Introducing Bulgaria

Sunday 8th May 2011, Biser, Bulgaria
Our departure from Turkey and entry into Bulgaria yesterday bordered on the farcical! With hindsight it might have been easier to leave via Greece and then enter Bulgaria. All three borders are close together so it would have been quite feasible. However, we are new at crossing borders that are not within the EU and therefore naive.

As we approached the border we passed a kilometre or more of lorries queued back waiting to cross into Bulgaria. They looked like being there for days. We were initially waved through and expected to be over the border in a matter of minutes. In fact it took a couple of hours and seven lots of controls by gun carrying border guards before we were free to drive off into Bulgaria!

As we drew up at the Turkish border control, before even handing over our passports I was greeted by "Hello Jill Maxted." I've mentioned before that I would not be allowed to leave the country without Modestine and her details were already on the screen as we approached. We were quickly through and drove over the Turkish border calling "güle güle" (bye bye) to the official as we went. Modestine was okay, but then we had to be checked and our visas cancelled. Then another control for we know not what. We were handed a four page questionnaire in Turkish to complete and an interpreter to help us. Where exactly had we been, what dates were we there, how long did we stay at each place, why did we choose to go there and how much had we spent on accommodation, food, fuel, museums ... ? It was all a little intimidating. They wanted details of each campsite we'd used so it's probably as well we didn't end up sleeping by the roadside anywhere! Hurray, at last we were crossing no-mans land between the two nations. One down and one to go!

It was a hot afternoon and the windows were wide open. Suddenly we were drenched by a curtain of disinfectant sprayed upwards over Modestine's private bits and down from above. Bulgaria appears to consider all vehicles entering from Turkey as potential disease carriers! We then queued for ages in a line of Bulgarian vehicles that were closely examined inside and out, as well as under the bonnet and inside the boot. We were asked why we were coming into Bulgaria. We decided not to say because it was the only remaining EU country Modestine has never visited and the only possible route permitted to us for returning to northern Europe. Instead we said it was because of the wonderful reports we'd heard from the people of Turkey and Greece about the friendliness of the Bulgarian people. (They all dislike each other so why not try to spread oil on troubled waters?) The charm offensive worked and we were passed along to the next check point where we were given a chit of paper to keep and show when we leave Bulgaria. It states that we have been disinfected and had our vehicle thoroughly checked to ensure it complies with Bulgaria's high standards!!! (Nobody had examined Modestine at all but, considering what we've seen on the roads here, a check wouldn't have been necessary even if we'd turned up with a motorised wheelbarrow!

The next control was so funny we annoyed the officer by laughing in disbelief! We were asked to pay three euros. "What for?" "For the cost of disinfecting and checking your vehicle." "But you didn't check it and the disinfectant was completely useless anyway." A hostile shrug. Ian worked out the exchange rate and handed over some of our remaining Turkish Lirasi. No, this would not do. We had to pay in Euros. We asked how they expected us to have Euros when we were British and used Sterling, we'd come from Turkey which uses Lirasi and were entering Bulgaria which uses Leva. Nowhere in the direction we were coming from had Euros so how could we pay in Euros? We may be able to rustle up a few Roubles or Rupees, would they do? We were given a look of blank indifference and a shrug. We were so tired from seven lots of controls that in the end Ian unearthed some of the Euros we'd stashed away and we paid up. It's so obviously just a con to get western currency but we do wonder whether all the Bulgarians have to pay in Euros as well in order to get back into their own country after they return from their supermarket shopping sprees into Turkey.

At last we were really into Bulgaria. We sorted out our documents and money and changed our few remaining Lirasi into Leva. There was a ticket office selling motorway vignettes but it was unmanned and we couldn't understand the Cyrillic text and Slavonic language. Nothing in any of our travel books mentioned the need to buy one in order to use the ordinary roads and the person in the bureau de change advised us (we think) that we only needed one for the motorway up to Sofia. Not intending to travel that way we left the border without one and headed off towards the interior. About ten miles on we passed a police car that had just pulled somebody over for not having a vignette! We did a rapid U turn and made our way back to a garage to check. Mercifully somebody spoke a little English. Yes, we did indeed need one for all roads but it wasn't pointed out to visitors so the police could fine unsuspecting travellers like us who hadn't realised! So we parted with all the Bulgarian money we had to buy a vignette at the garage. What we'd have done if we'd not had those few Turkish Lirasi to change I don't know as there were no cash machines anywhere.

We've since learnt that crossing first into Greece and then into Bulgaria is much easier, no disinfectant spray or charge and a provisional vignette is handed out for free to enable you a day to get sorted and buy a proper one.

Bulgarian money. They use the lev. Linked to the euro there are 2 lev to the euro

Less than an hour's drive into Bulgaria is the first reputable campsite we've been able to find on the internet, Sakar Hills. It was quite surreal turning in at the entrance to discover ourselves in an English enclave! The one other campervan was from Birmingham while the owners of the site were from Kent! They and their son had landed up here by chance, as so often happens with the Brits we've encountered as we travel, and decided what this remote little village needed was a tasteful, quality campsite. Lying as it does, within easy reach of both Greece and Turkey it has turned out to be strategically placed. The owners have given employment to the local gipsies and they themselves seem to have ended up advising and even working alongside the Bulgarian villagers to improve their properties and use their land to their best advantage.

Bulgaria though lives in a different era from most of the EU countries. Since the fall of communism collective farming no longer exists and the people from the countryside, re-housed into ugly blocks of flats in the cities during collectivisation, have now reclaimed their land. They continue to live in the cities, thus the countryside is scattered with abandoned and decayed old houses that nobody wants to buy or own. They do though cultivate their land, presumably travelling out at weekends from their flats in the towns.

Of course there are villages scattered around the remarkably green and pretty countryside but they seem to be just a straggle of tumbled, overgrown buildings beside the roads with a few chickens, a shed for the goat and a donkey or two that seems to be kept not only for work but for asses' milk. We've seen it sold both as yogurt and as milk.

Today Martin and Shirley, the owners of the campsite, were taking the other English campers into Plovdiv for the day and invited us along. It was wet and raining and we'd had no time to learn anything yet about Bulgaria. Besides, we were in surreal mode, so we happily squashed into Martin's English car for the long drive to Bulgaria's second city. We were joined by a carload of English friends of theirs who have settled here from working in South Africa, so once we arrived in Plovdiv we were a substantial group of nine, chattering away in English as we explored the ancient cobbled streets of the old town up on the high granite hill in the centre of the city. To be honest, apart from wishing to be helpful and friendly, I think our hosts and their friends were happy to find fellow countrymen to chat to in a relaxed manner. They were eager too to explain what they had learnt about Bulgaria and its people since they moved here four or five years ago. They have picked up the basics of the language by dint of mixing continuously with workmen and village neighbours and they seem very well liked. They all say they are happy here, enjoy the sunshine and the cheap prices and do not regret leaving England. However, Martin and Shirley still have two properties in England that they let out so could return at any stage if they wish. The South Africans are a different matter. They too ended up here by chance. When they retired they put their pension savings into a boat to sail the world. It turned out to be far more expensive than they'd expected and then their ship was wrecked off the coast of the Caribbean leaving them with little more than enough insurance money to get to England and find jobs for a few years. They hated England and decided to move to Bulgaria after watching the TV programme A place in the sun. They say it suits them because of the long hot summers and the low prices but they really have sunk everything they have into living here and cannot afford to move on if they ever wish to do so. They seem to have learnt very little of the language during the three years they have lived here. As sometimes happens when we meet ex-pats on our travels, we secretly felt rather sorry for them.

I cannot yet speak about the city of Plovdiv as nobody except us had any great interest to explore it. We accepted we'd been invited to chat, potter the souvenir shops, drink coffee by the heavily restored Roman theatre and then find somewhere for a three hour lunch. We did look in at the Orthodox Cathedral, colourfully covered inside with 19th century icons, much lighter and less stylised than those we'd seen in Greece. The building and atmosphere struck us forcibly because of the marked contrast with the mosques we've been visiting in Turkey. It's astonishing that just a few miles away across the border there is such a different way of Faith and living while here it's very much back to rural Europe with its strong Christian beliefs.

Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Plovdiv

Roman Theatre, Plovdiv

Apart from the Cathedral and the ancient theatre up in the old city we found, amidst the ugly, crumbling monolithic facades of abandoned buildings from the communist era, a number of charmingly restored and decorated merchants' houses with overhanging storeys dating from the 18th and 19th centuries. From a later period when Bulgaria was freed from Ottoman rule and was able to express its own, exuberant style of architecture there survive, sometimes in a sorry condition eclectic style and art nouveau buildings, once very attractive. Amongst the houses on the top of the hill we found a museum to the French poet Lamartine. He apparently stayed there for a couple of nights in 1833 and wrote enthusiastically about the beauty of Plovdiv, so the house has been renovated and dedicated to his writings. (Who knows, I've said some nice things about places we've visited. One day there may be a chain of places across Europe with plaques stating Maxted Travels passed this way in the early 21st century! – but then I've said some rather less complimentary things too as I write what I see and feel.)

Traditional houses in the old town, Plovdiv

Lamartine museum, Plovdiv

Our fellow Brits decided it was time for lunch at their favourite restaurant. This was across town. We'd already seen several menus translated into English hanging outside little restaurants in the old town and Ian was looking forward to a dish called Spicy Bulgarian Woman. I on the other hand, was eager for a dish of Bundles of Grandmother.

Traditional fare, Plovdiv

It comes stuffed with chicken gizzards and hearts! Plovdiv

So our hearts sank slightly when we stopped outside a building trying to look like a cave with a Tyrannosaurus Rex towering over the entrance. However, the food was excellent and the portions substantial. Fortunately we'd been warned, so Ian and I shared a sizzling lamb kebab with roasted potatoes onions and green peppers accompanied by a Bulgarian salad topped with grated white cheese and olive oil. Bulgarian beer is also excellent.

Our first experience of a Bulgarian restaurant! Plovdiv

By the time we eventually left, having been told everything there was to know about our hosts lives, it was pouring with rain and time for the long drive back to the campsite. On the way we stopped at a roadside pottery crowded with brown-glazed traditionally decorated cooking pots, plates, dishes and bowls. They are similar to those produced in Hungary and Romania. Lovely as they are, we cannot carry such bulky, heavy items in Modestine so contented ourselves with just looking. Fortunately our fellow campers – in a huge vehicle – made it worth the shopkeeper's while.

Traditional Bulgarian ceramics

Until now we'd had no chance to find a cash machine so were in considerable debt to our hosts. We stopped at the local town of Harmanhli for some money so we are now solvent and our debts paid. On arriving back here around 7pm we were told that somebody in the village had invited us all to his cottage to drink his home-produced alcohol with him! It would have been impolite not to go and equally impolite to refuse his 55% proof rakia! Gyorgi had just celebrated his saint's name day, so he and his wife invited us into their tiny, crowded house and squashed us around a low table where we were offered large plates of white cheese and sliced cucumber. Apparently it is essential to eat these with rakia. We were also given glasses of coca-cola. Our hosts were busy running back and forth to their kitchen – in a different building across the chicken yard – so we were left alone for much of the time while they kept preparing yet more plates of cucumber. They were so eager to be friendly. Fortunately Martin, and his son Matt who runs the campsite, could speak enough to interpret the essentials and we are getting pretty adept at improvised sign language.

Ian gallantly drank my firewater in secret, only to be offered more! Eventually, an hour later, when two huge flagons of something that looked potentially dangerous were brought in, we managed to make our escape back to the peace of Modestine where the temperature was a chilly five degrees! We dug out the fan heater and found our wine bottle. No sooner had we started drinking something civilised than our host of earlier was banging on the door with a bag of eggs as a gift for us! We felt very guilty but presumably our attempts at thanking him and his wife for their hospitality in Bulgarian had conveyed the right meaning. I've now found a packet of Scottish oat cakes, almost the only thing we have left from England, so we will take it round for them as a gift before we leave. The English writing will impress and the picture on the side of an oatcake loaded with white cheese and tomato should show them how we eat them.

Invitation to a Bulgarian home, Biser

Monday 9th May 2011, Biser, Bulgaria
Today we've had an admin day, catching up on laundry and blogs. I'm also nursing a cold and didn't feel fit for lots of driving. The sun was out and it has been very pleasant here.

A young Englishman has arrived on his motorbike. Shortly afterwards a special courier delivered a package for him. He'd arranged to have his Iranian visa sent to him here to collect. I commented to him that it was more practical than the young English motorcyclist we'd met down in Gallipoli on his way to Siberia who'd had to go to Istanbul twice trying to collect his Iranian visa. By a strange coincidence it transpires they are in fact travelling together but by the time they'd reached Vienna Ed realised he needed to return to England to get something vital fixed on his bike. He was now on his way back, driving hell for leather to meet up with his friend in Istanbul so they could continue to Siberia together. It's a small world when you are camping. He joined us for lunch as we were the only people around on the campsite. Even the owner had disappeared for the day.

This afternoon we went for a walk around the village. It's larger than we expected and most of the elderly villagers were out toddling around the streets with their walking sticks, pottering in their vegetable plots or sitting on benches chatting to each other as they watched the world go by. That, today, was us. Everybody either nodded or raised their hand in greeting. Beside the road were goats, chickens and donkeys. Several little donkey carts passed us, rattling along the pitted roads. The houses are all made from mud bricks. It looks to be a very efficient building material. The walls are still standing while much of the rest has crumbled away. Outside many houses there is pinned a notice and photo of a deceased family member. Sometimes they stay up for many months after the funeral. Some are even framed.

Ruined village cottage made from mud bricks, Biser

Mud bricks as a building material, Biser

Village street, Biser

There is a village shop. It sells everything from buckets to bread. We bought bread and water by pointing and smiling for all we were worth. Really, I don't think I can cope with working out the language while we are here and am content simply to point and say thank you. Ian is better but Bulgarian really is a language too far. It's a Slavonic language that uses Cyrillic script that differs from both the Greek and Russian alphabet.

Back "home" we sat out with a glass of wine while I prepared the cooked chicken for supper. Within seconds a couple of cats, one with only three legs and the other with only one eye, had lined up as eager volunteers to demolish the carcass. Between them they ate every scrap! Not a single bone was left!

Even with the sun it has been chilly today. Last night it was five degrees and snow is apparently falling in the mountains where it is minus 2 at night. Where is summer?