Two times while cycling in Greece on lengthy solo tours I have entered a range of mountains that crosses the northeastern edge of the nation. The dark slopes were blanketed with pines, and thunderheads skulked among the peaks. And each time as I ascended into the gloomy, chilly heights, a strange apprehension crept over me, spooking me back into sunny, familiar Greece and leaving the mysterious Balkan nation on the north side a blank place on my cognitive world map.
But for the past hour I’ve been perusing a borrowed Lonely Planet guidebook, gleaning the essential vocabulary and phraseology for where I’m finally going: Bulgaria. I leave in 24 hours and must know when I arrive how to say “where,” “how far,” “village,” kilometers,” “alone,” “water,” “figs,” “road to____” and “cheese.” Some numbers and a few pronouns, too, will facilitate a smooth journey, which will begin just as soon as I reassemble my bicycle in the Sofia airport, ride out of the city and make my getaway into the nearest hills to camp—maybe to the Vitosha Nature Park, a wilderness just a few miles south of town.
Why Bulgaria? Several reasons: First, I’ve never been there. Second, Bulgaria is situated in what I perceive as the “Old World Fig Belt”—a magical land where the confluence of Mediterranean climate and ancient agrarian culture produce a bounty of free figs to be eaten along nearly any roadside, and what on a thousand-mile bicycle ride is better than that? Third, I’m attracted to Bulgaria because of its mountains—several ranges low enough to be green but high enough to be wild. (That truest signature of a wild place even lives in Bulgaria’s mountains—the brown bear, Ursus arctos, between 600 and 1000 animals in two distinct populations.) Fourth, Bulgaria is eastern enough not to be mundanely western, northern enough not to crush me with heat, and southern enough not be promiscuously rainy.
I’ve had it with this Lonely Planet book. Traveling should be a form of learning, but this darn guidebook keeps blowing Bulgaria’s secrets. I just read, for instance, that espresso is prevalent in coffee-loving Bulgaria. That’s great news—but wouldn’t it have been a wonderful surprise for me to discover this on my own after arriving with a stomach steeled for Nescafe? I also have learned from these pages that Bulgarians nod for no and shake their heads for yes. This is key and vital information—yet slapstick comedy could have gotten no finer than if I had arrived in Sofia no wiser than I was an hour ago. I’ll sneak a few more vocabulary basics from this book, then close it and let the adventures begin.
Bulgaria is layered with relics and shadows of the Thracians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Bulgars, the Ottoman Turks and the Soviet era. Democracy resumed in 1989, and now modernity has befallen this freshly inaugurated member of the European Union. For better or for worse, resorts are now appearing rapidly on both Black Sea beaches and mountainsides—yet I will dodge them. I intend to camp “rough” in the shrubbery most nights, and since Bulgaria occupies 42,823 square miles of the Earth’s surface while containing just 7 million people, rough camping should be easy. What I mean is, consider Italy, where 60 million souls occupy 116,000 square miles: 515 people per square mile. The United Kingdom is even denser, with 660 people per square mile. India, spare me, has 900-plus. But Bulgaria’s population density measures out at a quiet 160 folks per square mile (with, sadly, only a hundredth of a bear per square mile).
I box my bike tonight and fly out at dawn. I bring with me a sleeping bag, a toothbrush, a pocketknife, a journal, a corkscrew and other select items. I pack along, too, a piece of advice handed to me from another experienced cyclist: “If you go Bulgaria,” he said grimly, “God defend you, and bring a spear. The dogs are the devil.” Yikes. Is it too late for London?