Bulgaria  to Macedonia 

Day 82 – Dragoman to nr. Dolma Melna (Bulgaria)

When we woke up in the cosy Dragoman Hotel, we had no idea of the surprises in store for us during our first day’s cycle in Bulgaria.

The torrential rain over the previous 24 hours or so had fortunately stopped, although there were still some pretty big puddles to avoid. We shopped for some essentials at the small town’s only store, replaced Vanessa’s rear brake pads and were ready to hit the road shortly before 11am.

The temperature when we left was around 3c, with a predicted high of around 8c for the day, so we were wrapped up. Vanessa was wearing her cycling leggings for the first time since we were in Patagonia.

After negotiating a few of the town’s dogs, the cycle was enjoyable, as we sped along quiet, sealed country roads, For the first hour we enjoyed distant views of snow capped mountains but needed to be alert for the odd pothole and lake-like puddle.

We then rode through some beautiful valleys, with sumptuous autumnal colours, interspersed with the odd small village. It was noticeable just how quiet this part of the world was…with hardly any traffic to be seen all day (yippee!!).

The beautifully coloured vegetation continued as we started the first of our 2 major climbs for the day. Winding our way up through the mountainside over the course of an hour we climbed over 430m in altitude.

Half way through the climb we noticed the odd bit of snow by the roadside. The higher we climbed the whiter our surroundings became. Neither of us had considered that our ride today would take us through the mountains, and that they would have had such an unseasonably heavy dump of snow, so early in October…but it made for some good photos. 

After this climb we had a pretty rapid few km, where we descended around 200m, then a shorter climb on what was supposed to be a main road but had almost no traffic (it was Sunday), then another descent to the town of Tran. There we found the only ATM (we had no Bulgarian Lev) and a very welcome hotel where we could sit and drink something warm, as Vanessa had lost feeling in her fingers. We also bought lunch (yum), as neither of us fancied sitting outside in the cold to make our own sandwiches.

It was 2pm and we had covered nearly 40km. Whilst eating lunch we decided we would aim for the very small village of Dolma Melna, approx. 25km away, as our finishing point for the day. This was based on the fact that Mapsme showed a guesthouse there and no other accommodation for the next 40km. Our plan B (if the guesthouse didn’t exist) was to wild camp, as the Eurovelo 13 book indicated that it was very do-able in this area because there were very few people around, plus the forecast was for a dry but cold night.

At 3pm we had warmed up enough to set off again. Soon after, we passed, what we think was a war memorial, which was a large structure which looked like a fractured wall, with a person in front of it (the book mentioned it but didn’t explain the relevance). 

We enjoyed flattish country roads for the first 15km after Tran, then, as we passed through a small unnamed hamlet, we heard a voice call out in English ‘How are you going?’. Having not heard any English for some time we immediately stopped and said ‘hello’ to a local lady who asked us where we were heading. We enquired where she learned English , as she spoke so well and she explained that her work took her to the UK every second week. She was very interested in our journey but we were distracted from the conversation by her (very large) goat, which blocked our path, and only once we had left her did we regret not finding out exactly what she did, that would entail the UK needed the services of a Bulgarian villager on a regular basis.

At 5pm we reached the start of the day’s second climb. This was around 8km long with a vertical ascent of around 400m. Again the climb zig-zagged up the mountain through dense forest and as it did so, the landscape got whiter and whiter. At some points the snow was between 8 and 10cm thick but the roads were mainly clear. 

After 45 minutes climbing we were starting to get a little tired. Fortunately we had a packet of ‘Werthers Originals’ and the sugar rush pushed us to the top of the climb. 

It was 6pm and we still had around 4km to go to Dolma Melna. We decided we were happy to wild camp if we saw anywhere half decent to pitch the tent but were a little worried that it would be dark in an hour’s time. First of all, we knew we had to descend a little (we were at 1100m…having started the day at around 500m) to below the snow line, otherwise it would be too cold and wet to pitch. 

We put on an extra layer and set off downhill pretty rapidly. After 3km, we had dropped nearly 200m and found a lovely grassy spot next to the road, shortly before Dolma Melna. We weren’t confident that the guesthouse existed, as there looked to be only about 6 houses in the village and we didn’t fancy cycling 1km back uphill if it didn’t, so we decided to pitch there. 

We rapidly set up the tent and cooked dinner but not before Jon discovered that the half litre bottle of milk in his pannier had leaked (we normally use powdered milk whilst cycling but couldn’t find any in Dragoman)…nightmare! We soaked up the spillage as best we could with tissues and ate in the fading daylight. We fell asleep very soon afterwards, following a tiring but exhilarating first day in Bulgaria.

Day 83 Wild camp nr Dolna Melna to Kyustendil Bulgaria 

We were all snug in our ⛺️ tent, when Vanessa pointed out that it was 7.40am. We had slept 11 hours straight! Epic! 

Getting up was a little difficult as the temperature outside was around 3 degrees, pretty cold. Vanessa took her sweet time packing up all the sleeping bags, mats etc., whilst Jon went about cooking breakfast. The early morning views were incredible; some low mist in patches, sun shining on parts of the mountains and the moon was still visible. Unfortunately for us, the sun would take another hour or so to hit us. Our tent had ice on the outside and was in need of some sun. 

After breakfast, the sun started making an appearance on the other side of the road. We decided to move our tent and let it dry off on the road/mountain side. After an hour or so, the sun had tried its best but we needed to get going. Our extremities were very cold, Vanessa had every warm layer on that she owned, whilst Jon cycled in shorts and fingerless gloves (insane!). 

We coasted down the first 17km on average to good tarmac road, keeping an eye out for the pot holes and occasionally surprising bump. We made good progress and loved the scenery. What a wonderful way to wake up in the morning…makes you feel alive. 

Once we reached Gabreshevti, we took off all our layers and got ready for the next climb. It was a gradual 300 metre ascent and didn’t feel anywhere near as hard as the previous day’s hike up. 

Once at the peak, we wrapped up again ready for an epic 5km downhill descent. It was exhilarating to say the least, with nice wending curves all the way down but a little cold. At the bottom we were a little hungry, so we set about finding a good spot. Unfortunately the town we were in had nothing, so we kept on going as it was flat, but were a little confused as the profile on Mapsme had indicated a 100 metre climb. We stopped after 3km to find we had gone in a slightly wrong direction but we were pleased as it meant no climb and we were still able to get to Kyustendil for our night’s accommodation. It.just took us an extra kilometre or two. 

We stopped in a little town called Skrinjano and found a shop with table and chairs outside to rest. Bought a hot drink and some snacks and tried hard to warm up, as Vanessa’s fingers had at this point gone white. 

After two warm drinks and our lunch we were ready to head off. We only had another 12km into town. The roads were still quiet but there seemed to be more dogs, which unsettled Vanessa a lot! 

Once in town, we found a cheap guesthouse and settled in for the night. A good day had, 65km ! 

Day 84 – Kyustendil to Blagoevgrad (Bulgaria) 

With chains lubed, we set off from Salmina Guesthouse shortly after 9am. It was cold (4c) but beautifully clear. The first thing we did was check out the water fountain opposite the guesthouse, as there was steam rising from it and locals were busy filling up their water canisters. It turns out it was thermal water, which confirmed our suspicions of volcanic activity in the area. 

For a km we enjoyed the town’s only bike path, then back on the road we headed East out of town on a relatively busy but wide sealed road, which meant there was plenty of room for vehicles to pass.

After around 30 minutes we cycled towards and then through a huge patch of fog, which gave a very eerie feeling to the ride. We switched on our lights for 15 minutes or so to ensure we could be seen.

Once through the fog bank (we noticed it was very localised) the sunlight started to warm up our fingers a little and we were greeted with views of the foothills of Rila Mountain (the highest peak in the Balkans at 2925 metres) on the horizon.

We covered the first 15km reasonably quickly on the smooth, flat road and then branched right at the town of Cetirici onto a quiet country road, with the odd bump but in not bad condition. This road wound its way through several towns and villages, through avenues of poplar trees and through a beautiful sun-kissed gorge which followed the path of the Struma river in the valley below.

By around by 11am the temperature had climbed enough for us to take off our jackets and shortly afterwards we stumbled upon the tiny ‘St Ivan’s Church’ perched above the river and stuck our heads inside. There was a sign next to the church explaining the spacial design, narthexes and cross domes but it went over our heads.

Shortly after midday we reached the small town of Bobodhevo. For some reason it seemed better kept than the majority of towns and villages we had passed through in Bulgaria, with no rubbish, water fountains, statues and beautifully painted benches. Even the dogs were polite. 

We stopped there for a delicious lunch, as we had stocked up on food the night before, in the town square and enjoyed the distant views of the snow capped Rila mountain as we enjoyed the sunlight.

Once fed, we set off again along the quiet country roads, grateful for the panoramic views and the clear skies. In the distance, we could see the motorway running parallel to our left and were glad not to be on it. After an hour, our quiet road ran out and we turned left to cycle through an underpass below the motorway before joining a main road adjacent to it (we think the motorway was built only recently because it wasn’t shown in our book) for a short while. We pedalled quickly as we were anxious to get off it, and after 5km turned off towards the town of Barskovo. We then had only quiet roads until our planned stop for the day in Blagoevgrad but first had a couple of steep climbs (100 metres) to knock off. We gritted our teeth and dropped down a few gears and after the climb, enjoyed the views before descending into Blagoevgrad and finding our ‘pre-booked’ (a rarity) accommodation.

We had finished by 3pm (covering 65km) and rewarded ourselves with a beer or two in a nearby cafe before dinner. 

Day 85 Blagoevgrad (Bulgaria) to Pehecvo (Macedonia)

We were keen to get going today as we knew we had an 800 metre climb to conquer before the end of the day and left pretty quickly after a good nights rest in the boudoir style room (just missing a mirror on the ceiling type of place). 

We had excellent surfaces to ride on but unfortunately quite a lot of traffic (only for the first 5km) before we turned onto a quieter road and the trucks turned onto the motorway . 

We knew we had a bit of climbing to do but didn’t think it would be quite so soon! We crunched down to low gears and faced the mountains head on, no turning back, It was the mountains or us! 

As we slowly meandered our way up (some slower than others), the views got better and better…it blew us away. Mesmerising in fact, especially with the lake glistening in the sun. We took lots of little breaks and tons of photos!! 

We climbed pretty much all day, we’d say around 85% of the day. The ascent kept on going, we climbed for 23 kilometres with an elevation of 830 metres and with every revolution, the views rewarded us with more spectacular scenery. The road traffic was light, so we felt blessed that we only had our ascending to focus on. 

At the summit, we checked in with the immigration officers and then rode into Macedonia, country 16 ticked off! We earned this one 🙂

We were both hungry but as the next 12kms were purely downhill, we decided to descend to the town called Delchevo, where we could get some Macedonia cash out, eat lunch and have a well deserved cold drink. When reaching town, we took our time and worked out the next plan of action. 

We had only 28km left to ride with a 400 metre incline. The first 15km was gradual but then rudely increased in percentage. By 3.30pm Vanessa had had enough of riding, so we went about checking any potential camping spots, unfortunately every area spotted was covered in rubbish. 

With another few inclines we had arrived in Pechevo. We contemplated pitching our tent on the very manicured football pitch but decided that we’d have to wait until it got dark. However before committing to the football pitch, we rode into town to check out the only overpriced hotel. As we were pedalling along, a lovely lady shouted out to us in a perfect American accent. She directed us to the only hotel in town and then went about her business. 

We rounded a corner and sure enough the plush hotel Gogov was there. The prices were out of range for us but after asking if we could pay for a single bed to share, the lady felt sorry for us and suggested we sleep in the less expensive apartment Kim, which was just across the road and linked to hotel Gogov.

We totally lucked out as the room was beautiful, spacious and had everything we needed for only €16! We were very happy bunnies.