By Herb Kavet
I assumed Bulgaria was a Balkan backwater. A group of cycling friends suggested going there so I joined them with minimal research as to what the country really offered. The first surprise was Sofia, the capital: not a run down former communist city drab and crumbly but a vibrant throbbing place; well-dressed people, sexy youngsters, clean streets, modern buildings all anchored with a background of ancient churches, mosques and parks; enough old cobble stoned streets to give a historic feeling but equal in every way to the famous cities of more Western Europe. By luck we arrived on a Culture Day holiday and the parks were thronged with dancers and singers in traditional costumes.
Bulgarians were courteous. Pedestrians wouldn’t cross against a traffic light and the car drivers stopped scrupulously for them in crosswalks. Drivers even obeyed all traffic lights. Not at all like Boston and this was definitely a plus for cyclists. The road conditions also were a lot better than around here after our tough winter. English was widely spoken in the cities and hotels and amongst young people. With old folk in the country my 3 words of Bulgarian brought enthusiastic smiles and a babble of reply of which I couldn’t understand a word.
I also enjoyed Bulgarian food. Yes, they had too many peppers for my taste but enormous salads at every meal, delicious bean and veal soups and lots of interesting breads. Cheese is a national passion and is dumped on everything. Yogurt is used in every imaginable way. One local dish had sunny side up eggs served on a bed of yogurt with garlic.
Once away from cities the scenery reminded me of Switzerland. Peaks in the distance were snow covered though this was June and the hillsides were verdant green and alive with flowers. Roads were excellent and traffic very light. Occasional horse drawn carts added to the ambience but they were certainly outnumbered by the Mercedes and BMW’s. Bulgaria has thermal springs everywhere and most of the hotels we stayed at had a place we could soak sore biking muscles.
Roman ruins popped up constantly and we viewed an impressive Roman Forum and Hippodrome in Plovodiv the country’s second largest city. We enjoyed a much needed rest day in the old section of that city with its cobbled streets and Thracian remains. This place was meant for walking rather than biking.
Our guides were a couple of young fellows who had started a company called Bike Ventures. Articulate, efficient and generous with meals and wine they were amongst the best leaders I have encountered in my many bicycling trips. Bulgaria is a hidden gem waiting to be discovered. I’m glad I visited before the crowds.
Link to the newspaper article HERE