Last week after Plovdiv and high in the oh so green Rhodope Mountains it was down, down, down from the mountains and the temperature climbed up and up in the plains.
Suddenly the van, which hasn’t missed a beat for sixty six thousand miles, started to stutter and loose power. We had about 8kms to go. We took it very steady, and pulled safely into the campsite.
There were guests to meet, John and Sarah to catch up with, the van was soon forgotten.
On Monday John and Sarah left for Sofia where he’d been called in for an operation.
I took ArchieVan to John’s car man in Sandanski.
Taking your car to an industrial estate full of mechanics, bodyshops and other noisy curiosities in England can be pretty intimidating. It’s why modern single brand car dealerships are so smart today – it cost millions to overcome the fear of the mechanic’s grease. Doing the same in Bulgaria where you don’t even know what you’re looking for is an experience.
John’s man and I went for a test drive. The van was fine, of course it was.
John’s man berated me for driving too slowly and told me not to buy Bulgarian diesel (remember how happy I was with the price of the stuff?).
He told me the refrain that I’m getting used to now “Everything is shit in Bulgaria. Don’t buy Bulgarian diesel!”
I’ve even heard that they believe branded Scotch bought in Bulgaria is an inferior product to the same brand brought direct from Scotland.
More usefully he told me the turbo probably needs dismantling and cleaning, but he suggested that it’s a big job best done by VW.
I filled up with Shell V-Power, I popped a bottle of STP in the tank. I hoped. I drove even more gently.*
Back at Kromidovo.
A second week with The Wanderers in charge.
Are they mad?
A few lovely guests came through, Germans and Bulgarians. There were good chats. Some needed Covid tests – €50 each, the health centre is cashing in nicely.
The temperature hit 39° (momentarily Britain was almost as hot in places), and stayed around that for days.
The morning dog stanks got earlier and earlier yet still Myra and I were exhausted after an hour. Tubby just ran and ran.
Then Sunday morning arrived and it was time to go.
We’ll miss the lovely little flat that has been home for much of the last three weeks. I’ll miss the tough walks in searing heat with Tubby and Myra doing their best to remove my arms. Of the nature I’ll most miss finding tortoises, and the evening calls of the pygmy owls.
For both of us the best bit was Sara’s garden. Multi-coloured tomato salads, garnished with flowering oregano and basil, all from the garden. Tzatziki made with Sara’s cucumbers. Fruit salads with grapes from the garden, apples and apricots from down the lane. Soon there’ll be peaches, plums, nectarines, then the citrus will follow. Breakfast of kale or Swiss chard with a chilli egg – oh yea!
And even the tumbly down village has started to feel like home. I never did get to the asylum bar.
Let’s not go mad here. The first stop was planned to be just 12kms away.
The hot springs of Rupite bubble from the ground as a memory of the extinct volcano within which they’re found.
This was also the home of the Bulgarian mystic Baba Vanga who died in 1996 but whose prophesies are taken seriously still. Her acolytes claim she predicted both Brexit and 9/11 as well as foretelling the demise of Putin and Trump. She’s worth a story in her own right. If I get a quiet couple of hours this week I’ll have a go.
Not satisfied with these two significant claims to fame the area recently offered up the remains of ancient Heraclea Sintica built by Phillip of Macedon, you remember him? Alex’s dad.
Too much to see.
The trouble was it was hellishly hot (hard to remember now as I sit writing in mountain cool). There was not a breath of air in the bowl of the old volcano.
Bathing in the 42°c thermal springs seemed insane – let’s save that for winter.
Dragging ourselves around the archeological remains would have been a variation of self torture.
We enjoyed the cool wooded surrounds of Baba Vanga’s cottage and church (Christian, non-denominational, all religions welcome, great frescoes). We watched the terrapins and asbestos frogs speeding through the hot thermal waters of the ponds.
Then in now time honoured fashion we headed for the hills, and cool fresh air.
Ioan of Rila.
Past the Welsh/Soviet sounding Balgoevgrad. We left the trucks, the roadside grills, and the heat to climb into the Rila Mountains following their eponymous river.
The villages look smarter, some even pretty.
The roadside restaurants were all packed on this Sunday afternoon.
Up at the monastery the temperature dropped to the good side of 30°.
In the c10th, long before the tourists found this place, a young monk named Ioan headed into the Rila Mountains to contemplate stuff.
The plaque dedicated to him tells us that Ioan lived for 12 years in a cave, then 7 further years on a bare rock, with the sky as his veil, and herbs for his food. His habit of curing the sick and other general miracles brought many followers to his rock.
After a while he stopped chasing his fans away and made something of it instead.
A sense of responsibility to his gang enthused him to build them a fabulous hotel, which out of modesty he called a monastery.
Rila Monastery became the centre of faith for the Christian population of Bulgaria through the 500 years of Turkish power. Today it is a rather wonderful place, high in the cool of the mountains, with a dozen drinking fountains of pure mountain water within its cloisters.
It would be beautiful anywhere, but particularly so rising up from the dust and grime of Bulgaria’s Sofia/Kulata road.
Outside the walls the car park and security crew sup from a ten litre plastic bottle of red wine. One stops Minty from entering wearing shorts. No problem when your house is just down the road. I asked if my (considerably shorter) shorts were OK. Of course they were.
Now we’ve seen a few monasteries on this trip. Some are beautiful for their form (Agia Triada on Crete springs to mind), some for their decoration (Romanian frescoed monasteries excel here), some for their gold and some for their simplicity.
Rila is truly outstanding, and it seems that they are still building.
The inside of the church is an explosion of opulence. The central chandelier is at least 5 metres wide and held by 12 vertical gold chains. Every inch is frescoed, walls, ceiling, only the floor was simple marble.
Outside it wins for form, size, dramatic surroundings and stripyness. And for having a bakery that makes these amazing deep fried doughnut type things for 25p each!
Waking in green.
Our first night back in the van.
It’s always exciting.
You soon forget the walls, bed, shower and convenience of the house.
And to wake cool, with morning sun through a dense shelter of leaves. That you can’t beat.
Polly and I stank the forest in the early light. I snack on wild raspberries and I’m tempted by the boletus, but I have no knowledge of which fungi will make me ill.
Back at camp – more of the crazy doughnuts for breakfast, and still warm bread.
I was attracted to the tower blocks of Dupnitsa. They looked particularly rough. One was for sale. A whole tower block.
Intrigued I read up on the place. My article suggested that it’s a wonderful holiday destination (!). It went on to tell me that it’s known as the first private town in Bulgaria as a result of it being under the control of two ex-police brothers. Apparently that’s despite their prison sentences for corruption (that they haven’t so far shown up for).
7 lakes base camp.
It’s not called that. But it’s appropriate.
At 1500m we’re parked up for the night. We’ve had a good stank. Got lost in the woods. Scratched and bitten, but it was still fun. There’s a food shack. We’ll eat there later.
Next up we’ll crack open Vangelis’s oak aged tsiporo and sup it from Sara’s gift cups that Minty has previously liked in the shops.
In the morning we’ll take the ski lift up to 2100m for a walk around the seven lakes. It’s a five hour stank, we may not do the whole thing, but as one of the top draws of the country we’d best get to see a couple of them.
It’s unusual to be treated to System of a Down and Metallica from a simple bar in the mountains, but last night the music was spot on. Our metal man brought us a good salad (the standard salad is white, green and red, the colours of the flag), the best chips – skin on, sweet potatoes, and a plate of kofta.
The beer was much better than the usual. The rakia was unnecessary, but starting the evening with Vangelis’s tsiporo was always going to be dangerous and was likely to lead to such foolish orders.
We woke in the clear mountain air with better heads than we deserved.
I have a love of burgers, but not the way we serve them in a British pub. There’s usually too much bread, too much sauce, they’re too high and just a bit daft. This one’s from a bar in Manchester’s Northern Quarter. It’s extreme, but it proves my point.
Here and in Greece they serve the perfect solution. The kofta is a meat pattie with herbs and a little spice that’s simply grilled. It’s not attractive, but it tastes damn good, and it’s easier to order than most things on the menu.
I didn’t launch into elementary Bulgarian.
I called up the Cyrillic alphabet, looked at its 32 letters, and decided we wouldn’t be here long enough to get my head around it.
Now that we’re in our fourth week I regret my laziness.
The alphabet was drawn by Macedonians to better pronounce the sounds of Bulgarian than standard Greek alphabet allowed. That said it has much in common with the Greek and so there are many characters that are easy to recognise.
The D looks particularly interesting, but hard to write.
There’s a chair lift. Thankfully.
It takes 30 minutes to cover 2kms and 600m height gain. Swaying on a bit of wire 30m above the ground. With not a lot to keep you in. You get used to lifts like these. You also forget the first time and relive the fear when you haven’t ridden on one for 15 years or so.
It was scary.
It was utterly stunning.
The mountain is the first/last of its range and so the views take in around 2500m of vertical gain from the distant plain.
Upstairs at the chalet that view is already beyond anything we have seen in a very long time, but it was about to get better.
It’s busy. The nation takes August off and few are travelling abroad this year. It looked as if we’d be in procession around the sights, but we needed have worried.
The chalet is at 2100m, our walk topped out around 2300m, and that 200m made all the difference. The climb is tough. We were struggling. Those around us soon fell away. We were never alone, but within 15 minutes of getting off the lift it didn’t feel crowded.
We were seriously impressed with the range of folk making the climb. Up they marched. From very young to a lot older than KC, and a fair few chunky folk who’d have benefitted from carrying a few less kilos. Good on them all.
The lakes opened up, the temperature stayed reasonable and we wandered in wonder.
Folk were climbing high for the view of all seven lakes. The five hour route. They had our respect but not our company. Our two and a half hour circuit took in five lakes and left us truly knackered. It had been a wonderful day. And sleep couldn’t come soon enough.
Wear it out.
We came away intending to buy as little as possible.
Eventually that catches up with you.
Currently the soles are hanging off my trainers and my sandals**. My favourite brown shirt has survived another season, but now both sleeves are detaching from the mother ship, there are holes front and back and the rest is but a skein of gossamer. My boxers are not what you’d want the ambulance man to see. Nonetheless, footwear aside, I suspect that I still have enough clothes to last the rest of my life.
Remember my rants about water waste? If you’re serious about saving water buy fewer clothes. A kilo of cotton (enough to make a pair of jeans) takes about 20,000 litres of water to grow and produce. 20,000 litres!
My sis sent me a link to a company that’ll take back its clothes when you have finished with them. I like that thinking. I wish all businesses were forced into creating that kind of closed loop.
Finding the best. Sophia to Vratsa. The Iskar.
Will these roads ever stop getting better, more beautiful?
After a night near a monastery overlooking Sophia the roads through the suburbs were hairy. Patches stuck patches to patches and often more were needed. Heavy transport had pushed up huge ruts of tarmac. Lorries vied for space with fearless Roma on horse and carts. Stalls were everywhere selling fruit, vegetables, mountains of melons, grilled meats and plastic tat. You never really knew if the stopped car in front was parked, queueing, or merely hailing some food from a stall.
Then suddenly the mayhem was behind us. We climbed above it all. The valley opened and a tremendous feat of tarmac engineering wound its way through the hills.
The gorge of the Iskar cuts through limestone and at times a red rock (bauxite?) with a scale that feels deserving of a greater word. Canyon feels too American, but gives you a sense of this place.
A beautiful road is often a few kilometres long, but this one went on and on. Only the HGV grand prix detracted from the experience as 40 tonne trucks raced through the bends.
We have no photos. Minty was clinging on and I was at 100% concentration. We have only the memory.
I’m writing now on the hill above Vratsa, a very clean town with a dramatic mountain backdrop, and site of one of the many routs of the Turks by the Russian and Bulgarian armies in 1876.
Down in the town it’s a glamour parade as young mums push the most expensive baby buggies in their branded gear. There are more botox-gone-wrong faces than one town should have to admit to. The broken generations of old folk look on in dismay.
Near Amanda’s home town of Ripon in North Yorkshire there’s an area called Brimham Rocks. It’s fun. There are weird contorted rock formations that are good for a walk any time of the year.
Approaching Belogradchik feels like dropping into a sci-fi film where Brimham Rocks has been fed steroids for a decade and now covers an area of about 50 square kms.
For good measure there’s a fortress too. Built into the crazy rock formations. It’s bonkers. I recommend it.
Sight-seeing is hard work. Especially with a serious drive thrown in on most days. Most Bulgarian roads are better than I remember, but the volume of heavy trucks thundering along roads just wide enough for them to pass means there’s no let up in the intense concentration.
After Belogradchik I was finished. There were just a few fast miles to do.
The spot we planned to stop at wasn’t suitable.
There was a campsite 25 miles away.
We’re there now.
The van’s on a flat gravel pitch shaded by mature trees.
We’ve had showers.
We’ve had beer.
I expect we’ll put our feet up for a days or two. Repair a few things. Recharge.
We have thinking to do. We hope to visit Serbia next week. That may work, or we may need to find another route.
To jog my mind for when I read this in a few years and Covid may be but a bad memory… Borders are closing around us. Coming from one country may trigger a quarantine in another country. Britain has just imposed a two week quarantine on anyone arriving who has passed through Belgium. I hope that has lifted before we get there.
Our route from here is a strategic game.
*The turbo has held out so far. I have been driving very gently. The mpg is impressive. I guess a combination of a light right foot, a can of STP and Shell V Power all help.
**Later that same morning I tripped on the sandal that was flapping off my foot. I had to call time. I walked into a shoe shop. Picked up a similar sandal. Tried it. It fit. I left the shop only 30 Leva lighter. And my faithful Merrels went into the bin.