Bulgaria or Bust 2019 recap



THE IDEA

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

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.


FIRST DAY

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.


JOURNEY WEST

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.


SERBIA

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!


INTO MONTENEGRO

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..


TO PLUZINE

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