I woke up at 5am ready to ride over the mountain pass that would lead in to Sofia. I was not certain it would be open as there had been rain in the last few days, which could equate to snow on the top. But open it was and as I rode through the fog it revealed ‘отворен’ road signs, my staggering mind gradually translated these new Cyrillic letters and I prepared for the long road ahead. Someone packed with as many dried dates as I do must be able to get over the 1437m. As I ride up the road is perfect, a previous concern punctured, oak and pine forests channel the road like a long corridor winding up and over what had seemed a snow-topped wall from the valley below. On the route up were multiple taps built in to lay-bys which use diverted stream water. I stopped to use one and run across the road to fill up my bottle, when I look back at my bike I see how small it looks set against the rest of the landscape, the steep walls of this enclave of mountain giving way to the distant plains below. It is leaning against the road barrier taking up less than a speck of my view. And yet there is everything I know. The only thing not an unknown in this vast space. The place where I spend 12 hours everyday, it carries my house, my food and any chance I have of staying warm off the bike. To be honest I had been psyching myself up for the ride, unsure if road or snow conditions would allow it. But I was in luck, perfect weather and stunning vistas weren’t the only joys the ride would bring. As I neared the top a voice popped up next to me and asked where I was from. Enter Iveta, who I would find out rode this climb every day, and had last week been chilling her hands on the -12 degree descent. She ran a family business collecting forest fruits and making products from them including jam, which was soon revealed filling a cake in an effort to funnel sugar in to the body. The area Iveta lived in provided ample mountain biking opportunities, the Starra Planina stretched in a ridge from the pass we took and that morning clouds clung to its peaks like giant fluffy sombreros. We finished the climb together and chatted about her ambitions to become a mountain biker. It is remarkable the boost in morale an exchange like this can bring, almost forgetting I was in the final kilometres as we realised we had a whole meadow of common ground and shared a coffee and (of course) a selfie on the high point of the pass. The snow was piled on top amid the forest, and the view in to the valley gave way to an enormous plain. I set off again, all the better for a chat with a like-minded soul, and aim to increase my ascending speed tenfold at points on the descent. A few hours later Sofia sits in front of me and as I descend the last hill in to the city The Rolling Stones hammer in to my headphones as I hammer down the pedals. I’m breaking the 60km speed limit dodging potholes as I ride, each one carries the death penalty. The wind rushes over me and clings to everything I wear. I can see the entire city of Sofia lying in the plain before me while snow-capped mountains block the far horizon.
Sofia possesses a standard feature of the Eastern Europe I had come to know, Soviet-inspired concrete blocks standing in armies at the entrance to the city. These buildings, locally termed Panelki, are unromantic and ooze functionality and strength. Massive imposing structures, these cubic concrete jungles cut the view of the snowy peak of Vitosha Mountain as I enter the city. I am met at the apartment of my couchsurfing host by Ivo, an architecture student in the city who also feels a thrill for riding a bike. Ivo didn’t live at the apartment but had travelled in to town to let me in, he was a friend of my host. We sit on the floor of the lounge, eating the remainder of the feast I had bought that morning. We chat and it soon becomes clear that we will spend a lot of time together in the next few days while I stay in the city.
From what I am told the quality of life in Bulgaria was in a much better state during the Communist time than immediately after. ‘Everyone had a job then, everyone could work.’ The budget for science and technology research was highly prioritised and the country was known as the Silicon Valley of the Eastern Bloc. ‘But corruption was inherited from Communism’ Ivo tells me.
Uniquely, after the fall of Communism Bulgaria’s crime syndicates were often run by wrestlers, the word wrestler (борец) synonymous with a mafia-man. Before 1990 these wrestlers were frequently bodyguards for politicians and when the spoils were divided up in the first democratic years many of these wrestlers went on to take high ranking positions in the mafia. ‘You can see everything on the street here, everything is so open’ Ivo says, ‘Most businesses have to pay protection money.’ There has been over 100 assassinations in Bulgaria in the recent ten years, thought to be among mafia figures and high-ranking businessmen or politicians (including an ex-Prime Minister), with only one conviction. These are frequently committed in broad daylight in the capital’s centre.
After our scraps of bread we head out in to the city and sink a few cans of Bulgaria’s finest. Despite the dark image of a corrupt government and open crime the city has a very friendly atmosphere and it was easy to approach strangers in the street, ask for a cigarette and start to chat. Something I would feel across Bulgaria, one of the friendliest countries I would travel through and not once did I feel unsafe. The Bulgarians I met were spirited and had a strong sense of cultural identity as well as an enthusiasm for artistic events.
A few more Baba Marta bracelets (the Spring Festival) later and we had come to the open grass spaces outside the National Theatre and the Monument to the Soviet Army, a recurring site of politically-minded graffiti. In 2011 the soldiers in a statue on the site were painted as comic characters including Superman and The Joker, with a caption reading ‘In Step With the Time’, more recently to raise awareness for the Ukrainian revolution in 2014. Bulgaria was largely an agricultural society in the late 40’s but by the 1980’s it had become the ‘Silicon Valley’ mentioned, Ivo explains that in order to achieve this ‘the government had encouraged migration to Sofia and other big towns’, causing the eruption of these Panelki so noticeable on the city’s fringes. Plovdiv is a city further East and demonstrates a well-preserved historic old town, ‘in Sofia I feel like a rat in a cage, when I go to Plovdiv I feel like a Bulgarian.’ That having been said the city centre displays some remarkable architectural beauties. As I had seen across Eastern Europe, magnificent city centres interspersed by the relics of Communist rule.
The pair of us stayed at Daniela’s, my host’s apartment. Daniela, another gem, generously bought the two tipsy jokers some burgers on her return from work late that night and we chatted until even later. Leaving Sofia was a sad occasion, but only because I felt so at home there. Sometimes the hardest part of your day is leaving in the morning, friendships spring up quickly and naturally. I’d met many people on the trip who were open-minded and would happily echo Mark Twain’s words that ‘travel is fatal to prejudice’, and my hosts in Sofia were no different.
On my last morning I sat with Ivo outside the apartment preparing my bike. As an elderly woman, a ‘Baba’ reminiscent of the Russian Babushka, walked past in to the bright sunshine of the morning Ivo told her in Bulgarian I would now cycle to China, “Oh ok. Have a nice day” was the response. We embraced and made bold statements about the next time we would see each other. Whenever it would be it would not be soon enough. The sun was high in the sky and I pedalled out in to some manic streets with a coffee-infused hangover before reaching the outskirts of Sofia. I was overjoyed to have spent time with Ivo, Daniela and Iveta. The solitude of the task ahead was made so much easier by these exchanges and the memories they would ferment.