Posted by: Mark Wollemann: On the move | September 5, 2011

A ride and rakia

I just returned from a 50-kilometer ride with my buddy Bill Clark. Luckily he speaks Bulgarian, so as part of this journey we learned from a villager that things were better under Communism (at least for him; he made a convincing case – from what I could tell). And near the end, when we were stopping for water, a local from a different village extended his hand in what is becoming a familiar Bulgarian custom: Come for a rest. We’ll have some Rakia.

We met our new buddy, Misha, on the road. I’ll explain the whole “watering stations” thing in another post. Anyway, on the last stretch of our ride heading back toward Blagoevgrad, after a stop for water, Misha stopped his car and invited us for a visit. We followed him to his house and accepted his invitation to enter through a gate to the back yard. He sat us at his outdoor table and carved into a fresh watermelon. While we eagerly chomped our way through that treat, I took stock of where we were. The yard was shaded by vines heavy with grapes hanging from trellises all around. Fresh onions, maybe 50 or 60 of them, hung from the rafters of a woodshed. Vines of fresh garlic were draped around posts. There were peppers everywhere, some drying in the sun, some soaking in some unidentifiable liquid – maybe oil. There were chickens in the yard and rabbits in cages. Flies. There were lots of flies. And a special treat: Misha walked us back to the still he uses to make his own Rakia, a strong alcoholic drink made from, in this case, fermented grapes. It was strong, and not the usual beverage of choice for biking refreshment. But in the Balkans, you don’t turn this stuff down. So Bill and I and Misha’s dad, Asen, a retired baker, sampled the fruits of Misha’s labor. It was potent and smooth going down, but I was able to fight off a second helping. There were still a few more hills to climb.

Misha kept the treats coming as we prepared to leave. First, he plucked four peaches (I think from somewhere in the yard). I ate both of mine –they were amazing. I haven’t had peaches in the States for years that tasted like peaches. These things were crazy good. Then, as Bill and I were leaving, Misha said he couldn’t let us leave “empty handed.” So he plucked two vines filled with grapes from above his head and handed them to us. These are humble people with big, generous spirits.

Then we shoved off, up a small rise and down a long hill toward Blagoevgrad. I was exhausted from the heavy climbing (for the bike curious – we climbed about 500 meters four different times on this up-and-down adventure, so said Bill’s GPS). The terrain was rugged, I hadn’t eaten anything for hours (except for some blackberries we grabbed from a road-side bush and an apple from a tree that magically appeared at just the right time). But I was a little buzzed from the Rakia, sated by the fresh fruit and thrilled by another great tour of the area that packs a surprise around every turn.

My trusty off-road warrior. She ain't pretty, but she is rugged.



  1. Happy to see you are “working” hard in your new job. Please tell us more about your biking adventures, the people you meet, and what your classes are like.

  2. One of the lessons I learned growing up in Peru is that the people who seem to have the least are often actually the richest. I’m glad you’re (re)discovering the joys of peaches, homemade wine, and big, generous spirits. Please keep writing … I’m eager to follow you on your journey!

  3. […]  That’s how it was when Mark met a poor farmer while biking last week (see his blog post here) , and that is how it was  when we went to the Rhozen Monastery this past weekend.  To  be […]

  4. Youjust got here and you are already biking with Prof. Clark? I’ve been trying to grab a coffe or go hicking with him since I got here , 2 years ago… I think I get the message now…Thanks.

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