Athens is on another peninsula called the Attika and as we get back to the mainland, we complete a loop that started at the Peloponnese peninsula and ended up back near Delphi again. We ride through several familiar towns in the area before we start to cover new territory.
Back on the road
Our route takes us through small Greek towns, nice to get away from the big city of Athens.
Road hugging the curves of the mountains
As we get further north again, the weather seems to cool off a bit. Still hot (low 30s), but less muggy
I love riding in the mountains!
Hey! A blue-domed church! Memories of Santorini.
We're stopping for the evening in a town called Litochoro, right at the foot of Mount Olympus
We ride around trying to find our AirBnB. Turns out it was owned by a lady who runs this convenience store
She told us we could park here. Good thing we are not cars... I think...
I hope our bikes will still be here tomorrow morning...
The next morning, riding through Serres, just north of Greece's second largest city Thessaloniki
While the highway between Greece and Bulgaria runs from Serres straight to Sofia, I found some nice roads in Southern Bulgaria that I wanted to explore, so we steered north-east away from the main road. It takes us past Mount Vrontous, and the hilly area around the foothills turned out to also have some great twisty roads:
Scenery around Mount Vrontous
Wonderful hills in the background
Exochi, Greece border crossing into Ilinden, Bulgaria
Most of the traffic takes the main highway to Sofia, so the Ilinden-Exochi crossing was empty when we got there. The Bulgarian border guard came out of his booth to greet our stopped bikes. He takes Neda's Croatian passport, glances at the cover then the picture and waves her through. Then he walks over to me and takes my UK passport and makes a big show about flipping through all of the pages. He sniffed and gave me a stern look. "Visa?"
What?! As far as I knew, despite the Brexit vote, the UK was still in the EU... At least for now. Wasn't it?!
The border guard kept his steely gaze on me for a moment. Then he broke out in a wide grin. "Just joking, my friend!"
Grrrr. I hate border guard humour. It's the lowest form of humour out there. Even lower than puns...
Once clear of the border, the weather in Bulgaria turns ominous...
But hey! We're in Bulgaria! New country!
"What do you know about Bulgaria, Neda?"
Maybe we should have done some research before crossing the border...
At our first gas stop in Bulgaria, Neda makes a new friend. She's got a whole pet store's worth of treats in her tankbag
We had the option of filling up our tanks in Greece before we left, but the gas prices there were so expensive that surely Bulgaria would be cheaper. Surely...
After topping up both our bikes, I checked the total on the pump's display. A bit over €60... WHAT THE...? Holy crap. Even more expensive than Greece. My heart sunk. The gas station lady came to take my very large-denominated Euro bill. Then she handed me a stack of strange bills. They were Lev, the local currency. Bulgaria hadn't converted to the Euro yet. Our gas bill was 60 Lev which was €30. My heart bounced off the floor of my stomach back up to the top of my head. Cheapest gas bill yet in Europe! Whohoo!!!!!
I think I'm going to like Bulgaria.
Looks like one of those Disney castles, but a mini version
Although Greece may be going through a financial crisis, it still is very prosperous when compared to its neighbouring countries. The houses in the villages that we ride through are in rough shape, similar to rural Albania.
One big difference though. Instead of stolen Mercedes-Benzes everywhere:
This is the most popular vehicle on the road
Also the most popular fashion for older Bulgarian women: A headscarf
The headscarf is a holdover from the days of the Eastern European Orthodox churches, when they encouraged women to cover their heads like the Virgin Mary did. This is not just a Bulgarian thing, pretty much every country east of Italy has this traditional look for the older women.
We're in the Rhodope Mountain range in Southern Bulgaria and headed down a road that leads into a gorge.
Rounding the corner, the steep walls of the gorge all around us
The dark clouds overhead manage to contain their waterworks until we reach our destination. Our luck is still holding out!
We are staying at the end of the gorge road, in a town called Buynovo. The area around here is very popular with hikers and we see a few of them walking up and down the winding road in and out of town. We've booked an AirBnB here and I pull over in front of a large map of the town to try to find our accommodations. The GPS co-ordinates that I have seem to lead us to the middle of a river and the map is of no help. Buynovo is tiny, so Neda goes off to ask the locals, surely someone must know where our place is.
After 15 minutes she returns. Yes, those are cows just wandering the streets... It's a common thing around here.
She walks up to me excitedly and exclaims, "Hey, I understand Bulgarian!" Apparently, Serbo-Croatian is very close to Bulgarian. It's like that scene in the Matrix when Neo gets information downloaded to his brain and wakes up: "Woah. I know Kung-Fu."
So I say, "Show me."
We ride back over to the group of people that Neda was just talking to. They were motioning us into a barn. Neda exchanges a few words with them and notifies me, "We can park our bikes in here".
This barn is owned by the AirBnB's owner's neighbour
The locals that Neda found were so helpful. They not only located the AirBnB owner, but when they saw that we were on motorcycles, a neighbour told us we could leave our bikes in his barn. It was like the whole village was helping us. Very cool!
Turns out our place is on the river, not on the main road. We had to hike down a little bit to get to it.
Our Bulgarian hostess prepares dinner for us
It was so very homey and so Eastern-European! The Bulgarian language is very similar to Serbo-Croatian. Neda says even more so than Polish and Czech, but not exactly. Our host had to call her daughter on the phone to translate some of the finer points in English. In fact, our online contact was the daughter. This is a very common practice with AirBnB in foreign countries. The older folks may own the property, but it's their kids (or grandkids) that are more technically savvy and can speak English. They're the ones who advertise and communicate with the tourists.
Although I've taken the lead in planning our route through Eastern Europe, I'm still glad that I'm traveling with the human Universal Translator when the tires hit the pavement.
Our first home-cooked Bulgarian meal. This fish was caught in the river beside the house! Delicious!
So that evening, I'm on Facebook scrolling through my newsfeed. Turns out that a couple of my traveling friends with UK passports also had stories of EU border guards jokingly asking them for their "visas".
Seems like in light of the Brexit vote, there was an internal memo circulating amongst all the border guards in the EU titled, "Hey, wanna f*** with the British tourists?"