On descending the Transfăgărășan Pass, we stopped under the shade of some trees for a cool drink of water. The dummy exhaust can I fitted to my bike, made from old drain pipe, has demonstrated excellent thermal efficiency and will keep a thermos cold all day long even in these searing summer temperatures. Imagine my horror when I looked down to see the left hand chain tensioner hanging off my bike. The right hand one (on the sprocket side) had gone – smashed to pieces – and all that was left was the twisted tensioner bolt hanging out of the busted up rear end of the swinging arm.
To tension the drive-chain you loosen the rear wheel axle nut, set the correct tension using the adjuster bolts with alignment marks on the swinging arm and then retighten the axle nut. That’s fine for most bikes, however on the BMW F650GS, you have to then go back and tighten up the adjuster bolts or they will vibrate loose and can fall off. When Theo had fitted my new chain, he neglected to do this and a day riding twisty roads had resulted in the damage above. It wasn’t Theo’s fault as he wasn’t to know. I felt stupid and angry with myself that I hadn’t double-checked the tension after the new chain was installed, as this would have easily picked up the loose adjuster bolts.
Luckily our next halt, only a day away, was for maintenance as we had planned to visit Motocamp Bulgaria for an oil change and servicing of the bikes. We crossed into Bulgaria by a small river ferry that took over the Danube to Nikopol. It was early evening on a Saturday and the roads were deserted. First impressions were that Bulgaria seemed slightly more orderly than Romania with pretty villages festooned with flower boxes and planters. The few people we did see continued the friendly waves we’d grown accustomed to in Romania.
The Motocamp is a bit of a misnomer in that they currently don’t offer camping. Situated in the sleepy little village of Idilevo, this old farm complex has been converted into a number of bedrooms, an open-air bar, an airy clubhouse and finally a workshop where guests can work on their bikes. Our hosts for what would be a weeklong stay were Polly and Ivo and we quickly settled in to our new home from home. The room-rate included breakfast and dinner was a delightful communal affair under the supervision of Polly who turned out some incredible dishes (see the food section for her amazing Aubergine recipe).
The bike problems were quickly sorted. We did the much needed oil changes. Peachy, one of the resident Brits, fabricated a new tensioner plate, ground from a piece of metal bar with a hole for the new tensioner bolt. Then putting it all back together, I found another ‘loose bolt’ on my sub-frame under the engine. On further examination I was able to withdraw the bolt, only to find it had snapped! It was a big bolt (M8 x 220mm) and looked as if it had been broken for some time. Again, Motocamp to the rescue; they called a bolt supplier in Sofia who supplied a couple of new bolts, free-of-charge, next day by courier. Motocamp is quite simply a beautiful oasis, a haven for those on the road: a real-life Rivendell to make ready for the onward road.
In the peaceful hours of early morning Maggie had everyone out for a yoga session. Harley the Motocamp dog and the little black cat (who’s name escapes me) were somewhat confused by all these biker folk rolling around, stretched-out on the grass and holding funny postures. Evening saw the camp at it’s liveliest when surrounding residents would drop in for a beer and a chat. About ten of the houses in the little village are owned by Brits, their numbers increasing; our good friend and fellow author Graham Field just moved in while we were there. Property is ridiculously cheap with a decent sized house with a lot of ground going for the price of a new family car in the UK. Throw in the good weather, empty roads and low cost of living and it is a right little paradise. We heard of one couple who spent years building a KTM sidecar outfit for a round-the-world trip that only lasted from Germany to Idilevo; they loved the easy pace of life so much they decided to simply stay here.
Motocamp was also a mere 35km away from Veliko Turnovo, one of Bulgaria’s prettiest cities. Known as the “City of the Tsars”, Veliko Tarnovo was the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire and has a fabulous location set in the serpentine twists of the Yantra River. The Tsarevets fortress housed the palaces and cathedrals of the Bulgarian emperors and is surrounded by an impressive curtain of thick, biscuity coloured walls. We spent a day mooching the sun-scorched ruins and lunched on Tarator Soup, a refreshing cold dish made from runny yoghurt with cucumber and dill. Our visit continued with a ramble through the streets of the old Varosha quarter of the city and the antique, art and craft shops there.
Sadly we had to move on, as we need to make progress in directions south and east. We had a blue-sky day riding over the Shipka Pass, visiting the huge monument at the top, marking where a joint Russo-Bulgarian army defeated the Ottomans in 1877. Off in the distance we could make out the shape of a huge UFO landed atop one of the distant peaks. This was Buzluzhda, a huge Socialist icon built as recently as 1981. Less than a decade later, communism in Bulgaria collapsed and the Buzluzhda was abandoned. Portraits of the communist hierarchy were removed, vandals moved in to strip the building of lead and copper, all of the windows were broken and the huge mosaics inside have been damaged. Sadly we were only able to view it from a distance as our visit coincided with an annual rally of the Bulgarian Socialist movement and the place was choc-a-bloc with coaches, rally organisers and police.
Our destination for the day more than compensated for the crowds at Buzluzhda as we rode on to the charming city of Plovdiv. Here we planned to celebrate ‘one month on the road’ in our first luxury accommodation of the trip at the ‘Boris Palace Hotel’. Mind you, actually getting to the hotel was something of an ordeal as the hotel was located at the top of the old town and accessed via horrific narrow cobbled alleyways. The GPS was useless, tying to send us the wrong-way up one-way streets, so we ended up milling around, knackered after a long hot day in the saddle and getting shaken to bits on the rocky pavements of Plovdiv. Finally I found a local who spoke a little French and he confirmed the correct alleyway we must ascend. It was all worth it in the end when we collapsed onto the king-size bed after Boris himself helped us unload our trusty steeds.
Plovdiv was simply amazing, one of those places you have to go out of your way to see. It is Bulgaria’s second largest city, capital of the province of Thrace and a place of incredible antiquity with ruins going back to Neolithic times. The Macedonians conquered the city and called it Philippoupolis. The Romans knew it as Trimontium. In fact the ruins of a Roman Odeon or stadium were discovered in the early 20th Century right under the main crossroads in the new city centre when workmen found some banks of seating whilst excavating an old cellar. These have been tastefully incorporated into the heart of the town.
We spent a sunny Sunday wandering the streets, old and new, of Plovdiv where life is lived at such an easy pace. Wandering through Tsar Simeon’s garden we lunched at a lakeside restaurant and contemplated our time in Romania and Bulgaria, the last two European countries of the trip. The tabloid newspapers at home would have us believe that the people of these two countries are ready to invade the UK, set up home and live off our benefits system, seemingly based on the fact that there must be abject poverty in these lands and nothing better to live for. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to change Plovdiv for Peckham or Preston and it frightens me how many people are taken in by this nonsense. In our travels here we saw a snapshot of tranquil, luscious landscapes, peopled by friendly folk, living an easy pace of life on uncongested roads in some of the prettiest places in Europe. We ride on to Turkey next, our only regret; that we couldn’t spend more time here…
Please note the corresponding Gallery for this Blog post can be found at Beautiful Bulgaria