The idea behind Bulgaria or Bust was to take your average two week holiday window and give the riders as much time as possible in which to explore the Balkans. To ride all the way down to Bulgaria and back again would involve many long days on motorways and it was felt that this wasn't the best way of going about it.
Instead I teamed up with David Hydes at Bulgaria Bike Shipping in order to have the bikes freighted by land to Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, with the riders then flying in to collect the bikes and have the full two-week holiday in which to ride back in.
The route back from Bulgaria was designed for us to see and experience as much as possible whilst also being realistic about time and distances. None of the accommodation was booked in advance, apart from the first few nights, simply to allow the trip to develop at its own pace and for people to be able to make their own decisions and for the group to split and regroup depending on riding speed and other preferences. We would aim to ride around 200 miles per day.
The main direction from Bulgaria would be west towards the Croatian coast. There are many routes through the Balkans to get there, with the final route being one through Serbia, into Montenegro and then up into Croatia. Some of this was down to ease of transit and other decisions down to time. With an extra week you would possibly drop down into Greece and then come up the coast.
COLLECTING THE BIKES The first thing to do was collect the bikes. Thirteen of us flew into Sofia at varying times on a Saturday morning. Flight costs one way were around £120. Bulgaria Bike Shipping organised the 1 hour transfer from the airport to the bike depot just north of Borovets, where we stayed the night in a hotel in this popular ski resort.
The bikes all travelled in their old sturdy metal racks, with all the luggage and riding gear going in the crates with the bikes. It took approximately an hour to get them all unpacked and for us to be on the road. The bikes travel with a bit of fuel in the tank and so you have enough to ride around to the petrol station just around the corner once they're unloaded.
We had a good mix of bikes, from brand new BMW 1250 GS and GSAs, to KTM 790 Adventures, Honda CB500X, Yamaha TDM850, a couple of Africa Twins and my own bike; a 2019 Royal Enfield Himalayan. As we wouldn't be travelling on the motorway the speed of the Himalayan would be fine and on a trip like this it's comfort and load carrying capacity that matters most.
After a night at the hotel with food at a local restaurant the group took to our first day on the road. Like all Garbage Runs the plan is to avoid major roads as much as possible. We would head East this first day, rather than west, aiming for the famous Soviet monument of Buzludzha and camping just north of there at MotoCamp Bulgaria, a place well known amongst the bike travelling community.
I don't have any pictures of this stretch east of Borovets as my phone broke a few days later but it was a stunning section of road, partially abandoned and twisting through the mountains until you eventually emerge at a small community overlooking a huge dam that you ride across, continuing on the journey through the mountains beyond. The road name is the 803, turning left just after the dam on an unclassified road that leads up to the 801. East from there to the E871 then up to Buzludzha.
Riding in Bulgaria, at least these rural parts, is a mainly painless experience. Traffic is generally light and the route easy to navigate. Fuel stations are frequent, we just found it difficult locating places to eat, passing through villages that didn't have cafes or at least visible from the road. We finally found a cafe in the historic town of Hisarya. There can be an issue with language in rural Bulgaria, as few speak English. At this cafe the owner called his friend who lived in England and by chance was recognised by one of our group as being on the same flight out from Manchester the day before. Small world.
Buzludzha was impressive, visible from many miles away, built prominent at the summit of a mountain ridge from which the building took its name. Buzludzha was built between 1971 and 1981 by the Bulgarian Communist Party. From Wikipedia 'It commemorated the events of 1891, when a group of socialists led by Dimitar Blagoev assembled secretly in the area to form an organised socialist movement that led to the founding of the Bulgarian Social Democratic Party, a forerunner of the Bulgarian Communist Party.'
The building is now abandoned and in bad state of repair. The road to get to it is rough and rutted. It remains a popular sight to see, with it hoped that restoration happens before it's too late.
From Buzludzha we rode the Shipka Pass north to Bulgaria MotoCamp, with the group well looked after by Polly and her team.
From MotoCamp we began our ride west to the coast, aiming initially for Belogradchik, home of the ancient rock fortress. Thanks to Duncan, one of the riders in the group who had spotted it on the map, we took in the fabulous Troyan Pass on route, stopping off at the 'Arc of Liberty' at the summit. The huge arch is dedicated to the 1878 victory of the Russian army capturing the pass, leading to the liberation of Bulgaria from the Ottoman regime. It also commemorates the Bulgarian - Russian unity following World War II. It's a great road and a great structure.
From the southern side of the Troyan Pass we rode west on the E871 towards Sofia, before turning off at Zlatitsa on the 37 towards Pravets. This was dirt road for some of it and was a good taste of rural Bulgaria. Traffic remained light, although over the Troyan Pass we experienced the impatience of some of the drivers; overtaking when either unnecessary or unsafe. It takes a bit of getting used to and you have to be mindful for traffic in your rear view mirror and leave them a gap if they want to move into it. They'll aim for it whether you like it or not!
Taking the main E79 wasn't much fun, but you're soon again out onto quieter roads, with this north-western part of Bulgaria probably the highlight of the country for me. We arrived at the Belogradchik fortress in the late afternoon, it overlooking the pleasant town of the same name, surrounded by mountains and dramatic rock formations. We stayed in an AirBnB back down in a neighbouring village, although to do it again I'd stay up in the main town.
Belogradchik Fortress was fantastic - a real highlight. It's a tourist destination so you have to pay to get in, but you're free to scramble around the place and it's not all fenced off and guarded like a UK destination might. It's a fantastic spot to watch the sun go down; like a scene out of Game of Thrones.
From Belogradchik we dropped south on the 81 - fantastic riding through here - in order to pick up one of the main crossing points into Serbia on the E80. We had issues with Serbia. Some of the riders had bike insurance that covered Serbia as part of their 'green card', whereas some of us didn't have Serbia listed, along with Bosnia and Montenegro, although the latter two countries weren't listed on any riders' Green Card. It would mean getting third party insurance at the border, which we knew we would have to do. There is some discrepancy with this. Some argue that Serbia is a European country and therefore Green Card coverage is a given. When you speak to your insurance company they say not, and much depends on which underwriter writes your policy as to whether Serbia is included. It's definitely worth speaking to your insurance company and it might even sway your choice of insurer if you have a trip like this planned.
There are also insurance company such as Tourinsure that can help, but the policies aren't cheap.
For those of us not covered, it meant a fee of 110 Euros at the border. We didn't need to buy it per se. We were allowed in and it was our own choice to go and find the issuing office. Some riders took the chance without it. As to whether it's worth the paper it's written on who knows, not until you have an accident or get asked to produce it by the police. It was a galling amount of money, especially as we'd be in and out of Serbia within a day!
We regrouped in the city of Niš, the road from the border a super-highway through beautiful countryside with hardly any other traffic on it. Niš was pleasant and well serviced, even with a McDonalds! We were going to enter Kosovo but time restrictions meant that we pushed on west towards Montenegro. We would stay in a hostel on the shores of Lake Uvac in the west of Serbia.
To get there the road from Niš was a highlight. Rural countryside, a well surfaced road, light traffic and endless corners rising up and over valleys and mountains. We headed towards the town of Novi Pazar. It was our longest day on the road at over 400 miles, the last 50 of those in the dark and along roads that were unsurfaced due to being in a state of repair. The final descent to the hostel on the shores of Lake Uvac were insane; an endless warren of single track lanes, then dirt roads through what looked like fields until you burst through the gap in a hedge and there were the bright lights of Villa Uvac
Someone in the group described this day as a 'proper adventure' and I would totally agree. We covered a huge distance, starting in Bulgaria, dealing with the border crossing into Serbia, a long ride through the countryside, tackling unsurfaced road well into darkness and arriving at the hostel late at night, tired, thirsty and hungry. What a day!
Montenegro was a favourite country for many of us. It had it all; great riding, great scenery, great people, great food and a stunning coastline to top it all. From Lake Uvac we took the E763 down to the border, thinking it would give us the best shot of buying the much maligned Green Card at the border. Crossing borders is straight forward generally. They just want to see your passport and be on your way. Bikes can filter to the front, as uncomfortable as it might make you feel initially.
At this border there were no bureaus or offices to buy the Green Card, meaning that we headed down to the nearest town of Bijelo Polje. We stopped for food at a bakers and whilst the group sat in the shade the search for Green Card insurance began. Through the use of Google translate I was directed down into town, asking the police if they knew of anywhere and finally finding the offices of an insurance company down in town. It took some explanation to try and make clear what we needed, before a dozen Brit bikers descended on the place and for the next 1 hour each did paperwork just before the offices closed for the night. It was around 11 Euros for the Green Card; much more like it!
We now took the P4 west to the ski resort town of Žabljak. Another fantastic road to get there. Fast and well sighted through a stunning gorge. We camped just outside Žabljak and rode into town for dinner. The group was thinning by now. Some were off at their own pace; others a little behind, others further ahead. WhatsApp is a great way for a group to remain in communication and regroup when needed.
A great night at Auto Camp Mlinski Potok, complete with local art..
Pluzine is a special place in Montenegro. It's only a village, but placed right on the banks of Piva Lake. We took the P14 west from Žabljak to get there. This is single track and mountainous. There's some great scenery through here, plus the most spiralling downhill descent through a crudely dug tunnel you'll ever encounter:
Then finally onto Pluzine (above) where we stopped at a local cafe for lunch. The Trans European Trail (TET) runs near to hear and if you had the time and the inclination you could explore this entire region by dirt road. Montenegro takes its name from 'Black Mountain'; a description if anything of the mountainous nature of the country. It really is a place worth exploring on two wheels.
From Pluzine we dropped south - a choice of the main E762 or the remote P15 that both drop you down in the vicinity of Kotor; the main town on the coast, famous for its harbour and medieval old quarters. Before reaching the town we rode up to the summit of Lovćen, a mountain and National Park with spectacular views of Kotor Bay Below. There's a nice restaurant at the top of here, as well as a mausoleum. It's well worth the ride to the top.
We stayed in Kotor that night in a hostel overlooking the harbour. Accommodation prices were slightly higher in Kotor than the rest of Montenegro but still much cheaper than western Europe. The medieval quarter is lively at night, with outdoor bars and restaurant. It's a busy tourist place, with cruise liners that stop by, but it still had a lot of charm and a real highlight of the trip for many of us. There were a lot of new 1200 GS on the roads of Kotor, which makes me think there must be a rental place nearby, but I wasn't able to find any online. Shame, as it'd be a great way to explore Montenegro; flying in and renting a bike for a couple of days.
CROATIAN COAST AND BOSNIA
Given that we were travelling through at the height of the tourist season in mid August, we were keen to avoid the main tourist hubs of Dubrovnik and the southern stretches of the Croatian coast. Instead, we rode around the Kotor Bay, realising as we went just how many camping and swimming options there are along here - it really is a paradise for motorcycle travel - before taking the R429 out of Meljine in the direction of the border with Bosnia. One of the main things some of us had wanted to see on the trip was the rebuilt bridge in Mostar; the original destroyed in the Balkan war of the 1990s and since rebuilt as symbol of the new found peace there.
Crossing into Bosnia was pretty painless. We all needed a Green Card for Bosnia and were relieved to find an agent at the border who sold us each a policy for 30 Euros. It takes two minutes and just gives you a slip of paper that presumingly covers you at least third party if you're involved in an accident. The best precaution is to try not to have an accident in the first place!
We stopped just over the border for lunch at a great local restaurant, before continuing on along the M6 to Trebinje and then onto Mostar. Bosnia seemed like a vast, empty country. It was very arid and mountainous in the region we passed through, stark contrast to the lush green mountains of Montenegro. This was more like desert and hard to comprehend the level of fighting that had taken place here in recent decades.
We camped that night just south of Mostar at the River Camp Bara in a village that had quite a few accommodation options. Myself and Julian rode into Mostar that evening, finding it a bigger and more modern town than we were imagining. The restored bridge we found at the heart of the old town, surrounded by tight alleys of restaurants and tourist shops. The bridge was stage for a Redbull diving competition taking place the next day, so several of the competitors were out that evening practising, diving from a turret built on the bridge, down into the fast flowing water of the River Neretva below. The bridge was synonymous during the fighting with either side on opposing riverbanks, taking pot shots at each other and eventually resulting in the destruction of the bridge.
TO THE CROATIAN COAST
Today, after about a week on the road of a two week trip, we forged onwards towards the Croatian Coast. Talk of its magnificence was high; most of us just were keen to see the sea. We aimed for Split, one of the major towns on the coast, doing our best to bypass it as the traffic was intense and the heat was high, especially at the height of the day. Crossing from Bosnia into Croatia had been easy and now being in an EU country allowed a sense of calmness in not having to worry about Green Cards from this point on.
From the top side of Split we rode the dual carriageway running parallel to the coast up to Trogir where we stopped for lunch. It was packed here; full on tourist frenzy, and we hoped this wouldn't be repeated for the rest of the coastal road north.
Thankfully not, for as we the road opened up towards the pleasant town of Šibenik, and then grew even quieter and more scenic beyond it, we were really in for a good ride, keeping an eye out for a campsite and spoilt for choice as there are so many along here, most down by the water's edge so perfect for an afternoon swim in the warm waters. With more time you could take the ferries across to the islands and traverse your way north that way. This stretch was one of the highlights of the trip.
We had breakfast in Zadar the next morning, followed by some more excellent and quiet coastal road all the way along the E65 to Rijeka. Again, with more time you could explore the islands just off the coast, and also shorten the day in order to make the most of the accessible beaches just off from the road. One option to get to the Croatian coast would be to ride down Italy and take the ferry across. You could be down here in two or three long days in the saddle if the mood suited you. Camping gets a little more expensive in Croatia than it is in the Balkans but it's still no more than 15 Euros per night.
From Croatia we rode directly north into Slovenia, surprised at how pleasant it was; almost like Switzerland but easier on the wallet. The change in scenery and landscape was stark between Croatia and Slovenia; Croatia was largely arid and flat - at least along the coast - but into Slovenia the hills suddenly rose high in front of you and the landscape was thick with forest.
From Rijeka near the top of Croatia we rode up to the Rupa border crossing into Slovenia, then riding up to Postojna - famous for its cave network, camping just to the north of the town at the Pivka Jama campsite. This was a great spot, with the camping spots right in the forest, with good facilities and onsite restaurant and bar as well. Slovenia turned out to be a real highlight.
The next morning we made the journey north to Bled, famous for its lake. This section of road was spectacular. It was all narrow, quiet mountainous roads, through little villages and at one point even a spot of dirt road riding. We'd been up early in order to get to Bled for 10am to rendez-vous with the rest of the group, and it was just a great early morning ride. We were 5 bikes total, the pace was moderate, the weather good and the destination worth riding towards. Great riding.
And Bled was spectacular as well...
After brunch in Bled we rode over the top, along the 907 to the 201, briefly west before picking up the road leading to the Vršič Pass. This is steep and climbing like an Alpine pass, only with cobble-stone corners to keep you on your toes. It's a great run up and over, with a nice cafe at the top and a beautiful swimming area on the northern side just before the climb. You can't miss it.
From the foot of the Vršič Pass we speared west, aiming for the night at the beautiful high altitude town of Cortina d'Ampezzoin in the Dolomites, northern Italy. It was a long ride to get here and we had some heavy rain on route. We sheltered for coffee in a random town, waiting for Pavlos, a rider that had taken a wrong turn and ended up in Germany. But the final run into Cortina d'Ampezzo was again some great riding. Mountain roads, tight hairpins, faster flowing sections and no one else barely on the road. Once in town we all regrouped; most stayed in an easy to find hotel via booking.com, whilst a few of us camped down in town. A good rewarding day on the road for sure, and the next day, more miles through the mighty Dolomites!
From left to right: Ashley, Julian, Maria, Adrian, Sean, James, Pavlos and Dave.
From Cortina d'Ampezzo we took the SR48 all the way through to Arabba, then taking an anti-clockwise route around Passo Gardena and Passo Sella before heading to Bolzano and taking the road due north of there up and over the Passo di Pennes. At the cafe at the top of the pass I met a couple on a Himalayan heading down towards Turkey, two up! Quite a feat what with only 24.5bhp!
Beautiful views from the top of this pass...
INTO THE ALPS
The trouble with any trip through this region of Europe is deciding which way to go and which route to take, as there are just so many good ones and you simply can't ride them all. Our direction from here in Northern Italy would be to cross into Austria, then west into Switzerland and then from there straight line it back to the ferry in Calais.
We wanted to tick off some of the big name passes, including Stelvio and Timmelsjoch, with the next accommodation night set at Solden in Austria. To get there from Passo di Pennes takes you over the Timmelsjoch road, with a road toll to pay of around 17 Euros, but well worth it.
We descended down into Solden at dusk and all had accommodation booked via booking.com. This being out of season it was easy to organise accommodation on the fly and it was the preference for this trip as it allowed it develop organically and for people to find their own pace. A few riders were almost two days ahead of the main group at one stage, simply because they'd decided to take a slightly straighter route.
WhatsApp is the best tool for keeping a group in contact or together. You can drop a pin and do live GPS tracking, so for sending out messages in order to locate riders in the group then it's ideal. I use it for all my trips.
After a night in Solden - a little pricey for the food - we swung up and over the A12 and back down the 180, all the way to top of the Stelvio Pass, entering from the eastern side. Some right the Stelvio off as being too popular and busy, and not as good as some of the other passes. That might be so but I still think it worth ticking off. It's a good run up the hairpins, the views are spectacular and the atmosphere at the top is second to none, what with all the sausage stalls and hundreds of bikes and cars. We wouldn't have missed it.
After the Stelvio summit the group split, some taking the Umbrailpass up into Switzerland, a few of us heading down into Bormio, then onto Livigno, then through the Munt la Schera Tunnel into Switzerland, that tunnel controlled by traffic lights as it's single lane and over 3 kilometres long! A great experience.
We all then headed to Davos, then onto Flims, a Swiss mountain town where we found a good price hotel and had a nice relaxing evening. The next day we hit road towards Andermatt, over the Oberalp Pass and down into town for an early lunch, then onto ride the famous Furka and Grimsell Passes, with the weather warm and the sky blue. We'd had good weather all the way through, only the high heat in the Balkans to complain about at times.
HEAD FOR HOME
With those two passes ridden it was time to head for home, via Calais and a long slog through rural France. The beauty of Google maps shone through as from the bottom of the Grimsell Pass we just hit 'head for Calais - avoiding motorways - and away we went.
Some might write this section of as being good for nothing - a transit stage - best covered by means of motorway. But we enjoyed some good riding through here, especially the mountain roads through northern Switzerland, looking down on the lakes below.
We camped in Belfort just over the border in France, regrouping and riding on the next day all the way across rural France via back roads until finally arriving in Arras, just a short ride to Calais to catch the ferry the next morning.
The secret is to get away from the main roads, which might mean more time on the bike to cover the distances but the reward is experiencing parts of the journey you'd otherwise bypass. As we crossed France one of the highlights was stumbling across an immaculately kept war grave to British soldiers who died in World War II.
With that we arrived in Calais, took the short ferry across and said our farewells and went our separate ways. It was a trip of 14 days, about 2500 miles, 10 countries and pretty much nothing going wrong. As a way of exploring and seeing as much of Europe as possible in a two week holiday then the shipping of bikes out to Bulgaria to begin with was an exercise well worth doing. We'd otherwise never have had the time to ride out and ride back again and see half what we got to see. With more time you could see more things. In a month you could go head east into Turkey, then Greece, then up to Croatia and even down into Spain if you fancied it.
With camping costs are kept cheap, with a budget of around £60 a day ample to travel and enjoy yourself along the way. Any bike would be capable. The Himalayan was as good a choice as any for it. It was a touch slow up some of the passes, and a bit more accelerating power wouldn't have gone amiss, but it did what bikes costing twice or three times the price were doing and was well suited to this back road trip.
Keep an eye out for 2021 when Bulgaria or Bust will likely take to the road once again.