I do not despair’s exploration of the wide reaches of cycling continued in October with a trip to Burgas on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast. I was there for a project meeting as part of ECF’s European Bike2work project.
This meant not only a chance to explore a new city but also a chance to catch up with our cycling friends in the 12 countries taking part in the project, previously together in Rimini and Malta last year.
I made my first trip to Bulgaria when I went to the capital, Sofia last year. That trip was a real surprise in terms of the potential for cycling in the city and it would be fair to say Burgas had a similar effect, not least when we found 60km of separated cycleways are being commissioned throughout the city and an interested audience turned up for a discussion and small press conference about cycling in Burgas.
Burgas is a port and industrial city that has suffered from the decline in those sectors in the post-Iron Curtain era while trying to hang on to its potential as a seaside resort and tourism destination. We discovered a mixture of poor quality roads and pavement and demolition on some streets while other areas are getting some regeneration and investment. We certainly had the best of the regeneration at our conference venue – the Sea Casino – which was set high above the bay with great views and an ever-changing pattern of light and early autumn weather.
Our communal bike tours are always a high spot of the project meetings and this one was no exception. We had the use of the only bike share scheme in Bulgaria with home-grown infrastructure and technology operated by a local company, always good to see.
Our host and guide Evgeny took pride in telling us the local stories in the manner of a famous local character who used to entertain the tourists with his tales and who is now celebrated with a statute – a certain likeness methinks.
So a few high spots from the tour.
Firstly to the industrial port which is renovating itself to try and attract the many cruise ships that ply the Back Sea and Mediterranean.
Then we retraced to the city centre which provided a little bit of mountain biking around the regeneration of the main station before we rode gently through the pedestrianised central zone, mixing a modern shopping precinct with Soviet era monuments like the former headquarters of the Communist Party and the Memorial to the Red Army.
As we headed out of the city centre to the north we found by far the best of the cycling as we had segregated traffic free riding for much of the time. It was idiosyncratic, there were odd disconnects here and there but that wasn’t serious as the car traffic levels were relatively low to western European eyes.
We rode through a nice seaside park with extensive sculptures and entertainment and we ended up on the coast at an important nature reserve where migratory birds use the former salt pans as a resting point, a lovely tranquil spot where I would have stayed longer if I had been there alone with binoculars.
We swung inland for our return to the city through an area of the typical apartment blocks that dominate the suburbs of many East European cities. There was a real mixture between blocks that seemed desperately poor and tatty to those that were new or renovated, but between them were nice areas of open space and quite streets well connected to the new cycle route network.
In one park they are actually planning to establish a “cycling house” for the local associations near to a BMX track and skatepark that will bring several facets of cycling together, another positive touch.
Our ceremonial grand finale was to ride out on the pier that stretched out into the bay for a look along the shoreline and further taste of seaside life. We went back into the meeting rooms very reluctantly.
Conclusion? Yes, the word “surprising” was used a few times, even by our Danish colleague. We didn’t expect to see so much cycling infrastructure or have a bike share scheme to use here in a country that has made no impression at all in Europe’s cycling statistics, Bulgaria is towards the bottom of most league tables for cycle use.
And as with my trip to Sofia last year we were amazed by the discipline of the drivers. It is clear that when we were on the roads drivers really were confused by the presence of a group of cyclists, but even when walking they seemed to respect pedestrian crossings and sensible speeds in small streets much better than most of us are used to.
Burgas is relatively flat, compact and has a coastal climate, so it seems to me that it has really good potential to become another cycling success story given continued energy and municipal support. Those seaside routes are a particular treat and if the dream of a cycle route around the Black Sea were ever to be realised it would be something really exciting.