Moving on at last

Saturday 21 May 2011, Blavoevgrad
Would you believe we are still here? It's two weeks now since I began to be ill and I really think it has been the sickest two weeks I can ever remember. This morning though I have been coughing less and was well enough to go out for lunch so maybe at last I really am on the mend.

Jill's lung xray, Blageovgrad

What has astonished us, and filled us with delight, is the warmth of the lovely messages we have been receiving from all our blog followers. Thank you all so very much. There have been some very practical as well as original suggestions to help us cope. While many of you have sent messages advising suitable diets and remedies, Martin reminded me to keep a check on Modestine in case the security system ran down her battery while she stands neglected on the road outside. Merriol in America has offered very sound and practical advice for coping with the fever. Pam has been sending me Jacquie Lawson internet cards of cheery bears dangling from balloons – guaranteed to bring a smile. Jim suggests soaking sliced swede in brown sugar and drinking the juice to help with my throat. Genevieve is full of plans as to how we could reach Normandy so she can care for me. Jean sent a synopsis of the agricultural activities at the Devon County Show today while our daughter Kate offered to fly out and drive us home! The message that made me laugh until I choked was Marlies sending me a U-tube video clip of her playing the drums with Exeter Sambista down on the Quay last weekend. Suddenly seeing her smiling face and the sound of the happy music on my computer were guaranteed to make me feel better. If any Exeter friends missed the performance on the Quay or at the County Show this weekend you can enjoy it here Sorry but Marlies is not one of those wearing little else but feathers. She is my age, dressed in white, red and yellow and her happy face and tambourine appear towards the end.

But to each and every one of you, thank you so very much. We love you all.

I was wrong to doubt the British Embassy here in Bulgaria. They got back to me offering to find me an English speaking doctor and they actually contacted the Bulgarian police to ask what was in the chemical spray that went over me at the border. They say it is 0.2% chlorine. It is intended to disinfect against Foot and Mouth Disease. I've discovered political articles claiming that the FMD scare is a scam by national property developers in both Bulgaria and Turkey to force farmers out of the area. It also brings in lots of euros from travellers and true or not, Turkey seems to be setting up similar sprays claiming the disease is being carried in from Bulgaria. Either way, I got a film of it over my face and jumper and shortly afterwards, as the chlorine evaporated, developed symptoms consistent with chlorine gas poisoning. I've left my complaint with the Embassy. I'm no scientist but DEFRA or the Government Scientific Advisors should know whether it could have been the cause. My memories of Bulgaria will not be happy ones. They even spray the stuff over cyclists!

Sunday 22nd May 2011, Blageovgrad
Recovery is a slow, uphill struggle but I have moments when I now feel almost well again. I had one such this morning and decided it was time to give Modestine a little run to ensure she's been okay unused for a couple of weeks. I needn't have worried. She was so delighted to be moving again she started immediately and has been perfect.

There are just a few roads through the mountains with little to stop for along the way. The nearest place to go was the border with Macedonia (FYROM) twenty-five kilometres up a quiet mountain route to the border at the top of the pass. Ian has now decided this route on a Sunday afternoon would be the easiest way for Bulgaria to invade Macedonia. There is hardly even a hamlet along the beautiful route leading nowhere except to the border and we passed maybe only five vehicles including a tractor, as well as a flyblown dead dog, along the way.

Stanke Lisichkovo. View towards Blagoevgrad

Modestine's insurance will not let us travel into either Macedonia or Serbia, which is why we are travelling up through Bulgaria and Romania to reach Hungary. At the exit post from Bulgaria Modestine had reached the end of the road. Not us though.

Scenery near the Stanke Lisichkovo crossing into Macedonia

The Bulgarian border guards spoke no English and looked very puzzled as we parked Modestine and walked up to the crossing clutching a large box of paper hankies. One told us he spoke German. Communication is wonderful. We explained we were batty English pensioners without car insurance but could we leave Modestine with them and walk across no man's land into Macedonia? We'd not be gone long. They told us we'd parked in an illegal place but if we returned within two hours they'd guard Modestine for us. After running our passports through their exit control we were free to walk across the border. Here we noticed the rusting remains of a disinfectant trough and gantry. We gave it a wide berth but it looked defunct.

There were some six people on duty at the Macedonian border. There is nothing for them to do on a damp Sunday so they all came out to stare open mouthed at a couple of British pensioners pottering slowly along with their box of tissues. Here a couple of them spoke English and seemed delighted to have their boredom relieved. We explained we were staying in Bulgaria, down at Blageovgrad, and were just out for a Sunday walk. Could we pop over into Macedonia please? Had we walked all the way from Blageovgrad!!? Oh no, we'd left our campervan in Bulgaria as she wasn't insured to enter Macedonia. They asked if we wanted them to get us a taxi to somewhere more interesting and would we like a Macedonian stamp in our passport?

They were enjoying the company and told us all about life as a border guard on a deserted mountain road. Too hot in summer, too cold in winter, the nearest town ten kilometres down the road and nothing but spectacular mountain scenery. They offered to sell us a green card if we wanted to bring Modestine in but agreed it was very expensive (50 euros for two weeks minimum amount). They said they'd had English vehicles through with insurance they'd got in England so next time we should ask around before we come.

Welcome to Macedonia, one of the jolliest flags we've seen

As we toddled off into Macedonia a huge clap of thunder rent the air and the sky turned black. As they'd warned us, there was nothing but scenery so nowhere for shelter. I thought we'd be pushing our luck to ask if we could nip back through the two borders to get our umbrellas from Modestine so we risked a short walk down the road for a few photo-shots. For us, simply getting into the country had been our goal. There'd been no mention of us buying a visa as we'd had to do in Turkey.

Macedonian landscape, Stanke Lisichkovo crossing

As the stotinki-sized raindrops began to splob around us we hurried back to the shelter of the border post. A soaking in my present state of health would be unwise. Here there was a problem. We'd broken the Macedonian computer record for the shortest visit to the country! The system hadn't finished checking us in properly so wouldn't let us leave! We all found this funny and spent a very pleasant half hour chatting until we were electronically permitted out.

Skirting the disinfectant gantry on the way back into Bulgaria

Back at the Bulgarian border Modestine was waiting as we were electronically scanned back into the country, explaining to the German guard that we'd forgotten our umbrellas. It was all rather good fun really. Certainly better than languishing in bed, though it exhausted me and I spent three hours asleep when we got back. I don't think I will be up to moving on tomorrow after all. Another little local potter might be best. The border with Serbia isn't far away ...

Monday 23rd May 2011, Blageovgrad
Today we attended the Blageovgrad premier of КАРИБСКИ ПИРАТИ В НЕПОЗНАТИ ВОДИ! It was even in 3D! It's a sign of just how bored Ian must be feeling now that he actually suggested a fix of the irrepressible Johnny Depp as the camp pirate Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean – On stranger tides would be gentle entertainment for me. It turned out to be a brilliant plan. I only choked once and the film volume was so loud nobody noticed. It was in English with Bulgarian sub-titles so we had an advantage over the locals. We went to the morning performance as I flake out around lunch time. There was not an empty seat in the place! The cinema was clean, with lots of leg room and comfortable seats while the 3D glasses were loaned out free of charge. Ticket prices were 5lev (about £2.50) each. We even shared a hotdog and mustard while waiting for the film to begin.

Later we went for a greasy Bulgarian lunch of pork fried with potatoes and tomatoes, swimming in fat, accompanied by a salad that included Bulgarian white cheese. The meal, with drinks, also worked out at 5 lev each, so our day of extravagance set us back less than £10 in total.

After that I was only too pleased to return home to sleep it all off while the thunder from yesterday returned and echoed from the hills surrounding the city.

I have generally been better today and actually slept almost through the night. This morning we found a cockroach in our bathroom – struggled through the wet-room drain I expect – so I think it is time to move on.

Tuesday 24 May 2011, Dragizhevo, near Veliko Tarnovo
Today it is Bulgarian Day of Culture, a national holiday in honour of Saints Cyril and Methodius. Jill finally felt up to facing life on the road again, so we loaded Modestine by passing the belongings we had accumulated during the past two weeks over the first floor balcony of our room, saving a lot of running up and down stairs, and took our leave of the hotel staff.

Hotel Dusia, Blageovgrad

We made our way back up the road towards Sofia, turning east towards Samokov and then north along the impressive Iskar valley. On our way we skirted the massive Iskar Reservoir and then the road plunged into a thickly wooded gorge, lined with wild lilac trees in full blossom. As we approached Sofia there were more lakes and crowded car parks where the people of Sofia were enjoying the holiday picnicking by the water.

Iskar Gorge from the road

We managed to get tangled up in the outskirts of Sofia but were soon heading east along one of Bulgaria’s only motorways, an impressive piece of engineering through wooded hills. Many of the routes we took lay along broad valleys, verdant in the spring with people tilling the soil, often with horse and cart waiting patiently beside them, and herdsmen with their sheep or cattle. At times the distant wooded hills would close in and we would be travelling through narrow gorges; the Bulgarian countryside is really very beautiful. Late in the afternoon we arrived at Lovech, which we had intended to visit. Once we had located the centre it looked an interesting town, set in the gorge of a river with a medieval fortress above where the treaty leading to the establishment of the second Bulgarian Empire was signed in 1185, a wooden bridge over the river, lined with shops, and old wooden houses with projecting balconies rising up cobbled streets. However there was no campsite and we could not locate a suitable hotel, so after the briefest of looks we continued on through Veliko Turnovo to this campsite, recently set up by an English couple and still rather bare, with sloping pitches and little shade.

Wednesday 25th May 2011, Dragizhevo
Today the temperature has been well up into the 30s. Too hot for comfort and the new campsite, despite its many excellent facilities, is sadly lacking in shade. We have been reduced to re-inventing Modestine's awning to offer us at least some protection from the sun this afternoon.

Modestine's invented awning, Dragizhevo

Before it became too unbearable however, we hung out a machine-load of laundry and walked the kilometre or so into the local village. It was larger than we'd realised with a couple of bars, a general food store and a shop that sold everything except sunglasses – which was what we were seeking, Ian having mislaid his yet again. (They have since turned up and been lost again.)

In the general store we purchased bread, milk, potatoes, tomatoes, a couple of sausages and some shower gel for Ian. The lady insisted he took the one specifically intended for men and we didn't dare argue.

Outside on the street a lady in an apron and a headscarf was standing guard while her cow browsed the grass verge. Further down the street an elderly couple had just finished scything their garden and were using a wooden pitchfork to heap the resulting hay onto a little donkey cart. The beast stood patiently waiting. Another elderly lady passed us pushing a battered pram piled high with garden tools. Up behind the main village street we discovered the local church with its separate bell tower.

Bell tower, Dragizhevo

At the main bar we stopped for chilled soda water and sat watching village life as it happened. A lady with her three year old granddaughter sat at a neighbouring table and kept us entertained despite not having a word in common. The little girl, much the same age as our own granddaughter, chatted away to us in Bulgarian oblivious that we could not understand.

We returned to the campsite along the hot, sunny street, past well cared for little houses set in their own well maintained vegetable gardens with shady vines covering the terrace. The views across the rural countryside were charming with hedgerows filled with wild roses and the occasional shady tree beneath which we would linger to cool off before facing the next stretch of searing heat.

Well tended village garden, Dragizhevo