Miles versus dreams.
Minty’s ticket is booked.
I need to be in Thessaloniki on Friday.
If I don’t stop loving where I’m at and start driving I’m going to be in an awful lot of trouble!
Lots of miles means that I won’t be exploring as much and so I feel a license to indulge in the story of what will be my last amazing slow day for a while, Sunday.
I started at the sweetest, most basic and humble campsite where I paid in beer (and eventually a bottle of wine too). The site was actually closed for winter, but the owner was there working and let me stay.
I wanted some drinking water but my man didn’t have the filtered water taps running (everything else is drawn from the river) and so he gave me his own water from his car. That man is a star and hope I’ll go there again, maybe next time he’ll let me spend some money.
Initially I headed in the wrong direction for a few miles to see the rock carving of the ancient Dacian* ruler Decebalus. The huge carving is good (think Mount Rushmore), but it was the drive along the Danube to get to it that made my heart soar.
It wasn’t even a bright morning, but the high cliffs plunging into the deep wide river, with equally steep sided inlets here and there, haphazard villages, and occasionally wild horses, was the stuff of films. It felt like all the moderate bits had been edited from my short drive.
Oh, except the rubbish. A few people asked about the little story at the end of the last post. Unfortunately the rubbish problem here is only equalled in my travels by India. No one thinks twice about hurling what’s finished with from the window. And wet wipes? I dread to think what they do with so many. Most of my pictures could, if taken from a different angle, show a very different perspective. Strangely you get used to it and see past it, I guess that’s what they all do too.
Pro photographers and geo political history.
Before I got to see old Decebalus I stopped off to gaze in wonder at the river, and there met Hannah and Simon. They’re English film and stills photographers working on a fascinating project that helped to fill in some background knowledge for me. The project is recording the green belt that runs along what used to be known as The Iron Curtain separating the east from Western Europe.
Such was the paranoia of the east that huge tracts of land were set aside as no man’s land, between countries, as well as between ideologies. As these countries were absorbed into the EU so commitments were made to maintain the wild habitats that resulted from those no mans lands – and wonderful they are. Hannah is recording that protection.
Along the Danube.
Travelling east again the beauty fatigue refused to kick in.
Perhaps that’s because the towns and villages are far from what we might consider beautiful. While the generally unrendered, unpointed, unloved, houses are less than attractive, the villages still ooze charm. People sit out in little groups, often in colourful dress (it was Sunday) just shooting the breeze and waving at foreign cars (I love that), despite the lorries thundering by. An occasional garden may be full of dahlias and the colours leap out of the dusty norm. Those who don’t dress in colour mostly seem to wear home spun thick woolens that I bet they pull on every day of the year, no matter what the temperature.
As the road took me inland I passed miles of terraced hillside where the vines have been grubbed up and the land seems to be left untended. Where it’s flat, and it is for miles, it resembles Steppe. In fact it might well be the western edge of the Eurasian Steppe, I must check.
Where angels long to rest.
Park4night, the app that helps find many of our stop over sites, suggested a place on a beach of the Danube. It said little more than that, but I arrived at an unexpected paradise.
Port Cetate once handled grain from a thousand farmers across Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania, until the Soviets closed it in 1945 and looked after many of the displaced workers in their salt mines a long way east. In a single act the livelihoods of thousands of families were ruined, and many were deported for expressing their discontent.
The beautiful Italian designed buildings were repurposed as barracks for a while, but then abandoned to the whim of vandalising youth and livestock.
In 1997 the poet Mircea Dinescu sold his shares in the satirical magazine he’d founded and bought the whole port area. Over years he has created the sort of laid back cultural haven you might find in rural Somerset or Cornwall.
And the angels?
When the government announced plans to build a Transylvanian Dracula theme park Port Cetate reacted by welcoming the angels who’d been displaced by the dark side. The riverbank that looks across to Serbia is the resting place for many beautiful angelic sculptures, some obvious, many abstract.
I’ve sat here for five hours now. I’ve been writing, answering some of the lovely comments to our Six Month Report post (thank you everyone, I was delighted to receive so many), but mostly I have been gazing at the changing river scene. A lot of the time it’s dead calm, then a massive barge will sail by, creating a tremble for minutes before and after its passing. Some big fish are jumping. And even at midday there’s a light haze. Earlier this still morning I could hear conversations on the Serbian side, several hundred meters away. What a beautiful time that is, when visibility may be low, but voices carry across the distance.
The plan was to do a long drive today, but the lure of this place means that I’m likely to have an even longer one tomorrow. Even though I’m packed up, and the van is clean, the thought of moving on keeps getting pushed back.
Why I hark back to St Just so often? I do it in almost every post.
I wasn’t born there, I was born in another scary Cornish town a bit further east, the once great town of Redruth.
My visits to St Just started when I was about 17, and its grip on me has strengthened ever since. We first bought our house a few miles away at Tregiffian in the late 90s (but worked up country), and then moved into town in 2015.
You can’t sum up St Just in a paragraph, or even a post, but Keith, chairman of The Cape Cornwall Singers, reminded me today of this little film from The Star pub that helps paint the picture: The Singers in The Star. 2014.
After a last coffee in Port Cetate’s café I ask “How much do I owe you?” “Ah, it’s only coffee, don’t worry, just have a great day!”
I knew staying the whole day would be a mistake. At a rather late 2pm I set off and within half an hour I was at the border.
I had the first border search that I can remember in years, albeit half hearted. Ten minutes later I was in country number 18, Bulgaria.
What can I say? I thought Romania was poor, but often beautiful.
My first few hours in Bulgaria have left me wondering if Romania is actually an Emirate!
I’ll find the good here, I always do, but the initial impact has been pretty shocking.
The level of roadside rubbish is worse here. But worse again is the state of many villages. I like a state of gentle dilapidation, and I’ve been known to glamorise it, but I’m not comfortable with people living in some of the wrecks I’ve seen along the roadside today.
Post industrial fortresses.
In the distance castles seem to loom before you. As you approach you realise these are the remains of huge factories. The pollution is pretty bad now, in the communist years it must have been truly grim. These places are broken, they seem to be returning to the soil, but that’ll take centuries yet.
When I said to Romanians I was heading here they tended to say “It’s still communist!” but then every country seems to like a dig at its neighbour. Now I’m here I’m beginning to wonder.
Signs are in Cyrillic as well as Roman, it’s confusing, but exciting too.
Calm beyond the chaos.
I drove through the town of Montana where it seemed nothing had been done to ease the brutal reality of a hard place. Grey crumbling concrete. Junctions that were no more than vast swathes of wavy tarmac with no white lines for clues. Cables running everywhere. That thick layer of grime that takes away all colour.
Yet my stop point only a couple of miles out of town couldn’t have been more different. We’re alongside the reservoir that supplies Montana. It is as calm as could be imagined. In fact it’s eerily quiet, and now utterly pitch dark.
We’re not scared though are we Polly? Polly? Why are you shaking? Polly, stop trying to climb up into my arms!
We’ll have an early night, and press on for Greece in the morning.
I’d written the above before the wolves started howling.
When people have said they’ve heard wolves before I’ve suspected that they’ve just heard particularly vocal dogs. But when you do hear them you know! If Polly was scared before then she was terrified after hearing her wild cousins.
You can’t get a good turn of speed, certainly not in the van. Not because of traffic, but because of the roads. Although there was some straight highway, most of the journey was on the sort of two way roads that linked the towns of Britain forty years ago. That was fine, there was plenty to look at, and even after six hours I hadn’t stopped loving it.
Two mountain ranges, the first particularly wild, and a deep gorge, all in one day.
Different villages have their speciality products. In one you might drive past 30 little stalls selling honey, all different golden shades with the sun shining through the jars. Through another village it seemed that every house had a pyramid of oranges for sale.
The most unusual was barbecue town. A two mile strip with umpteen stone barbecues all smoking away on the pavements. And people, so many people, who must have travelled there just to eat the delicious smelling meat.
I miss having my co-pilot to snap pictures of such things as we pass.
Greece. Feels like home already.
After the intense experiences of the last two countries, both so foreign, both so exciting, there was a definite sense of comfort driving into Greece.
Now parked up near the large Kerkinis Lake the sounds are no longer from the roaring of trucks, but predominantly from millions of birds stopping on their migrations.
Walking along the dirt paths there’s the familiar scurrying of lizards, darting to shelter through the crisp dry leaves. Scores of bright frogs jump back into the steam on my approach. The air is thick with dragonflies. A three or more foot long snake kindly slivered off the path avoiding the need for confrontation. Grasshoppers take flight on blackcurrant and apricot coloured wings. Huge grasshoppers (definitely not crickets) fly greater distances with a sawing noise from their wings. Crayfish – I read of people catching crayfish but I’d never seen them wild until today. A busking cicada popped into the van hoping to play his maracas, but it was a bit loud for our tastes so we asked him to leave.
Beautiful fruit hangs ready to be picked.
And everyone has a kalispera (good evening) for the stranger.
“Perhaps the Englishman is to be our new Orthodox priest? We wouldn’t want that beard going to waste.”
I sit on a rock as a goatherd shoos along his flock of several hundred ragged beasts. That amazing smell! And their inquisitive square pupiled eyes. Goatman and I exchange a few words, neither of us understand anything other than good evening and good bye, but we know we’re not a threat to each other and that’s enough.
The backdrop to all this is the soaring mountain range that makes the borders to Macedonia and Bulgaria. The views from up there must go on for miles – if it’s not too hot I’ll walk up to have a look tomorrow.
I believe I’m finally in a calm enough state of mind to live awhile in a place like this. I’m looking forward to the winter and all the change it brings.
Up the hill.
In the morning a ranger arrives and chats, suggesting places to see and to stay.
He’s there to guide a film crew, and I laugh when the crew arrive to this nowhere place, each carrying their overpriced coffee from who knows where. Just like every such crew at home.
Ranger’s first suggestion.
I wanted to get high up so he pointed out a monastery and suggested that I carry on walking up the hill to a reservoir above it.
As I passed the monastery I had the interesting sight of 20 nuns in full habits shaking and gathering olives from the monastery’s grove.
The hill was too much in the heat, but the view from as far as I got was enough to feast my eyes for a while.
I ended up going back for the van and stayed here for the night.
It is one of the most beautiful spots we’ve camped at. Sitting up in bed now I can look out of my side window towards the mountain, and through the open door on the other side down to the distant lake. And it is absolutely free!
Ranger’s second suggestion.
I could see water buffalo off in the distance and hoped they’d come my way. My knowledgeable fellow suggested that if they didn’t come I could alway nip along and see his mate who farms them. He put the directions into my phone for me.
He also indicated where I’d spot their 8,000 strong flock of flamingoes. I did see them, but they were too far off to capture on a picture.
After a gentle meander through the Bulgarian then Greek mountains the motorway around Thessaloniki came as a hell of a surprise. It’s at times like that when you become most aware of the need for a whole lot more power. When stuff happens you have little alternative but to brake, even though you’d accelerate around the issue in your car.
The important thing is it’s only Thursday, I’m in the right town, and I could walk to the airport to meet Minty if I had to (although Tripod might not be as keen).
The tripod update.
Ah yes, my little mate. She is doing very well. She has managed to take her wound from something hideous that was the size of my whole thumb down to an open bit that’s only slightly bigger than my little finger nail.
She’s drug free at last, and staggering about fairly well on three legs. She needs to be completely healed for at least three months before she goes back to the vet for an implant that’s a bit more Noel Fitzpatrick style. If everything goes to plan then eight months after she hurt herself she may be back on four legs.
Romania and Bulgaria.
Events made it necessary to skip through both of theses important countries at a rate of knots. I’m interested in both and hope to spend a lot more time in them next year. Their cultural experience still offers a glimpse of a life that you’re only likely to see in a museum elsewhere. Their natural habits are vast, and their story is one we know little about in Britain.
Those events have now come full circle and Minty’s back, The team is together again. When I press send on this post we’ll have our first breakfast together in Greece where the temperature’s around twenty two degrees this morning. How lucky we are!
6 Month Report questions.
I’ve answered many individual questions from the 6 Month Report, some are worth sharing too. I’ll spread them over the next few posts.
The idea of driving on the “wrong side of the road” scares many from driving off our little island. I guess I’m lucky in that I’ve been doing it almost as long as I’ve been driving. We also had two fabulous left hand drive cars in the UK so we’ve tried it both ways.
The question was well put – Should anyone looking to follow in our tyre tracks consider getting a lefty from the continent to customise?
I suggest that it depends on your partner. If they can cope with the trucks thundering at them and utterly trust their driver to save them from certain death then sticking with right hand drive should be OK. Although that might sound flippant it is pretty frightening, and was particularly so through Poland.
From the driver’s perspective I believe being on the wrong side actually helps. It makes it easier to skim along on the very edge giving the other driver as much room as possible.
You won’t be doing much overtaking so seeing past the car in front isn’t a big factor.
When driving alone the hardest part is turning right onto a main road. The glass windows that I curse when it’s hot help enormously here – I have much better visibility down the side than most vans.
The other point to consider is that you’ll eventually need to sell your van – not many are open minded enough to consider a left hooker in the UK.
The Dacians. This tale’s for JC, Minty’s dad.
I suggested a few posts back that the Polish were planning world domination, secretly infiltrating very corner of the globe with their Trojan Trucks.
None of our Polish readers denied it (and we have a few) so we can assume that it’s true.
The Romanian Revenge.
The Romanians have never played a big part in global politics, but, as so often in life, it’s the quiet ones that you have to watch. Rather than dominating others, they tended to be the dominated. Their location left them prey to occupation by Roman, Bulgarian, Ottoman, Austrian and Russian forces.
But now they have a plan.
Their secret weapon is the Dacia.
These once ugly cars are seeping into every economy, and it’s easy to see why.
Named after the Romanian kingdom before the arrival of the Romans, the Dacia is cheap, very cheap.
My style guides at Wallpaper magazine brought the Dacia to my attention with a fabulous line that described the Duster in words that went something like “…a medium sized family car, that does all it needs to do pretty well, with four wheel drive, for a similar price to an audio upgrade on a Bentley.” I love that.
And here it comes, that fabulous line “How much is enough?”.
Renault now own Dacia completely, as opposed to subsidising it with their old machinery, and the cars are rolling out at a hell of a rate. They’re idiosyncratic, but we’ve seen enough to accept them.
Don’t worry though, there’s no secret army hiding in the boot of every Dacia.
No. The plan is so much more simple.
When the total ownership of Dacias exceeds 20% of all vehicles in any one country the whole lot will simply be turned off. And they won’t move again until the rebels’ (RR, Romanian Rebels to keep the auto theme driving) demands are met.
The scary thing is that I’m minded to delete this silly flight of fancy on the basis that it sounds like something Farage might try to tell you all in earnestness.