Written 30th May
So there you go. Bulgaria in less than a week. Quicker than we expected and a new record for us.
Of course we haven't been everywhere, but we've seen everything we wanted to see, and not rushed anything and we' still done.
We haven't of course been to the Black Sea, but we don't need a 400km detour for a beach, done those recently in greece - although having swum in 'bodies of water beginning with A' (Atlantic, Adriatic, Agean), it would have been good to move onto the B's so Baltic it is then... - and we missed out Sofia - nothing grabbed at us from the LP description. The only other thing which might have been good was Belogradchik, a fortress and fabulous rock formation in far northwest bulgaria again 400km round trip in the wro direction (found on one website 'you don't go here in passing, beyond here there is no more Bulgaria') which looks amazing but a bit like Meteora so I am not desperately upset - we can't go everywhere.
The only thing I am still struggling with is the nod for 'no', headshake for 'yes'. Especially when trying to order coffee. Me: "dva kafe molya" Waitress: polite headshake, still standing there. Me: "dva kafe?" holding up two fingers. Waitress: polite headshake, still standing there. Me: "ummm" . Waitress goes away, brings back coffee, it becomes apparent that headshake wasn't incomprehension or denial of coffee, it was "yes, would you like anything with that?" got me three times! Although it is more a flattened figure of eight with you chin than headshake as such but still.
Anyway. time to move on. Next stop, Bucharest
Sunday, 30 May 2010
Written 29th may
Veliko Tarnovo is very nice.
The monument depicts the four Tsar's Assen, Petar, Ivan and Kaloyan) who liberated Bulgaria from the Byzantine Empire and established what the plaque described as 'The Golden Age' of Bulgaria, which is coincidentally when Veliko Tarnovo was also the capital - I guess other capitals before and since just haven't had what it takes... ;)
And back across the bridge and on through the dark typical streets before we eventually stopped for beer (german branded but brewed in Veliko) and delicious typical bulgarian pot meals. Yummy.
We had worried that the park might turn into a den of iniquity full of drug-using, beer-drinking yoofs but all was silent when we got home - perfect. We awoke in the morning after an undisturbed night's sleep - a very nice change from the last two nights in traffic-buffeted laybys on major truck routes! - to find that the reason it was so quiet was that we seemed to have parked right out side the police station, so we were probably the most iniquitous yoofs there :)
- we didn't really get going that day so arrived at both the impressive looking castle in town
and at the Nativity Church in nearby Arbansi, which apparently has good paintings, too late to go in. Being not sufficiently bothered about either to stay another night, and having three hours of daylight left, we pressed on and were just climbing the long, slow hill out of Bayala, when we passed a man pushing a bike with a trailer up a hillwhilst sporting a Union Jack flag. Well that had to be investigated! And thus we met Johnny Jeeps.
Johnny is cycling from the UK to China - cycling!! - for no better reason than that he can - which is reason enough! - and 20 years ago when he first looked at doing it, the cost of all the different visas was just prohibitive whereas today, he can get through 90 percent of the countries he needs to without - good old EU.
He is 47 days and c2000 miles in, having travelled through Belgium, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary and Serbia to get here - I think he's actually travelling faster than us, and we have an engine! - and headed to Bucharest to sort his Iran visa out before goung back down through Bulgaria and Turkey to get there. With no set milestones for time and distance, he cycles as far as he can during the day, pushing the bike up hills, and stops when it gets dark to pitch his tent somewhere hidden and out of the way. If you ever thought we are crazy for sleeping in laybys, now you know we are perfectly sane... :)
We stopped by the side of the road for a cup of tea and a chat - Johnny has met lots of astonishingly kind people on his journey, particularly in Serbia, who have helped him fix his bike or invited him into their homes for meals or a bed for the night, but this was his first cup of english tea with english chat in 47 days and we are always up for any excuse for both! - whilst the fireflies danced around us. I've never seen actual fireflies, I had envisaged small, gently glowing things but these were proper neon snaps of light - just like the one in Bug's Life! - amazing.
We regretfully had to move on once it got dark, vans and tents needing different places to hide themselves overnight and this particular bit of noisy truck route being good for neither. So we bid him goodbye and left him to his trudge up the hill - despite all being headed the same way, we just couldn't quite have fitted bike and trailer in. We did half expect to see him again the following day (or more accurately, given that we are not known for getting up, we expected him to overtake us, sometime whilst we were making tea!) but we didn't, so we wish him well and hope to hear what life on the road further east is like!
Yesterday did not turn out as expected. The lp raves about 'underrated Rusenski Lom National Park' which it reckons 'potentially offers two days sight seeing so the plan had been to follow its suggestion and pop into the park office in Ruse and then head out there.
Ruse is the main border town crossing the Danube to Romania. Like all border towns we have been to, it feels like a border town - an indefinable grandeur they all share which marks them out as different from the towns you find on either side. This one is particularly different and grand, calling itself, as it does, 'Little Vienna' thanks to the influx of Viennese architects to floated down the Danube to rebuilt it in the 1880's after it was razed to the ground during the war for liberation. And it is rather lovely, full of wide tree-lined boulevards, shady squares and fancy ornate buildings.
We found the parks office, which was shut, so we headed into town where we found the most willing to try and be helpful tourist office in the last two countries. Although he couldn't give us any information about the park. But we had a map and he suggested some sights,
so we found the opera house,
and the semi-subterranean Church of the Holy Sprit, with is unexpected painted panels and iconography inside,
And I have some new shoes! Although nothing to get to excited about, they are sensible, flat ones I can wear with my skirt which don't rip my feet to shreds whilst walking - as regards shoes, I am a changed woman, I tried to wear my heeled boots out a while ago and nearly fell off them, this is not good! and, as will keeps reminding me, I haven't even worn the sparkly stilettos that I insisted were essential and had to be brought.... Something is not right here!
Still lacking in information, we headed out and back to the park, by way of Metro, the first big supermarket we have seen here. It turned out to be more cash'n'carry than we expected but as we have loads of bulgarian currency to use up - we didn't need nearly as much as we got out, we haven't been here as long as we thought and things are so cheap after greece! We haven't even used that much petrol as there have been more nice flat roads than hilly ones! - we have stocked up. The catering sized jars of pesto and sun dried tomatoes were a particularly welcome find as they constitute the main ingredients of our new emergency pasta and somewhat unexpectedly, we haven't found pesto in shops since Croatia. Who would have thought! And, as it turns out, pouring olive oil into a jar of dried basil just doesn't produce the same result...
A nice rock monastery with cave paintings from 14th century depicting the lives of Jesus and John the Baptist
So, a spot of daisy painting and fettling today. A good tidy up. Tomorrow, the last of our cash to spend on topping up with gas and petrol just in case. A swab down of the van - apparently it is illegal to drive a dirty car in Romania but we don't know what the measure for 'dirty' is or how it is enforced. And a last internet stop - wifi at every petrol station here! - and then Romania here we come!
Friday, 28 May 2010
Even better, petrol and coffee are affordable again! Based on what we have seen so far, we have worked out that, at an average speed of 40mph, we can have two espressos each, every hour we are on the road and still spend less on the journey than in greece. And we don't drink that much coffee! Hurrah! It does make travelling more relaxed. As I have said, Greece was lovely, but there is a lot of it, especially in between the places you specifically want to go...
And I am still excited to be here! And we've done loads so if you haven't got a cup of tea already, now is a good time to get one...
...right are we sitting comfortably? Then we'll begin.
Petrol was easily found - and every petrol station has gas, even run down looking independent ones in the middle of nowhere - as was cash. But we got a bit of a shock with available notes - imagine asking for £200 from the machine and getting it all in fivers... Yeah, wow. If we hadn't been parked in such a busy street, I would have been throwing it around and playing grab-a-grand in the van or at the very least covering my bed and lying in it like they do in the movies... ;)
Anyway. We also successfully negociated our first shop, the only unexpected result being asking for 6 eggs and getting them loose in a plastic bag... Not ideal for van dwellers whose fridges tend to be less stationary than those in your average house....
Once the last wedding party had finally honked its way round town - well, it was at least in a gap between wedding parties - we headed on out to our first proper destination, Melnik.
- seen my first dung beetles in operation, fascinating to watch! -
a cool cellar in an actual atmospheric cave, to try the stuff.
We were nearly there when we goy distracted en route by a sign for Stob's pyramids. No idea who Stob is (turned out to be a village) or why he might have pyramids in the vicinity. But from the numbers of signs, they seemed quite keen for you to see them, so it seemed rude not to.
The rock formations we found were not exactly pyramids, and definitely no Meteora, but they were definitely pointy structures with the promised boulder 'hats' balancing precariously on top.
And so we got to the monastery, deep in the valley, just as the sun had disappeared behing the hills.
Inside however, by complete contrast to the straight, grey lines and small windows of the forbidding exterior, the courtyard is a stack of brightly striped cordoba-esque arches
and a curvey, rounded pink church
with the most vividly coloured murals - painted by Zahari Zograf but I don't know when - we have seen so far. And we have seen a lot of frescos and murals on this trip!
There are still monks there - we saw one, striding purposefully around the upper archways talking directly to God on his mobile. well, who else would he be talking to?? He's a monk! - and you can apparently stay in some of the rooms if you fancy dabbling in the lifestyle or hiking the hills. But its not for van dwellers, so onwards and outwards to find a quiet layby.
And so into town, Plovdiv town, bulgaria's second city, to be precise.
It didn't start well. Although we had a map in the lp, and we worked out the cyrillic for 'centre' fairly early on, we just couldn't find it. So after two or three goes at turning round and trying again, we abandoned the van at the first landmark we did recognisethe river and set off on foot.
Where we quickly discovered the we had in fact driven under the tourist office twice, the town fathers, in their infinite wisdom, having put the two major arterial roads underneath great pirtions of thd city centre to make it generally nicer for everyone. Which it is, if you know what's going on or you are on foot!
The corner of the old stadium, now buried under the main pedestrian street.
The amphitheatre, still used.
The cobbled streets of the old town
With the traditional kashta homes, which are now mostly museums of one sort or another (although we didn't go in any).
It was all jolly lovely, although meltingly hot!
And best of all, an anniversary text from my mother saying my parents would buy us dinner - excellent!
We had already earmarked somewhere which sounded nice in the lp - 'Bendida - a simple wine shop-restaurant in way west Plovdiv. The lovely english speaking family may sit with you as you eat their delicious 'home-style' food along with wine tastings of local rubin and mavraud wines'
The directions were crap but we got their eventually and were contemplating the very closed looking, shop-like exterior, with no restaurant indications, when a smiley lady unlocked the door and welcomed us in. We were apparently way early for dinner - so much so, she asked if we were americans! (it was about 6:30 which is v early for us too but we had run out of stuff to do in town and hadn't had much lunch) - but she ushered us down to the cool cellar restaurant, turning lights on as she went, and bustled about setting up a table for us.
And I am so glad we persevered in finding the place and that she happened to be upstairs when we arrived - it seems there is a doorbell you can ring if you know about it, so now you know!
And just as were were leaving, her son arrived, fresh back in bulgaria from his studies in germany and his couch surfing* travels around europe so we got to meet his lovely dog (an english basset hound, bought in germany and now living in bulgaria - the language of fussing is, it seems, international!) and chat.
All very yummy - thank you lovely parents! - and we have enough money left over for dinner another night too, hurrah!
So onwards and northwards again, this time to the Shipka pass between, Kazanlak and Gabrovo, on the way to Veliko Tarnovo.
The Shipka pass crosses the Stara Planina part of the Balkan mountains at a height of 1150m and was the site of a decisive battle in the Russian-Turkish war in 1877-78.
Bulgaria had been subject to Ottoman rule for nearly 500 years when the stirings of rebellion led to an unsuccessful uprising in 1970. The Russians stepped in on Bulgaria's behalf and after peaceful negociations for Bulgaria's independence failed, the russians declared war.
By all accounts, it was a bloody, hard fought battle, particularly on the heights of the Shipka pass in terrible, freezing conditions where the principle means of fighting seemed to be bayonets and chucking rocks.
But the russian and bulgarian armies eventually prevailed and pushed the Turks back until independence was eventually declared in 1878.
On the road up, you come first to the village of Shipka and the golden domes of the memorial church which glitter and wink at you above the trees and across the plains on your approach.
The church is a magnificent confection, built in the style of a traditional 18th century russian orthodox church, completed in 1902 as a memorial to the russian and bulgarian war heroes.
The monument commemorates the beginnings of the Bulgarian Socialist movement which was founded, initially in secret, in the area in 1891.
And it is just the craziest building.
you climb the stairs to a massive arena like auditorium,
surrounded by glittering mosaics of inspiring motherland figures.
It is awesome. And we have no idea, how much it was ever used, being massive, yet fairly inaccessible. And it is a real shame it has fallen into such a state as it would have been a fabulous piece of history had it been kept.
And so we are now in Veliko Tarnovo...
And it is time for coffee. For all of us! Hadn't realised we had done quite so much in three and a half days! I will continue this another time.
And I still have half an alphabet to learn - the other half conveniently matches the same half of the greek one that I managed to get my head round - so I just have the funny squiggly ones that correspond to sounds like 'ts' and zXXX' and all the different ones which look like 'b' s to go... And then remeber those which look like roman characters but in fact aren't. Which is how the word for 'RESTAURANT' sounds similar-ish but looks like this: 'PECTOPAHT'
All good fun!
* Couch surfing = travelling round europe, staying for free in other people's houses. There is a whole intetnet site where people who are looking for free accommodation can connect with people who have houses in interesting places and who are happy for people to come and visit them. It was a fall back option for us if we got cabin fever from van dwelling - which just hasn't happened :)
With love for now from Becky, Will and Jules on Friday, May 28, 2010