The remnants of the storm dramatically lights the valley leading up to the border and we hardly get anywhere because we keep stopping to try to capture it all on camera. During one such stop, a car rolls by to ask us if we need any help and, once assured that we were ok, asks where we’re from. I think of the many stereotypes about this area of the world, the supposed angry dogs and stony treatment from the locals and wonder where it all came from. We’ve positively never been anywhere so welcoming.
The border crossing goes quickly, and the Bulgarian agents are keen to know where we’re from and where on earth we’re going. Strangely, they know where Utah is, recalling both the Jazz and the Mormons (and appallingly, their many wives) as being natives to our state. They wish us a good journey, but not before warning us about theft in Petrich, making Stojco’s warnings all the more real. I make a mental note not to let our spectacular experiences cloud our good judgement, but not a lot can tinge my enthusiasm for the places we’re experiencing right now.
Only a handful of minutes from the border and we see a sign for a fortress, and pull over to investigate. A cobblestone road and a rusty bridge lead us to through the forest and over a river to a ticket booth where a tiny kitten hustles passers by for some attention. After spending last summer with an army of kittens invading our house, we’re complete suckers for his tiny cry. He looks a little like Tilly! I flop right onto the pavement to snuggle him before I go see about buying tickets.
The lady at the ticket booth, already smiling at us from our encounter with her little pet, indicates an entrance fee of 2 Liv, which I can’t pay because we haven’t yet encountered an ATM in Bulgaria. I offer Euros instead, and she shakes her head looking bewildered. All my miming isn’t going very well and I’m about to give up on the entire endeavor when she warmly smiles at me and gestures us to go see the site, sans ticket. I hesitate, unsure I’ve understood correctly, and she waves me on with even more conviction.
We reluctantly leave the kitten and head uphill to the site, actually a little unsure what exactly we were looking at. A big shed houses a small excavated patch of reddish dirt around old walls and a tall round tower lets us view some old stone walls from a bird’s eye view. The best part of the tower is actually the lovely view of the neighboring valleys from the top.
We returned back to the ticket booth where we’d left our bikes, the kitten now crowing even more fervently, pawing at our shoes, trying to get us to play. We didn’t stand a chance against his adorable antics, and we happily forfeit an entire hour, letting it drift by to the sound of light rain and cuckoo birds in the forest while we sit under a canopy of trees and rub his belly and laugh at his awkward gait.
The next 20 kilometers lead us along the river valley, crowded with trees and smudged with vineyards, which we share with farmers, shepherds, and fisherman. Birds, bugs, and water add their voices to the experience and we cruise along with a gentle tailwind.
We ponder staying the night in unattractive Petrich, but the city is busy and we don’t feel like spending the night in a pretentious hotel. We snag some local currency and grab some cheesy pastries at Lidl and then high tail it out of town, hoping we’ll find a reasonable place to camp in the next couple of hours.
Though it had been an easy riding day, my legs had stiffened through the afternoon, making for slow going as we headed down a busier stretch of scrubby highway looking for a quiet place to stop for the night. We spot a small turnoff toward a church and ride down the road through trees and near the river, eventually pulling up to the church built next to a huge park with apparent hot springs. Big bathrooms and a parking lot as well as couple of motor homes tip me off that we might well just stay here, so I asked a lady in charge at the church if there was a nearby place to camp.
Another ridiculous miming game ensues, me gesturing a tent and sleeping, and she nodding and pointing outside out of the church gates while Ben stands by quizzically, looking at me like I’ve lost my mind. I’m about to assume she’d just like us to leave, when she stands up and runs off, returning a minute later with a bicycle of her own and gestures for us to follow her. A hundred yards later just around the corner, she delivers us to what appears to be a small Bulgarian campground!
After thanking her profusely, I redo the entire round of charades with the guy sitting at the picnic table in front of the odd place, built around a hot spring that steams off in the distance. He first takes me to see a bedroom for rent and then finally understands that I’m carrying a tent! He charges us the rough equivalent of a couple of dollars for a place to pitch, and we are home for the night!
Two hours later, Ben and I are picnicking on our tarp in front of our tent (like we always do) when the same guy comes over carrying a huge wooden picnic table over his head, setting it down next to our tent with a smile.
Touring by bicycle certainly isn’t all kittens and sunshine, and some days it can feel downright awful, but days like this make slow travel so unbelievably rewarding. It is going to take me days to soak in the sheer amount of magic this day has delivered us.