Trail and Error in Bulgaria

Our first night in Bulgaria

Our first night in Bulgaria

Being open minded is the key to approaching a new country.  Listening to what others tell you, cataloging that information in your brain and then finding out for yourself.  That is how we like to start a new country.

Bulgaria was very kind to us on our first day here. We had relatively quiet roads as soon as we left the Romanian borders. Shopping was easy, exchanging money was simple. We had a lovely lunch in a small town of Shabla and then headed out to the coast.  Sure, there are plenty signs of poverty – but the people have all been super nice and friendly- offering the usual confused look as we go by, and then a smile and a wave.

Light House Beach Camping

Light House Beach Camping

Our first night was wonderful – we rolled into the place where there was a campground symbol on the map – and immediately knew we had found our home for the night.  Lighthouse Beach was beautiful- the camping was perfect (except, perhaps, there were no perfectly flat spots for the tent).  There was a small restaurant, a sanitary block (showers and toilets) and a nice beach bar.  A perfect way to wind down from the chaos along the Romanian coast.

Beautiful Boardwalk - a sea wall to protect the hills.

Beautiful Boardwalk – a sea wall to protect the hills.

The next day, Monday, we woke with high expectations of more quiet roads and lovely camp sites.  We had planned to get through Varna, the most populated area on the Black Sea and Bulgaria’s third largest city, and camp somewhere on the coast just south.  We started by taking the beach side boardwalk out of Topola, which was absolutely beautiful. Easy riding, no traffic, scenic coast line under blue skies.

Road blocks

Road blocks

After several kilometers we came to a barrier which stopped cars from passing but had enough space for pedestrians and of course, bikes. So we proceeded past that barrier and the next.  At the second barrier we noticed a road coming down and a van parked just outside of the boardwalk.  We noted this as our bail-out option if the boardwalk failed us.

Walking the broken cement

Walking the broken cement

Jay and his GPS indicated that the path continues all the way around the point to the next small town.  The actual path proved the GPS wrong. First, the path had been pounded by waves and was broken up into large concrete blocks – which we walked our bikes across.  Then, the trees and bushes were encroaching the path – but there was a single track under and through, so we followed it.  Finally, there was a rather large mudslide obliterating the path into the sea.  Perhaps if we did not have bikes, we could have scrambled across.  Not worth it with our gear.  So we turned around, navigated the trees, bushes and broken cement blocks and headed up our bail out road. Which turned out to be a long, steep, hot and sweaty climb out to the main road.

A quick stop at a market for a snack (did you know they made dark chocolate Kit Kats with Peanut butter?) and a cold drink and we were off again to find pristine beaches.  We headed out along the very busy E87 – the main coastal road- looking for escapes along the coast.  Coming into Kranevo, we were greeted with a warning of an upcoming 8% grade.  At that moment Jay noticed a “path” along the coast on the GPS and asked if I would rather take that?  “Are you up for some adventure?”   Sure, especially if we can avoid another long climb.  We headed down through the run down town of Kraveno, along the coast and were stopped short by yet another land slide.

Back out to the main road, up the 8% grade – we were rewarded with a sweet downhill into Golden Sands.  We had heard about Golden Sands but were blown away by the tourism and over development. One huge resort after another, beach bars, casinos, and all the amenities any tourist could want.  We only stopped to purchase a cold drink (which cost us four times we had paid anywhere else) and eat our homemade sandwiches.  We were approached by two young Bulgarian lads (mid 20’s) who were fascinated by our journey.  The questions kept coming. They could not get over what we were doing. One of them kept saying that “it was not possible”.  They were nice enough, but made me a bit nervous when they started in on about how rich we must be….. here we go again…. All Americans are rich.

We quickly finished up our lunch and gladly pedaled out of the over-priced tourism that is Golden Beach on our way into Varna. We found our way back to the highway – trying to stay close to the water for as long as possible.  We did not hang out in Varna as it was getting late and we really wanted to get into camp for the night. We still had  to cross a nasty bridge – that was very busy with cars and trucks going way too fast and no passable pedestrian path.We took a deep breath and started pedaling and did not  stop until we were off the bridge.

Coming off the bridge, Jay and his GPS found a “bike route” along the inlet that would take us near the location of a camp ground symbol on the map.  We headed that way and had to negotiate a short and steep dirt path decent to the bike path on which I was thankful for my mountain bike handling skills.  We spotted a supermarket along the way and stopped for supplies.

We followed the road around the peninsula in search of the camping and none was to be found. Although you can wild camp in Bulgaria, that does not necessarily mean you should camp anywhere.  Safety is first and foremost when we are evaluating a spot to wild camp!

It was 4:30 and the next beach access was 20 km down the road.  We decided to head out –  but instead of doubling back to the road, Jay and his GPS indicated that if we continued on the peninsula we can connect with the road without doubling back.  An extra 18 km of steep hill climbing later we met up with the road (which, if we had doubled back would have only been 8 or so km).

We cruised the road the final 9 km towards the beach and camping symbols on the map.  We had an exhilarating downhill through Primorski Dorn and were super excited to see a camping sign on the road. That is, until we arrived at the Paradise Bungalows.  “Five  Euros, or 10 Lev and you can stay here” said the disheveled lady at the reception. “Showers, toilet and you ride with your bike 5 minutes and you are on the beach”. Never mind that the whole establishment has long been run down and over grown.  The bugs were as thick as pea soup and the sewage smelled from up the road.  Not a chance.   We headed down to the beach hoping to find something a little more peaceful.  The whole area was just as run down with wild dogs and trash everywhere.  Not for us.

It was now 6:30pm when we decided to head back up 5 km and then down another 5 km to Kamcha, A Nature preserve – which allowed camping.  When we arrived, we were surprised to find huge resorts on the hill, with a fancy sports complex.  We inquired about camping and were told 200 m down that road over there.  We headed in that direction but never came across anywhere feasible to camp. Back up to the main road and then down the hill on the other side by the river was another very long forgotten small village which gave us both the heebie geebes, lets just say the banjos were playing a little too loud.  So we thought that we would try a hotel.  Back up to the main road.  All were booked.

It is now 7:30pm and we have been on the bikes for 104 km and over seven hours. We have not eaten dinner and are not sure where we will lay our heads. So we headed back up the hill and, after being told that there is camping on the beach, we headed in that direction.

Wild Camping

Wild Camping spot

We rode up and down the beach in the dark. On both ends were run down establishments, looking pretty scary (on the south end, cars would drive in on the board walk, make “transactions” or drop something off and turn around.  We did not want to know.) In the middle was a fancy shmancy restaurant with some beach chairs.  So, after a total of 107 km with a ton of climbing (over 1100 m) we settled on wild camping on the beach half way between fancy shmancy and scary to the south.  We finally settled into our tent at 9pm, ate a strawberry filled croissant with Nutella on top for dinner and crawled into bed for a restless sleep.

Sometimes, all the planning, all the maps and GPS coordinates do not fully represent what is really there.  Apparently in Bulgaria development is occurring so fast that many of the camping places are being replaced with resorts.  In Obzor, where we are pleasantly camped in a pension right on the beach, there is camping (we checked it out on a walk today) it is adequate, in the middle of town surrounded by large fancy resorts.

Monday was a tough day- but it was just another part of the adventure.  Enjoying the ride!

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Romanian Potcake

Rom Potcake

Where do you go at night?

Little one.

Do you stay warm?

Where is your mother?

Who loves you?

Little one.

The world is cruel and harsh.

Stay warm.

Stay safe and away from cars.

Be smart.

Don’t let people treat you poorly.

Beg but know when to quit.

You’ll be ok.

Little one.

If I lived here, you would have a home.

You would sleep on the bed with me.

You would be loved.

Little one.

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A Perfect Stop

Great little stops along the way in Romania

Great little stops along the way in Romania

No matter where we ride in Romania we are always happy to come across a Magazin Mixt. Most communities, regardless of the size will have a small store which usually sells some basic foods such as bread, meat, cheese, fresh veggies and fruits along with beverages: water, soda and yes, of course a variety of beers.   Outside of the store is usually a small patio, covered from the sun or rain with tables and chairs.  Most times they are simply plastic chairs, but sometimes they are hand built wood furniture or in one case just outside Novace, awesome swings.

These small stores or Magazin Mixt are havens for bicycle tourists.  They provide a nice break in the shade on a hot day with cool drinks.  There is usually a group of local characters, drinking (regardless of the time of day) who look in wonder at our loaded bikes.  Many times conversations will ensue with lots of sign language after they ask if we speak French or Russian and usually ending with the locals  indicating how impressed they are with us.  Often, they will grab their thighs, give the thumbs up and say “puternichi” or strong.


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The Foothills of the Carpathians

The mountains called us to stay another day.  And so we did.  We stayed an extra day in Ranca, a beautiful, developing ski resort on the Transalpina route.  We decided to live it up in a pension and happened upon the lovely Vila Ozon.  We spent two peaceful nights in the mountain air, relaxing to Romanian jazz music , drinking homemade vino and playing ping pong or reading a book (I just finished Bill Bryson’s Neither Here nor There- a little outdated but a good read – Thanks Jen).  The Vila Ozon is a wonderful family run pension- open year round.  Definitely worth a stop!

Vila Ozon

Vila Ozon

Today we headed down the mountain and along the foothills on our way to Ramnicu Valcea.  We decided to stay high in the foothills to avoid the major road, heavy traffic and pollution.  The road started out beautifully. Lots of fun climbs followed by even more fun decents.  We passed over a series of ridgelines and valleys.  At about 35 km our pavement turned to dirt and the going slowed significantly.  The climbs became longer and steeper – a few over 10%.  Two km of climbing, a short flat section over a river or through a town and then right back up. Over and over. The views were spectacular which made the ride worth it.

We arrived in Horezu and stopped for a late lunch.  Horezu is a lovely little town with lots of history.  How could we not stay to see the sites and rest the legs a bit more?  Ramnicu Valcea can wait.

The view descending from Ranca.

The view descending from Ranca.

Riding the Foothills.  Beautiful

Riding the Foothills. Beautiful

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J & J at the very top!

J & J at the very top!

The Transalpina Highway is the highest paved road in Romania. The highway starts in the north in Sebes and heads directly south over the Carpathian mountains and ends in a small village Novaci.  Also known as the Kings road, the 148 km highway passes through the Urdele Pass which sits at 2,145 meters above sea level.  Although some claim that the Urdele Pass is the highest point, we were informed by Daniel (a nice young man waiting for his buddies to return from their climb of one of the high peaks) that the second pass is actually higher. The road is mostly paved.  There are short sections that are dirt and a few mud slides to work around.  Most of the road is sweet new pavement.

We decided to climb the Transalpina over two days.  We started in Sebes on the 4th of September and climbed steadily for 1095 m in just over 65 km.  We stopped at a small pension at Lake Oasa – our room was simple but exactly what we needed for the night.  It was cold, wet and the camping was limited, so we opted for the pension.  Lake Oasa is a man-made body of water that has a large dam at the north end. The climb up to the dam is the steepest on this part of the road.  At the dam, there are several vendors selling trinkets, ice cream (they were closed) and fresh, hot corn on the cob.  It was delicious!

This morning we decided to sleep a little later as it was raining and we were hoping for at least dry roads.  Luckily, the rain subsided and we had a nice cool day for our climb.  The climb quickly turned steep and we were very soon in our lowest gear, slogging up the hill.  At the cross roads with the D7, we came across a Gypsie village – selling goods to people in cars, vans, motorcycles and the occasional bicyclist.  We were happy to see the fresh Kurtoskalaks booth- of course we had to have one.  We sat on the side of road and enjoyed a little baked heaven.

From the crossroads, the Transalpina heads south and pretty much straight up. Well, not quite straight, (the Dutch didn’t make this road) it was a series of steep switchbacks taking heading up the side of the mountain.  An hour into our climb we came across a farm stand with fresh Mamaliga with cheese and cream and pork stew.  We stopped for lunch – which they kindly did not charge us for! (I think they felt sorry for us on our bicycles!).

We climbed out of the forest and above the tree line where the views became magical.  Deep sweeping valleys surrounded by golden crested mountains.  So beautiful.  So steep.  Perhaps more disconcerting than the steepness was the sudden gust of head winds that brought you to a sudden stop in your tracks.  Or, if you were not careful the wind will blow you off the side of the mountain.

We climbed to the Urdele pass, said hello to a few German bicycle tourists heading north, changed into warm gear and started the quick decent before the final climb which was short and sweet.  The second pass was 3 km uphill and just over 250 m higher.  Another killer climb energized by the knowledge that we were nearly done climbing.  A quick photo at the top, more warm clothing and a tantalizing drop to Ranca.  We were cautious on the way down as the wind was so strong it nearly threw us off the bikes.

We climbed to 7066 feet for a total of 10,652 feet of climbing in 121 km fully loaded.  Not too shabby

The Transalpina is breathtakingly beautiful. The Romanians may not be known for their roads, but on this specific highway, they really excelled.

Jay has an excellent much more detailed overview of our Transalpina ride on the Crazy Guy on a Bike site:



JP Climbing up to Urdele pass


Looking down at Ranca- over 1000m drop in less than 10K.


At the top! Yeah!



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