I entered Serbia on a dusty back road but left it on a busy A-road. On the Serbian side the bored looking man threw away the documents I’d carefully collected without even pretending to look at them and waved me through. I queued in one of the lanes of traffic on the Bulgarian side and soon enough scooted back into the EU.
Bulgaria may be the poorest country in the EU but it immediately felt more developed and Western orientated than Serbia. English is much more widely spoken and smiles are less closely guarded. Wide, new motorways are impeccably surfaced and that stalwart of European supermarkets, Billa, popped up once again (I realised I hadn’t seen anything as large as a supermarket in Serbia, not even in the cities). The road immediatly from the border lead down into a bosky valley, a welcome change from scrubby plains. Everything was very congenial. For all these things, however, the beer was less cold, the peaches less juicy and the rajika less sweet. There were no watermelons.
First stop, the capital city, Sofia. Despite my glorious night of air conditioned sleep I was still knackered and my eyes were closing before I even got on my bike in the morning. Halfway there I sat at a bus stop and fell sound asleep, for how long I don’t know. I eventually made it to the city though, and the approach wasn’t the grim parade of soviet-style highrise I’d come to expect.
Sofia is a remarkably old city, existing in some form thousands of years ago and there’s a lot of history to show for it. Swathes of Roman ruins lie just below street level where they have been accidentally excavated during new construction (which has consequently halted). Orthodox churches were converted to mosques during the Ottoman occupation and converted back after the 19th century Russian liberation. More recently, though allied with Germany at the start of WW2, the Bulgarians are famous for refusing to give up their Jews when Hitler’s plans became clear. The Chtistian church was particularly vocal in their defense.
A dash across the A1 motorway struck an unyieldingly flat and direct route to Plovdiv, with a charming old quarter of its own. Streets of haphazard cobblestones the size of your head make even walking challenging. Orientation was impossible in these narrow, sharply banking streets, especially at night when many are unlit and darting carts cause alarming movements in your peripheral vision. Roman ruins abound – an impressive amphitheatre in the hillside and the end of an enormous chariot racing stadium lying below the main shopping street. I failed to take photos of either, sorry. The first hostel I stayed at here was really an old couple’s guest house, where they were making jam, pickle and rajika when I arrived. The second was based in a mid-nineteenth century tabacco merchant’s grand house, decked out in granite, marble and Lebanese cedre. All very characterful.