Friday, October 13, 2006

Бургас(Burgas)-Созопол(Sozopol)-Царево(Tsarevo)-Малко Търново(Malko Tarnovo).

Trip dist: 128 kms. Trip time: 9 hrs, 22 mins. Tot dist: 7,340 kms.

Right. So there are two routes to Malko Tarnovo. One, 64 kms long, through the mountains, reportedly (according to accounts on web from people who have cycled this before--and there are not that many) up to 11% grade at some points, the other, 124 kms long, through the coast.

I chose the coast.

It is good, sometimes, to pay heed to local wisdom. Additionally, if the last 37 kms from Nessebar to Burgas were any indication, one can pedal along this more than twice as fast, so even over twice the distance, the coastal road should get you there sooner. Furthermore, I have , uh...laboriously learned over the past 7,000 kms (some, in rather piercing lessons along the Sierra de Guadarrama, the Puerto de Contreras, the Siegtaler Radweg, and the Elbe Radweg), that gradual ascents are ALWAYS better than short steep ones, even if they do add an extra dozen of kilometers or two. So, all kosher now, right? Are you sure you're making the right decision, Elisa? Considered all possibilities? Anything you assumed incorrectly, any information you forgot to take into account?

You know, the ride along the coast was breathtakingly beautiful. The turnoff to the mountains was only 20 kms away from Burgas, and the highway followed it naturally. I had to make a deliberate effort, to get off it and find a way to backtrack, once I figured, 800 meters into the turnoff, that I was heading in that direction instead of towards the coast.

But the coast turned out not to be flat. Remember lesson learned only on the very 1st day of cycling: wishing that the pretty road were the right one does not make it so! There were just as many uphills and downhills hugging the coast as they were on the first 80 kms from Varna to Nessebar. Ah, how we fool ourselves into believing the magic of wishful thinking! By the time I arrived in Tsarevo (over 70 kms and more than 4 hours later), a pleasant little roadsign cheerily announced to me that my previous efforts over 74 kms of rocky coasts had saved me a grand total of...18 kms. The next 54 kms to Malko Tarnovo, you see, were inland, over mountains.

Those 54 kilometers took forever. I had thought there would be one ascent, a tough one, and that would be it, but no, it was one, after another, after another. For those of you folks in Mexico: do you remember the old road that goes from Guadalajara to Puerto Vallarta, that makes any small child seasick, from the curves and ascents and descents? That's what this part of the road was like. And what's more, as soon as I took the turnoff to Malko Tarnovo, potholes appeared on the previously perfect road like holes on Swiss cheese. There was no way to pedal faster than 10 kms/hr even on the rare flat sections. I could not ride on the shoulder: the best bet was to try to ride in the middle. For this, I was lucky, this road had basically NO traffic whatsoever. Given the state of the road, though, I wasn't too surprised.

The effect of this, of course, is that it makes for a very lonely ride. You're in the middle of nowhere, in a country thousands of kilometers from home and family, in a potholed, treacherous, difficult uphill road that sees little transit, with the occasional car parked randomly along the side of the road, trees all around, with the occasional (always male!) parked car owner staring as you pass by. A bit eerie.

But to make a long story short, the other effect of this, not so unexpectedly, I supose, in hindsight, was that by 7 p.m. dusk falling and nighttime approaching vertiginously FAST, I was still 15 kms from Malko Tarnovo.

This, of course, not a big deal on a flat, highly transitted road.

Here, I was still climbing uphill (5-6 kms/hr, at best!), there was no transit and the road was not illuminated by passing cars (let alone road lamps, it was a minor, potholed road, remember?).

Darkness falls faster in the mountains than on flat ground. Between dusk (7 p.m., here) and the time I could no longer see very well, only 20 minutes passed. I was still climbing. I pedalled faster.

I saw something small and white move into the road from behind the bushes just to the right of me. The sound, of course, evidenced a small animal, but you know, when you find yourself in such situations, senses made more acute by the unfamiliarity and potential danger, your mind ends up working overtime. And since there's not really all that much to think about when you're busy just pedalling as fast as you can, it...likes to take some divagations into the realm of the fantastic.

You know what is the first thing I thought when I saw and heard that white fluffy thing, a skunk, in fact, moving towards the road in front of me? It was not, of course: "Oh, look, a skunk, how cute!", but rather:

"HOLY SH&^%T!! A ghost!"

Ha ha ha. :)

By now, the darkness was complete. I took out my little 4 white LED headlamp, parting gift from a good friend in California, which I had never had occasion to use before now (thanks Wendy, you saved my life!). Even at high setting, the light only illuminated 1 meter ahead of me. In the meantime, it got cold, I realized as my breath condensed in the cold night air. I started riding again.

And again, the mind works overtime: "What if Malko Tarnovo is not 15 kms away at all, but farther? And I that wanted to make it to Kırklareli today! Maybe I should've taken the other road after all! But shucks, now I'm here, and if Malko Tarnovo is not there, what do I do? Do I camp? Holy scripes! Another ghost! Oh, no, just a white sheet hanging off that old bus stop. It looks rather eerie. I guess I could sleep in a place like that in an emergency...oh no, nevermind. It is probably full of spiders. I HATE spiders. Shucks, the only reason I can't camp open air here is that I hate the idea of having some insect crawl on me. I guess I could just try to sleep like the horses. Stand under a tree, and just wait for morning."

And then, of course, the bargaining starts. No atheists in foxholes, remember?

"Oh, man, if You let me out alive of this one, I promise I'll never do anything as stupid again."


"Oh, God, please, please, please let there be a hotel in Malko Tarnovo."

or the classic:

"Oh God, please let the roadsigns be wrong, and let Malko Tarnovo be only 2 kms away instead of 9..."

etc. etc. etc.

Great ride, that was.

I guess since you're reading this it is clear that I made it to Malko Tarnovo eventually. At 9 p.m., in fact, but in spite of it being a very small village there were a lot of people walking about, which was a good thing, because no matter how hard I tried, I could find no hotels in this little town. Local rumor had it that there was one "near the hospital", somewhere, but though I could see the hospital, the hotel was nowhere in sight.

I went to a little grocery shop next to the hospital building to ask again.

"Hello, is there something I can help you with?" said a tall rosy-cheeked gentleman in his early 30s, in perfect English.

"Yes, I heard there's a hotel nearby?" said I.

"Yes," he grinned sheepishly, "in the hospital!"

"O.K., but where? I cannot see the signs."

The lady from the shop indicated something in Bulgarian.

I did not understand.

The gentleman smiled again, and said: "Here, I'll take you. You're lucky, you know," he added shyly, "I'm the only person in Malko Tarnovo that speaks English!". He said something to the woman at the shop, who appeared to be his mother or aunt, and after indicating that he would go with me, to which the woman assented in a relieved manner, for she appeared concerned that I couldn't find a place to stay, walked me over across the street.

The hotel was indeed in the hospital.

"After the government change, you see, the hospital was privatized. But no one in Malko Tarnovo wanted to come here, so they made it into a hotel instead."

Weird, huh?

Turok, my new friend, showed me inside, translated for me while I arranged a room (a double with a very clean private bath and shower, only 11 Euros), carried my bags and bike in-between short conversations about where each of us was from ("You come all the way from Lisbon? Wow! I am from Burgas. You were there this morning? More wow! You're a strong woman! How do you manage? Oh, yes, I'm in Malko Tarnovo because this is where I was born, but now I live in Burgas....thank you, yes, it is a nice city, glad you liked it, did you know there are two other cyclists here today at the hotel?" etc), and before parting gave me his cell phone number, in case I needed anything or got lost in city center. "Please," he had said,"call me if you run into trouble. Do not worry about the hour." And with that, a mild-mannered smile, and a small nod, he disappeared.

You know, I have said it once before and I'll say it again: never in Europe have I encoutered people more considerate, caring, and amiable than in Bulgaria. Turok even went out of his way, not concerned about any wasted time, to make sure I was settled in and safe, with such a gentle manner, a pleasant, sweet and cheerful demeanor that made me think:

Were I in complete, unrestrained freedom to choose my next closest and beloved friend, I would make sure he were Bulgarian.

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