We didn’t really know what was going to await us in Bulgaria. I think we expected to be thrown back into the Dark Ages, and we had heard from our hitchhiker in Turkey that Bulgaria is a ridiculously cheap place to eat and drink. We had also heard about nasty policemen hiding in the bushes just waiting to exchange a crisp 10 euro note for an old bus ticket (supposed receipt for an imaginary traffic infringement) but we have to say that the only bent copper we have encountered so far was in Iran…. Well I suppose we are still not out of Romania, and Ukraine and Russia are still to come.
We had read good things about an eco camping site on Lake Batak so we programmed the Nuvi, and true to form, we soon left the bowling alley smooth motorway for, without a doubt, the most awful stretch of road which we had encountered to date. The potholes were big enough to swallow up a horse and cart, and there was in any case usually one lurking inside … or any combination of dog, cow, moped, cat, donkey. The bizarre thing is that all of these “roads” were supposedly of a superior quality whereby you have to buy a vignette to have the pleasure of driving on them. Anywhere else in Europe you would have had to pay people to use them so that trees don’t grow up through the cracks.
Like good tourists, we decided to try and find out how to buy one of these roller coaster tickets at the first town we came to. Some chaps lounging in a cafe directed us in the correct direction for the post office, but we were too stupid to find it, so we asked at a pharmacy and had the pleasure of being directed around town by a Bulgarian gentleman called George.
Something which we had never realized was that the eastern section of Greece and this southern section of Bulgaria is predominantly Muslim. Mosques nestle in green valleys and their minarets poke out above the pine forests. During communism, religion did not form an obvious part of people’s daily lives here in Bulgaria, but George explained to us that nowadays there are large rifts developing in his community. As a non-Muslim he is looking to move further north, as he feels that the minority non-Muslims are being sidelined. We left George at a pharmacy where his daughter works, and wished him good luck in his endeavors to find a job for them both in Austria or Germany.
Vignette in hand we cheerfully glided past the police checkpoint outside town and headed up into the hills. We feel the road quality, or lack of, adds significantly to the picturesque nature of this region. The monster truck slowly wallowed up and down the hills, suspension creaking and clanking at every pot hole. I suspect that if I lived at the end of one of these Bulgarian roads I would also go for the horse and cart option as the life span of your average saloon car’s suspension must be measured in months.
Bulgaria in springtime is gorgeous. Everything is a juicy green color, there is still a bit of snow at the side of the road (more accurately – track), and when it’s not raining, the sun sparkles on the crystal clear lakes.
Food security is a relatively hot topic in the arid Middle East where we usually hang out, but it’s certainly not of much relevance here. Everyone seems to be growing something and whole communities are out digging and planting the fields, and the country must be pretty self sufficient.
Eco Camping Batak must be our top campsite to date. The owner is a young fellow who got bored of the rat race and has built a small camp site on the edge of Lake Batak. Being early May it was still a bit muddy on the track down to the last spot right on the lake, but nothing that monster truck couldn’t handle. We ended up staying two nights as the Clean Up Bulgaria day was scheduled for the second day, and so we managed to witness some of the schoolchildren in the Batak area dong their part and cleaning up the lake shore.
Trying to keep to your budget is essential but boring. More or less accidentally we had decided that we would only eat out once in every country we pass through, and otherwise we would cook ourselves. However, in Bulgaria it is certainly cheaper to eat out than to cook. Restaurants are ridiculously cheap and yet food shopping, especially if you go to one of the big international chains which have spread their tentacles across Europe, is much of a muchness wherever you go. Likely this is because restaurants buy their produce locally and you are served local dishes, not imported Parma ham with honey melon. Unfortunately my culinary skills do not extend to recreating the local dishes of every single country we pass through, and if I waited for David to think of cooking something, the Red Cross would probably be dropping food parcels to us by now. So our staple diet is usually pasta and pesto, baked beans, mashed potato, tinned stew, the occasional salad, sausage and more mash.
Two gregarious German KTM bikers recommended the one and only restaurant near the campsite, so we trotted off at about 7.30pm not entirely sure if that was stupidly early for Bulgarian standards, or a bit late. After hanging about on the doorstep for half an hour without generating much interest from the staff cleaning up inside, we made the decision to walk the 40 minutes into town, and stumbled along the pitch black forest road talking in falsely animated voices whilst looking out for bears, wolves, and other imaginary monsters.
It was worth it. We were certainly a bit early, even after our unexpected delay, and we found the chef and waitresses all having a drink and a banter at the bar. After presenting us with a huge menu (very helpfully in Cyrillic script and something that was supposed to be German), the chef proceeded to instruct us on what we should eat. Thankfully, via a bit of charades and after exhausting his smattering of German, we managed to avoid the huge selection of brain, tripe, liver, etc and settled for a good old steak. Our savvy German friends had also warned us that meals come with absolutely no side dishes. If you order a steak, you get a steak. No potato, not even a whiff of carrot, or trace of lettuce leaf garnish. As far as we were concerned this was ideal. Meat dishes had been few and far between for the proceeding three weeks: a few kebabs in Tehran, and an overpriced chicken breast in Turkey.
We left Batak with a heavy heart, knowing that many kilometers of Bulgarian roller coaster lay ahead of us. In the end, we did manage to find a few kilometers of highway which eased the journey a bit, and the roads improved immeasurably the further north we went.
Since we are on a limited timeframe, and didn’t want to turn the car into a mobile library, we decided against taking a guidebook for every single country that we thought we might pass through. We left Dubai with an ancient Lonely Planet guide for Iran (courtesy of some friends), a Middle East map which covered Iran and Turkey up to Istanbul, and a map of Europe which covered everything north of Istanbul and reached eastwards to Odessa. As a result, most of our sightseeing consisted of things we stumbled on by chance, or where we asked the locals what they would recommend seeing. Where we needed more information we used Wikipedia via my Blackberry.
The road up to the Shipka Pass (E85 between Kazanluk and Veliko Tarnovo) looks on the GPS like the floor under our godsons high chair after spaghetti bolognese has been served for lunch. Frequently closed during the winter due to snow, the Nuvi had initially guided us on a long detour, taking a minor road further eastwards. The road wiggles up the hillside from the town of Shipka, where there is a sparkling gold church, and at a bit over 1000 meters you can turn off the main road and drive up to the mammoth monument which crowns the pass. It is well worth climbing the staircase up to the tower to take in the view, and on bad weather days, as in our case, to watch the clouds swirling around the monument. Wikipedia has a much more detailed description of the events which occurred at the Shipka Pass, but basically the Bulgarians and the Russians bashed up the Ottomans here in 1877/1878.
We both had a bit of a case of car fever, and so we once again stayed in one spot for two nights, getting some work done, and indulging in a second Bulgarian meal, except in this case the menu also included a lot of English favourites. Neither of us are really the types who get “homesick” for any particular foods, so when one of us went for the sausage, mash and gravy, the proprietress was very apologetic about the quality of the gravy, as apparently it’s not that common in Bulgaria. As far as we were concerned it was delicious. (Veliko Tarnovo Campsitewww.campingvelikotarnovo.com – highly recommended too).
We were both looking a bit straggly, so we arranged for a haircut with the local hairdresser, who turned up and cut our hair in the family bathroom with the help of the chef as translator. Thankfully we are both not too fussy about our appearance, but nevertheless getting across the concept of split ends is not the easiest, and I was a little surprised when David came out looking like a Hitler Youth Group leader.
The following day we were up and off to the Romanian border, which runs along the River Danube. The only bridge across is at Ruse, which was apparently closed for renovation until recently. I dread to think what it must have looked like before, and had it not been for the vast volume of truck traffic crossing, we might have had concerns that it would have buckled under the weight of the monster truck. Next time we will take our chances with the ferries.