Spokes Cycle Touring Club
Spokes 2011 Events & Write-ups
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Day 3 - Varvara to Dospat
Distance Cycled - 76Km
Hotel Struma - Single room £9; Triple room £18
Large Beer - 80p
Bob arrived just after eight. The bikes had already been loaded onto the back of a lorry. The luggage was put on with the bikes and I set off with Bob, Ilke and Slav in the car, while the other four travelled with the lorry driver in his cab. Anyway, the food was washed down with enough beer, wine and rakya that it didn’t seem to make much difference. Most things got eaten apart from Justin’s fish. The waitress made several attempts to remove the dish from in front of him, at which point Justin would just smile and nod his head. Unfortunately, Bulgaria is one of those countries where nodding your head means no and shaking your head means yes. Two hours later the dish was still sat on the table with the locals wondering what was the fascination that the British had with cold fish.
Day 3 saw Justin up early and going for a dip in the hot pool at 7.30. Bob, Ilke and Slav arrived around 8am with breakfast. They brought banitsa, ayrian and boza. The banitsas were like large pasties made with flaky pastry. Some were filled with goats’ cheese and others with fig jam. They were still warm from the oven. Ayrian was a drink made from yoghurt and water and became quite popular with everyone over the week. The first mouthful was always a shock to the taste buds, as I think the mind saw a white drink and expected milk. After that it was quite refreshing.
Boza is a millet based drink that looks like chocolate milk but tastes like roasted porridge. Something that might have been invented for Mike Cranwell.
After breakfast we cycled the short distance to the railway station. The road up the mountain to Velingrad was closed, so we needed to catch the nine o’clock train. The train was fifteen minutes late but we were kept entertained by watching a man trying to recapture a young horse that had escaped and was running up and down the road opposite. Meanwhile, Bob had disappeared but soon magically reappeared with six coffees. The train eventually arrived and we piled the bikes on board.
Clare and Rosemary met up with Cyril and his friends. They were going out walking in the mountains for the day. He kept them entertained, although they declined to share his beer at such an early hour. Sue and I spent most of the journey on the open air platform between two of the carriages. I always thought that there was no better way of seeing the countryside than on the back of a bike, but this beat it easily. We disembarked at Velingrad and began cycling around eleven. After such an easy cycling day yesterday and beginning today with a train ride up the mountain, I was concerned that I might get laughed out of the club for calling this a cycling event. I needn’t have worried. We began climbing as soon as we left the town and didn’t stop until 31 kilometres later. It started gradually at first, around 2% to 4% for the first 18km, but then it began to get steeper. When we met the car at the top, we had climbed from Velingrad at 650 metres to well over 1400 metres.
Lunch was a picnic at the top of the mountain with a giant watermelon, freshly picked red berries, biscuits, chocolate bars and stuff left over from breakfast. From there it was a nice descent and a pleasant afternoon ride to our coffee stop. This was in a small muslim town that I think was called Sarnitsa. Apparently these people are known as Pomaks and are Slavs and Bulgarians who are descendants of people who converted or were forced to convert under the Ottoman Empire.
We were at one end of a giant lake while our destination for the day, Dospat, was at the other end. Thinking we had a comfortable afternoon’s cycling along the lake, we set off for the final 20km. We even managed a stop at the lakeside for an impromptu swim. I just dozed in the shade of some trees, but everyone else went in to various depths. Our “easy” ride to Dospat took a turn for the worse shortly after that though as the road headed away from the lake and began to climb. The last 5km really ramped up and I think it must have averaged around 8% for this section. When we reassembled at the top, Bob reckoned that we were back up over 1400 metres again and it felt like it. After stopping to admire the views of Dospat and the lake it was a rapid descent to the town, arriving around 7pm.
Our resting place for the night was the Hotel Diamond. The girls had a triple room for £18 while Justin and I decided to splash out £9 each and have our own single rooms. What kind of room do you get for £9 I hear you ask. Well we were given a large twin room each anyway with en suite facilities. There was a fridge, a minibar and Bolton Wanderers versus Manchester United live on the TV. I didn’t want to leave.
That night we ate in the hotel restaurant and, thanks to Bob, ended up with really enjoyable meals. Most people went for a local fish delicacy that seemed to be related to trout, and it went down well with a couple of bottles of white wine and rakya. We talked of wine, food, cycling, Bulgaria and many other topics. Along with the now regular lessons on the Bulgarian language. In what seemed like no time at all, over three hours had flown by and it was time for bed.
Day 4 - Dospat to Yagodina
Distance Cycled - 34Km
Hotel Struma - Single room £9;
Large Beer - 68p
Day 4 saw everyone up bright and early and raring to go. We decided to pass on breakfast at the hotel and try a little local cafe in the town. Bob was hoping for some home-made banitsa, but he had forgotten that it was Sunday and they don’t normally make it on that day. We settled for some shop-bought stuff that was somewhere between cake and brioche, and ate it with coffee and ayrian.
We climbed out of Dospat and then had a nice descent to an old bridge for some more picture taking. We rolled on through some picturesque countryside before a mid-morning stop in Bolivo. Here we found a table outside and most of us ordered ice-cold milkshakes. It was nice to be out of the sun. Our departure party from Bolivo included one of the local dogs who had become quite attached to us. Well, actually, he was more attached to Sue, who had been feeding him biscuits on the sly. He kept up with us on the climb out of town, despite our efforts to send him back.This descent took us to the entrance to a gorge.
This gorge had obviously been formed by a river that ran down it. However, the single track road that accompanied it was manmade and, at the narrowest parts, had been carved into the gorge walls. Progress along the gorge was slow, mainly due to all the photo stops. Eventually we turned off and began the climb up to Yagodina.
It was a good pull up to Yagodina and, with the early afternoon heat, everyone was ready for the lunch stop at the Yagodina Hotel. We found a lovely table in the garden and, after Bob informed us that we had finished cycling for the day, it was large beers all around. Lunch was a very relaxed affair and we probably sat there for the best part of two hours. People were becoming a bit more adventurous now with Sue ordering bean soup and Clare going for Schemba Chorba. Bob translated this as stomach soup, but from a guide book I had seen we would know it as tripe soup. There weren’t many takers when Clare offered everyone a taste.
After lunch it was a short walk up the road to our accommodation for the night. This turned out to be a newly-built house. The house had been built by Sophie and her husband, Dragoslav, who were our hosts for the night. We had the house to ourselves. Upstairs there were three bedrooms for the five of us, a living room/kitchen where Slav slept and a couple of shower/toilets. Downstairs was a large kitchen/dining room where we were to have our meals. Everyone else was in the old house next door.
Bob’s activities for us for the day were not yet over though. We had arrived early in Yagodina as the plan for the afternoon was to walk up to the top of the cliff overlooking the gorge. We set off about three thirty and climbed and climbed and climbed. It was hard work but the views at the top were worth it. There was even a platform where you could walk out and look directly down on the road that we had cycled only a few hours earlier. On the descent we met some ramblers who were over from Britain for the week.
There weren’t many takers when Clare offered everyone a taste.
We returned to the house around six thirty, in time for a quick shower and change before the evening meal. The meal itself consisted of salad, meatballs, boiled potatoes and something that was like a potato based pizza. We had bought beer and wine earlier from the local shop and Bob produced more of his seemingly endless supply of rakya. The food was all laid out together and then Sophie left us to get on with it. This tended to highlight the differences between the two groups when dining. The British contingent had all finished eating within 30 to 40 minutes. The Bulgarians among us were still picking at the food over two hours later. They ate less than us but took a lot longer to do it and seemed to get a lot more pleasure out of it.
Sophie joined us later for a while and as well as the regular conversation we were treated to a Bulgarian folk dancing session. Luckily for my two left feet, this proved to be something that only involved the womenfolk. Sue proved to be a natural and Clare was enthusiastic.
I think we eventually finished around midnight and staggered upstairs to bed.
Day 5 - Yagodina to Shiroka Luca
Distance cycled - 52Km
Hotel Kalina - Twin £18, triple £27 including breakfast
Large beer - 80p
The morning started where last night finished, downstairs in the dining room for breakfast. There were bowls of yoghurt and homemade banitsa. This banitsa was considerably different and much nicer than anything we had had before. The evening meal and the breakfast worked out at just £4.50p a head.
Bob gave us the option that morning of either returning the way we had arrived or continuing on with 12km of off-roading. This would take us up through the woods and drop down into Trigodad. We decided to go on. When Bob suggested that we should stay fairly close together as there were brown bears in the woods, I realised that there was a gaping hole in the risk assessment document that I had prepared for this trip. When the last 3km of the off-road section turned out to be a tricky descent in to the Trigodad gorge, I had to concede that the document was now only useable as something that could be sold from a stall back in “toilet paper town”.
At the bottom of the descent we found the village of Trigodad and stopped for coffee. We left the village and started travelling along the gorge. After only a short distance we arrived at the Devil’s Throat. This was a spot where the river disappears deep underground. Several more photo stops later we arrived at our lunch stop, Nastan. We found a shaded table outside and this again proved to be a unique dining experience. Ilke had brought grapes and peaches in the town square and along with the leftover banitsa from breakfast, we probably brought as much of our own food with us as we actually ordered from the restaurant. However, nobody seemed to mind and we relaxed there for over an hour.
The last 16km of the day was in front of us and it was all up hill. As we left Nastan we turned onto the road that leads up to the ski resort of Pamplovo. Our destination was Shiroka Luca, a lovely village about 10km before Pamplovo. We were to spend the night in the Hotel Kalina on the main street of the village. We parked the bikes around the back of the hotel and went straight to the bar outside the front of it. This was the only place all week where we had beer out of the pump rather than in large bottles. As we were enjoying the late afternoon sun we were surprised to see the same group of British ramblers alighting from their tour bus.
After showers and some quick sightseeing, we met for a meal at the front of the hotel at around six thirty. Bob had heard that they served a good Satch here, so that was what we all ordered. It turned out to be a sizzler type dish of pork and chicken strips accompanied by roast vegetables. I particularly enjoyed the red wine, unfortunately, it came in pitchers so I never found out the name of it. I was that impressed that when everyone else ordered desserts I plumped for a plate of cheese and another pitcher of red wine. We finished around ten thirty.
The perfect evening for me on foreign holidays is to sit outside on a warm evening and enjoy good food, good wine and good company. You spend the night eating, drinking and socialising as the early evening sun turns to darkness. This night had ticked all the boxes.
Day 6 - Shiroka Luca to Lake Bava
Distance cycled - 56Km
Hotel Chillingira - Single room £13 including breakfast
Large beer - 90p
Another early start for Justin today as he decided to go out before the rest of us and cycle up to Pamplovo on his own. A decision he later regretted as the road wasn’t particularly interesting and the early morning combined with the altitude meant that he got cold, particularly on the way back.
He was back in time to join the rest of us for breakfast. This was a large thick pancake that was more like an American waffle. When covered with local jam and honey it was delicious.
When we finally got going it proved to be a pleasant, leisurely start. We retraced our route from yesterday with 16km of downhill. At the bottom though we turned right and picked up a new road that Bob had seen being built a few months previously. This road climbed up a mountain for 8km and then descended the other side for 10km. At the top there was a lovely rest area where we could regroup and take on some refreshment. The descent was possibly the most enjoyable I have ever done. The road surface was perfect, new and blemish free. All the bends were long and sweeping. Also there was enough of a breeze against that you were able to complete the whole 10km without once having to pedal or touch the brakes.
At the bottom of the mountain was a small village called Mihalekovo, where we lunched in a small restaurant. Most of us chose the lamb soup, although there was nothing from a lamb that I recognised in there. My guess is that parts of the stomach may have been involved again, although I try not to dwell on it.
Whilst we had been descending from the mountain and sitting in the shade at the cafe, the temperature had rocketed into the high 90s. The heat hit you as soon as you stepped out in to the sun for the afternoon ride. There was a wind, but it blew hot air at you that only added convected heat to the radiation from the sun. It was one of those soporific Mediterranean afternoons which are only suitable for lazing in the shade of a tree or dozing by the swimming pool.
That afternoon the plan was to cycle up a valley to the hotel where we were due to stay. The heat was stifling. I set off tentatively, trying to maintain enough pace to generate a cooling breeze but without pedalling hard enough to break in to a sweat. The floor of the valley that we were travelling up was occupied by a large river. The road we were on clung halfway up the tree-covered hillside. The scenery was stunning and I was vaguely aware of people passing me, stopping to take photographs and then passing me again. Apart from that, I was in a world of my own. In a year that seemed to be all about getting from A to B or struggling up the next big hill, I was just enjoying being on a bike. I only had 18km to cover and I had all afternoon to do it. Bob had continually said that we cycled too fast and I was finally beginning to understand what he meant. Cycling, like eating, is something that you should take your time over and enjoy.
The river had been dammed to create a giant reservoir. As we approached this lake we could see a white building in amongst the trees on the other side. I knew this was the hotel. For the first time in years I was actually disappointed when we reached our destination, as it meant that the ride was over. I got the impression that others were feeling the same way, but the mood was instantly lifted as Ilke appeared an announced that they had a pool.
It was the quickest that I have ever gone to a room and changed, but still two or three beat me to the poolside. We had the area to ourselves, a large pool and an even larger sundeck. There was supposed to be a lifeguard on duty but his station was empty. However they did have a very large photograph of him on display, so you would know what he looked like if he had been there. The only downside was that the poolside bar was closed. As we re-arranged the sun beds and umbrellas Bob did his magic act again. This time disappearing and reappearing five minutes later with a tray of cold beers. This was definitely the best day of the holiday so far.
Everyone went their own way in the early evening. Some strolled around the complex taking photographs, others chilled out on their balconies overlooking the lake, while others pottered around in their rooms. We met up just after seven and ate in the outside restaurant area. All the tables here were arranged in a semi-circle so that everyone had a view of the lake. We were next to the car park and, as ours was the only car there, we realised that we were the only people staying at the hotel or eating in the restaurant that night. It was like having a private villa with staff waiting on you.The temperature display on the side of the hotel had dropped from 32 degrees in the shade, when we had arrived, to a very pleasant 28 degrees by meal time. We finished around ten thirty. I can’t remember what everyone had to eat, but I do remember that everyone thought it was the best restaurant meal we had had all week. I went off to bed but I believe the party continued on the balconies of the rooms.
Day 7 - Lake Bava to Pasadjic
Distance cycled - 55Km
Hotel Acropolis - Single £20, Apartment for three £35
Large beer - 90p
Day 7 began with breakfast in the sunshine at the same table that we had dined at the night before. This was toast with a selection of boiled eggs, cheeses, jams, tomatoes and spicy sausage. We set off around 10am with the temperature already at 27 degrees. The plan was to reach Pasadjic around lunchtime. This was the day that we would leave the mountains. The up side was that the first 25km was all downhill. The down side was that the morning saw us slowly returning to civilisation, culminating in busy traffic in the centre of Pasadjic. The scenery was still stunning as we cycled past two enormous dams and the lakes that they had formed. However the atmosphere was rather muted. I think everyone was beginning to realise that the cycling would soon be over. As we descended, we left behind the cooler mountain air and the temperature rose even further. We found a small cafe at the bottom and the group went through the shop grabbing coffees, cakes, ice creams, fruit juices and chocolate. I followed on at the back and settled the bill. Seven people fed and watered for about a fiver, not bad.
The scenery by now had changed completely and it was quite a shock. Gone were the rugged mountains of the last few days and in their place were soft rolling hills. It was like being transported from the Pyrenees to the gentler slopes of Normandy in just a few kilometres. We climbed to the top of one of these hills and the view over the central plain was breathtaking. I recalled Bob’s geography lesson from the first day and I could see the main mountain range to the north of the plain. Behind them I knew there was the Danubian Plain. Somewhere, way off to my right, there was the Black Sea. Behind me to the left there were the Pirin and Rila mountains. There was so much of this country to see. Heck, we’d only been to the eastern Rhodopes mountains, we hadn’t even made it to the western ones!
The rest of the ride passed uneventfully. Most people lost in their own thoughts about the week. We arrived at the Hotel Acropolis around one where the staff, as everywhere, were very friendly. We sadly said goodbye to our bikes and after showering and changing we spent the afternoon in Pasadjic town centre doing the usual touristy things. Lunch was a slice of pizza and a bottle of ayrian. There was another trip to the bank for some, a visit to the camera shop to get all of the photos on one disc, shopping for gifts, posing for more photographs and even time for a drink in Bob and Ilke’s favourite beer garden. We also managed to fit in a visit to the local market where Bob introduced us to a good friend of his who makes and sells his own honey.
Early evening we relaxed with a few beers at the hotel whilst Bob and Ilke prepared a meal for us. Slav came to fetch us at eight and took us back to Ilke’s apartment. Needless to say, it was a wonderful evening. I have often thought, as we travelled around France or Mallorca in our big groups, that we tend to be insulated from what was going on around us. We hardly touch the country and the country never really has a chance to touch us. I was hoping that this trip would be different. Sat at that table, enjoying the company, I realised it had achieved everything I had hoped for and more. If there is anything further away from a package holiday than the week we had just experienced then I would like to see it.
We knew that the next day was Slav’s first day in a new school, so we tried to leave early, but with limited success. We said our farewells to Ilke and Slav and arranged to meet Bob in the morning.
Day 8 - Home
Bob arrived around twenty to eight in the morning just as we were finishing breakfast. Two taxis showed up soon after to take us to the railway station. Bob managed to book the five of us on a group ticket that knocked about a third off the fare.The train ride back to Sofia took about two hours. We arrived at the station with plenty of time to kill before our two thirty flight. We found a table outside a kiosk on the end of the platform. Coffee and banitsa for six people came to under £3. We passed a pleasant hour watching the world go by.
I thought we would say our farewells there but Bob was determined to accompany us all the way back to the airport. A taxi ride later and we were in the terminal building hugging, kissing, shaking hands and promising to keep in touch. Bob left and it was over.
Is a cycling holiday in Bulgaria for me I hear you asking yourselves. Well that depends on you. If you think that cycling holidays are a slow and pleasant way of really seeing the countryside, then you should consider it. If you think they are for zooming around on the latest road racing machine then you shouldn’t. If you are the type of cyclist who wants to take more spare batteries for your camera than energy bars for yourself on your trips, then you should definitely be interested. If you think that cafe stops are for chilling out, taking some shade and trying different foods rather than refuelling for the next big hill, then Bob’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Isle of Wight
7th -> 9th October ... The plan used Lymington-Yarmouth ferry and everyone met up in Newport on the Isle of Wight. The sun (how lucky were they!), cycling, company were shinning, fabulous and fun as always.
Christmas meal and walk 2011
Saturday 17th December... This year's christmas bash and walk will be at Cafe Jazz on Cardiff High Street. There will be a walk details available soon.
This year’s meal and walk is on the 17th December. The walk will be around Cardiff bay, including going over the new bridge. It will be led by Sue and Vernon. Meeting place: The Pierhead Building at 2pm. The walk is about 6 miles, wrap up warm as its pretty exposed out there!
People will be meeting up for a drink before the meal (which is at 6:30pm) at Wetherspoons, Prince Of Wales, in Wood Street, Cardiff from 5.30 onwards.