Kavala Greece to Stoikite Bulgaria

Day 89 – Kavala to Serres (Greece)

Technically today was day 93 of our European cycle but we have decided not to count our short sabbatical in the beautiful island of Thassos.
Anyway, with our proverbial batteries recharged, we had cycled 13km to the port of Prinos, then caught the ferry to Kavala on the Greek mainland. From there we planned to bus North to the city of Serres and then to return over the border to Bulgaria and recommence our cycle along the Eurovelo 13 towards the Black Sea, where we had left off…Easy 🙂

We had a couple of hours to kill in Kavala, so we decided to take a quick look at the marina, the beautiful castle overlooking the town and also the stunning aqueduct. We’re pleased to report that they were well worth a quick visit.

Kavala port and castle

Even though we were early waiting for the bus to Serres, it arrived late and there was nothing we could do to avoid the usual panic as we tried to squeeze both bikes and all our panniers into the luggage compartment because the driver needed to leave in a hurry (we’re now getting used to the rushed routine and were careful not to leave anything behind). Safely aboard, the bus retraced our route from the journey southward a few days earlier and we slept for a short while. 

Arriving in Serres late in the afternoon and with no public transport north until the following day, we bought tickets for the first bus in the morning (5.40am), then set about finding somewhere to stay.

Serres is a reasonably large city, so we were pleasantly surprised to find that Mapsme indicated a campsite very close to us. The full name if it was “Stratopedo prosphegon proen KEGE Serron’ (Camping). We set off with hopes high. During the short ride towards it we passed dozens of boys and girls on the roadside cleaning up litter (fine model citizens…we thought). Approaching the area marked on the map, we were happy to see that there was some form of ‘temporary accommodation’ (at first it looked like caravans) and, that it was obviously open for business, as there were plenty of people there. But as we got closer, we noticed that the caravans looked more like portacabins and that the ‘campsite’ had a very robust security fence around it.

We stopped at the entrance to the ‘compound’, where about half a dozen men in security uniform were chatting, next to what we thought might be the ‘reception’ portacabin. One of the men stepped forward and asked (in English) if he could help us? We replied by asking ‘could we camp there for the night?’ He then, very politely, responded that our ‘campsite’ was in fact a refugee camp for Iranians and Syrians and that it was probably best if we didn’t pitch our tent there for the night…We agreed!

Ideal campsite (not)!

He asked where we were from and once we had regained our composure enough, we asked if he knew of anywhere nearby to camp or a cheap guesthouse. He gave us 2 recommendations…the first was to try the parks by the nearby racetrack, the second a hotel. After Jon did a quick scout of option 1 in the fading light, we decided it was too big a city to be wild camping and opted for the second (Hotel Galaxy) where the prices were astronomical (sorry) but we bartered a 25% discount on the basis that we would be leaving at 5am, which was too early for the complementary breakfast.

Day 90 Serres (Greece ??) to Goce Delchev (Bulgaria ??)

Our alarms went off at 4.40am and we both jumped into action (well, some more than others). We got dressed, brushed our teeth and paid reception. Our bus was due to leave at 5.40am and we had a 20 minute cycle to the bus station. This should have been a pretty straightforward ride. However, we took a short cut through a park (with a paved walkway) and as we were cycling along, a large canine jumped out of nowhere and started chasing us whilst barking crazily! Vanessa took off in fear, whilst Jon had no choice but to slow down/stop, as his side of the path ran out. Vanessa cycled ahead but encountered another two rather large dogs ? that chased her off the path and down the road, wildly barking. Vanessa screamed and swerved across the road (luckily it was early morning and no cars) and stopped. As soon as she got off her bike, the dogs stopped chasing/barking and headed back to the park. What a dramatic start to the day! 

We arrived at the bus station with 20 minutes to spare, we got ourselves organised as much as possible (as previous bus experiences have taught us that things can get pretty hectic very quickly, so it’s best to be prepared). The bus turned up 10 minutes early, so we asked if we could start loading our the bikes and the young bus driver said ‘ yeah sure, take your time’ and what really shocked us was that he also asked if we needed any help. This is incredibly rare. 

We got on the bus heading to Sidirokastro, hoping to catch either the same bus or swap buses to a small town called Promachanos on the border of Greece ?? and Bulgaria ??, to rejoin where we left the Eurovelo 13. 

Things were going smoothly. A bunch of men were on the bus with us and we soon realised that they were actually all bus drivers getting a lift to the start of their bus route. 

Arriving at Sidirokastro at 6am, we were told that we would needed to swap buses ? and that the next bus would leave at 6.30am. Which was perfect for us. We didn’t want to get to the border too early, as it was still dark. The sun doesn’t rise until 7.30am here in October.

It was only us and the bus driver on the second bus ride. On the way we all had a fright when the bus swerved to avoid a large dead animal on the road, which looked like a wolf! ?

The bus driver kindly dropped us off as close as possible to the main road, where we needed to cycle a couple of kilometres to the Bulgarian ?? and Greek ?? border control office. It was still dark, so we put our head torches on (as the street light directly across from us wasn’t working) and put our front wheels on, then made sure we switched on all our lights before heading off to border control. It was a crisp cold morning and Vanessa soon lost feeling in her hands and feet. We crossed both borders with no hassle, then headed to the nearest cafe to grab a cup of tea ☕️ to try and warm ourselves up until the sun rose. They had some interesting things on the menu, donkey milk and bears blood! Very strange! 

Glass of bear blood anyone?

After a well needed but rather small cup of tea, we headed off on our route. We had decided to wait a further hour before having breakfast, as it was still really cold and we knew that as soon as the sun ☀️ was a little higher, things would start warming up. It was predicted to be 24 degrees today. 

We knew we had a lot of climbing to be had today, but we weren’t prepared for what lay ahead. 

The first hour was a gradual incline and we enjoyed the colours as the sun splashed it’s rays across the mountain ranges. We warmed up nicely too whilst ascending. After an hour, we reached our first town Vrania and spotted a perfect hut to have breakfast. All we had to do was get past the donkey, which wasn’t too difficult, as he was pretty happy to share the area. He did get a little curious as the food came out but didn’t intrude, just nosed. 

Donkey milk?

The next 5 hours was all up, we ascended pretty much 95% of the day from 100 metres to 1,450 metres. It was tough/exhausting! The views of the mountain ranges, valleys and wending roads on the cliff sides were breathtaking. We especially loved the rustic colours of all the evergreen and disiduous trees ? around us.

We stopped regularly to grab a drink and catch our breath. It was pretty hot too, Jon developed a sweat thong, which eventually turned into large sweet undies. We were both finding our sweat hard to contain. 

Sweat pants
We stopped for lunch at a so called monument, which just looked like a memorial. We ate our lunch and hung our sweaty clothes to dry in the sun. 

We continued on, but Jon’s bike was unfortunately causing a bit of jip, as his gears kept slipping (due to worn chain and cassettes). There was nothing he could do but stay in his lowest gears and not place too much pressure on them, ie not standing up whilst peddalling. This slowed him down but meant that Vanessa could keep up. 

The roads were paved and fairly smooth and there was little to no traffic, so this made things easier. There was also several water ? fountains on route, which was handy. 

Very handy!

Reaching the top (1,400 metres), we high fived and headed for the first cafe on the crest of the mountain, which was playing lively Turkish music.

Welcome respite

We had a couple of drinks and relaxed with the knowledge that all the climbing was behind us for the day and we only had 13km left, which was all downhill…undoing most of the hard work ?. 

We stopped briefly at a small church and large soldier statue to snap a few photos.

Small church
Large soldier statue

We then set off with a few added layers and whizzed downhill. The views were incredible. The valley opened up to reveal the town below with mountain ranges either side. We were travelling pretty fast. Jon even overtook a couple of vehicles on the way down. Vanessa was also traveling, but was a little more cautious than Jon, especially as there were so many sharp curves. 

Reaching Goce Delchev, we set about looking for accommodation for the night. We stopped at a guesthouse marked on Mapsme. They were unfortunately full, but happy to recommend another guesthouse and let us use their wifi to book it. Very kind.  

We booked the reasonably priced Vangovlova rooms and headed around the corner. When we arrived there was no sign of anyone and only a phone number on the door. We asked a passing young man to help us. They called the owner and the owner explained where the key was hiding, which room to stay in etc to this young man. We thanked him for helping us and he headed off. 

We were so tired, having been on the go since 4.40am, that we showered, ate dinner and tried to watch tv but by 7.30pm we were both ready for bed. 
Day 91 – Goce Delcev to wild camp at Picnic Spot Nr. Dospat (Bulgaria)

Here we go again! That’s what we thought looking at the profile of today’s cycle, it would be similar to yesterday, in that we would be climbing most of the day…but without the luxury of an 850m descent at the end. The good news was that, unlike yesterday where we got up at 4.40am and had 2 bus rides before starting cycling, we had both slept very soundly and didn’t set off until 9.30am.

After a short stop at an ATM and a shop for some food, we were off. Again the sky was clear, with next to no wind and a forecast top for the day of low 20s Celsius. 

After a relatively flat start, the road started upwards. Unlike yesterday, where we sweated heavily, we took off our extra layers before they got damp, which made for a more enjoyable ride and less risk of sweat thong.

As we climbed throughout the day, we passed many small stone and slate quarries, with men (and the odd woman) chipping away at the rocks, with only their bare hands and a hammer or chisel. The district is renowned for this industry. 

Slate quarry
Hard at work.

Our route wound its way slowly through the tree lined mountains. In the small hillside village of Dolno Drianovo, we saw 2 mosques, reminding us of the Turkish influence in this corner of Bulgaria.

We also passed a couple of attractive old bridges and a not so attractive looking car (we don’t believe it was a Porsche). By 1.15pm we had climbed from 450m to 1000m exactly and stopped for a well earned lunch at a children’s park, in the town is Satovcha.

Setting off again, with appetites sated, we had more of the same gradients, with little chance to get out of our lower gears. We were glad of the odd roadside water fountain to stop to rest and top up our water bottles. 

Two long and sweaty hours later, we had almost reached the peak of the day”s climb at a height of 1400m, when we passed a fenced, wooded picnic area, complete with not 1 but 3 drinking water fountains and a long drop toilet. After a quick consultation, we agreed that it looked ideal for a wild camp spot and that there seemed little point in looking for accommodation in Dospat (3km away).

Picnic spot

We sat down at the picnic tables and ate a hearty meal. As we were next to the road (and a tent would be conspicuous) we waited for the sun to descend behind the trees before pitching the tent as dusk set in. We then nodded off to the relaxing sound of the babbling water fountains, interrupted by the occasional passing vehicle, having cycled 55km (mostly uphill) for the day.

We both slept soundly until Vanessa awoke when she thought she heard growling but soon settled down again when she realised it was only Jon’s stomach. ?

Day 92 Picnic site (4km outside Dospat) to Stoikite (Bulgaria ??)

Waking up in the wild like untamed savage primitive beings, with growling stomachs and just the smells and sounds of the extraordinary outdoors, is what cycle touring is all about. 

Vanessa in her wild state of hunger, was glad to have not encountered any local brown bears or wolves ? during the night, and set about making a gourmet breakfast.

Preparing something gourmet

Our tent was dry and the skies were blue. We knew we had a 4km descent before reaching Dospat, so we layered up. 

We mounted our steeds and whizzed off down the mountainside, taking in the peacefulness and autumnal emerald green and bronze trees draped over the mountainside…such majestic colours!

 In our adrenalin injected frenzy, we hurtled past our turning and went downhill in the wrong direction for 500 metres. Realising the error of our ways, we back tracked to the turning, where a few police officers were checking vehicles, but didn’t seem bothered by us. 

Dospat is a town built on the side of the mountain. Literally every corner has a 10% gradient to conquer. Jon struggled to tame his steed as it was determine not to conform. We located a small shop near an impressive mosque, to get a few essentials, we were quite limited with choice to say the least. 

We climbed out of town, admiring the views of mixed pine trees and spruce forests as we ascended. After several kilometres we reached an old Roman stone-arched bridge which lead over a stream. Jon got a little excited and had to give cycling over it a go. 

The windy road continued up and down with some impressive switch backs and the eminence of the surrounding peaks gazing upon us helped to ease the pain whilst ascending. 

Entering the gorge with menacing cliffs on either side, the road flattened out with only a few undulations. The breathtaking stretch led us through a chasm alongside the flowing river. We passed through a little beautiful town called Teshel with a small reservoir in the middle of the mountains. We stopped several times to take photos. 

We stopped for lunch at another kids park (this is becoming a bit of a habit) in a quaint village lined with cliffs called Nastan, with local music playing from the bar across the road and enjoyed the sunshine whilst eating. 

The road to Siroka Laka wound its way alongside the river on fairly good paved road. Reaching the village, which is known for it’s houses typical for the Rhodopes mountains, which line the hillside, we reluctantly continued on, without stopping, even though we were both pretty tired and the town had lots to offer. Our motive was weather conditions, as we knew that the further we got, the less likely we would get caught in the predicted rain for the following afternoon. 

However, we also had a 600 metre climb ahead of us, but instead of aiming for the peak, we settled for a town called Stoikite, which meant a 300metre ascent, which was excruciating, to say the least. We were tired! 

Arriving in town, we set about looking for a hotel. The ski centre town looked a little deserted, so we asked a lady for some help. She at first, shook her head but then mentioned Hotel Kris. We headed for the pub which she said the hotel was near and asked some locals having a beer. One guy responded ‘I am hotel Kris’ and stood up and we followed in the knowledge that we would be warm and could finally rest for the night. Vanessa was particularly tired, as we had cycled 63 very hilly kilometres today ?. 

Day 93 – Stoikite to Slatograd (Bulgaria)

We rolled out of bed at the Kris Hotel (actually Vanessa took some time over this due to a mysterious muscle spasm) soon after sunrise. Jon was fortunate enough to spot 3 small deer grazing in the meadow outside our room.

We were keen to get going early, as we were high in the mountains (in fact we were staying in a ski-lodge) and rain was forecast for later in the day; although neither of us was looking forward to the first 5km of the day, which were all uphill.

We set off shortly before 9am in our low gears. Before too long we had removed a couple of layers, even though the temperature was still in single figures. After around 30 minutes and 370 vertical metres of climbing, we reached the crest at 1720m. There we took a photo or two (apparently there were brown bears and wolves in the area, although we didn’t see any) and put our layers back on for a 12km descent into the provincial capital city of Smolyan. 

The top
Where’s the bear?

The ride down was exhilarating, with long smooth descents on good road surfaces, combined with the odd sharp bend to keep us on our toes. 4km before Smolyan we stopped beside the first of two beautiful lakes with a majestic mountain backdrop, before carrying on downhill.

Arriving in the city centre, we pulled over and sat in the mid-morning sunlight for a few minutes, whilst Vanessa thawed out her extremities and then we headed off eastward and in the direction of a town called Madan, around 25km away…but before leaving Smolyan, we were approached by a pedestrian (later identifying himself as Bill), who heard us speaking and remarked in a broad Lancastrian accent ‘how rare it is to hear someone speaking English in this part of the world’. It turns out that Bill is a recent NHS retiree, whose Bulgarian daughter-in-law persuaded him to try his hand in Southern Bulgaria. We exchanged stories (but not emails as Bill wasn’t very tech-savvy) and continued on our way.

Leaving the city suburbs, we first used a very modern-looking dual carriageway on the south of the river ‘Cherna’ (Black), which luckily had next to no traffic, then the route took us across the river and through a very well lit 450m long tunnel, before looping back down to follow the valley on the north side of the river (we think this was done to divert through traffic away from the suburbs but judging by the lack of traffic it looks like a very expensive diversion). 

Anyway, the ride along the valley had some picturesque scenery and was either flat or slightly downhill (a welcome change from the previous few days), so we sped along through the odd village, past horses and solar-panel-lined hillsides, and arrived in Madan, with its central mosque overlooking the town square, at around 1pm. 

We broke with recent tradition here and ate lunch on a bench nearby, rather than in, a children’s playground and then made plans for the rest of the day. 

We had only 25km further until Zlatograd (Bulgaria’s most southerly city with a population of 9000) and, looking at the profile, it was flat for 10km, then up 320m for 6km, then downhill for the remaining 9km. We were rested, so didn’t mind the idea of the incline too much and also wanted to get there before the weather turned to sh##, as it was forecast to.

As it turned out, the climb was gradual and easier than we expected. At the top we ‘rugged-up’ again ready for the descent. Whilst we did this, a police patrol van pulled up next to us. Two officers stepped out of the van, with ‘Queen’s’ “I want to break free” blaring out from the radio and asked us something in Bulgarian. We shrugged our shoulders and simply said “English”, which prompted them to get back in the van and drive away!?

The descent into Zlatograd was even steeper than the one we had ‘enjoyed’ (this word depends on perspective…Jon loved it but was frustrated at having to brake behind a slow moving truck on the tight bends, whilst Vanessa referred to it as Bulgaria’s ‘Death Road’) earlier in the day. We rolled into the city (more of a town if you ask us) shortly after 3pm, having covered 75km for the day (Ok…20km of that was downhill) and earlier than expected.

We grabbed ourselves a drink and some wifi at a cafe and found ourselves a very well priced guesthouse (the ‘Stanchaveta Chata’) for the night, only 100m away…Perfect! Whilst we were doing this, the rain started and we were very glad we had managed to finish our day’s ride early, as those steep descents would have been treacherous in the wet.