Trail notes — what is a Trans-Rhodope?
This tour had a long gestation. My naïve first trip to Sofia and surrounding area in September 2020 was sandwiched between COVID lockdowns. I’d imagined that I could somehow pick my way through the Rila Mountains via the slopes of Vitosha on the outskirts of Sofia, and then onward to the Pirin and Rhodopes ranges — a ‘Trans-Bulgaria’. This fantasy evaporated quickly when confronted with the reality of progress on rough mountain hiking paths, and terrifying experiences on busy roads that were jammed with late summer staycationers. I pootled around a bit and moved on to Italy to scope a route through the central Apennines.
It was only while killing time at Sofia airport when leaving the country that a web search returned the ‘New Thracian Gold’ (NTG) project site and there, in a sub-menu entitled ‘Tourism in Eastern Rhodopes’, was something called the ‘Trans-Rodopi Long Distance Biking Trail‘. Apparently, during the period around 2009-2014 when the Dutch-Bulgarian project was operational, cyclists were completing the route in their tens. The official route map is now out of print and unavailable but GPX files can be downloaded from the NTG site.
Buried even deeper is a page dedicated to the ‘Bike Route Rudopia‘, a more relaxed mixed surface Trans-Rhodope trail from Velingad (with an option via Trigrad) to Mezek, near Svilengrad, designed for ‘light bikers’. The hyperlinks are now broken but this route is marked on the OpenMTBmap mapping I use (subscription required), which grades tracks according to their quality, G1 being smooth, top quality gravel and G3 being pretty rough, for example. I’ve traced the Trigrad version and presented it below my actual route:
You can define a ‘Trans-Rhodope’ how you wish and begin and end wherever you like. I put my tour together from the NTG Trans-Rodopi GPX files with a few alterations made where the OpenMTB coverage suggested that better quality alternative tracks were available. These were generally those followed by Rudopia. After Kardzhali, for reasons explained in the blog below, I binned the NTG route and followed the Rudopia through Madzharovo to Mezek and nearby Svilengrad (for mainline trains to Sofia).
The NTG aim was to support local accommodation providers and food producers. Their 17-day itinerary is based upon exclusive use of B&Bs. I took a ‘hybrid’ approach and opted to carry camping gear in order to have the option to cook and sleep between villages rather than gamble upon the continued existence of businesses post-COVID and that they’d be open and with vacancies. It was also insurance against finding myself at high altitude without shelter. Obviously, that carried a weight penalty and I could have left one of my two power blocks behind and still had ample juice for devices between guest house stays.
This route is highly technical and requires a lot of tough, steep and gnarly hike-a-bike, including some sections that I’d hesitate to tackle as a walker. In places, the trail is overgrown by dense woodland and is challenging to follow. Contrary to statements from various online sources, the trail is not waymarked, although perhaps it once was. Sticking entirely to the Rudopia would likely be easier and more enjoyable for all but the most masochistic of loaded bikepackers. Note that this can also be challenging in parts on a heavy rig.
Other variants of a Trans-Rhodope tour include the Bulgarian leg of the EuroVelo Route 13 Iron Curtain Trail, currently described as ‘under development’, and the Vienna-Istanbul Sultan’s Trail, which seems to be a commercial operation that sells GPX packages.
Train times and prices can be obtained in English from the national rail website. Bikes are carried at the rear of all trains, space permitting and with a supplementary ticket. Fares are very cheap.
Ninety-five percent alcohol for stoves is available at the Apteka Sv. Nikola (St. Nicholas pharmacy) at 106 bul. Stefan Stambolov (on the corner with Tsar Simeon street near Zhenski Pazar market) in central Sofia and possibly others although I drew a number of blanks. I don’t use gas canisters but they’re available from outdoor shops such as Camping Rocks. Take extreme care with any kind of flame; I’d recommend cooking away from tinder dry woodlands and fields during the hotter months.
I did my initial food shopping in Sofia but could have probably waited until Devin. The selection in the Trigrad grocery is limited. I carried dried foods to minimise weight but supplemented this by buying from local bakeries and eateries whenever possible.
To the Trigrad trailhead
As I painfully peeled the skin away from the raw purple hole in the palm of my left hand I cursed my shallow learning curve and began to get a foreboding sense of déjà vu. Two years previously I’d done the same thing in another Sofia hotel room as the result of furiously operating my mini-track pump in an attempt to get my tubeless tyres, which had leaked sealant during the flight, to seat properly. On this occasion I’d smugly topped up the sealant of my perfectly behaved knobblies (deflating tyres for flights is a physics-denying superstition, as evidenced by amusing online video content featuring folks demonstrating how hard it is to persuade them to blow off rims through over-pressurisation), or so I thought, only to note with a sinking feeling how similar my tubes of milky chain lube and milky sealant appeared.
Yes, I’d injected wax lube into my tyres, partly facilitated by my ongoing post-COVID smell challenges and consequent inability to detect the (lack of) ammoniacal stink of sealant. With great luck, the nearby bike shop stocked both my sealant and lube of choice and, after removing the tyres, cleaning out the liquid mixture, replacing actual sealant and reseating them, I was back in business, albeit at the cost of a leaky hand.
When greeted at Sofia Central by a friendly individual with an official-looking ID lanyard, I allowed myself to be ‘assisted’, against my better instincts, with ticket purchase and getting the loaded bike onto the train. The result was mild extortion for a payment of around £20 equivalent and my equipment in the wrong place in the wrong carriage, preventing the guard from moving through the train or, indeed, even leaving the first class section. I transferred it to what was apparently the wrong place in the correct carriage, where it remained until I alighted following a heated discussion in mutually unintelligible languages.
It was at lunchtime in Stamboliyski, the most strategic point to begin the ride into the Rhodopes and on to Trigrad, when I discovered that the likelihood of getting served in Bulgaria would be a function of the relationship between the dislike of outsiders/foreigners/English speakers/me (not sure which) on the part of the proprietor and/or staff and their urge to take my money. The park café was the first of many venues where food or a table were strangely unavailable despite the presence of what looked very much like people sitting and eating. However, with the help of phone camera translation technology I did manage to score a pizza from another place to fuel the long tarmac climb ahead.
Making Trigrad in an afternoon with a full load was never really on the cards and I was prepared to wild camp having previously established that accommodation was sparse beyond the clusters around the reservoirs that bloat the Vacha River. However, it became obvious that I could push on over the the big ascent to the Devin Tunnel and coast down the long descent into the spa town, nationally famous for its mineral water, before dusk.
The downhill roll out of Devin and back to the Vacha road was a chilly affair, with the sun yet to make it over the mountains. Resumption of climbing was a welcome means to get the blood flowing and generate some warmth. The traffic was light and the incline steady as the road narrowed and the valley deepened, becoming increasingly spectacular at the Trigrad Gorge proper with its 350m eastern cliffs. The walls are only 100m apart at the narrowest point.
Just north of Trigrad at the entrance to the Devil’s Throat cave, the gradient rears up, maxing out at 26%, and the road tunnels through the marble. The act of squeezing along this narrow, dramatic ribbon of asphalt and rock gives the village a remote feel, more so than the relatively modest distance from Devin might suggest. During the highly controlled communist era, access was limited — it lays only six kilometres from the Greek border. However, due to the long presence of the Ottoman Empire the Turkish influence is more obvious than a shared Thracian heritage in contemporary rural life.
I found my hotel deserted and the greeting vibe, once I’d located someone who seemed to work there, of being an inconvenience and distinctly unwelcome was something I’d become accustomed to over the next few weeks, underlined by a national culture of not smiling at strangers. I asked where I might keep the bike, backed up by sign language charades, and I think the shrugged response was along the lines of “Just leave it where it is”, so I did — it was going to spend much of the tour outdoors and unattended after all.
By the time I walked into the centre in search of lunch, the sun was powerful enough to warrant an application of lotion but the chill in the stiff mountain breeze was a hint of the ice that I would scrape off the saddle when I repacked the bike the following morning. House martins, crag martins and red-rumped swallows busily gulped down airborne insects over the Trigrad River, giving a sense of urgency to race the progress of the oncoming winter, much in the same way that the human inhabitants were vigorously stockpiling firewood in the voids beneath their living spaces.
I made my way back to what had looked like a hotel and pectopant (as restaurant reads to me in the Cyrillic alphabet) as I’d passed it on arrival, mentally preparing myself to be turned away and feed instead on cereal bars or whatever else I could pick up at the grocery. However, the owner of Hotel Deni was a delight, cheerfully correcting me when I ordered unwisely (I think), suggesting additional side dishes and bringing a ‘health drink’, which was a more liquid version of tarator soup, composed of Bulgarian yoghurt, garlic, herbs and cucumber. I was sorry to interrupt him when I went downstairs to pay the tiny bill, where he was sat singing folk tunes and playing his guitar.
The main trail — Trigrad to Madzharovo
Arm warmers, gilet and rain jacket were wholly insufficient to exclude the icy blast of the steep descent back down the gorge to the trailhead. I was relieved to begin the climb and gradually unzip and remove layers as the sun rose and the effort increased. The track was composed of fairly large, loose stones but progress was steady and the moderate gradient meant that I quickly gained altitude.
I’ve become superstitious about complaining (to myself of course) about any rideable trail or, conversely, becoming too elated with how well things are going, since there’s always plenty of scope for relative contentment to rapidly turn to dismay. Thus, my daydreaming and fairly consistent rhythm were rudely interrupted by the sudden appearance of a huge boulder field where the track should be. The tree trunks strewn across them were evidence of a powerful force when in flood. As it was, the stream was fairly fast flowing and the uneven rocky bed meant that I’d have to keep the shoes on. The most likely place to cross without breaking an arm or leg didn’t coincide with a clear opposite bank, so there was a great deal of lifting, shoving and dragging the dead weight under, over and through branches once I’d cleared the water. While bikes are one of the most efficient forms of locomotion employed by any creature when the rider is seated upon them and the wheels are turning, as odd-shaped cargo that wants to roll away they’re pretty horrible.
This was the longest, highest single climb of the tour, split into two rough halves by some brief downhill respite. With a full load on board, gradients that would be comfortably doable on smooth tarmac usually require pushing when even somewhat bumpy. Of course, this also applies to downhills when both steep and rocky. Thus began the activity of going for a walk with a bicycle that would dominate day one.
Having been quite struck in Trigrad by my failure to fully appreciate the extent of reduction in temperature with altitude, I was keen to dump as many vertical metres as possible before dark. The forested plateau track had a sandy surface that was frequently bisected by streams, which was heavy going. The lack of obvious camping spots and fading light meant that when I spied a side track with a bivvy-sized flattish area I called it a day and rapidly erected the tarp in the light rain that was threatening to become something more intense.
The Garmin read three degrees Celsius as I wheeled Alice back to the main track on a grey, damp second morning. However, the cloud cover had probably prevented a sub-zero start and I was surprised how tolerable getting naked to wash had been, albeit that my hands had all but stopped functioning following immersion in the stream. I was full of a quantity of sugary choco cereal and hot rehydrated milk that could have probably fed a family but, when mountain bikepacking, calorie counting is only a concern in that you’re probably not getting enough. Hooray for Haribo Golden Bears (also see Orsetti d’Oro in Italy) and Cola Bottles.
The next seven miles or so were a blast. I was reaping the dividend of the previous day’s climbing with a slight but almost continuous downhill grade on smooth forest tracks, flicking the bars to slalom among potholes and puddles, catching a glimpse of two hazel grouse perched low in a pine and accompanied by the constant ‘chip, chip, chip’ of crossbills. It was easy to ignore that I was shivering, despite the layers, in the absence of sunshine.
As I passed through the ski resort of Pamporovo, its tacky frontages jarring after the mellow green of the forest and the dry runs forming violent scars in the mountainside, a construction worker stared at me for a prolonged period as if I’d just handed him a warm turd. This was particularly unsettling having become used to the polar opposite reaction to my presence — after returning my greetings, most folk immediately returned to their business with complete apathy, as if these tiny remote hamlets were visited by a constant stream of strange-looking riders of stranger-looking bicycles with funny accents and around three phrases of Bulgarian (“good day”, “bye” and “juice” in my case).
It was here that the pessimistic “I’ll pay for this” superstition was reinforced as I reflected upon the morning’s earlier fun. As the substrate changed from free-draining sand to not-at-all-draining clay, the passage of hunters’ 4x4s and logging trucks had churned the tracks into quagmires of thick, sticky mud and deep opaque puddles. As with the times when I was crawling under branches or scaling loose cliff faces with the bike on one shoulder, I don’t have any images of the worst of these traverses since I would have been desperately hanging on to the bike and trying to remain upright.
In a classic example of rejoicing too soon, where the mud, ruts and spiky brash of a working commercial forestry operation ended, just before the village of Momchilovtsi and its promised land of tarmac, the first of the trail’s ‘used to be a track, is now dense woodland’ sections began. Scratched, bleeding legs are more irritating than painful but I imagine they didn’t enhance my appearance to puzzled locals. Well, at least those who looked up as my rather nice DT Swiss freewheel purred past.
The afternoon session was set to be a long, fast descent to Banite, the last town before the next significant climb, down the valley of the Malka Arda, a tributary of the daddy Arda. The spots of rain in Momchilovtsi had become steady drizzle and waiting under trees in an attempt to not get any colder only witnessed further intensification to near-downpour. I pressed on along a decent dirt surface, ignoring the big hits the front wheel took when the rain got in my eyes and I missed an upcoming rock or pothole. Gravel became steep tarmac as villages hurtled past and rain now fell in torrents. Swerving the worst of the surface imperfections at speed distracted me from the dampness. My decision to fit twin-pot MTB callipers was endorsed.
Tarmac became fine, sandy gravel but the downward momentum didn’t falter until I came upon some earth moving machines that were shifting boulders around. At the head of a line of waiting traffic, I grew tired of the water streaming down my neck and squeezed past to an accompaniment of Bulgarian expletives (I assume). My arrival in Banite, drivetrain and brake rotors crunching with sand, coincided with a brief cameo by the sun. At the desk of the hotel I’d booked online (Bulgaria’s rural 4G network is nothing short of miraculous) I experienced the customary “Who the hell are you and what do you want?” aura but, given this apparition of dripping, sandy, bloody snottiness in Lycra, the staff were kind in accommodating me and my even filthier bike, which was making quite the mess of their clean tiled lobby.
After a long but disappointingly lukewarm shower, I seated myself in the dining room and was handed a menu by a chatty, giggling cook, who was oblivious to my three-phrase vocabulary. The manager then took it away again and presented her phone, upon which a Google translation read “the terriers are present”. My confused expression prompted her to try again. “We can offer you a kebab”. I’ll confess that this wasn’t the news I was hoping for, especially in the light of the delicious-looking and ample feasts my fellow diners were tucking into nearby.
I wolfed the kebab and accompanying cucumber, that least princely of cycling foodstuffs, and set off to a restaurant, where I did that thing you do (but should have learned not to) when crazy hungry and ordered too many of the richest dishes you can find, feeling compelled to finish them so as not to waste food, and thereby going to bed feeling bloated and sick.
It transpired that the giggling cook was a cyclist ally and knowingly slipped me an extra breakfast pancake. Climbing out of Banite and along the valley ridge was a joy; a reminder of why we do this bikepacking thing. A quiet, smooth tarmac road dappled with light cast through mature pines and warm sun on your face. Yes, you’ve guessed it. Alas, this was not to last. A sudden diversion up a tiny, comically steep rocky footpath between back yards in a village was another of the trail’s mocking twists. Once it levelled off and widened slightly, a lady sensibly leading a donkey in the opposite direction exclaimed something whose tone I can only interpret as like, “Where the fuck are you going with that thing, are you mental?” I suppose that my grinning “Good day!” response must have confirmed her suspicions.
The faint path grew fainter as it passed through ever denser woodland until it became impossible to tell path from goat track from hummock. I left the bike and moved ahead, snapping off branches and dragging fallen timber aside in order to form a gap large enough to accommodate my steel mule and its wide load. It was in this process that I took a sharp twig in my left (and only properly functioning) eye, my sunglasses presumably laying somewhere nearer the village having removed them as I started sweating heavily and subsequently forgot about them. Very luckily, most of the impact had been taken by the skin around the eye. However, once I’d finally crashed and thrashed my way through to a rideable track and begun the descent to the Arda valley my blurred vision made things fairly edgy.
If the eye incident were a defining moment that barely needed any amplification, a terrifying scramble down a near vertical wobbling rock path to reach the pedestrian suspension bridge at Suhovo, followed by an excruciating push/climb up the other side, were the final straws. This was not fun. I enjoy hiking and I enjoy biking. I loathe them in combination. My bike has a saddle for a reason, and when hiking I wouldn’t choose to carry a 25kg package of hurty metal and luggage. I resolved that the following day would be spent resting in Kardzhali and that I would sack off the remainder of the NTG route (which Komoot ominously reported was comprised of 30% “surfaces that may be unsuitable for your chosen activity” — yeah, no shit) and replan. Incidentally, the Rudopia route doesn’t visit the Forest of Blindness nor include Orthopaedic Bridge. If you’re on two wheels, I’d strongly recommend that alternative.
The town of Kardzhali, the provincial hub, retains a strong Ottoman influence with ethnic Turks composing around 35% (55% in the surrounding municipality) of the population and many Bulgarian muslims, known as Pomaks. The central park, with its latterly neglected and broken grand Communist era features, was good for a spot of bird bothering. Crested larks hopped around, singing brightly. There were hundreds of migrating hirundines feeding up over the river — sand and house martins, and common and red-rumped swallows — above yellow-legged gulls, teal and gadwall. The overgrown bushes were popular with warblers (chiffchaff, willow warbler and wood warbler being those I was able to positively identify).
I was able to replace calories, cereal bars and sunglasses, reprogram the Garmin with the Rudopia route to Mazharovo and Svilengrad, nurse the eye, recharge batteries, wash smelly (I assume, although undetectable to my dysfunctional nose) kit, check the bike over (surprisingly unscathed and still requiring no additional air in the tyres) and spot the aforementioned birds.
Of course, determining to oneself that things will be easier and more chilled doesn’t necessarily make the world comply. Shortly after visiting the Petrified Wedding, the trail left the tarmac and wound down through another woodland. When it became narrow and was interrupted by vegetation, my heart sank. However, this wasn’t in the same league as the previous experiences and the presence of grazing Rhodope cows signalled that human habitation wasn’t far away.
Having lost more altitude since leaving Kardzhali, the climate was becoming noticeably drier and hotter. By the time I’d descended to the provincial tarmac road at Murgovo, I was ready for a water fill. A passer by indicated that I shouldn’t drink from the roadside fountain (the cynic in me might suggest that the numerous bills featuring a local politician that had been posted in the vicinity were a poisonous presence) and so I compromised by filtering it.
While the fact that it was Sunday was of limited significance given the local demographic, my new laid back pace had a weekend feel to it, reinforced by the heat, which was now intense. Once I’d filled all my bottles and reserve two-litre bladder with water at a village fountain I determined to look for a camping place so that I could pitch, eat and wash in a relaxed manner. After enjoying close views of my first black stork I exited from the well-surfaced track toward the next settlement of Svetoslav and pushed the bike into a promising stand of mixed woodland. Seconds later, a car and trailer clattered by and stopped metres from where I stood.
This was the closest I’ve come to being rumbled since two park rangers in Abruzzo had appeared to be actively searching for me. On this occasion I’m not sure how bothered the guy (who I overhead talking on his phone) would have been, or what consequences, if any, would have followed, but I generally prefer that people don’t know where I’m spending the night. I froze, being careful not to crunch leaves, as he seemed to be filling the trailer with something from the woodland floor. When the door was shut and the engine restarted, I lowered the bike to the ground and squatted beside it. He returned a little later for more of the same. By then I’d moved deeper into the wood and thrown the tarp over the bike, which then provided camouflaged cover to hide behind. Shortly before dark I confirmed that my camp was completely invisible from the track.
By the time I restarted my downhill progress toward the Studen Kladenets reservoir, the sun had already warmed the air and heaving the bike back to a recognisable trail after the official route had petered out on a stony beach was tough work. This attracted a particularly large personal swarm of what I’d christened Bastard Flies (well, actually it was an even less polite term). These, which I’d not encountered elsewhere, resemble giant fruit flies and seethe around when one is breathing heavily and sweating, crawling into ears, up the nose, over the neck, limbs and scalp, and causing choking fits when inevitably inhaled.
It was, therefore, with some relief that I emerged at the dam and crossed it to lunch on protein bars at the nature reserve. This area is a hub for rewilding initiatives in the Rhodope Mountains, which aim to restore a complete ecological community of grazing herbivores and the predators and scavengers that they support. The region hosts jackals, brown bears, lynxes, wolves and (reintroduced) European bison, and threatened birds species including lesser spotted and eastern imperial eagles, saker falcons, and griffon and Egyptian vultures. In addition, the Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds (BSPB) is working with Greek colleagues to reestablish a population of black vultures. A group of griffon vultures was soaring above the cliffs when I arrived.
The steady downward progress of the route was naturally limiting potential elevated (and exposed to early morning sun) camping spots and the agricultural landscape in this part of the Arda valley lacked suitably mature woodland. I took a gravel track toward the river and found a flat area on a clifftop with a makeshift table and bench, presumably constructed by local hunters. Although thorny and fairly exposed, it was completely deserted and I was swayed by the convenience of cooking in daylight on a raised surface. However, the presence of fresh-looking shotgun shells persuaded me to set an alarm and rise early the following morning.
I initially struggled to sleep in the lowland warmth but the thick mist that had formed before dawn meant that I woke up to a damp bivvy and bedding, the alarm proving unnecessary thanks to the vocal resident cirl and corn buntings. By the time I’d breakfasted and packed the rest of the kit, the sun had remedied this situation and I was slapping on the lotion. The remaining 10-mile leg to Madzharovo was a fun, fast mixed surface blast with minimal climbing and an accompanying squadron of more black storks and griffon vultures.
Madzharovo and post-tour travel
I spent a very pleasant three days being looked after by the BSPB staff at the vulture centre guesthouse. I even managed to make myself useful in helping Boris, the volunteer warden, fix the misbehaving rear derailleur and brakes on his mountain bike. I’m told that May is the best time to visit in order to catch the migratory species and avoid the most extreme summer heat. With daytime temperatures reaching 29 degrees during my late September visit, I can imagine that July and August are pretty intense.
The town, the second smallest in Bulgaria, seems ill-fitting to its current population of around 500, giving it an air of ghostly decrepitude, like so many others in the country. Its communist era infrastructure was designed around a community of ten times its modern extent, which serviced a now-defunct mining economy. It is hoped that growing nature-based and adventure tourism activities will help to reinvigorate the region and reverse, or at least reduce, its contribution to the nation’s wider shrinkage trend due to wholesale emigration to seek opportunities elsewhere.
The Rudopia route takes you almost all the way from Madzharovo to Svilengrad mainline rail station with just under 1,000m of climbing over the ridge that divides the Arda valley from its neighbour. Thanks to the Bastard Flies, which can only be defeated by outpacing them, I recorded a Strava top ten on the main ascent. My journey was slightly unusual in being briefly delayed by Bulgarian border police driving the narrow track at walking pace in their search for migrants who had entered ‘unofficially’ from Turkey. The final four miles from Mezek is a very straight slight downhill along a ‘bike path’ (of the paint on a road variety) that invites a ‘time trial’ approach.