Pera started his trip in Bucharest, Romania; a solid day's ride of about 300k to my home in Varna, Bulgaria. From here it's a winding road south along the Black Sea Coast to the somewhat overdeveloped and "resortified" city of Bourgas, then inland to cross the border into Greece (or Eastern Macedonia, depending on who you ask) near Turkey. From there we will head down to the coast of the Aegean Sea at Alexandroupoli. It's west from there, maybe another 500k to Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece. This will be more or less our jumping off point into the Vlach & Aromanian areas and the beginning of what should be a meandering journey through the mountains of Thessaly.
We're using George Moran's excellent website, "Touring the Vlach Villages of Greece" as a loose guide from here. We plan to turn south again, with stops in Elassona at the foot of Mount Olympus, then on to Larissa, Farsala and Volos. Working North again, we have points marked in Kalambaka, Metsovo, Samarina and *possibly* Perivoli on the island of Corfu? -from there we'll cross the northern border into Albania. This is something of an uncharted territory for us: Andon Poci in Gjirokastër is the only place we have marked so far, although we intend to broaden our information on the country between now and our arrival. The Ohridsko Ezero lakes region around the border of Macedonia looks promising, but once again after crossing into Macedonia Krusevo is almost all we have as a destination at this point.
Returning to Bulgaria, we'll cross the country heading north and east. I know there are villages on this route that Pera specifically wants to see, but unfortunately I don't have the names at hand to include here so they're going to have to wait until future installments. At this point we'll take a rest, then I'll be headed north again to meet Pera in Bucharest and continue up to the sidecar rally near Brasov, Romania in early September.
So there it is: all laid out with plenty of big gaps to insert surprises into. In my next post I'll give some background on the people we hope to meet, which, after all, are far more important than wandering lines on a map...
A US citizen now living in Bulgaria, I've been riding a variety of motorcycles from Harleys to Hondas off and on for over 20 years. In 2001 I moved to Europe to join my wife Marina, and since that time I've been anxious to travel and explore more of the continent. Unfortunately my business hasn't allowed me the freedom to get away for any periods of time, and language barriers have, until recently, impeded my ability to expand beyond a small circle of friends and associates.
In December 2006 I bought a 1953 Russian M72 and have spent the last two and a half years in rebuilds and restoration. In the course of this I joined several online communities dedicated to Russian Motorcycles, in particular Russian Iron.com. Through those forums I had the opportunity to meet Pera, and in the summer of 2007 he invited me up to Romania for a sidecar rally in the Carpathians.
During the ride and the subsequent rally we became good friends, and over several weekend trips between Varna & Bucharest trading parts and working on the machines together I developed a strong appreciation of his skills and mechanical knowledge. Naturally when he came up with the idea of a bike tour through the Balkans to visit the Vlach & Aromanian villages, I jumped at the chance for the adventure.
Ever since driving through Greece in 2004 when we relocated from Germany to Bulgaria, I've been looking for a chance to return and explore that historically significant and diverse country; especially the wild places of the Pindus Mountains. With a background in photography and video production, I suggested that we go a step further and attempt a documentary of the trip, focusing on the Aromanian people but also to capture the quirks, charms and frustrations involved in touring with vintage sidecar motorcycles. Not a lot of planning has gone into this: we've mapped a basic route, researched the areas we specifically want to ride through and we've (hopefully) sorted the obvious spares and equipment necessary to keep the machines running for what will be a 4000 + kilometer journey through 5 countries. Otherwise we plan to keep things as flexible as possible and avoid specific limits on routes and itineraries.
Romanian, aircraft engineer, passionate about boxer motorcycles especially if equipped with a sidecar. I am the proud owner of a KMZ Dnepr MT16 and an IMZ M61 Ural; I'll have to choose one for the trip, which will not be easy...The Dnepr has two wheel drive capability and an unfair image, although it is actually a good military machine. Meanwhile the old Ural is a very pleasant touring machine.
I met Charlie on Russian Iron and since Bucharest and Varna are not that far apart we became not only riding buddies, also friends. Although we don't look like a team, (him being old and stuff) I appreciate his enthusiasm and overall character and I guess we have a few things in common, fiddling on old Russian "beasts" is one of them. I have become interested in the Aromanians; a lot of today's Romanians trace their identity to this community, even if they forgot about it. While related to the other Romanian cultures, this one identifies with the mountainous regions as far South as Thessaly in Greece and has a lot of charming particularities, one of which is surely the music.
It is an old culture you will rarely hear or read about, and it is hopefully recuperating from the 20th century that was, for them, a century of decline. This trip will seek the last remaining places in Bulgaria, Greece, Albania and FYROM (Macedonia) where Aromanians are still surviving as natives. Maybe to also bring back, to the Aromanian descendants, the memory of their ancestor's cliffs and stone villages that they were forced to flee. They are said to be remote and beautiful and what better way to visit them than on old sidecar machines.
Today's the morning of the 10th and our fifth day out. We haven't had internet access so far so I'll take the opportunity to update this before we get into the mountains.
We left on Wednesday morning, taking the coast road down the Black Sea from Varna to Bourgas. It's a twisting two lane road through the Kamchichiska Mountains, and would be a fantastic bike road except for the inevitable potholes every few meters: easy to miss with two wheels but not so easy on the sidecars.
In Pomorie we stopped at a reconstructed Thracian tomb filled with fat tourists rabidly snapping pictures of each other with their cell phones. We quickly gave up on that, although we had a laugh as they solemnly looked at the big sign (in 3 languages) telling them not to climb the hill on top of it. They all then immediately climbed the hill. Bourgas itself was pretty bad due to the even worse pavement and heavy traffic, but we cut west from there and things improved a bit. The rest of the day was fairly uneventful other than my learning which direction to set the petcock for reserve. The hard way, of course.
We found a small lake off the road and made camp the first night, Pera outdoing himself on a barbequed feast of ribs, chops and skewered onions and red peppers. We topped that with a couple of liters of beer and slept under the stars, providing an even better feast for the hordes of mosquitoes.
On the second day we rode south to Svilengrad where we had the first semi-serious mechanical problems: I lost power just as we approached the Greek border and discovered that the battery was dead. Pera towed me back to town with the Ural where we found a bike shop… the guys there were great and took off with the generator to get new brushes fitted while the battery charged and we had a couple of beers. Once that was sorted we thought we were in the clear but I immediately noticed a heavy loss of power under load. Our first suspect of course was the ignition, but after 3 hours of checking and replacing everything we could think of the problem persisted and we were pretty much at wits end. Pera finally pulled the breather tubes and we saw that even though the inside cylinder was running, the slide wasn't moving. It turns out that the cap which holds the cable end in the carb had come unscrewed from the slide. A ten minute fix after 4 hours of sweat.
With the last of the daylight we made it across the border into Greece, then another 50k or so on an excellent highway down to Orestiada where we rewarded ourselves with cold daiquiris and a clean hotel with hot showers. Our third day was a long 100k ride south to Alexandroupoli where we had an excellent lunch of broiled octopus and mussels on the Aegean Sea. From there we took the Egnatia Odos, the system of highways that follow the ancient Roman Via Egnatia road, driving through Thrace, Macedonia and into Thessaly. That night we stopped in Kavala, a fairly large port town. We weren't impressed by the prices or hotel… Greece is really expensive compared to Bulgaria and the hotel was, frankly, the worst dive I've ever been in… but we survived with minimal damage except to our budgets.
At this point we realized that my oil pan was leaking to an intolerable extent, which it still is. We found a bike shop which provided us with some paper for a new gasket, but so far we haven't had a space to cut and install it.
After Kavala we headed west again to Thessaloniki, then finally into to the Vlach region. We wound up doing another hundred kilometers before we found a hotel in Yanitsa, where we stayed last night.
The sun has been brutal for the last two days and we look like a couple of boiled crawfish, but today we'll get into the mountains finally and hopefully find some relief from both the scorching lowlands and the tourist prices.
We're on the 8th straight day of riding now, and about 1200k on the bikes. In Gianitsa (Yanitsa was my previous misspelling) we got up early and spent the morning sorting Pera's alternator: the drive gear was loose which seems to be the source of the problem. It took a couple of hours of messing around to get it tightened with the tools we have at hand, but so far it seems ok except for a gear noise he doesn't like. His bike is generally far better maintained than mine so changes in engine noise are really noticeable.
Anyway, we got out of there under some cloud cover and a light rain which gave us some much needed relief from the sun. We started into the mountains finally after about 60k and stopped Sunday at a village where we had a couple of beers and a great lunch of grilled pork with pilaf and fries. I'll interject a small point here that the only beers in Greece seem to be Heineken or Amstel. On rare occasions you'll see a Kaiser or something, but there aren't any Greek beers available anywhere…it must be a fairly recent thing and I guess the Greeks just don't drink much beer. The remaining Vlach villages are high in the mountains: we headed northwest to Livadi (Livezi), one of the first objectives on our map, but these days it's turned into a ski resort. We had a couple of Heinekens at a guesthouse there and Pera chatted with the Vlach owner who gladly spoke Aromanian… there was no market but he sorted us with more beer and some steaks and told us to head up the mountain to find a place to make camp.
A couple of kilometers up a gravel road (and I'm using the terms "gravel" and "road" in their broadest possible meanings) we found a flat spot and pitched our tents. They have a type of small thistle in the mountains here, I don't know what it's called but we swiftly discovered that it is pure evil. I mean spearing you through the bottom of a tent evil. And of course we were in the middle of a big patch of the previously innocuous looking little bastards. Nonetheless, we managed to hack them out from the tent sites and proceeded to make a fine evening of it. The view was spectacular and we had a great BBQ again, this time over a cedar fire that really added to the ambiance of the evening.
Next morning we changed out my –brand new- clutch pin and bearings with the old one. It took about 900k to wear it down to nothing. Cheap crap from eBay I guess… otherwise the M72 is running smoothly. Which it should, considering I'm adding a pint of oil per day due to the oil pan leak. We set off, crossing through several other quiet villages and stopping in Pericleia for a coffee and a chat with some kind old people.
We did another 120k to Anno Grammatiko (Gramaticuva), the next Vlach objective on our map. The winter village was marked, but everyone was further up the mountain in the summer fields. Finally we had come to find what we set out for.
The Taverna was decorated with photos of the village ancestors and we were warmly greeted in Aromanian. Pera was in his element and after a couple of hours all the old guys gathered around to meet us and chat about the life there and the good old days. It turned into something of a party, and we had a great time. Vasile Giurgiu and Hristu Rosu, our gracious hosts, escorted me to the edge of the mountain to take some footage of the shepards bringing the flocks in and we sat for quite awhile listening to the bells of the sheep rattle down the valley, punctuated occasionally by a sharp whistle or the bark of one of the dogs. I told Vasile he was really fortunate to live in such a peaceful place; his face split into a huge grin and in broken English he basically said "…yeah, and to hell with the city life." I was more than a bit jealous when we headed back to the village.
Many beers and another great meal: this time of sweet roasted red peppers, homemade bread, herbed feta (cas) and sauteed potatoes, we said goodnight to our new friends and rolled down the mountain in the dark to pitch our tents in the fields below the village. I woke up the next morning to find my pillow covered in blood… despite the cream we've been using my face is so badly sun burnt that my cheek split open in the night. Pera is a bit hardier and even managed a shave at the spring across the road while I got a fire started and made coffee. This time the thistles were replaced with wild rosemary and almost every step released an herbal perfume.
We had an easy ride back down through the mountains for the morning, I had to get some work done and we wanted to sort our laundry so we cruised about 50k down to Naoussa (Neaguste) and then Veria and grabbed the first hotel we found. We took a bit of rest (although we didn't manage to get laundry sorted), and today we're headed further south again towards the Olympus Mountains, the next Aromanian center.
After Veria we headed south through the Olympus Mountains to Argiropoulio (Karagioli) where we were again warmly greeted. Cafes surrounded the village square and modern houses reflected the rich agricultural setting, but the old guys who we joined at the table were happy to converse in Aromanian and we soon had a small crowd gathered.
After a dinner of grilled mutton we camped above the village, heading back down the next morning for coffee and further riding south and west into the Pindus Range. From this point we had a series of disappointments. While the Greek roads are generally excellent compared to Bulgaria, the signs leave much to be desired and often don't even exist. Distances marked as 20k may be 60k or more in reality, which is a recipe for confusion especially in the twisting mountain roads. The map had become near useless, showing towns and roads that no longer exist and echoing the ridiculous mileages.
We had planned to visit some other small villages in the Pindus, so we left the highway and basically spent a days riding varying between two-tracks and rough shepard trails winding up above the tree line, but we managed to get disoriented without finding the more remote villages we were seeking and had to turn towards Metsovo (Aminciu).
Metsovo is heralded as the center of Vlach culture in Greece, but little did we realize that it was actually the center of tourism in the Vlach region. It was dark by the time we got into the town after a grueling ride but we managed to find a hotel right away and were directed to the center for some beers and dinner. The architecture was beautiful, but we climbed down the mountain on traditional narrow cobbled streets only to find a tourist trap with cheap souvenir stands on every corner and pop music blaring from packed clubs with 4 euro beers. Small beers.
We sorted something to eat and quickly got the hell out of there. The next morning was even worse…I have only one ritual, and that's my morning coffee. Nobody was stirring around the hotel so I grudgingly stumbled back down the mountain to find almost everything closed. The first café that was open had a waiter far too busy doing nothing to bother serving me. After about 15 minutes of being studiously ignored I went down the street and found a place that actually took my order, but after another 15 minutes I was ready to give up when George from the hotel magically appeared on a scooter and told me the coffee in town was no good, he'd bring me back to the hotel for breakfast. Thankful for the rescue, we headed back up where Pera was finishing coffee and toast.
George motioned for me to sit down then disappeared again leaving me to stare at Pera's empty coffee cup. He didn't come back: I finally hauled my cooking gear out and made my own coffee on the alcohol stove.
Morning addictions finally sated, we put the Vlach Disneyland behind us and headed north to Samarina where there was supposedly a cultural festival going through the weekend. We arrived expecting to find some traditional dancing and music, but sadly we were greeted with the same scene as in Metsovo. The streets were packed with tourists and big new cars. We had a quick dinner and retreated up into the rocky hills to camp for the night.
After making camp Pera bravely decided to head back down with the camera and hopefully get something worth filming. I opened a beer, turned on some Grateful Dead and sat back to watch the fire and stars. He got back later in the night disappointed that the evenings "festivities" that he had so greatly anticipated were nothing but speeches by the officials in Greek instead of Aromanian and music without words so as not to anger the authorities. It appears that the Vlachs here have built some smoke and mirrors of the old culture while the roots slowly wither under a modern facade.
We decided to put Greece behind us and head for Albania. We had a quick lunch in Konitsa where we met another English speaking biker, and with his help we got on the road to the border. Here our bad luck held out: somewhere in the confusion of passports and papers for the bikes I managed to lose my cell phone. We blasted North again to Permeti to find all the hotels booked for a local wedding, but we finally got a shared room even though the fat proprietress was less than happy to have us staying there.
At a cafe in the center we met a young guy who was working in the UK and spoke English: he gave us some directions to a hotel that he said had laundry service, and also pointed us towards a restaurant where we had some fried trout with pilaf, feta and strong country wine. This morning we changed hotels to a smaller pension run by a very nice old Vlach couple who are also taking care of the laundry issue finally.
Today is our 11th day on the road and 1,813 kilometers.
Because of the laundry we wound up staying two nights in Permeti, Albania. The room we took on the second day was pretty bad: I mean no hot water, no locks on the door, strangers wandering into your room and a communal toilet that doesn't flush bad. That said, the proprietors were very gracious and despite my misgivings and who knows who using my room as a hallway absolutely none of my personal belongings (including a couple of thousand bucks worth of computer and camera gear) were touched. Whatever may be said of Albania, the people are friendly and honest in my experience. There wasn't much to see here, the country is pretty sparse and we had pretty much no luck with the language. One remarkable feature was the row upon row of bunkers and pillboxes, most of them barely large enough for a single soldier, covering every hilltop and roadside.
These were all prefab concrete and built during the '80's by Enver Hoxha, the dictator of the time: it's an impressive legacy but laughable in the face of modern warfare. Pera figures he watched a lot of old Bollywood movies and expected the Soviets to attack in neat rows of marching foot soldiers.
We more or less ran straight across the country as we didn't have any background info on villages here. We stopped for a quick lunch of boiled spaghetti and keflechki (meatballs) with some memorable crusty, homemade bread and found a welder to fix a broken mount on Pera's rear saddle; then again at another Thracian tomb in Kamenica, this time preserved as an archeological site and hosting a small but interesting museum. It was a marked contrast to the reconstructed tourist trap we saw in Bulgaria, and I will cover it more in the video.
After that there was a horrible 50k ride down a heavily trafficked stretch of highway reconstruction, nothing but washboard and dust so thick you couldn't see 20 meters ahead of you. I was forced to pull out the helmet but even then I had to keep wiping the face shield off every few minutes. Still, we finally made it to Ohrid lake on the Albania / Macedonia border and crossed into the Former Yugoslav Republic Of Macedonia.
We spent the night in the resort town of Struga, but had the good fortune to run into a taxi driver who sorted us some rooms in the old Vlach quarter. As soon as we stopped the bikes someone spotted Pera's flag and shouted out in Aromanian: a minute later we were at a cafe table with a handful of the old guys drinking cold beer and making new friends. The next morning (Tuesday, 8/19) we had to sort a map and some tapes for the camera, and didn't get out of Struga until almost noon. We're getting into a tight schedule now because of the mountains, so we headed straight to Krusevo which is officially the center of Vlach culture in Macedonia.
As in Albania, there simply wasn't much to remark on: the roads were fair but the countryside was just farmland interspersed with low mountains. There were a few forest fires around Kamenica although they didn't affect our travels. Somewhere around here the camera strap broke, and Pera dropped it on the highway… kudos to Panasonic, because other than a bit of scuffing and a broken but repairable battery (we have spares fortunately) it still works fine.
There were no less than 7 checkpoints at the Macedonia/Bulgaria border. First was the passport check to get out of Macedonia, where they gave each of us a flash drive which we had to submit to all the other six…some strange system of manual network.
After that was an obstacle course of vehicle verifications, passport scans and customs searches but we got through it and finally pulled into Blagoevgrad, BG about 8:00 pm.
We had a good dinner in Blagoevgrad Wednesday night (8/20), then checked out the local bike shop the next morning where we finally found some long sought after fingerless gloves… my grips are fat, soft rubber and have become pretty uncomfortable especially in the heat. We hit the highway headed North then East again towards Peshtera where Pera hoped to find a Vlach community, and eventually to Plovdiv.
About halfway through the days ride we stopped at a huge lake which must have been either the Dospat or Batak Reservoir. Or maybe Goliam Beglick Lake, according to our map there wasn't a body of water anywhere for hundreds of kilometers. A rusted out Soviet landing craft was sunk at the beach, apparently being used as a dock.
After an hours rest we pushed on to Peshtera but unfortunately we didn't find much of interest: later reading proclaims a historic old quarter, but we couldn't find it despite riding around a bit. We headed on to Plovdiv down old cobbled roads which beat my steering mercilessly. Our plan had been to get a hotel there, but the first one we got to was apparently too fancy to be hosting a couple of dirty bikers and the owner just about had a cardiac arrest when he saw that my bike was leaking oil in his parking lot. After a bit of high volume mutual cursing (we'd already paid for the rooms) we got our money back and rode on. And on.
It was dark when we reached Chirpan, and after about 250k we were delighted to find an old but obviously once extravagant hotel. Some beers, some dinner, and we both crashed hard. Next morning I hit an internet cafe (where I posted the previous report) and got back to the hotel to find every gypsy in the village gathered around the ATM machine in front of the hotel for what must have been some monthly welfare payment. Pera was incensed to find one of the kids trying to start his bike (while it was in gear), so we quickly pulled out and headed north for what should have been an easy ride to Veliko Turnovo.
After maybe 50k Pera lost his rear brakes completely: the main seal on his final drive was shot and the brake shoes were being nicely lubricated. We had a short roadside repair session for him to change out the seal and were off again. It was a fortunate point for him to do it because the rest of the days ride was through the Stara Planina mountains and he definitely needed them.
We hit Veliko Turnovo during the weekend of the biggest bike rally in Bulgaria: about 2000 bikers from here and Romania, along with the Romanian and Bulgarian Prime Ministers. We had a great time for a few hours but pretty soon the crowd started closing in and Pera, I think too accustomed to the open road, decided to get the hell out of there. He headed back up to Bucharest and I spent the rest of the evening putting a dent in the local beer stock with several newfound friends.
Blaring heavy metal and revving jap engines put the kibosh on much sleep, and I got up early the next morning feeling like crap and wishing I was 30 years younger so I could enjoy the scene more. But I'm not.
After a coffee and a brief goodbye to several of the guys who were still continuing the nights party, I hit the road myself and burned up the last 200k to reach Varna, home, and a garage full of cats on Saturday 8/23. My total on the trip was 3,091 kilometers ( about 1,920 miles) with an average of 8.95k per liter (33mpg). We were on the road for 17 days.
I was glad to be home, and the bike was in serious need of visual and mechanical TLC. But there was no grass growing under my boots and after a week I was loaded up again and headed north to meet Peera in Bucharest, then on further to the Transylvania region and the Carpathians.
Another four days of riding felt like nothing, although I caught myself glancing in the mirror out of habit- expecting to see Pera pulling in behind me on that long expanse of highway running east across the Bulgarian plains.
This time the ride across Bulgaria was uneventful, and after stopping for a light lunch at a cantina outside of Rousse I crossed the Danube and rolled up the last couple of hundred kilometers into the outskirts of the city.
Pera met me on a Dnepr, eager to show off the two wheel drive; in the center of one of the largest cities in the Balkans we went offroad and powered through one construction site after another. By the time we got to his place we were already covered in dust and making a beeline for the nearest cold beer; shit was, indeed, back to "normal".
The next morning I had to make some adjustments on the clutch and we wound up fighting the rush hour traffic out of Bucharest. Almost free of the traffic, some asshat in a beat up Dacia blew a stop sign and smacked into the sidecar. After making the whole trip without an accident I was ready to rip somebody a new asshole, but by the time I got to a place where I could get off the road he had hauled ass.
The gathering was great, some 30-odd Russian bikes ranging from Izh and MZ two-stroke machines to Urals and Dneprs. Bonfires, beer, BBQ and the mountains- a welcome alternative to the last heavy metal bash we'd hit up in Tarnovo. We spent the weekend doing hill climbs and other foolishness, amusing the local tourist population to no end.
As I finally headed south again for the last time this season, I reflected on the past month of wanderings; I wish we'd had more time and finances so that we wouldn't have had to push so hard. I often wish the bike had a top end over 80kph. But we did something, and we made a lot of friends along the way: in the end, that's enough.
I could do it again.
There's no use in waxing lyrical over the freedom of the open road and life on a motorcycle: people get it or they don't.
I hope it's an inspiration for those of you who own these old machines to get them out of the garage and use them for what they were intended.