Status Update:

Current location: Bochum / Germany

50 countries, 1226 days, trip mileage: 124200 km

16 Jun 2008

Eastern Europe: Time to play catch-up

Sofia, Bulgaria... Eye-sore advertising boards

Time to play catch-up: I’ll have to meet up with my travel partner in Turkey very soon, which unfortunately leaves little time for Eastern Europe. My Green Insurance Card is not valid in Serbia, and from what I heard insurance at the border there costs up to €80 – far too much as I’ve already stretched the travel budget considerably. So I decide to bypass Serbia, and instead go through Croatia, Hungary and Romania into Bulgaria.
Although Hungary means the end of motorway road taxes for the first time since Germany, I leave the motorways behind and travel along the smaller main roads. I’ve heard a lot of good things about Hungary from other travellers, and it is indeed very beautiful, with friendly and accommodating people. The villages and small towns have a very open and spacious feel to them: streets are fairly wide, and most houses have a large garden with a bit of lawn and trees in front of them before the actual street begins.
Two more rather long riding days take me through the western part of Romania. Road conditions are generally OK, but every few minutes there’s another never-ending village stretching along the main-road. The speed limit inside villages is 50 km/h, but with no motorways available in the country, long queues of cargo trucks are pushing for higher speed from behind. Police are waiting at the entrance or exit of every other village, and so I’ve got the choice between getting done for speeding, or getting caught by a truck in one of their breathtaking manoeuvres.
At least I’m lucky with the weather: whilst in Italy I wished for warmer weather – now I’m glad that the Romania is getting some cold air from the North, resulting in temperatures ‘only’ around 30 degrees.
In a small village, about 100 km before the border to Bulgaria, I stop for some food and water – and just as I’m getting off the bike, one of the gates opens and I get invited in. “Kafe?” the owner Constantin asks, and with a big smile on my face I nod my head. It’s been hot and tiring ride so far – perfect timing for a caffeine booster.
Constantin owns a small house with backyard farm here, together with his wife and parents. It’s not a big place, but enough to grow vegetables and keep some chicken and turkeys to support the family income. With a question mark on his face, he shows me a bag of Lavazza espresso. Thumbs up: Of course Lavazza is good enough – no need to ask! I go back to the bike to get some chocolate biscuits I bought in Hungary, and five minutes later, there’s a big jug of proper, strong, unfiltered cowboy coffee standing in front of me – just what the doctor ordered.
Two hours later, a quick ferry crossing takes me over the Danube River from Romania to Bulgaria. I’ve got about 2-3 hours if I want to get to Sofia before it gets dark. For a brief moment I hesitate and consider finding a suitable camping spot, but road conditions are good and so I decide to set off for the capital. Just before the motorway, as I’m going past a roadside café with a few motorbikes in front of it, the bikers cheer enthusiastically, giving me thumbs up. Shortly after, I’m surrounded by them: they overtake me, pulling wheelies at about 120 km/h (whilst standing in the pegs), to then slow down with a classy front-wheelie and let me overtake them again. Over and over again… Welcome to Bulgaria!
Unfortunately, the police in Sofia turns out to be a little less accommodating than the bikers: it’s already dark as I’m staggering through the busy streets trying to find accommodation for the night, when suddenly I experience my first police shake-down. It was long overdue already, but why did it have to happen at 10pm, after a 12-hour ride? I mean, I didn’t do anything wrong… Passport? OK. Paperwork for the motorbike? Not OK – that’s somewhere in the bottom of my panniers, and I’m dead tired! They insist, and so I unpack the panniers on the search for the bike registration. 15 minutes later, after they looked at the damn bit of paper for 2 seconds, I’m back on the quest for a hostel.
I eventually make it to the Art Hostel – a friendly but slightly run-down place in the heart of Sofia. Nicky, one of the staff, opens the door. Are you looking for a bed? – Indeed! – Have you got a reservation? – No! – So you thought you’d just come here and see if you’re lucky, hey?
I’m getting slightly concerned and can already see myself biwaking next to the bike, but as it turns out Nicky’s only joking: there’s space in the dormitory, and even better: space for the bike. The entrance to the hostel garden is only about 80cm wide, but somehow we manage to reverse lift the motorbike inside.
Without a doubt, this has been the longest and most tiring day of this trip – and hadn’t it been for the coffee-break in Romania, I probably wouldn’t have made it this far. My mind’s buzzing and although it’s nearly midnight, it’d be impossible to find any sleep now – I’m simply beyond tired. Time for a well-deserved, cold beer and for Nicky’s welcome-drink: a mild anis-flavoured schnapps, straight from the freezer, with small bits of fruit fibre inside. “We call it The Cloud. That’s because after three of them, everything goes cloudy”. And so it does.