Saturday, 16 December 2017

Kom Emine Trail Part 3

Owner of the hotel Tihiat Kat
After two nights in Apriltsi I was itching to start moving again. The rain had stopped and I hoped that the snow would have melted by the time I reached the crest. I left my hotel at the latest check-out time and did a half-day roadwalk to Ostrets where I stayed in a "wellness" hotel. I have to admit that this was pure luxury - at this low altitude I could have easily camped ... But the hotel price was only 30 EUR and included a sauna that was especially fired up for me! I loved the posh hotel with its nice restaurant and its very friendly owner!

Next morning - after an incredibly good breakfast consisting of raised pastries - I started my ascent up to the crest. And my worst expectations came true: Snow had not melted yet and I encountered a straight blanket of wet snow on the crest ... The ascent back to Kom-Emine had been very easy on a forest road but the path on the crest turned into a nightmare. Snow was knee-deep and no one had been up there before me so I had to "wade" through it. Of course I was so much slower than expected - and rather frustrated.

I decided this was the right moment to sleep in one of the many mountain huts along the Kom-Emine-Trail. When I reached Partisanska Hut it was already getting dark - and inside was a fire going! An older couple were the hut keepers. They did not speak English at all but we could still communicate somehow. I was given a single room although no one else was there. There even was a hot shower! Although the room was old and worn it was clean but I have heard very different stories about other huts!

 Next day was sightseeing day! And luckily at lower altitudes the snow had by now completely melted in the sun. First I came across the geographic centre of Bulgaria which is marked by simple metal arch. Next was the impressive "Monument of Freedom" at Shipka pass where I had to do a full resupply at the souvenir stalls ... Then I climbed up the hundreds of the stairs to Shipka mountain passing Socialist heroic sculptures and reached the look-out tower on top. The view was breathtaking!

But that was not enough of sighseeing that day: Next was the Assembly Hall of the Bulgarian Communist party - a futuristic concrete building that looked like an UFO. At least one dozen tourists was visiting with me despite the fact the the place was closed and crumbling. It is a shame that the Bulgarian government is not renovating this building which already now is a tourist magnet! I had "lost" a lot of time sightseeing which meant that I now had to race through an extensive wind farm before I could set up camp in the forest.

Next day I passed the most photographed sight  on the entire Kom-Emine-Trail: an old TV that someone has placed on a picnic bench in the middle of the forest! I have seen pictures of this TV in every blog about Kom-Emine and even in its guidebook. There is a nice spring nearby and even I had a short break here. In the nearby national park I could see my EU tax money go to waste: There were several huge information boards along the trail - and each showed the same map ...


By now I was in hiker heaven: Sunshine every day and due to the lower altitude temperatures were nice and no problem even at night times. I was following the crest with lots of ups and downs but now under tree cover all the time. Camping was dead easy and no other hikers around. I was approaching my last town stop and resupply on trail in the town of Kotel. As usual I had booked myself into a hotel on my smartphone. Kotel is a tourist town and I expected a supermarket and several restaurants.

But no such luck. There was no real supermarket and I had to do another limited resupply in a small mom-and-pop store. Most restaurants were closed but I found a great pizza place. My hotel was nice but the landlady spoke no word of English and could on not handle google translate on her smartphone. She also thought that speaking as loud as possible would make me understand her better .... To make things worse one of her friends turned out to be a former German guestworker. Despite his German language skill being less than basic he wanted to meet me later in Berlin.

When I left next day my land lady came running after me: I thought I had forgotten something but she just wanted to tell me to give her an excellent review on booking.com ... And her friend scared the shit out of me when he followed me in his car and insisted that I should give him my German phone number ... 

Kom Emine Trail Part 2

From Botevgrad I took a taxi back to the trail - no problem because fares are cheap. I felt sorry for the driver because the road up to the pass was full of potholes ... I was now going to traverse the Central Balkan Mountains, the most breathtaking part of the entire Kom-Emine-Trail which would bring me up 2400 metres. But there was one big problem: My time window for that traverse was very narrow: I just had 4,5 days to do the entire traverse because then the weather was closing in. The forecast was for freezing temperatures and snow at high altitude.


That meant I had to do 30+ kilometres per day with only 10 hours of daylight in alpine terrain. And to make things worse I wanted to get off the trail into lower elavation for camping because it was already freezing cold at night and I did not have winter gear ... It was a pity to rush through this wonderful landscape but because of the weather I had no choice! The trail runs along the crest all the time with every view more impressive than the last one! I did not meet any other hiker but there were dozens of wild horses roaming free. No more cows - I guess it was already too cold for them.


The only other people up in the mountains were farmers herding up their animals. One particular "cowboy" on a horseback started talking to me aggressively. I did not understand a word and just walked on - and was frightened when I realised that he was following me! No other soul was in sight and I did not like his look at all - but eventually he turned back and left me alone.


I barely made my daily mileage of 30 kilometres despite walking from before sunrise into the night!

On day three I had booked myself into accommodation off trail. It was already getting dark when I eventually approached Beklemento Pass from where I wanted to hitchhike down when suddenly fog closed in. Within minutes sight was reduced down to 10 metres and I was wondering if I could even make it to the pass! Luckily I could but in the fading daylight no one would stop - and it was mostly trucks anyways. I ended up walking another 4 kilometres before I arrived at the hotel - and nobody was there. But from other places I knew what to do: You have to call the owner on your cell phone - and he promptly arrived and even fired up central heating!

Next morning he rather unexpectedly served me breakfast and drove me up to the pass in his car where I was rewarded with a glorious sunrise at the Socialist monument "Arches of freedom". Weather was perfect that day but the forecast deteriorated steadily. I finally made the decision to get off the crest and detour around the highest mountain Botev. Even if I made it over Botev in time I would afterwards be snowed in in some mountain hut for an unknown time ...

When I arrived at Dobrila hut a big hiker group was waiting for lunch - and they were Germans! Of course we immediately started chatting and one lady even knew my book! After lunch I left and started my descent into the valley. What was only a detour for me turned out to be a really scenic route! I slept again in my tent in the mountains before I hit the road again on my way to a hotel in Apriltsi. Along the way I encountered a nice surprise: Troyan Monastery!

This is Bulgaria's third biggest orthodox monastery and it was swarming with tourist! After a wonderful rest stop there I eventually followed my GPS across some hills where probably no other tourist before me has ever been ....Then a long last road walk with an ever darkening sky before I arrived at my hotel in Apriltsi where I was to stay for two nights. As soon as I had arrived there the weather turned really bad. It more or less bucketed down for  24 hours straight. I only moved out of my hotel bed in order to eat in the hotel restaurant ....

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Kom Emine Trail Part 1


When I started my ascent up from Berkovitsa to Kom Mountain it was raining already - and the rain would not stop for the next days ... Luckily the ascent was easy but due to fog I could not even see Kom Mountain which marks the start of the Kom-Emine-Trail. Weather was so bad that I was heading to accommodation at Petrohan Pass. Before I reached the mountain hut there I passed a sort of hotel.The hotel owners did not speak a single word of English - and to make things worse - had no clue about google translate. It took ages to find out the price for accommodation and food. There was on heating, but at least hot water for the shower. I ended up eating tripe soup because I did not understand what it was ....

When I woke up next morning the forecast had deteriorated: More rain and temperatures around freezing. Realizing that I would be miserable camping out that night I desperately looked for accommodation at this day's destination. I found something on google maps that looked like a hotel and with the help of some other English speaking guests I made a reservation. Relieved I set off hiking - and did not stop the entire day! It was constantly raining and I had to keep moving until I reached Iskar River and the village of Gara Lakatnik where I was the only guest in a wonderfully warm guesthouse. The landlady was gone but her teenage daughter looked after. She even managed to cook up some dinner - and organised next day's accommodation for me. After resupplying in the village store I set out again next morning - in the rain again.


The third day in a row was plain miserable. Fog was so thick that I could barely see 50 metres. Without GPS I would have been completely lost! Even the snow markers for winter hiking were 100 metres apart and no help. I was headed Leskova hut - the old school house of an otherwise deserted village. Last night's phone call had found out, that there was no hut keeper but the building was supposed to be open. I barely made it there before sunset and was so relieved to find the door unlocked.

14 beds were in each room and a wood stove but I was too tired and lazy to turn it on. No electricity though. After a quick dinner I immediately dozed off - still shaking with cold. I was woken up at 11 pm when suddenly car lights illuminated the windows. I was scared to have some late night visitors because the village was completely deserted. There was no lock at the door which I had just blocked with my trekking poles. But despite hearing voices no one tried to come in. After ten minutes of vivid discussion outside I heard car doors slam and the visitors disappeared.

I felt plain miserable next morning - and the weather had still not improved. Luckily I was supposed to go into town anyways and I decided to allow me a zero day to wait out the weather. Therefore I diverged from the Kom-Emine-Trail and walked directly into Botevgrad where I had booked myself into a business hotel with a wonderful restaurant. Unfortunately, one zero day turned into two because I suddenly got diarrhea. I felt very bad staying in town because according to the forecast I had only a very small time window to make it through the next alpine stage. But it could not be helped - I was sick!

Friday, 1 December 2017

Bulgaria Part 1

After the Serbian-Bulgarian border
In Bulgaria the E3 trail resumes with the Kom-Emine-Trail in Berkovitsa - but from the border I still had almost 200 km left to get there. So another long road walk commenced. I was surprised how little traffic there was on the road which here was a four-lane highway! Nice roadwalking continued until Vidin, my first town stop in Bulgaria where I visited the impressive fortifications and got used to seeing Kyrillic letters everywhere.

After one night in a posh hotel I resumed roadwalking on the big highway out of Vidin towards Sofia. I was soon to turn off that busy highway onto a smaller one - that on the map looked like having little traffic. When I came closer to the junction I was surprised to see truck after truck turning into this secondary highway. I soon discovered the solution: The major highway was blocked due to road construction so all truck traffic was now going along my route!

Obiutaries in a bus stop
The road was incredibly narrow with no shoulder whatsoever. Whenever a "flock" of trucks passed I more or less had to jump into the bushes! This was far too dangerous and I resorted to a long detour on the hills above the Danube which also resulted into a horrible bushwhack because some trails existed only on my GPS but not on the ground! I finally ended up on a little-travelled road that brought through several villages - most of them half-deserted. Young people move into big cities or out of the country - and the old die. A vivid testimonial are the many obituaries that are plastered everywhere: on lamp post, bus stops, fences and so on.

Castle in Belogradchik
I chose a route through Belogradchik which is famous for its rock formations and the castle that was once built into it. I enjoyed a good night in a posh and cheap hotel - and discovered that resupply is not easy in Bulgaria. Despite the fact that Belogradchik is quite a big town the little supermarkets had a very limited choice. But the restaurant in town was great - and I also discovered that most Bulgarian restaurants have a bilingual menu. Although the English translation is not always spot on you get at least a vague idea of what you are ordering ....

Cyclist departing
The last bit of roadwalking was rather uneventful along quiet countryroads. I met one Italian cyclist and we chatted for a bit. Eventually I reached Berkovitsa, starting point of the KomEmine Trail that would take me through the entire Balkan mountain range - with no more roadwalking. I had to stay three nights in Berkovitsa because I wanted to do shopping trip to nearby Sofia. And organizing that trip turned out to be a bit of an adventure because official buses seemed to running only very sporadically. "No problem", told me my landlady via Google translate. "A friend can take you there".


Memorial in Berkovitsa
The "friend" turned out to be a guy who shuttled locals with his private car. I got into the full car at 6 am in the morning when it was pitch dark. When we were leaving Berkovitsa on a narrow country road all of a sudden two horses standing in the middle of the road turned up in the headlights. I seemed to be facing a major accident - and I was sitting shotgun! But the driver had an incredible presence of mind and drove right through the two animals. No one was hurt as he hardly touched the two horses. When half an hour later a stray dog ran into the car no one really batted an eyelash - nothing happened again ...

Pedestrian zone in Sofia

I had a rather stressful day in Sofia: The KomEmine guidebook was not available in the first bookstore, but I could find it in another one. Then a quick shopping trip to Lidl and buying shoes at Intersport. Eventually a last trip to Decathlon because I needed warmer clother for the higher altitude. And then back to some obscure parking lot near the train station where the local shuttle car was departing back to Berkovitsa. No accidents on the way back either. By now I was itching to get back on the trail but the weather had turned bad...
 
 

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Serbia

At the border I stood in line with the cars - which felt pretty idiotic. I felt even more idiotic when the border guard told me I was not allowed to walk across the dam. Before I could even think about what to do a Romanian lady invited me into her car. We passed both the Romanian and the Serbian borders posts and just 100 metres after the control point I asked her to let me out again because I wanted to resume hiking. She had just driven away and I was still looking around when I noticed two soldiers running towards me. They had even closed down the entire control point to catch me!

To say I was shocked is an understatement because I had no clue what I had been doing wrong! Unfortunately none of the two officers spoke English or German but apparently they wanted to know what I was soing here. Luckily I remembered that the Romanian Hiking Association had given me a letter of recommendation. I pulled it out, one of the officers understood Romanian and the situation de-escalated. Still I was escorted back to the control point, my passport was double checked and even then I was not allowed to go. I nervously waited until they had worked off the traffic jam that had accumulated while they had chased me. Suddenly I was given back my passport and ushered into a car. The driver was as surprised as I and I asked him just to leave! I guess the border guys had wanted to do me a favour and organised this lift ... As I precaution I only got out two kilometres away from the border ....

In Serbia there is no official E3 trail yet. I had sent various emails to the Serbian hiking association but never received any answer. Disappointed I had then decided to road walk. I was now cutting off a bend in the Danube and luckily the road turned into dirt very soon and I could camp in a forest. When I came through a little village next morning I ran into a guy washing his car - and he spoke fluent German because he had worked in Germany for 20 years! Even at 9 in the morning I was invited to drink schnaps which I politely declined. But he explained why there are so many brandnew - and empty - houses - in Serbia.

Many Serbians like him had worked in Germany or Austria and had invested their money into real estate back home. But unfortunately now young people are moving away and nobody wants to buy or rent these houses ... All through Serbia I saw new houses with tacky decoration. Several times people stopped right next to me and asked what I was doing. I sometimes felt there were more cars with German and Austrian licence plates than with Serbian!

I was then following the Danube bike trail right next to the river which was luckily not paved yet and rather idyllic. Only camping was difficult because the shore was either completely overgrown or holiday shacks were everywhere. I had to climb high up the bank to find a decent camp spot the next night. Because of the Danube bike trail cyclists were well catered for: In Negotin I found guest house Stanisavljevic that explicitly advertises for cyclist. Here I was overwhelmed with hospitality! The guest house has simple but very cheap rooms and my host bent over backwards to help me.

He recommended a fabulous restaurant where I learnt again that Balkan is for meat lovers! I had a mixed grill plate that would have been enough for three people! The picture shows breakfast in the guesthouse - and all those specialties were for me only! I arrived at the Serbian - Bulgarian border with a very full belly ....
I have only hiked three days through Serbia mostly on roads but still I tremendously liked it!

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

E3 Romania: Conclusion and tipps

For me personally Romania was the most difficult country of this trip - out ouf two reasons: I was a guinea pig for an entirely new trail. Luckily, members of the Romanian hiking association, "Siebenbürgischer Karpatenverein", were incredibly helpful. They sent me the most recent gpx tracks, provided me with information on resupply and accommodation and were in general very responsive. They are doing a great job in establishing a long-distance route in a country where hiking is not so much on the local and tourist agenda.
 
The trail traverses some very beautiful, sometimes even spectacular landscapes and is also historically very interesting - especially when you are from a German-speaking country. The people I have encountered were generally very friendly - despite language problems.
But the poverty I saw was shocking and depressing considering that this a a member of the EU. Especially in the countryside old people live under conditions like 100 years ago. No warm and cold water in the house - usually there is only a well in the garden. If you are well-to-do then the well has an electric pump ...

In the cities I walked through drab housing complexes in the outskirts whereas in the city centre historical houses were just recently renovated and hotels are definitely up to Western standards. The gap between rich and poor is very wide and apparent. It is no problem to hike here with a Western budget and I was surprised of the quality of hotels - but then you see another grandmother in the countryside in old clothes washing her dishes in the garden next to her well and you wonder how she survives.

Another sad sight was the amount of trash in country side. Although I saw garbage cans in most villages I assume that garbage collection is not everywhere. I saw many wild dumps and sadly enough most of them are in streams or rivers. The photo was taken in the idyllic Cheile Nerei - but even here plastic bottles that have just been dumped into the river have piled up on the shore.

When I was first in Romania in the early 90s the country was much poorer and shops were empty. This is definitely not the case any more and Romania's economy has improved. There is no difference between a Lidl supermarket in Germany or Romania except a slightly different product range. But litte mom-and-pop-stores in the countryside are another story. Selection there is extremely limited. Don't expect to find any fresh stuff like milk, bread or fruit and vegetables. In  the countryside people are self-supporters and have their own cows, chickens and gardens ...

But you will find all sorts of chocolates, candy bars and biscuits - usually also Western brands although here they are more expensive. Sometimes there is bread and sausage or cheese. It is almost impossible to get dehydrated food packages in Romania except the local "Ramen noodle soup". I was living on spaghetti with packages of dry tomato sauce. You will get dehydrated mashed potatoes but the brands I tried tasted horrible. Polenta is widespread and another cheap option.

With so many garbage dumps in streams and cattle being everywhere I never took any drinking water out of lakes or streams. But there are many piped springs along the trail - and plenty of wells in the villages. As there is no public water supply in the country side everyone has their own well in the garden - and some wells are publicy accessible. In some cases I had to ask for water at houses and despite language problems my request was usually granted. I never treated well water and had no problems but I would still always bring some sort of water treatment. Water generally was no big issue during this hike, but you have to plan ahead. Most water sources are not marked on the OSM maps. Water is therefore only guaranteed in villages where you often have to ask for it.

Romania is a paradise for pigs, cows and horses - and therefore also a nightmare for drivers! These animals are roaming free everywhere. I saw cows grazing on parking lots and horses walking on roads. Unlike in Great Britain I never had any problems with cows in Romania. They are milk cows and therefore used to humans.
The biggest problem in Romania for me were sheep! Wherever I went I encountered flocks of sheep - with or without shepherd - but always with sheepdogs! And these sheepdogs protect their flock aggressively!

As soon as these dogs discover you they will run towards you and bark. This is quite frightening as there are usually three or four of them. They do not always obey the shepherd's commands either ... And often there is no shepherd in sight anyways. Still, beside barking and circling you these dogs never bit me. My trekking poles also helped me to keep them at bay.
If you see a flock of sheep in the distance you should yell "Buna ziua!" (Hello!) and hope the shepherd hears you. He will then try to keep the dogs away from you.

Did I like my hike through Romania? Yes, it was one of the most interesting trails that I have hiked - but also one of the most mentally demanding ones. Would I recommend it to a friend? Yes and No! This is definitely not a trail for beginners! If you are just interested in carefree hiking you should go somewhere else. But if you like to explore "unknown" countries and are interested in the cultural aspects this route is great. And if you want to do a thruhike of the E3 through Europe you can be relieved: With this new track through Romania a real connected thruhike is now possible - thanks to the great efforts of the "Siebenbürgischer Karpatenverein"!

Monday, 27 November 2017

E3: Romania Part 3

On my way out of Caransebes I chose my own route to avoid a long road walk - and stumbled coincidentally across the colorful monastery Teius. Romania is predominantly Romanian-Orthodox and the most religious country in the EU. 98% of Romanians believe in God or a spiritual power and only 2% are atheists or undecided. No surprise I saw so many churches and monasteries in Romania. This one was in incredibly good shape, too! 

I was now hiking in Banat where many villages still have German names like the abandoned Lindenfeld. A bit further on Wolfstal is now popular tourist place. Most inhabitants have long ago immigrated to Germany but still come back during summer holidays to look after their properties. Here I still heard old German spoken in the streets and the cemetary was full of German tombstones. Most of the pittoresque houses have been turned into holiday homes or second homes for wealthy Romanians.

 I was now in the Semenic Mountains and National Park. Waymarking and signposts were now impeccable. When the trail started to follow an old abandoned railway line I first did not think much of it. The line was overgrown and going was difficult, but I found the three old tunnel fun when going through them with a headlamp. There was no other hiker than me around. The route runs along the river Nera and I had seen on the map that the trail crosses it.

But I was shocked to see how! The river gorge is 41 metres deep here and the only way to get across is the old dismantled railway bridge. Blazes on the old steel construction left no doubt. But for anyone with only a slight fear of height this is a leap of faith. You have to balance over a small steel beam that is covered with bolts. The handrail is one metre away and you can only grasp it with one hand. There is no net or any other safety construction. The bridge is over 100 metres long and if you slip and fall - you die! When I crossed I tried not to look down to the raging river 41 metres underneath me ... I was shaking and sweating when I had made it across.

By now I had realised that Romanian walking trails have to be taken serious so I was very cautious when the signpost said 6 to 9 hours for a 12 km walk ... Ahead was one of the most spectacular sections of the E3 in Romania, the Cheile Nereil. Although the trail started easy along the river it soon became technically difficult. There was one river ford that I could easily do because someone had left plastic sandals on the shore. I crossed without getting wet shoes.
 
The trail got more adventurous all the time. At some places it was cut directly into the rock and steel cables helped to secure the passage. I even had to climb up steeply on a rock face which again was only possible with cables. Going was very slow but I made the 12 km passage in six hours. A trail running guy even tried to do a yo-yo. But I was a bit shocked when I saw a family with 10-year old kids entering the passage at 2 pm. I could not dissuade them from continuing and I highly doubt they made the entire section that day. 

It was now only a short distance until I reached the Danube - another big milestone in my hike. The E3 now follows the main road - as does the Danube bike trail. Therefore I saw several long-distance cyclists and a big American tour group. I started a conversation with an American lady who turned out to be a native Romanian. As a harpist she fled the country during an international tour of her orchestra in the 1969. Originally from Bukarest, Dorella Maiorescu has now been living in New York for decades but was visiting her home country.

I stayed in a posh hotel in Orsova which even had a swimming pool. Although it was mid-September by now it wa still warm enough to swim and sunbathe! Orsava is full of hotels for the tourists - but also full of drab housing blocks for the locals. Again "Siebenbürgischer Karpatenverein" had changed the route which used to follow the main - and very busy - highway to the border crossing. With a new gpx track I was now sent up the mountains which was a big detour - but offered fantastic views. Alas the descent was so steep that I had to slide down on my butt at times. But finally I reached the dam at Djerdap which also is the border crossing to Serbia.