Dave the motorhome is struggling, he has no idea what any of the signs around him say as he sits slowly sweltering in a car park in Rozhen (Роженски) in Bulgaria (N41.53262 E23.43393)! Yes folks, there is officially a heatwave in eastern Europe and Charlie and I don’t cope well it gets too hot, so we’re on our way north to find some cool.
Last night as Jay took Charlie for a walk an orange glow was emitted from the bush opposite where we had parked. It looked like a Chinese lantern had fallen from the sky and come to rest there, but it turned out that a car that had parked up near us earlier was there to light the candle in a shrine we hadn’t spotted. The country is covered in shrines, some huge, some tiny, prefabricated replicas of churches that you can get from a DIY store, or home-made metal frames, now slowly rusting. All seem to have the same contents though, a few icons (pictures of saints) a small plastic water or pop bottle filled with oil, a burner and some wicks.
We headed for bed around midnight as the air cooled a fraction, only to be back up again five minutes later for half an hour of ‘kill that pesky, flighty, bitey mosquito’. I got them both in the end, and one of them was massive! Alas it was too late to save my legs which were thoroughly munched on yesterday by the pair and are now covered in itchy red lumps – time to get the anti-histamines out of the medicine cabinet again.
High pitched buzzing free, we slept well and woke around 8.30 as Dave started to heat up again. By 9am he was up to 32°C (89F), it was going to be another hot one. The sun climbed higher in the sky, taking with it all the shade, so we headed for the beach. We found some shade and cooled down for a while as Charlie chased stones. As the only shaded patch there disappeared it was decision time. Jay assured me that his tooth no longer hurt, and his ear and jaw felt better too – he put the latter down to diving in the sea too much – so we skipped our trip to the dentist and set off for Bulgaria. A long drive for us, but we needed to get somewhere cooler and just over the border are the Pirin mountains which may offer us a respite.
Neither of us really wanted to leave Greece, it has been our favourite country so far, but after nearly two and a half months there we needed to move on. Greece knew it was time to let us go, and said farewell in style. As we packed Dave up ready for the off I could hear a rustling in the grass next to him, a tortoise was wandering about under a shrub – finally I got to hear one wandering around in the wild, I’d read that they were loud, but we keep coming across them on roads where they don’t make any noise. This little fella rustled a farewell to us as we set off just after midday.
Heading north we were soon crossing an agricultural plain, tractors outnumber cars on the road and the villages we drove through were devoid of people; the sensible locals staying out of the sun. Sticking our hands out the windows to feel a cool breeze was like shoving out hands in front of a hair dryer, as the thermometer climbed to 39°C (102F) – we’re not sure if it will go any higher as there aren’t enough digits to show over 99 on the Fahrenheit setting.
Hands clammy with sweat we missed catching on camera another ‘farewell from Greece’, as a bird of prey flew over Dave with a snake in its mouth. We stopped and stared as another bird tried to get in on the act too, but wasn’t big or fast enough. Lunch was eaten by the side of the road under the shelter of some tall trees next to a large shrine / small church (with a bigger church next to it). Greece’s wildlife had said goodbye, now it was the turn of religion. It sat in the middle of nowhere and while we ate a couple of cars stopped, went inside and lit candles. The place was full of icons, a huge metal container in the corner (resembling a BBQ) held the candles and ushered their smoke out up a metal air duct, next to it sat stacks of candles and a big metal bin full of half used ones. A hole in the counter collected ‘donations’ and a few birds had a nest on top of one of the picture frames.
After a quick stop to grab some Euros (emergency currency) we counted down the kilometres to the border, passports at the ready. As we reached it we found ourselves in a huge queue of lorries, with cars whizzing past in the other lane, so Jay pulled Dave across and we joined the car lane – good job too as the lorry queue was huge. At the border our passports were checked by the Bulgarian guys (the Greek window was shut, we suspect the tiny office was air conditioned) and we were waved in. Charlie was under the table in full-on panting mode, so we didn’t show his passport or mention he was with us, in our experience no one is bothered and those that do spot him and get shown his passport only look at the photo, no chip scanning – I doubt they have the equipment.
Once through the passport bit, we then drove to the customs part, here we headed for the ‘EU bus’ channel as it was clear Dave wouldn’t fit through the car one. A policeman waiting for Non-EU buses turned and looked surprised as we stopped and waved us on with an urgency that looked like we might get pounced on by the guys having a chat near our channel if we didn’t get out soon. On the other side there was the usual border confusion, Hellenic Free Shops – I can only assume they are either duty free or free of Greek stuff? lined one side of the road, along with fast food and drinks stalls. On the other side a huge casino and petrol station! Between the two, on the central reservation, was a series of small booths which said ‘Car Charge Point’.
In Bulgaria we need a vignette for the roads, so I jumped out and headed over there as Jay gave Charlie a cold shower to cool him down. All was going well until I pointed to Dave, a look of confusion crossed the girl’s face and she turned to a colleague for clarification. ‘You need gas station’, was her response. I showed her Dave’s weight to make sure she understood he wasn’t over the magic 3.5t which means you pay loads more, and she told me that I still needed a gas station. No problem as we could see a gas station, so Jay swung Dave around in a u-turn and pulled in. The attendant, sat on a petrol canister smoking a cigarette, smiled and simple said ‘diesel?’ in a tone that told us we might make his day if we bought some. ‘Vignette?’ I asked, his face sank ‘No’, he replied. Another u-turn and we were back on the road north – albeit a tad illegally! Within a few metres we met our first wheel snapping series of pot-holes which Jay had Dave dancing around like a ‘Strictly’ contestant.
Pulling in at the next petrol station I spied a cash point, a chance to get some Lev – the local currency. I asked the attendant if they had vignettes and he said no, as he stood in front of a sign saying they sold them. I looked around him puzzled and he added, ‘only for month, not week’. A week was €5, a month €13 – we had no idea how long we’d be here, but figured we’d grab a month one and to hell with the expense! At the cashpoint I shoved in my card and was offered the choice of 10, 20, 30, 40 or 50 Lev, I thought a Lev was half a Euro, but normally at a cashpoint the numbers range from €10 – €300, I opted for 30 Lev, assuming I’d got my conversions mixed up and not wanting to take out too much cash. As the assistant finished serving the bloke in front of me I grabbed a couple of ice creams and a map of Bulgaria (our current one doesn’t have enough detail on it, but then it was free from a lovely German lady who got it from ADAC). Ringing in my purchases the assistant said something I really didn’t get, so I waved my passport at her questioningly, nope she didn’t need that – what could it be? She then said ‘cash?’, and I realised she was asking which currency I wanted to pay in Lev or Euros, I opted for Lev and she showed me the cost on a calculator – 33 Lev. Hmm, looks like I was right about my currency conversions after all and had taken out a pitifully small sum at the cashpoint, so I paid in Euros.
We ate our ice creams which were already melted in the middle by the time I’d taken the four steps over to Dave, Charlie got a large percentage of mine and seemed to cool down for a couple of minutes. Back on the road our new map came into its own – it has every little town and village on it, and all the names are in Bulgarian. Luckily our first stop was Melnik, the smallest town in Bulgaria, but also a very well signposted town. We drove through it to reach Rozhen searching all the way for somewhere to stop in the shade – but there wasn’t any.
We were now driving along a gorge, with strange sandy cliffs forming pyramids and peaks rising up above us. Reaching Rozhen we parked in the main car park next to a few tat shops and a van selling cuddly toys and ice cones. It was 5pm and still nudging 40°C, but as there were black storm clouds heading our way we and we couldn’t drive Dave up right up to the monastery because there was a pile of rubble in the road (a cunning ploy by the locals to get you to stop in the car park by the tat shops and walk) we used the old wooden steps to climb the last kilometre up to the monastery.
Big signs were in front of it asking people not to take photos, video, use mobiles or laugh and have fun so we didn’t disturb the monks. Fair enough we thought, but then spotted others taking photos, so we bent the rules a bit. Jay went inside the monastery while I tried to stop Charlie whining as we waited outside. Jay spotted a bloke wandering around the inner courtyard talking loudly on his mobile and none of the women donned the skirts provided to enable them to be appropriately dressed, seems we probably could have let Charlie run wild in there! As Jay got further in the building, closer to the church, the atmosphere became much more peaceful, the only noise was a guide whispering a translation of a monk talking in hushed tones about the famous frescoes and wooden icons.
Back outside the sky rumbled with thunder, but no rain came, as we made our way back down to the main square. We stopped at the stall opposite Dave and the owner showed us all her goods – we settled on a jar of local pine honey for 4 Lev (€2), as she continued to shove packets of herbs and tea mixes under our noses to smell and point to the multi-language signs telling us what was in each of the jars. We managed to get away with just the one jar of honey, as I pointed to Dave and mimed things falling out of the cupboards as I opened them. She smiled and when I asked if we were OK to sleep there, she said many things in Bulgarian, which we think were her saying she slept in the building behind her stall, but the last one was ‘No problemo’, so we’re here for the night.
The local taverna has music playing and food smells wafting in our direction. Jay has already been to see if they take Euros (as we only have 26 Lev left), they do and quoted the exchange rate – a bit lower than the standard, but that’s to be expected. We might venture over there shortly for a bite to eat, but as we’re the only ones in the car park now, I suspect we’ll be alone!