Friday 13th May 2011, Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria
By the time we reached this very pleasant little town yesterday afternoon we'd come to realise my "head cold" was something more sinister. Parking Modestine in a quiet side street we walked into the centre, which immediately impressed us. It was clean, smart, open and lively with pavement cafes, well dressed business people and many young students. First we stopped for an ice cream (70 pence) to ease my raging sore throat. Next we sought out a pharmacist. Usually in European towns there are dozens of them. Here we found one and joined a long queue. How do you explain what you need when you don't speak the language and all the little packets are written in cyrillic script? Total incomprehension from the male pharmacist as I rubbed my throat and rolled my eyes in agony! Nobody in the queue spoke any English but suddenly we saw a packet on the shelf labelled ПАРАЦЕТАМОЛ. Thank heavens, a literal translation of Paracetamol and an easy one to work out. We left with me popping them like sweeties. Anything to deaden the pain. Later at the pharmacy section of a supermarket, where we discovered you can buy drugs quite easily, we met a delightful young woman who spoke enough English to translate some of the labels on the cough medicines for me. Unfortunately, once I went to use them I discovered the instructions were purely in Cyrillic script. Erring on the side of pain relief I've spent most of the last 24 hours zonked out on a bed in a small hotel we discovered near where we'd parked Modestine. By the time we got back to her I just knew I could cope no longer.
I wouldn't have cared if this hotel let rooms by the hour. It looked rather rough from outside but in fact we have a large, clean room with our own bathroom, towels, soap, shampoo, Bulgarian TV (big deal) and wifi. The bed is not comfortable but we've brought in our mattress from Modestine and turned the room into a hospital. The cost is a mere £13.50 per night! Ian has been looking after me wonderfully well. During the night I had a fever and seemed to have some particularly sharp barbed wire stuck in my throat. This morning though the pain had eased and the temperature gone. I just feel exhausted and very spluttery.
I need to fit in about what we did yesterday before arriving here in Белоградчик. We left our chilly, wet and soggy campsite high in the mountain forests and rolled downhill for 35 kilometres before turning off to look at Stob's Pyramids. These are in fact strange geological rock formations. Sandstone and granite breccias weathered and eroded by the elements to form beautiful, fragile cones, some topped with a cap formed from harder stone. With hindsight the climb up to them was too much for me but at least I saw them. The walk was delightful, following the edge of an escarpment from where we could look down onto the plain between a couple of mountain ranges with the bucolic village of Stob surrounded by its allotment gardens spread out on the plain below. The countryside was at its best with tiny flowers shining in the grass and blossom on the trees. The village was similar in size and lay-out to Biser with a very large central square and an abandoned, overgrown park, set up during Communist times but no longer used. Again mud was the main building material but here every house and hovel (it has to be said) had vines growing over a framework covering the pavement so that the streets were usefully shaded from the hot sun and villagers all had seats outside on the pavement to sit on hot afternoons.
There is a tale repeated to tourists whereby the old church, high on the hill just below the pyramids was ordered to be closed by the Ottomans because celebrants could peer down on the Turkish gardens far below. Permission was then given by the Ottomans to rebuild the church lower down and nearer to the village. Closer examination shows that this happened in the 1860s after the church had been allowed to survive since the 1370s. It is told as yet another tale against the Ottomans; perhaps an alternative explanation is that the Christians were looking for an excuse to rebuild their church in a more convenient place and provoked the situation.
Today has been warm and sunny for a change. While I slept, vaguely aware of the clopping of horse's hoofs and the rumble of cartwheels passing below, Ian's been out exploring the town so I'll leave him to describe that.
Even through her suffering Jill could see that strolling through Blagoevgrad was like balm on a troubled soul. After weeks of stumbling along pavements that were an obstacle course, past buildings that were often decrepit and uncared for, here was a town with wide, tree-lined streets and sidewalks, where you could have your eyes looking round you rather than constantly cast down a few feet in front. There was a well manicured park with statues and seats, wide squares where fountains played, many pavement cafes, and buildings generally well cared for. Here was a place in a different league, suave and sophisticated, with a bit of style. In fact we later learned that the Rough Guide described it as "the coolest place in south west Bulgaria" – what a superlative; it rivals "the largest launderette in west Norfolk", our previous favourite for our personal Guinness book of superlatives.
We could not avoid the massive building of the American University in Bulgaria on the main square and thought that might explain the relative affluence. In two days time it is due to have its graduation ceremony, announced by banners across the town, and trustees had gathered from far and wide. I spoke to one of them, a Dutchman living in Switzerland with a Bulgarian wife. He said that in the 1970s the town had been in a rather sorry state until the national headquarters of the Bulgarian Communist Party had been rebuilt there and the area around had been laid out with promenades, gardens and fountains. Since the Big Change the party headquarters had been taken over by the American University, so what we were seeing was in fact a piece of 1980s Soviet town planning that had not, as so often, been allowed to decay. In fact the town had only received its present name in 1950 when it was renamed after Dimitar Blagoev, the founder of the Bulgarian Communist Party. Since its integration into Bulgaria as recently as 1913 it had been known as Gorna Dzhumaya.
There is an old town, Varosha, an area formed during the Bulgarian National Revival, a little like a heritage park, carefully tucked away beyond a main road, a few manicured streets of attractive wooden framed building with arbours of vines, clustered around the church of the Annunciation of the Virgin dating from the 1840s, with murals on the entrance arcade and the usual parade of icons inside, as well as an elaborately carved pulpit and bishop's throne. Nearby is the Museum of Regional History where you are greeted with serried ranks of blurry sepia photographs of freedom fighters but, penetrating beyond this, you find exhibits on the remarkable Thracian culture, Greek and Roman remains, as well as examples (often in facsimile as they are so scattered), from the Byzantine period and the two medieval Bulgarian empires with many examples of illuminated manuscripts and the works of the Neophyte of Rila, who had done so much to revive Bulgarian culture in the early 19th century. There was little labelling in English however so it was all rather difficult to interpret.
In the afternoon I hunted out the library of the American University, on a newly built campus on the outskirts of the town beside the little Bistrica river. It is named the Panitza Library after a Bulgarian expatriate who had become a leading light of Reader's Digest before returning to assist his native land after 1989. It is the largest English language library in south east Europe (another superlative), a well-organised but otherwise unremarkable collection with more than 100,000 volumes (not Reader's Digest condensed books, although a couple of early issues of that late, unlamented periodical are on display), arranged by the Library of Congress classification in most subject areas except science, which is not taught. There is much on south-east Europe, on which courses are taught, and much American, English and Irish literature. The University attracts students from Bulgaria and many other countries in eastern Europe and Asia for the four year degree courses. Among countries who supply students are Albania, Serbia, Macedonia, Turkey, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Mongolia. Fees are around 9000 dollars a year, although there are many bursaries available, and the 1,100 students here and those at the Bulgarian University of South West Bulgaria no doubt help to contribute to the liveliness of this town of 70,000 people.
But it is not a town that has entirely got it together. Eventually in the monolithic Soviet style town hall I learned that there was no tourist office in the town and asking at several kiosks and bookshops failed to find a plan of the town. In the Panitza library the only book on the town was a brief guide produced by the American University. Still, it was agreeable to spend the day strolling the town and watching the world go by at one of the cafes while Jill slowly recovered in the hotel room.
Saturday 14th May 2011, Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria
Today there is hope I may be getting better. I was still unfit to move on today so spent the morning sitting up in bed watching a Welsh comedy film with Bulgarian subtitles. Then it was time for a ginger toddle into the city centre. In theory it's a few minutes' walk but we kept stopping for me to recover my wheezing breath. We spent an hour on a shaded terrace with iced water watching the children out on the main square with their parents. The shops were not the attraction as they are in England on Saturdays. The point was to meet up with friends and let the children play together in the wide, pedestrianised areas. It really is a very pleasant place.
We called in at the main department store. It is surely the shabbiest and saddest place in town, a relic left over from the days of Communism. The building is ugly from outside and even worse within where the shabby remains of 1960s staircases led to the upper floors with their shelves of peeling plastic laminate, many of them bare. There has been no attempt to refurbish the building but people still use it. We noted the hair and beauty counter selling a highly popular Bulgarian cosmetics range called РУБЕЛЛА. It transliterates as Rubella!!! Bit of a clanger for international marketing!
I didn't fancy the pizza by the river so Ian had a double helping before we returned slowly back to the hotel and I went to sleep again. I've got to be better by tomorrow as the vignette we bought when we entered Bulgaria runs out today and I need to drive around to find a garage that can sell me a new one. I must just hope the police lie-in on Sunday mornings.
Sunday 15th May 2011, Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria
Since Jill was feeling decidedly wobbly this morning I (Ian) went into town to shop for food. Reaching the centre I heard the strains of "Land of hope and glory" wafting across the main square and realised that I had stumbled across the graduation day of the American University in Bulgaria. Dressed in gowns and mortar boards the graduands filed out of the headquarters building and along the square in front of the City Hall to take seats in front of a stage. It requires a good many repeats of "Land of hope and glory" for several hundred graduands to do this and Elgar's stirring tune was beginning to pall, but eventually the rector greeted the assembled crowd and everyone stood for the Bulgarian and American national anthems. We were promised words from a minister of education and culture and a former Canadian prime minister, who was to give the keynote address. The speeches, delivered in English with Bulgarian translation were the usual "well done, best of luck with the rest of your lives and a university education will stand you in good stead" type, so I soon left to take a coffee just out of earshot where the vague sound of words (rather like the incomprehensible libretto of an aria) could be moulded by the imagination into something profound and inspiring. The coffee though was far from inspiring. I asked for a cappuccino which looked good with cocoa sprinkled on top, but the cocoa tasted sharp and the coffee very weak. Probing with the spoon showed that diluted milk had been frothed up and coffee granules sprinkled on top. Nescafe rules OK here and it is not always possible to obtain a proper cup of coffee.
Errands completed, I returned to the hotel room to make lunch. In the late afternoon, when Jill felt a short walk might help, we joined the families strolling under the trees in the town centre and discovered that the seating, stage, bandstand and banners had all been removed without trace, leaving the city in peace until the start of the next academic year.
Monday 16th May 2011, Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria
Regrettably we are still here. This morning I (Jill) woke with a return of the fever and a splitting headache. Ian abandoned his plan to visit Sofia as I could not be left.
Downstairs Ian presented the bearded weirdo on reception with a large bag of used toilet paper and all the horrid tissues I'd accumulated. Nobody had bothered to clean our room since we arrived. His English could not cope with Ian's request for clean towels, loo paper and a replacement bin liner. He phoned a friend who arrived in a taxi and spoke English. She was nice. She knew of no doctor who might speak English but suggested we take a taxi to the hospital. We've been warned by several friends to avoid Bulgarian hospitals so first Ian went on foot to check it out. He returned saying I'm better off here. I would never cope with the steps up to the entrance, it looked very shabby, it was hot and with so many people waiting I could be there a very long time.
So we went onto the internet to check my symptoms and decided I'm probably suffering from acute bronchitis. A very helpful American friend who was once a doctor advised against antibiotics and has been emailing me common sense advice. Additionally I've dragged my medical librarian skills back into action and we will just sit it out here for as long as it takes.
Ian then went out with a shopping list of things I needed – mainly lemons, honey, almonds and ginger for the coughing along with 600 packets of Bulgarian tissues. I've been rejecting almost all food so he went to the market for strawberries, oranges, the lemon, and most of all bananas which are really good. Crossing from the market he popped into the supermarket for the tissues and something for his own supper, voluntarily opening his bag at the check-out, as we usually do, to prove he'd stolen nothing. Consternation! He'd got fruit! It was all mixed together in the same bag as he'd personally selected it in the market. Managers were called and security staff surrounded him. (I'd love to say they were armed but Ian would be bound to correct me.) Eventually someone was found who could speak English as Ian's pointy finger waving towards the market building up the road was not understood. The guard said customers were not allowed to take their own shopping in to the store and cubby holes were provided for 50 stotinki where he should have left his bananas. It was clearly written up (in cyrillic) so if customers ignored the warning they had to pay the store price for the goods plus 3 times the price as a punishment!!!! For goods they'd not even sold!!!!!!! Ian said he hadn't got any stotinki but was told he should have asked and the staff would have helped him. Huh! Ian asked how he could have asked them when he didn't speak the language and if he'd intended stealing the fruit from the store why would he hold open his bag to show the contents as he had done? The law is the law. That is what happens here. The check-out staff were braying for blood – it seems a very "jobs-worth" country. Ian is good at both the charm offensive and the stupid bloody foreigner role. He apologised and swore on his grandmother's grave that he'd never enter a Bulgarian supermarket again carrying an alien banana. Eventually, as three times the price of the fruit was not forthcoming and it was just so obviously a misunderstanding, they let him go, but it did add some interest to an otherwise banal day.
Ian also walked out a mile or so along the main road from the town in search of a garage where he bought a new vignette for Modestine. So she is now legal standing in the roadway outside for the next week. A big relief given the attitude of the local inhabitants. It has not been the most friendly EU country we have ever visited by a long way.
Tuesday 17th May 2011, Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria
Today I actually began to feel a little better, but now towards evening I'm now sinking fast and the temperature has returned. I'd hoped to be up to going to Sofia with Ian on the bus tomorrow. In your dreams Jill!!
At lunch time though I fancied something more than bananas so we walked slowly across to a little restaurant in the old town serving something other than pizzas. I think our young waitress was an American student. She certainly spoke English perfectly though looked Bulgarian. We asked about the menu. "Oh, that's made from pigs bladders and stuffed with chicken's stomachs" she explained helpfully. Bananas sounded better for a sick woman but eventually she brought us chicken legs with savoury vegetable rice. It was okay and cost 2 levi each – a euro!
Back in our room I was exhausted and dozed, listening to radio 4 on the internet. We can follow the "Today" programme though it's two hours later than in England. Not sure I should have gone out really.
Thursday 19th May 2011, Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria
Still here! Ian's finally decided I'm fit enough to be left for a few hours and has taken himself off to Sofia to see the main sites. I'm still only up to dozing, a bit of blogging and listening to radio 4. I have though turned the corner. So much so that I was at last able to struggle up to the hospital yesterday. It was a dismal experience. I was completely exhausted by the time we'd walked up the hill and climbed the steps to the main entrance, only to discover the lift didn't work and reception was on the second floor.
When we eventually got up there it was like a 1930s institutional building with bare stone floors, battered park-type benches for patients, no electric lighting and windows only at either end of the long room. I cannot recall any paintwork but if it was, it was dark grey. The place was crowded with sad looking people. Gosh, we are so lucky with our hospitals in Western Europe. Amidst all this, the staff were working in a very dedicated manner. We queued and show our European Health Insurance Card (EHIC). As in France when Ian presented with his dislocated elbow, nobody knew what it was. Furthermore nobody spoke any English. A friendly secretary was found who spoke a few words and realised I really was not at all well. I was taken all over the hospital to see different doctors who all tagged along as we moved on. Soon I had an entourage of six medics with just about as many words of English between them. One told us she spoke French but it turned out it was worse than her English.
After listening to my lungs it was decided I needed an x-ray. I was led down a dark, steep staircase without a handrail, across a yard full of bins, through the ambulance bay and into a different building. Far smarter here with lots of doctors in white overalls carrying freshly developed images while patients queued in a slow moving line to pay for them before returning to the doctor with them.
Ian was sent to join the paying queue while I was led to a room with x-ray equipment that looked many years outdated. We then had to wait while the plate was developed and Ian tried to explain his EHIC to the person wanting our money. No go! They just did not understand. So he paid and they gave a receipt. Hopefully we can send it to the NHS when we get home. It wasn't too bad in fact, costing us around £10.
The nice lady had waited with us and led us back past the medical waste bins in the yard and back up the dark staircase – where we had to stop for me to get breath. Eventually we were back with the little gathering of medics. They seem to have been waiting there all that time!
After looking at the x-ray they announced that I had acute bronchitis. I'd already told them that! Fortunately medical terms are very similar in most languages. I'd already understood they thought I had flu but had been unable to tell them I didn't as I'd had a flu jab last autumn. I suppose it might have been bird flu though. Anyway, they said the x-ray showed blocked airways but that it was good news and I should be better in about 5 days time. A prescription was written and we were sent down to the pharmacist.
This room was the smartest in the hospital. No doubt paid for by the drug companies. All the big names were represented. I don't know how prices are usually charged for prescriptions but given that the average income here is about £200 a month, our bill of £20, after showing our EHIC was extortionate. We couldn't understand a thing about the 2 packets, written entirely in Cyrillic and packaged for the Bulgarian market. The pharmacist wrote 1x24 on one packet and 2x24 on the other.
I'm none too keen on medicines so have since checked them on the internet. One is intended to clear mucus from my lower respiratory tract, the other, by far the most expensive, to prevent infection. After just one of these I suffered nausea and violent vomiting so that was a waste of money!
I cannot fault the caring attitude of the staff at the hospital but I am just so grateful that I normally live in a country where life is not made even more grim for people already suffering. This is a smart town, full of fashion shops and trendy bars where the young live their happy lives. As they get older though, they end up needing health care and all the colour is immediately sapped out of their lives with drab, broken surroundings, outdated equipment, long queues and (assuming we have been treated in the same way as local people) incredibly expensive prescription charges. In England I'd have been supplied with these drugs free of charge.
Because of the problem with language I was unable to ask for a blood test, which I would have liked in order to confirm a theory I have. Most cases of acute bronchitis are caused by viruses, a few are produced by bacterial infection and even more rarely, by allergic reaction. I had absolutely no sign of illness until we crossed the border into Bulgaria. Within hours I had started to feel ill with the onset of a heavy cold, swollen eyes and very tight, painful throat. This eventually developed into full-blown acute bronchitis. I mentioned in an earlier blog that without warning we were sprayed with disinfectant as we entered Bulgaria. My window was open and I got drenched. Ian's was closed. Ian has never caught this illness from me, which is amazing if it is viral, but not at all if it is allergic bronchitis which of course in non-contagious. I have checked the internet and the spray was for Foot and Mouth Disease. (Did we use spray in the UK or just a trough to drive through?) The Bulgarians are spraying the stuff around with abandon. Motorcyclists, and even cyclists get smothered. Have I just been unlucky and been fostering the illness since Turkey or have I just been unlucky and reacted against the disinfectant? I've written to the British Embassy in Sofia to ask if they can ascertain what is in the spray that might cause me to be ill. I imagine they've dismissed me as a British nutter and gone off for a lunch of stuffed pig's bladder or sheep's brains in soup with the Bulgarian health minister.
If I suffer respiratory problems in later life I'll always believe it was caused by the spray at the border. Probably not a lot of sympathy here though. Most Bulgarians older than me seem to have been dead for several years to judge by the average age of the posters pasted up all over town with photos of the recently departed.