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Southeast course

Bulgaria – cheap travel destination? A transit country in south-east Europe on the way to Turkey? True, but that’s only half the story.

Josef Seitz


With a smile, the friendly customs officer asks me to show the papers, take a quick look at the visa, and then she wishes me a safe journey. Bulgaria. I know little or nothing about this country. Even the call to the Bulgarian tourist office was a disappointment: “The best thing to do is book a package tour to the Black Sea, because a lot of cars are being stolen at the moment.” According to the meager information, I should better refrain from my plan. But a few hours ago I left Istanbul and decided to drive through Bulgaria on the way to Germany. I was excited. The sleepy border town of Malko Tarnov is already a few kilometers behind me. Curve after curve, the road winds its way through cool deciduous forests. I drive calmly towards Nesebar on the Black Sea, a small village on a peninsula that is connected to the mainland by a ten meter wide and 300 meter long dam. Only a few people stroll through the narrow streets between the spruced up wooden houses. Once there were over 40 churches in the small town, which is one of the oldest settlements in Europe, today there are only eleven, which is still more than in any other place in Bulgaria. According to my travel guide, all hell should be going on here during the summer holidays . Some of the signs are even labeled in German – an indication of who the cafes and souvenir shops are for: Bulgarian sandy beaches have always been the first address for German holidaymakers on a budget. The prices are actually incredibly low. Grilled fish costs the equivalent of eighty pfennigs, and accommodation with a view of the sea costs five marks for one night. If you stay several nights you can get a room for three fifty marks. The condition of the coastal road is bad. Or the other way around, a remnant of the road is still preserved between the potholes. Still, I like it. Behind Bjala the road bids farewell to the sea, winds its way through hilly terrain, from time to time it goes through small wooded areas, finally past fields and vineyards. At Staro Orjachovo I can’t resist the temptation to take another detour to the sea. After eight kilometers I reach the coast at Schkorpilovzi – and am amazed: A wonderful sandy beach with many dunes stretches behind a dense forest. Tourists? Nothing. Apparently not even in summer, because there are hardly any hotels here. But now I am attracted to the inland. I turn in the direction of Madara – at least I hope that the way leads there. Signs and signposts are all in Cyrillic, and I try to memorize at least a few chunks of the alphabet so that I can at least decipher the place-name signs. But it’s not just the script that is different: Bulgarians shake their heads when they agree and they nod when they disagree. Misunderstandings are inevitable: I want to refuel near Sumen, the gas station attendant nods eagerly – and I wonder why he still refuses to give me petrol. Sure, because he doesn’t have one, as I found out a few minutes later from a German-speaking Bulgarian who is more fortunate than me at the diesel pump. Bad luck at the next gas station. I suddenly remember all the stories in which Eastern Bloc travelers spent most of their trip organizing gasoline. But already in Preslav the ghost is over and the tank is filled to the brim. Finally I reach Madara, an archaeological reserve with a worldwide reputation. The rider of Madara, a rock relief almost three meters high, is the only monumental relief from the early Middle Ages in all of Europe. Unfortunately, nothing can be seen of the rider carved in the stone at the moment. The work is being restored and is covered with plastic sheeting. Not far from the original is a true-to-scale copy of the rider on the roadside. No substitute, but still impressive. In the evening I reach Veliko Tarnovo. The city is one of the most beautiful in the country. The partly magnificent buildings that were erected on the northern ridge of the Balkan foothills look like a huge fortress, houses and rocks seem to have grown together long ago. The extent of the fortress wall shows the former size and importance of Veliko Tarnovo. Between 1187 and 1393, the country’s heyday in terms of cultural history, this former tsarist city was the metropolis of Bulgaria. On the way to the Sipka Pass, I turn onto a side street in Drjanovo. When I stop at the end of the town, a car suddenly stops behind me. A man in a camouflage suit jumps out and speaks to me in German. It soon becomes clear that he is interested in the Honda. He is an avid motorcyclist himself and asks me to wait a moment. Shortly afterwards he appears with his machine, an M 72, the Russian replica of the Wehrmacht BMW. However, he modified the load a bit. Since there are no spare parts, the Bulgarian has installed the tank of a Russian ish, built the bench and paneling himself and constructed a case system from rectangular flower boxes and the window frame of a disused bus. He says that the engine is already over 200,000 kilometers under its belt. Sure, he likes the Africa Twin, but he would prefer to have a BMW. With a monthly salary of around 75 marks, however, he is happy to have two bikes under his bum. Via the Sipka Pass I reach Kazanlak, an inconspicuous small town at first glance, but which has a unique attraction – at least if you are looking for graves interested: The Thracian tomb from the 4th century BC only consists of a narrow space, but the easily visible paintings on the walls and ceilings, which show various people, fighting and numerous symbols, are overwhelming in their expressiveness. No other monument from the Hellenistic world is as well preserved as this one. To keep it that way, access is now prohibited. Visitors can only marvel at a detailed replica next door. I comfortably rush further south into a beautiful mountain region. The Rhodope Mountains south of Plovdiv are considered to be one of the most scenic areas in Bulgaria. Rightly. It is a labyrinth of countless mountain ridges and valleys, in which the path only occasionally touches small, secluded villages in which time seems to have stood still many years ago. Endless forests line the route like a thick wall, then clearings again reveal a view of a wildly formed land. Occasionally, small paths branch off from the main road that end somewhere in the mountains. One of them leads to the caves at Jagodina near Trigrad. The drive there is as adventurous as it is scary. For almost seven kilometers, the path follows a torrent through the Bujnowez Gorge. Steep rock faces rise up to the left and right, the breakthrough is only a few meters wide in some places. After all, the rocks hang as far over the path as if you were going through a tunnel. Then the route crosses the deep green stream several times – on narrow bridges that are made of thick tree trunks and do not look very trustworthy. At walking pace I balance the heavy enduro through this breathtakingly beautiful rocky landscape. At the end of the route I treat myself to a walk through one of the two huge caves, in which there is supposed to be a waterfall over 60 meters high. But as a guide explains to me, the steps to the actual attraction of the cave are currently not passable. I only find out about that after I’ve paid the entrance fee. This rascal is probably still laughing at my hesitant protest. Back on the main road, I drive west to Melnik, which, according to the travel guide, is »the smallest town in Bulgaria«, which lies in the middle of a ravine surrounded by bare and steep cliffs. White, fairytale houses that were built on top of each other, narrow, steep paths in which there is hardly any space for a vehicle. It smells beguilingly of acacia, crickets chirp, otherwise you can only hear the scream of a rooster or donkey and the blocks of sheep. A beautiful place, which has meanwhile been flatteringly declared an architecture reserve by the government. It is practically curve-free from here to the north, in the direction of the capital Sofia. Past the foothills of the Pirin Mountains and to the world-famous Rila Monastery, a mighty and magnificent building that is the most visited attraction in the country. Then suddenly the first satellite cities of Sofia appear under a thick steam boiler. A sight that is not very inviting. I don’t want to stay either, desperately looking for a way out of the increasingly dense traffic to the north, but after an hour traffic jams, smog and noise are forgotten again. Behind Novi Iskar, the overland road again leads through a mighty natural backdrop: Over a length of more than 60 kilometers, the Iskar has dug a path through the rocks of the Balkans over the course of thousands of years. In the far north follows the peculiar rocky landscape near Belogradchik: red-brown columns and stone blocks that stand as if placed by magic in the middle of dense forests. From here it is only a few kilometers to the Danube, the border to Romania. I almost got stuck during the last stage: The gas stations run out of gas, because the precious fuel is better sold in neighboring Serbia for twice the price . I will think about the friendly nodding gas station attendant for a long time. And also to the people from the tourist office. Instead of just recommending Paulschal trips to the Black Sea, maybe you should try the country, which has much more to offer than coast, for yourself.


A trip through Bulgaria is an exciting and still very inexpensive experience – if you take the time and ignore the transit routes. The coast of the Black Sea invites you to swim, inland there are wonderfully beautiful stretches. The tip for Enduro riders: the Rhodope Mountains in the south near the Greek border.

Arrival: On the Austrian motorway via Salzburg to Vienna and on through Hungary to Budapest. From there via Szeged to the Romanian border. In Romania it goes via Arad, Timisoara and Drobeta Turnu Severin to Calafat, where the Danube ferry translates into Bulgarian Vidin. It is around 1300 kilometers from Munich to Calafat. If you have enough time, travelers to Turkey should consider this route as an alternative to the ferry crossing. The entry visa for Bulgaria is available for 78 marks from the Bulgarian consulates. All visas are available in advance from the Bulgarian Consulate General, Bocklinstrasse 1, 80638 Munich, phone 089/152026, or from the Bulgarian Embassy, ​​Consular Department, Am Buchel 17, 53173 Bonn, phone 0228/351071 Camping sites have numerous accommodations from five marks, the number of overnight stays in Bulgaria is poor. In Germany, hotels can only be found in large cities or in the immediate vicinity of tourist attractions. Most of the accommodations exist in the Rhodope Mountains, along the Greek border. The tip: the excellent Hotel Arbanatschki Tschan in Apanassi with wonderful rooms from 50 dollars per night. Vasil and Elena Kisiovi’s private accommodation in Siroka Laka is very warm. They rent rooms for a total of six people. Including half board, schnapps and family members, between 15 and 20 marks per person are to be paid. A night in the Rila monastery in one of the old accommodations for pilgrims and monks is particularly atmospheric. A bed costs around five marks a night. Further information: Bulgarian Tourist Office, Stephanstrabe 13, 60313 Frankfurt, phone 069/295284 Literature: Travel guides about Bulgaria are in short supply. The best offer at the moment: Bulgaria from Elena and Ralf Engelbrecht from the Reise Know-How series for 39.80 marks. In addition to a wealth of information about the country and its people, numerous beautiful routes are described. The ideal book for self-drivers. The addition: the small polyglot Bulgaria for 12.80 marks, which thanks to its handy size fits in every jacket pocket. The ADAC Bulgaria map on a scale of 1: 500,000 for 12.80 marks is suitable for traveling. Other maps are available in bookshops. Time required: 10 days. Distance covered: 1900 kilometers.

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