While planning our trip, I read a lot of other blogs and traveler accounts for all the countries we’d be passing through, and Bulgaria was the hardest one to find positive accounts! Lots of people we spoke with also agreed that Bulgaria was kind of boring. So our sights were set low.

I’m happy to report, though, that it’s not all bad. There were parts of Bulgaria that stole our hearts.

The nature in Bulgaria is stunning. We cycled for hundreds of kilometers through mountains, fields, rolling hills, by lakes and reservoirs, and forests. The people are also very kind and generous, even if they seem a bit glum and quiet on the surface.

We were initially planning to ride through as fast as we could, to get some fitness in before Turkey, but life has different plans for you; for some reason we were meant to see a slice of the beauty and generosity of Bulgaria. Because of some minor mechanical issues, our life was intertwined with beautiful people, historic places, and stunning landscapes. We noticed that both of our disc brake rotors were wearing out much quicker than expected and needed to be replaced. So we stopped at a bike shop in Blagoevrgrad that had Shimano signs up. The bike shop owner was awesome and swapped out our two front brakes, but he didn’t have the right size rear brakes or an adapter. He told us we had to detour to Sofia to get the part we needed. He then sat us down for coffee and local honey before discussing the ugly matter of payment.

It was too late in the afternoon to keep cycling, so we found a small hotel and asked about a tour of the nearby Rila Monastery, and we joined a friendly man on a few hour tour of this place. Only after we returned back did we realize that he was the owner of the hotel, and he insisted (in French, surprisingly!) that we join him later for a beer. We spent an hour talking about travel, football, and other things with his friend from Athens over beer, sausage, cheese, and fried fish. It was a good lesson for us to slow down and that life is not meant to be forced to fit into your preconceptions but enjoyed for all its twists and turns.

The next day, Bulgaria melted our hearts! As we were cycling towards Sofia, we stopped at a spring to fill our water bottles, and then we were talking about how far to continue. A woman came by with a cart carrying produce, and she filled up her bottles as well. She started walking away and we said “dobur den” to her, and she gave us a huge smile and greeted us back and kept waking. A few seconds later, she stopped and put the cart down and hurried back to us and held out her hand to offer us two cucumbers. She gave a shrug and a big smile, and we thanked her as best we could. We felt so humbled at such a simple gesture of generosity.

We got our disc brakes replaced in Sofia and checked out the city before continuing on. It is an interesting city with a bit of a Russian feel to it as well as a hipster vibe.

Unfortunately, something I ate (not the cucumbers!) gave me food poisoning, and I spent 2 full days in bed (or the bathroom!) in Plovdiv. Steve took the time to recover, and we did have a day to see the city a bit, which was nice.

Ancient stadium in Plovdiv

We finally met a few other cycle tourists in Bulgaria. Renáta has been cycling on her own from Singapore to Hungary, through Southeast Asia, Myanmar, India, and Iran, and we met up twice to share some stories and advice about what lay ahead for each of us.

We also ran into a cycle tourist from Turkey heading west.

One of the things we continue to enjoy about cycle touring is how it forces you to visit all the small local places along the way. One town we stopped in was gearing up for its annual festival, with carnival games and rides being set up and a fun family-friendly energy about it.

As for the food in Bulgaria, I can’t say much. It was almost impossible to find a proper restaurant in most towns. There are dozens of cafes, a couple of fast food places, and no sit down restaurants in the town centers. We had trouble finding any kind of local food on most menus, so settled for pizza, grilled meat, and salads. In Sofia, the restaurant we ate at was a hipster hangout with good US-style food (which probably gave me the food poisoning), and in Plovdiv, I was too sick to eat much, but our favorite place was a chain restaurant called Happy that had good sushi. I don’t think it’s part of the Bulgarian culture to eat out and get local food.

Tarator soup, one of the few local things I tried, is a yogurt based cold soup with cucumbers. Refreshing on a hot day.

Pears growing in someone’s yard

The pulled pork sandwich that may have made me sick.

And with that, we crossed the border to Turkey, entering a whole new universe of culture and food. More on that soon!


We are in Turkey now, and our routine of cycle touring has gotten in to a rhythm such that I hardly think about blogging anymore. Overall I think this is good because we are really living the experiences as fully as we can, but I do like to have a written record of our trip and to share with you all, so I’m taking some time to sequester myself in our hotel room and catch up on blogging.

I don’t have anything specifically negative to say about Macedonia or Bulgaria, but I will be honest and say they weren’t highlights of the trip so far. We had some amazing experiences in both places, and both were safe, beautiful, and friendly. But there was nothing that really stood out as unique to us compared to the other countries we’ve visited.

In Macedonia, we crossed over from Albania along Lake Ohrid and headed towards the city of Ohrid. Not being much for tourist crowds, we were a bit disappointed to find the city felt like a big tourist trap to us. Almost all the people there were on vacation, and the restaurants and cafes were not great quality. But we took a day to get some local currency, a SIM card, and brush up on Cyrillic. The language is not as similar to Serbo Croatian as we’d hoped, so a lot of our words didn’t I work, but almost everyone we met spoke good English. We considered staying another day because we were both very tired from all the intense cycling in Albania, but our budget hotel didn’t have air conditioning, and it was really hot, so we continued to Bitola.

Bitola was an interesting town and a great place to spend a rest day. It has a lively cafe culture, a few historic sights, and a laid back comfortable and friendly vibe. From there we headed east to Bulgaria, and we spent a few days cycling through farmland and hills and unremarkable cities. The most exciting things to happen were a 1 year old birthday party at the restaurant we ate at, and meeting a cyclist racer who was racing across Europe in the Transcontinental Race. He took a minute to rest and check his phone and we said hi.

We missed the sun flowers in full bloom, so instead we’ve been watching them dry in fields that go on as far as you can see.

In the country side, we saw lots of crops growing, including these peppers, plums, tobacco, and lots more.

Tobacco drying. We saw hundreds of these racks all along the road and in cities.

Some of the roads we were on were paved with cobbles for kilometers! I’ve never seen so many cobbles, and they are not fun to ride on, but the traffic is always light on these roads.

Okay, you knew it was coming. The food! The food in Macedonia was amazing actually. Some of the best food we’ve had in the Balkans, and very affordable. Meat heavy as usual, but with more emphasis on stews, some Greek influence, and really tasty!

A stewed pork dish with some huge hunks of cured pork, like eating a slab of bacon (but less salty). Incredible and rich!

Skopsko, the national beer from the capital Skopje, was pretty good.

Something called “pie” that we tried in an “Italian” restaurant. A cross between a quiche and a pizza.

Sarmi, rice and ground meat wrapped in grape leaves.

Pleskovica with ground ham and cheese, the size of my head. Really good but quite salty and rich. Exactly what we needed after all the miles.

Roasted cheese and spices. Heavenly!

Our favorite, шопска салата (shopska salad).

That’s all for Macedonia. Stay tuned for Bulgaria!

Final thoughts on Albania, pt. 2


It was 40€ to take a taxi round trip from Sarandë to Butrint vs. 2€ for the air conditioned bus. Quite a no brainer, and the bus was actually fairly comfortable! There are a few semi-official bus stops, but it’s also okay to stand on the route and wave down the bus or ask the driver to stop where you want. Butrint is an ancient ruined city that’s been partially excavated for visitation. This was the first time I’ve seen a whole ancient city restored, and it was very impressive!


Another UNESCO site, this city is just barely discovering tourism, and the castle is only barely restored and open to visit. Parts of it felt like abandoned structures like you see in Indiana Jones movies.

Strange juxtaposition of flowers, cannons, and airplanes.

Mountains and country side

After leaving the coast, we headed inland over a few mountain ranges towards Macedonia. This is, by far, the most beautiful area in Albania, and the people are the most friendly. We heard lots of “hellos” and saw many smiling faces through this area.

There was more livestock in the road than there were cars.

Cycling was tricky on extremely rough roads with steep gradients, but it was worth it for these amazing views.

We spent a night in these bungalows at a campground/hotel/restaurant miles from anything else.

This rock will compete for tourist dollars with Morro Bay one day…

These bunkers litter the landscape all over the country. They were built in the communist era in case of a nuclear attack.

In the mountains, there are many springs funneled into roadside fountains like this one where you can refill your water bottles.

More food

You know how much we love food, so here is some more food porn!

“Pumpkin balls” (qofte)

I thought tres leches cake was a Spanish thing, but it was super popular in Albania and amazing.

Along the coast, the seafood was plentiful and super fresh (we saw local fisherman selling their daily catch directly to the restaurants), and dishes were inspired by nearby Italy.

The food in Gjirokaster was heavily influenced by Greece, as you can see in this sampler platter, which included the local specialty qifqi.

A seafood hummus, another Greek-influenced dish

Tavë kosi, the national dish of Albania, lamb and yogurt baked in a clay dish.

An excellent pork and vegetable stew from Permët.

Gliko, preserved whole fruits, are a local specialty of Permët, where our waitress made us a sampling plate of several kinds, including watermelon rind and walnut. Really good and really sweet.

Another tavë dish from another restaurant in Permët.

Random photos

Being close to Greece means that ouzo is easy to find.

Permët Town square

It’s a sad thing to see kids like this one forced into begging by their parents and the poverty they were born into.

Random road side monument on the way to Korça.

Sharing the road, Albanian style

Final thoughts on Albania, pt. 1

If you ever wondered what it would be like if North Korea suddenly converted to a democracy and opened its borders, Albania might give you some ideas. After decades of strict dictatorship, where no one was allowed to even own automobiles, never mind travel in and out of the country, the Albanian borders were opened in the late 90s.

The resulting experience of visiting such a country runs the gamut from quaint to charming to amusing to refreshing to frustrating to downright horrifying.

I touched on a few of the depressing bits in my last post, and since then, we’ve gotten ripped off by an unscrupulous restaurant owner charging 5x a fair price for crappy food (no menu, so the bill came after we ate), we’ve been literally run off the road several times by tourists and locals trying to navigate the horribly unprepared infrastructure struggling to keep up with the insanely quickly-growing tourist boom, and we’ve been yelled at by an entire family at a guesthouse for suggesting that we lock our bicycles inside our room with us vs. leaving them unlocked in an alleyway in the downtown area.

We’ve had, by far, more unpleasant experiences in Albania vs. any other country we’ve visited so far. But yet, it is a beautiful country, and we’ve also met some great people, and tried some amazing food. And now that we’re gone, there are a lot of things I miss more than I thought I would.

A refreshing part of Albania is its affordability and nascent tourism industry. Except for the one tout who ripped us off, even the nicest restaurants and shops with beautiful views and great locations do not feel like a rip off. They may be a bit more expensive than average, but still charge a fair price for excellent quality. Albanians in general seem to be happily perplexed about this whole tourism thing and are more than happy to offer up their best cheese, raki, crafts, fruit, and other goods to those who pass by. It’s kind of random, and some of the things for sale seem like nothing a typical tourist would want, but it’s refreshing to see this kind of honest naiivity as they slowly discover how much the natural beauty of their beaches and country are appreciated by outsiders.

Would I recommend Albania to vacation? I would say definitely if you are looking to experience something completely unique and see barely touched archaeological sites, and are willing to deal with some inconveniences. But if you are looking for a nice Beach vacation, there are much better options, even if Albania is really cheap.

And now for some photos…


Our hostel host at Green Garden Hostel. Great bike-friendly hostel.

The mosque in Shkodër lit against a brilliant deep blue sky, just after the rain.


The Skënderbej Square was very recently opened to the public after construction to remove the central rotary and make it a walking area with beautiful tiles with water washing over them to keep down the heat. It is beautiful and is becoming a central place for locals and tourists to hang out. It is an Albanian custom to take an evening stroll, and we saw thousands of people in the square at night.

The cycling infrastructure is random, but with many people in Albania using bicycles for transport, some of the lanes are excellent. But most roads are not bicycle friendly at all.

The utility pole situation seems to be similar to Thailand’s.

A pyramid built in honor of their hated dictator is in disrepair and is now a hangout for kids.

Interesting street art


A church from the UNESCO fortress of Berat. Albania had several UNESCO sites, and it’s nice to be able to visit without almost any of tourists, even during peak season.

Shepherd with his flock beneath Berat fortress.

Textiles for sale in Berat

The coast

The Albanian Riviera was a nice place to relax for a few days and enjoy our last bit of ocean until we get to Turkey. It is rapidly growing and we were there in peak tourist season, so the beaches were crowded and there was lots going on every evening but during the hot days, it was like a ghost town.

View from a restaurant in Himarë

Durrës, my least favorite Albanian city

Sunset in Himarë

To be continued …

Catching up: Crna Gora (Montenegro)

I never posted the last of my pictures from Montenegro except for a few photos from Lake Skadar, so I’m making this post to catch up.

We had an amazing experience in Montenegro, staying in small guest houses and being treated like members of their family, enjoying delicious food, and cycling through breath taking mountains, valleys, and coast lines.

We cycled up to Lovćen National Park and the mausoleum at the top of the mountain and felt like we were on top of the world.

We saw stunning views of the Bay of Kotor.

We witnessed the annual event called fašinada, where local boats form a procession to bring rocks out to Our Lady of the Rocks, a famous man-made island with a church.

One of our hosts had pet dogs who loved playing with his pet turtle.

We saw busy public beaches and swanky private islands.

We spent a rest day overlooking the famous rail line that runs from Bar to Belgrade, enjoying the surrounding mountains and nature.

And of course we had lots of amazing food and drink.

These dogs followed us 3km down the road on our last day riding in Montenegro. I guess they didn’t want us to leave, and neither did we…

Bike Stomach: Albanian food

One of the things we focus on while on tour is sampling as much of the local food as possible, and I’m going to start writing blog entries specifically devoted to our food discoveries world-wide.

So here is our experience with Albanian food so far. Overall it’s been excellent and extremely affordable, and it’s a refreshing change from Serbo-Croatian dishes that we’ve been enjoying for the previous two months.


One of the first things that’s immediately noticeable is, like other parts of the Balkans, and like Europe in general, there is a lot of home-grown and organic produce everywhere. Most homes have fruit trees, small gardens, and use fruit-producing vines for shade. When we’ve stayed at guesthouses, we are invariably offered juices, fruits, raki, wine, or other foods grown or prepared by the owner’s family.

There are also fruit and fruit juice stands everywhere on the road. It’s impossible to ride more than a few kilometers without seeing one of these. Some people are also selling freshly roasted corn and other simple snacks. It’s not unusual in the morning to see people walking the streets with bags stuffed with fruit, headed to stake out a corner to set up their road side fruit stands. Here I am buying some amazing figs:

The south is known for its excellent cheese, similar to Greek feta. It is served at every restaurant simply sliced and put on a plate or sometimes grilled or fried. I personally cannot get enough of it; it has a bit of a funky tangy flavor that adds a lot of character, but Steve isn’t a huge fan. The cheese below is from Gjirokastra and is hands down the best cheese I have tried in Albania, very rich and creamy.


After months in countries that prefer bread products for breakfast or that don’t have a breakfast culture at all, it’s really refreshing to be somewhere that has eggs on the menu again. Lots of restaurants have various omelets available, and when we’ve had breakfast included, it always includes scrambled or hard boiled eggs. Also typical for breakfast is a strong herbal tea (I’ve seen it called “mountain tea”), cucumbers, tomatoes, local cheese, simple sliced bread with honey and jams, and fresh fruit like watermelon, grapes, and pears. Sometimes there are also some sliced meats, which may be an influence from nearby Italy.

However, our favorite breakfast was in Shkodër and was the rice pilaf drenched with a gravy made from stewed meat. At 50 Lek ($0.40USD) for a generous portion, it seems to be a popular breakfast for local workers before a long work day, and it is great energy food for a long bike ride as well. (Sorry, didn’t get a photo!)


Like elsewhere in the Balkans, the main dishes seem to be meat-heavy concoctions, accompanied with French fries, salad, soup, olives, and sometimes yogurt. Here is a mixed meat platter we ordered in Tirana with our hotel host; it was far too much food for 3 people but was delicious!

Qofte (often translated as “meat balls” in spite of not being ball-shaped) are popular minced meat fingers with spices that are very tasty. They bear a passing resemblance to ćevapčići, but the flavor is much different; many seem to be made with lamb.

There are also several dishes with ground meat cooked with other ingredients like cheese and peppers and then baked in the oven in a clay dish. Our first experience with this type of dish was trying tavë dheu in Shkodër, where the waiter proudly embraced the poor English translation of “dust pan with meat” and insisted it was the best item on the menu. It was, indeed, delicious, and for 400 Leks ($3.50USD) for two people, quite a bargain.

Another variation at a guest house in Krujë:

On the coast, there are some more seafood options available. We particularly enjoy the squid (calamari), and it’s really good stuffed with cheese and/or prosciutto!

Street foods / fast food

There’s more street food here than we’ve seen recently. Most common are small stands selling grilled corn or qofte, though we’ve also seen cookies and various spit-roasted meats.

There are no fast food chains here (save for one KFC that just opened in Tirana a few months ago), but there are tons of fast food pizzerias (piceri in Albanian), where you can get a pizza as cheap as 200 Lek (although those are very poor quality, better pizzas are around 500-600Lek). There are also tons of pastry shops with various kinds of byrek (burek, a philo-dough pastry filled with ground meat, spinach, cheese, or fruit), plus many delicious cakes, puddings, and sweets. We enjoy the byrek as often as possible!


There are several regional Albanian beers. Korça seems to be the most popular and is average quality for a mass produced beer, but they also make a blonde and dark (Korça Pils e Zezë) version that are not bad.

There are also some regional spirits like this cognac from Butrint. It’s not particularly good, but it’s cheap.

The best spirits are the homemade raki that you will invariably be offered by any locals you meet or stay with. Above is one really potent one I picked up in Krujë from a street side vendor for 500 Lek.

Cafe culture

During the day, the streets are deserted with the extreme heat and no shade. But as soon as the sun sets, everyone comes out of the woodwork to have a drink at a bar/cafe, people watch, and promenade through the streets in their best duds. It’s a really fun time to come out and see all the activity; there are games and rides for the kiddos, beer for the adults, and lots of gossiping for the elders.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the first of my food-specific blog posts. Hope to have more to come, and if you make it to Albania, I hope my tips have helped!