like a real sh*t fight and in the end we called it a night.
We woke the next day to find that the weather hadn’t changed. The fog hadn’t dissipated at all so we had an early start and made our way to The Dyavolski Most, or The Devils Bridge in English. The bridge over the Arda River was built by the Ottomans back in the 1500’s over an old roman road. The bridge has a bunch of different sized holes in it to measure the water levels. But that’s not really the interesting bit. What interested us is how it got it’s name.
Apparently in the right light and from the correct angle you get a mirror image of the bridge and sky in the water below. Take a picture, rotate it 90 degrees and voila! You will learn why it is called the Devils Bridge. This bridge had been in my mind for weeks, and I was extremely excited to go and see it. We hoped that it wouldn’t be another underwhelming sight like the rest of Bulgaria had been for us. To be honest I was riding my overall view of Bulgaria on this one picture that I so desperately wanted.
We found the bridge and parked up next to it.
The view of it was great from the car so Jerome stayed inside whilst I took the footpath up and over it, trying to find ‘the view’. I took some snaps and returned to Jerome. They weren’t even close to what we had hoped so he instructed me to find a head-on view of the bridge and try again. There was a little outcrop of land just before the water and from there I crouched down low and lined up my shot. Winner! The water reflected the bridge and sky perfectly.
I ran back to Jerome and we rotated our camera and found the devil. It sounds silly but I was totally made up! One excellent picture had made Bulgaria so worth while to travel through.
So we were now about 380km south east of the Macedonia border and would be heading almost dead North up into Romania. Luckily the roads opened up and we averaged 50-60km p/h (lightening speed!) up to our final Bulgarian hotel just shy of the Shipka Pass. The pass is just 14km long and climbs to an altitude of 1150m. It is one of the few passes open all year so we decided to take it en route out of Bulgaria. Talk about ending the country on a good note. It was desperately cold outside and as we climbed the pass it got very icy.
It was crazy, there had obviously been copious amounts of rain and wind recently. The rain had frozen on trees and signposts as it was being buffeted by the wind, leading to almost horizontal crystal clear icicles forming.
It looked as if we had pressed a pause button on nature as we passed by. Trees were frozen in motion and we brushed their lower branches with the Troopy roof. This caused great daggers of ice to break away and rein down upon us; smashing into a million pieces upon impact like a vase.
There were very little safe places to stop and take photo’s so I managed to take just a few whilst popping outside for a pee. The roadsides were thick with ice and I promised myself not to need a wee again all day.
The Shipka Pass was the last of Bulgaria and had provided us with the most beautiful wintery sight that we had never seen before: an ice forest!
It was now onwards and upwards to Romania.