Dave the motorhome’s up a mountain in Bulgaria (N41.76619 E23.42575). We’re in the heart of the Pirin National Park, which protects the mountain range of the same name from development. It’s on the UNESCO list too. We found a reference on the French website campingcar-infos.com to this little spot next to the roaring river, within sight of the snow-camouflaged peaks and near a snack bar. Birds are singing, mosquitoes are a-buzzing and we’ve checked we’re OK to stay, ‘sure, no problem’ said the waiter, looking a bit like a young Rocky to me. A shiny new motorhome is parked nearby, surprising us both by being Bulgarian-registered.
The restaurant called last night. Everyone tells us eating out in Bulgaria is cheap for us northern Europeans, and we wanted to give a tiny bit of cash to the locals for being so hospitable. The waiter, dressed head to toe in black and sporting an earing, had the demeanour of someone waiting on the Queen. His arms behind his back, stood a respectable distance away, he spoke very good English in a flat tone. He came across as the opposite of an Italian. Within a few minutes we’d thawed him out a bit, asking him questions about Bulgaria. ‘How do you pronounce this?’ pointing at the Bulgarian for ‘thankyou’ in our phrasebook: “благодаря”. We had a go before he’d time to answer: ‘blagodaro’? ‘No, bwagodaro’. It sounded the same, we got him to repeat it a few times. Pretty soon our questions about pumpkins and the like dried up, but he carried on talking, all in a flat, emotionless tone: ‘Greece talks of having a crisis, but they have no crisis, they can put diesel in the cars. People here are not happy, they have no money’. The meal came, a Shepherd’s Salad (one up from ‘peasant’s salad’), baked goat’s cheese in honey and walnuts, chicken and chips (Ju, ever the food adventurer :-)) and fire-cooked sausage, weirdly cold beans and chips (Jay, come to think of it, about as adventurous). I had two pints (500ml beers are ‘pints’ to me these days) and Ju had a glass of local red wine vast enough to bathe in. The bill: €35, not bad. The waiter (we asked his name, but neither of us could understand the pronunciation even after 2 goes) stares at me. Ah, it’s 35 Lev, about €18, £15 for the both of us, and this was a plush restaurant. Around us everyone was smoking, great plumes like an array of forest fires, fortunately we’d sat outside. Word is Bulgaria has enacted a law which restricts smoking: one table has to be reserved for non-smokers! (Edit: later checked and this is no longer true, a comprehensive ban came into force in Jun 2012, but we were sat outside)
I woke at 7:30am to dogs barking, leaned over and picked up the phone. ‘Communism’. Wikipedia comes forth with an, erm, encyclopaedic definition. The word for me brings back childhood memories, I once had a vivid-enough dream of a distant mushroom cloud that I can recall it 30 years later. Bulgaria, being a ‘satellite state’ of the USSR was therefore the ‘enemy’ of the West, my enemy in a way. How weird, and how unnerving, everyone we have met so far has been nothing but hospitable, kind and friendly. Following the usual trail of links, one site refers to a recent spate of nostalgia for the old socialist days, when ‘everything was free’. It reminded me of the campsite owner Sasha we met in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, who longed for the ‘old days’ of Tito to be back.
The little square we were in slowly came to life, the stall-owners greeting each other and bit-by-bit setting out their supplies of honey, cuddly toys and dried squashes (used as spoons for water or pigswill the waiter had told us). In the shade of the strange sandy coloured cliffs Dave stayed cool and we set off back down the road feeling refreshed. Within a few minutes we pulled up. Anyone would think we’d have nailed this by now but nope, we’d not sorted out a route and Ju had just spotted the most obvious way was over a mountain pass, twist-central. ‘Ah, let’s go for it.’ Dave eats mountain passes for breakfast, although at just above walking pace sometimes.
The roads in Bulgaria have been, on the few miles of A and B road we’ve used so far, a pleasant surprise. Long stretches are like new, given the number of EU signs we see around the place I guess they’ve been built since Bulgaria joined in 2007. Even these roads have holes, big enough to eject some nasty words from me as we hit one at speed, and far enough apart that I can’t go slow enough to miss ’em all. In between these stretches of flatness are stretches of patched-up bouncyness, 15mph material. We’ve not managed to find ourselves on anything quite as bad as this yet though:
Dave cruised along through village after village, each looking something akin to the world’s worst council estate. Many of the houses are in bad nick, their red-tiles roofs seem to be on the verge of a collective collapse, the gardens packed with greenery as folks grow food to eat. Fences are makeshift things, a piles of stones with gates made from nailed planks of wood.
On the other hand many of the houses are in pretty good nick, and the range of vehicular transport is astounding, from Mercs to donkeys.
I imagined before we came this would all be somewhat depressing, the sights and sounds of a legacy of oppression, with folks ‘freed’ only to find things worse under a free market. Somehow it’s not. The few people we’ve met and seen from the cab nod ‘hello’ at us, no-one comes across as judging us wandering about in our luxury vehicle (ahem), it feels good to be here.
At a junction we pulled in and stared at the roadsign, tying up the symbols and names with our Bulgarian map, working out which way to go. Our Western Europe TomTom maps are (the clue’s in the name I guess) useless. Ju’s quickly sorted out her own version of the Bulgarian alphabet though and once we’d stocked up on Lev from the handily adjacent cash machine, and topped up on diesel (€1.30 a litre – comparable to Greece and cost-prohibitive for many locals) we hit the pass.
The pass, it turned out, was perfect black-top, chevron signs, anti-rock netting, concrete flood water defences, armco, the business. Dave cruised on up, the heat gradually seeping in as we hit 33°C, but it was an easy run over to, ah, how am I going to type this in? Гоце Делчев, Gotse Delchev in latin. Cheated, found it on Wikipedia and copied and pasted. The town looked unappealing, with the exception of this beauty:
When I say ‘unappealing’, what I mean is that I’d love to photograph the lot of it, but it’d maybe not give the best impression of Bulgaria as I’m all about the old, knackered stuff at the moment and need to get over it to be fair to the country, before I’m let loose with a camera. Stuff like this, just over the road from Lidl:
Back in Lidl, in air-conditioned comfort, we shopped, finding maybe about 70% of the stuff we recognised from other Lidl’s in other countries. Costs? £5 for a loaf of bread. That’s how much it would be seem like if we were Bulgarian, it was actually about 35p to us. The cheapest beer easily limbo’d under my €1 a litre bar, coming in at about 40p a litre, roughly 20p a pint, holy sh*t, my liver’s in for a beating. Lots of other stuff came in about the same price as other European countries. Leaving Lidl felt like stepping off a plane, a swamp of heat.
Dave bulging with beer we cruised on, more good road, all the way to Bansko of Skiiing fame, past the closed kit rental shops and up, and up. Into the pines the road was fabulous quality, but couldn’t make its mind up which way to go, left, no right, no left, every 50 meters. Dave got hot. We stopped alongside a water fountain for him to take a breather and cooled Charlie off:
Although the SatNav doesn’t have these roads, we can watch the co-ordinates updating and match them up with co-ordinates we have for stopping places. Using this technique we pushed on up the mountain until we found this spot and dived under a tree for coolness. Moving Dave a little while later after someone shifted their car from the prime-shade spot in front of us, we nearly reversed over this rock:
It’s a beautiful spot up here. We’ve wandered about, eyed up the oldest tree in Bulgaria (a 1000 years old Bosnian Pine no less), had a beer at the mountain bar and chilled out, literally, Ju’s put her jumper on. We’re down to 19 degrees, and nearly shivering. A few photos from up here.