The Not-So-Grand Bucharest Motel

Last week, Yugyeong and I drove the length of Turkey, stopping by the mosques of Istanbul, before finally arriving at the E.U frontier. This week, we delve deep into the Bulgarian countryside, celebrate my birthday in the ‘oldest city in Europe’, and cross the Danube into Transylvania.

Day 85 – Kozlets, Bulgaria to Devils Throat Cave, Bulgaria

We began our week in a garage car park just south of the main highway to Sofia. Before we visit the capital, we have two days to tour the countryside: seeing as many Bulgarian attractions as is physically possible (of which there are plenty). After a few droll photos with some stone mushrooms, we headed to a bronze-age fortress called Perperikon. The fort was built atop a bluff that provided fantastic views of the wooded, rolling landscape, as well as of any potential enemies that were looking to attack. What remained of the original structure was very little, but they had partially re-built sections of the fort to help envisage it in its heyday – which was rather useful. After scampering back down, we continued deeper into the forests to look for the devil.

Devil’s bridge is about as bizarre a bridge as one could come across. After a thirty-minute drive along dirt track from the nearest town, and then another ten by foot, you eventually come across a large and peculiar crossing. Too narrow for anything other than pedestrians to use, and leading to a dead-end on the other side, we couldn’t fathom why on earth it was there, or why it was given its name (the Bulgarian-only signage didn’t help). Maybe, residents from the nearest town wanted to get tourists out of the way for a few hours?

Continuing with the theme, we then made our way to Devil’s Throat Cave, along the narrowest and most forbidding road of the entire journey. Driving through the bed of a gorge that was only wide enough for one car in the pitch-black was a rather disconcerting experience, even for us. We couldn’t make out much with our eyes (thankfully), but for a narrow strip of stars directly above us, and the bloodcurdling shadows of two enormous granite walls on either side of the road. After considering turning back, but with nowhere to do so, we eventually arrived at the parking lot of the cave, and had no choice but to camp directly below a wall that put Yosemite’s El Capitan to shame. Let’s hope the rock’s stay stable during the night.

Day 86 – Devils Throat Cave, Bulgaria to Sofia, Bulgaria

Stay stable they did, although we felt slightly less so when we were able to see exactly where we camped last night – even the wide-lensed-photos don’t capture the scale of the wall (or our trepidation) as well as they should. However, we were (handily) just three metres from the entrance to Devil’s Throat Cave, and (unsurprisingly) the first people inside today – that instantly put us at ease.

Just inside the great, granite wall, hid a great cavern: with a waterfall appearing from a gap in the ceiling, and smaller crevices below us where the spray disappeared into. As our guide spoke some form of English, we were able to discover the reason for the devil moniker this time around – thank goodness. Every caver who attempted to map the deeper tunnels and underground rivers there, lost all or most of their equipment in the rapid waters, never for it to turn-up again. This led to the belief that the devil lived somewhere underneath the cave, liked to steal caving equipment, and it has been little-explored since.

Having climbed out the roof of the Devil’s throat, we hiked back down to Toby, and headed for the capital: Sofia. The first portion of our journey was back along the same chilling road we had driven in the gloom last night, and my golly was it a sight. With autumn in full bloom, and a mountain-pass that rivalled any of the Pamirs (just not as death-defying), the Bulgaria countryside has been a big, beautiful revelation. Now, we visit the city.

Day 87 – Sofia, Bulgaria

To celebrate the fact that I’ve been on this earth for another twelve months, we booked ourselves into a hotel that had more stars than the rest of all our other hostels combined: three. This ordained complimentary beers, free room service, and two (white) Egyptian-cotton bathroom gowns – we were not leaving.

It was nightfall before concluding that we should probably see more than the inside of four hotel walls on my birthday (they were bloody nice walls mind), and we went out in search of a ‘nice’ restaurant for refined folks. After enough pretentiousness to last another twelve months, we (slightly contradictorily) returned to our gowns, slippers, and tea – getting older has its perks.

Day 88 – Sofia, Bulgaria to Plopʂoru, Romania

Having not seen Sofia in daylight, we went for an amble after checking-out from our hotel, and weren’t disappointed we had neglected it entirely. Its central square and pedestrianised zone is pleasant enough, but nothing blew our heads off. We hankered for some more Bulgarian rurality – so that’s what we went in search of.

We headed north in quest of God’s Eyes: a large cave system with two great, eye-shaped-cavities punctured into the ceiling of its central cavern. After a short, rustic hike to the entrance, we were dumbfounded by what greeted us. An enormous opening, completely hidden from the outside world, signalled the gateway to the cave – which was being climbed by copious amounts of salivating climbers. Really, it was a quite perfect setting to do so. The eyes, more remarkable than we had anticipated, filled the dripping cavern with light, casting shadows of house-sized boulders against the glistening walls. We were positively astounded (and grateful) that there wasn’t anybody there to collect an entrance fee, and that it was still a relatively unheard-of destination within tourist circles (thank you Atlas Obscura).

Having had one dose of god, and two of the devil, it was time to leave Bulgaria. We now had the option to head directly north-west, through Serbia, Hungary and Austria etc., and be in the UK within a week or so. Or (far more intriguingly), we could call an end to our ‘Silk Road, Road Trip’, and continue on what was fast-becoming an ‘Ex-Soviet State Expedition’. With Turkmenistan being the exception, it is possible that we can visit every former state of the USSR, if we take a more easterly-route home. Let’s keep the Russian phrasebook to hand…

Day 89 – Plopʂoru, Romania to Bucharest, Romania

We crossed the Danube late last night, signalling our arrival in Romania, and camped at a motorway service station across the border – lovely. We were now beginning a north-easterly-arc, through some of Europe’s least visited capital cities: Minsk, Kiev, Chiʂinau, but first, Bucharest. On first glance, there appeared to be a bit more going on than Sofia, so we found our hostel, and went exploring.

What started as an exploration, quickly escalated into a pub-crawl (a belated birthday celebration if you will). We visited a wide-array of Bucharest’s cheapest watering holes, including a superb Jack’s Bar, before ending up in a discount-casino sometime in the early hours. This could be a difficult night to shake-off come the morn.

Day 90 – Bucharest, Romania

Ouch! I woke up in a world of self-inflicted pain, and was in absolutely no state to check-out of our hostel at eleven o’clock. Another day in Bucharest was required. However, I also wasn’t in any state to look around the city either. So, Yugyeong cracked-on doing jobs, laundry (twice) and changing currency, whilst I slowly recovered from my coma.

After watching a full series of ‘Better Call Saul’, and miraculously managing to work out how to get pizza delivered to the hostel (utilising my best comatosed-Romanian), I considered my day done and dusted, and prayed for a more favourable condition in the morning – getting older has its shortcomings too.

Day 91 – Bucharest, Romania to Bran, Romania

I rose bright and breezy (for risk of Yugyeong removing one of my limbs), and readied myself for a full-day of Romanian touring. Losing a day, due to my hangover, was a minor setback, as our new Soviet-schedule is idiotically tight (we need to get as far north as Belarus by next week), but some things can’t be helped. After washing Toby, we drove one hundred kilometres north-west to the start of a very special road.

The Transfagaraʂan Highway was one of the central reasons for making our Eastern-European detour. It was built over fifty years ago, but rose to fame in an infamous Top Gear segment, which brought it to the attention of people outside of Transylvania. It begins rather tamely, before hitting a steep section of mountains that top-out over two thousand metres: Toby’s favourite (he almost gave up for the hundredth time). Snow has been quite a rarity on this trip, but we had plenty of it today, and may not have even been able to traverse the pass if we had arrived a few weeks later.

After the summit appears one of the most hair-pinned sections of road on earth, and one of the reasons why Jeremy Clarkson called it “the greatest, in the world” (although he has said that about several others). Having taken an age to get Toby up-and-over the mountain, we arrived with just enough light to see how spectacular it was. After zig-zagging our way around mounds of snow and fallen rocks, we slowly made it down to safer pastures. It was a quite astonishing drive, on a par with that of Route 66 and the Pamir Highway – I just wish it was easier to pronounce. Next stop, Dracula’s castle…

Distance Travelled: 21,759km

J

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