I was up and packed by dawn (7:30) on Friday. It's not that I was in a hurry to leave the wonderful people I had just met the evening before. I wanted to spend some time with them before I started walking again, and so I got myself pulled together and headed downstairs. Unlike the evening before, there were no kids in sight. I don't know what time school starts in this part of the world, but I guess it's earlier than I realised. I chatted a bit with one of the mothers and left my Facebook info for the young woman who'd been translating for me the evening before. Somewhat sadly, I took my leave of Novi Han.
As I started walking, I noticed that the tops of the hills to my right were obscured by clouds, with the hint of some heavy weather. "Glad I'm not headed up there," I thought to myself. And then a few minutes later, the road bent south and started to climb.
Once again, I was reminded what a difference a few hundred metres in altitude can make. I had started walking wearing my basic layers: merino t-shirt, lightweight longsleeved shirt, and my vest. I soon pulled my merino blend hoodie on, and by the time I reached an elevation of 800 m, I'd added my windproof shell. It wasn't all that cold, although there were small patches of snow in the woods where the shade was constant, but the wind was strong and I was walking through the cloud cover. There were very few cars on this stretch, but there was also nowhere for me to sit and take a break.
Eventually I spotted a large building to my right, with a guardhouse and a set of gates. I figured it was some sort of government installation, but the gates were open so I decided to try my luck and see if I could find a dry place to sit out of the wind. As I walked on to the property and approached the guardhouse, there was a sudden flurry of movement and a very large man burst out and said something to me very firmly in Bulgarian.
"I'm sorry, I don't understand Bulgarian." Then I switched to English, accompanied with some pantomime. "May I sit down inside for a few minutes?" There was a brief consultation through the open door of the guardhouse, and then I was ushered in. Warmth, a desk with a uniformed guard sitting behind it, a split-screen security camera monitor, a TV, and a couch with some coats and a very business-like rifle on it. A large map of Bulgaria on one wall completed the scene.
I rattled off my memorised introduction in Bulgarian, and was soon offered an energy drink to quaff while I sat on the couch. The conversation was a little rough at first, but between Tony's broken English and my broken German, we could have kept talking for quite some time. (Tony had been a long-haul trucker for twenty years, and had snippets of every European language between here and Russia.) The facility that they were guarding is the first (and still functional) radio transmitter capable of broadcasting to the entire country. It was built in 1938, and I guess this sort of infrastructure does need protection. Tony was also able to reassure me that Ihtiman, my destination for the day, had both a hotel and a motel. When I left, the blowing wind and the enveloping dampness didn't seem nearly as cold as it had just a short while before.
The road began to descend shortly after I left the friendly armed guards behind, and I soon found myself below the cloud cover again. I'd been following the old Highway 8 for the past two days, and up until now it had remained fairly close to the new Autobahn 1. After the next village, all the (very inconsequential) traffic diverted on to the A1, leaving me with a road that was more pothole than pavement. That suited me just fine, especially since the A1 then veered north well out of earshot.
The rest of the day was quiet and peaceful. The only noteworthy event came in the late afternoon when, with Ihtiman in sight and a little more traffic on the road, I was flagged down and asked to help push a van out of the mud. It was only after two more guys, passing by on a horse-drawn cart, added their shoulders to the task that we were able to push it free. I was offered a ride to Ihtiman, which I declined with a nod of my head and a "Ne, blagodarya."
The folks at the first gas station on the edge of town told me the hotel is closed, but that the motel on the A1 was open. The last few kilometres were uphill, but the weather was quite warm by now (well, for Bulgaria in January) and the wind had died down. By the time it picked up again, and the rain started, I was already snug in my room finishing off the Novi Han post.
Because of this, it was rather late when I got to bed, and since breakfast wasn't available until 8:00, I decided to sleep in. I had spent some time during the evening going over possible destinations for Saturday, and searching for available accommodation. (I've noticed that people are generally really bad at estimating distances. At the gas station, they told me the motel was only 3 kms away, when actually it was five. And the motel clerk had suggested Pazardzhik as a possible destination, being only 35 kms. Except it's fifty-five. There are a few exceptions to this: professional drivers (like Tony), bicyclists, and other walkers.)
I'd settled on Kostenets, even though it was only 16 kms distant. At the hostel in Sofia, I'd flagged this as a possibility. Even though it would be a short walk, I knew there'd be accommodations, and it would leave me within a long day's walk of Pazardzhik. Short day, early night, ba-da-boom-ba-da-bing.
And so here I am in Kostenets. I went shopping and bought supplies for breakfast, and as I was leaving the supermarket I heard the church bells pealing. It took me a few minutes to find my way across the river to the other part of town, but I made it to Vespers for the Publican and Pharisee. It was all in Bulgarian, of course, so I missed out on the great texts for this preparatory service, but Lent is coming!!! :-D
I'm tempted to stay another day and go to Liturgy in the morning and then wait out the rain which has already started, but I am eager to keep walking and build on my momentum. I passed the 1500 km mark yesterday, but I'm going to have to pick it up if I want to walk through Turkey. By all accounts, that will be long and challenging. I may end up flying from one of the regional airports to Haifa and missing out on Cyprus entirely, but I'll make that decision once I reach Istanbul.