Jan 31, 2015

Jan 30 - 31: Ihtiman and Kostenets

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.


  1. I am not sure this message will find you but your blog is fascinating and I have enjoyed reading the Via Francigena section which I cycled a couple of years ago - with no more than a list of towns on the Archbishop Sigeric itinerary. Now I realise there are Facebook Groups and I am finding good information to help me with my plans for cycling Rome to Istanbul. Jerusalem sometime maybe? Your current journey through Kostenets is one I can relate to coincidentally as my partner and I and a few friends cycled this way in June last year. We had the luxury of a Bulgarian guide to do all the communicating (not easy!). Good luck to you for the rest of your journey. Tom

    1. Thanks, Tom!

      I took the ferry from Bari to Durrës, but if you're interested in doing it all by bike along the Adriatic coast, Mony and Alberto have some good information on their site, including the route and their walking distances. http://walkingforpeace.com/walking-pilgrimages/rome-to-jerusalem.html

      Getting to Jerusalem over land is a little more complex these days because Syria is currently not safe. Most pilgrims I've been in contact with are going by ferry to Cyprus, and from there to Israel. That can also be problematic, because of the tension between North and South Cyprus. Depending on your citizenship, it may not be possible to book a ferry from the south to Israel. I'll probably wind up flying from Cyprus to Haifa, which actually looks to be cheaper.

  2. Nice to hear back from you and hope you are finding some warm (hot) thermal springs to soothe your limbs. In the snow conditions that might be strange mind! The Bulgarian 'shopska' salads are pretty good we thought. Simply white or yellow cheese topping!

    I too am most likely to ferry Bari to Durres and follow the Via Egnatia and I am quietly gathering information. There is good information on the Walking for Peace website and there is an overlap with my likely route so I will keep that in mind. Thanks. I don't expect to get further than Istanbul on this trip but thanks for the flying idea from Cyprus to Haifa ..... that hadn't crossed my mind!

    Wishing you well. Tom

    1. Have you come across the Via Egnatia guidebook? The first volume has been published, covering the route from Durrës to Thessaloniki. It's geared towards walkers, but even though I usually followed the road instead of braving the snow covered mountain trails, it was still a very good resource. The glossary in the back alone was priceless.


  3. The hot thermal spring water in Vavara is good isn't it! I was amazed at how hot the water actually is and how it is mixed with cold to be comfortable to bathe in.We stayed at the same resort which is extensive and must be very popular in the sunny weather. We experienced the waters in rainy conditions but In snow you must have found it most peculiar.

    From your good comment about the Via Egnatia guidebook I will order a copy. I was aware of it but wondered about it's worth. Thanks for the tip.

    I am very impressed with your comprehensive system of communications. I guess you carry a tablet? I am tempted to try to set up similar systems but my knowledge is slim. My methods have been in the use of Facebook to post photos and updates to family groups and the use of a Garmin GPS bike computer for planning my route and navigating. The GPS tracking system you use is really good I think. The changes in Google Maps has set me back in my high level route planning and this has been a nuisance. I am still on the re-learning curve!

    1. I'm using a BlackBerry Q10 smartphone for just about everything electronic: it's my camera, my navigation aid, my internet access, my library, my FM radio, my music player - oh, and sometimes I even receive phone calls! The only other electronic gadgetry I have with me is the Spot GPS Tracker. It took a bit of work getting things set up, but not all that much. (I play with tech, so your mileage may vary.)