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Let me start by saying that I have continued my Romanian Smile Game and the Bulgarian’s are already 2-0 up. However, they’re still batting a pretty low average (that’s right, I made a sports joke)

We knew very little about Bulgaria when we arrived and of the entire trip it was one of the countries we were least interested in. This, coupled with the stress of driving a car that in an emergency had the options of a) hitting an object b) hitting a ditch, meant that we only planned on passing through Bulgaria on the way to Greece and a potential fix for the brakes.

The first night we found ourselves camping on what in retrospect was an incredibly picturesque golden Black Sea beach. Unfortunately because of the stress of the long drive we had been at each others’ throats all day and really didn’t appreciate our surroundings. Still, a few beers and time to chill out and we actually had a decent night.

We woke up feeling like we hadn’t slept having been up intermittently, trying desperately to swat any of the millions of mosquito’s that were having us for dinner. But after a morning dip in the Black sea, we were a little more optimistic. I would like to add at this point, that the only map for the country we had was the half page 1 – 1 000 000 scale in the guidebook, showing the 7 or 8 major towns. Still, fuelled by hope and the desire to have a days chilling in a camp-site we had heard was nice, we drove up, down, U turned and got lost in every town along the way. Safe to say we were rather elated when we finally reached out destination; Veliko Tarnovo. This was a short lived feeling as it dawned on us that the camping wasn’t actually within the town and we had no idea how to go about finding it. Another 45 minutes winding our way around the city hoping to spot a sign to aim at as a beacon we made no progress and eventually managed to pirate some internet and find the camp site on a map. Thank god we had as it was about 26 km the other side of the city and we wouldn’t have found it in a million years. The camp-site miraculously turned out to be the answer to all of our prayers. Friendly and English run, we had only been there twenty minutes when the camp site manager introduced us to Chris (another Land Rover man).

In one of the biggest strokes of luck of my life, of all the days, of all the camp sites, in all the towns of Bulgaria, he happened to have made his monthly cheese stop the same time as us. We had just met a man who runs a company called WildRovers4x4  doing tours, Land Rover mechanics and importing parts less than 20 km from where we were sleeping. I explained the problem and he laughed saying he could have it fixed within an hour, no problem. That night for the first time since Bucharest I actually felt relaxed and happy knowing that what I thought was impossible could actually be done. And I had steak and ale pie for dinner and my god was I happy.

We went on over to wild rovers and sure enough Chris had the parts and the know-how and had it fixed for us in half an hour for next to nothing. (In fact due to my desperation I probably would have paid about 10 times what he charged), we stayed and chatted to him afterwards as he was a friendly and interesting guy and followed his recommendations to go to the Hotnitsa waterfall, followed by the gorge in Emen. He knew enough information about local tracks and sights to spend a week following his recommendations exploring that area.

The road less taken

Bulgaria waterfall, Veliko Tarnovo

Wooden bridge, Veliko Tarnovo Gorge

Rickety old bridge in Bulgaria

At this point I would like to mention one thing I have found with Bulgaria is that I think you could write “happy birthday” in the Cyrillic alphabet and it would still look like ominous red army propaganda  here is a montage of interesting segments of Cyrillic adverts, road signs and so on.

We drove from Veliko Tarnovo with the intention of stopping off in Plovdiv for a few hours to see the sights and then move on to a camp-site we had found on-line, in Nanchenski Bani, neither of which turned out at all how we had planned. We knew we were near the amphitheater in Plovdiv but driving round the busy city streets in a big 4 x 4 proved a little too stressful for Ross and so we decided to cut our losses and rather than wasting more time driving around the town headed on towards the camp-site. But when we finally got to Nanchenski Bani, there were no camping signs, the telephone number was no longer in use and after half an hour of trying and failing to track it down, driving past the town we caught a glimpse of the camp-site, which looked as though it had been hastily left and closed down a fair few years before.

Our only option now was to wild camp, as we drove along the windy mountain roads we saw signs for “The Amazing Bridges” and “The Ancient Road” and decided this was as good a place as any to set up home for the night. A little nervous after hearing hunters shooting in the distance along with plenty of live bear traps in the forest around us we didn’t get the best nights sleep… wild camping is bit of a double edged sword. If you’re in a population centre, there are more witnesses and therefore people are less likely to try anything, but there are many more people passing who might see the car as an opportunity, if you are in the wilds, there is a very small chance anyone will even spot you, but if they do there is only you and them, so I reckon they would be more likely to have a go. However, surrounded by wildlife and pristine forest as well as the best star-scape we had seen throughout the trip, we had a lovely night trying to spot shooting stars and hoping we would spot a wandering bear from the safety of the car, still with that nagging voice ingrained into me by my mother and grandmother, that if someone did come there would be no one for miles around to help. It’s times like that that having a crossbow and hunting knife to hand offers a bit of comfort although I’m sure that they would only serve to escalate any potentially hostile situation.

Moth

Grasshopper

The next day we stopped off at the aforementioned “Amazing Bridges”, the amazing being apt, the bridges not so much, but still a relatively incredible spot:

Cave at the 'Amazing Bridges', Bulgaria

On the drive down the light was perfect and I saw the opportunity to do a photographic technique I have wanted to try for ages and although it meant having to persevere through the rest of the day with wet shoes from scrambling into the stream, I think you will agree the results were well worth it:

Waterfall on Small Mountain Stream, Bulgaria

We then headed over into the wine region, a short distance, but REALLY long and picturesque drive along winding mountain roads. We saw an off-road track on our map that seemed to be a challenging short-cut into the town, unfortunately the vegetation on the track got too dense about a mile away from the town and we were forced to turn around. While trying to find our way through (in flip flops) I almost had my toe taken off by this snappy little fella:

Snapping turtle

Finally arriving in Melnik and with the idea in our heads that “wine tasting” guaranteed a certain quality, we parked up and went for a couple of home brewed blood-red glasses of wine. Unfortunately the wine tasting aspect didn’t really pan out as it was almost like wine tasting at Blue Nun. However, the food was great and after wincing our way through the first few glasses we actually had a lovely evening.

Whilst on the way to Blavoegrad; Our last stop in Bulgaria simply to return the Eastern European Sat-Nav that I had bought and had broken within the same day we heard a clunking noise coming from the drivers side wheel, we pulled over and sure enough the first of two bolts had fallen out of the calliper  just as it had done to snap the brake line on the other side. We were a few miles out of Blavoegrad, so before we committed to driving back to WildRovers we decided to return the Sat-Nav as planned and try a mechanic as at least this time we had caught it before the pipe snapped. Luckily we were able to find a mechanic who was willing to run around other garages for us to find a bolt that would fit and amazingly only charge us £4 for the bolt and the two hours it took for him to track it down.