Our route through Bulgaria (blue is the train we took after my back problems.)
I slipped a disc in my back the day we arrived in Sofia. When I was recovered enough to ride I wanted to take it a bit easy, so we got a train so that we didn’t have to cycle over the mountains that surround the city. Getting the bikes on the train was straightforward, but it was a bonus that the train originated from Sofia, so we didn’t have to worry about rushing to get on. The ticket office in Sofia is on the lower floor of the train station. We had translations ready on our phones, but the staff at the counter spoke good English. You have to buy a ticket separately for your bike, as well as for yourself. The entrance to the station was a revolving door, which would have been a pain with the bikes, but a member of staff opened a service door to let us through. The large lifts to take you down to the main station are at the far left of the building. From there you head towards a corridor of platform (called tracks) entrances. The platforms are up steps and escalators, but there are lifts to them on the right hand side. The gap between the platform and the train is too large and high to wheel bikes on, so you need to be prepared to remove your bags or lift your bike up if you can. We had help lifting them onto the train without removing the panniers, as we were spotted early on by a station worker. He also showed us where the lifts were, told the station guard about the bikes and checked for us where they could go. Be prepared to tip if you are helped by a member of staff.
The scenery from the train window was amazing, and the road running alongside the railway track looked quiet, so it was a shame we didn’t get to cycle it.
From Blagoevgrad we rode South to Petrich, and then turned West and rode to North Macedonia.
Part of the A3/route 1 (between east of Krupnik to Kresna) was a spectacular, although very narrow road. What made it a problem was it’s a single lane road with metal bollards fixed into the road in the centre to divide the lanes. Presumably, this is to stop vehicles overtaking on a narrow road with a high drop. But it means there is not enough space in the lane for a lorry and a bike (and barely enough space for a car and a bike,) so large vehicles could not pass us. It was a tense ride, despite the views, though in all fairness no one tried any stupid manoeuvres or squeezed us too close, and there were lay-bys fairly frequently where we pulled in and let the traffic behind us pass. But it would only take one idiot to ruin you. There is a very long and narrow tunnel about halfway, but there is a road round it to the left (which means crossing both lanes of traffic before and after to use it, but it was worth it.)
We followed the 118 West from Petrich, which in size is a major route, but it was almost empty of traffic.
Overall, Bulgaria is hugely underrated. It has some great scenery and is a pretty cheap destination with friendly people and good food. It is also a great place to cycle thanks to good road infrastructure, combined with the fact that the population is small, which means the roads stay in great condition. Cycling into large towns and cities is never pleasant anywhere in the world, but we found generally drivers in Bulgaria gave us a lot of space and weren’t dickheads.
Blog post for Bulgaria & North Macedonia: