Bears and other beauties.
Last week we left you at the Dancing Bears Sanctuary, high in the Rila Mountains above Belista and about to start one of the great drives of our lives.
It’s a slow start. The first few kms were on a track, and when the tarmac started there wasn’t enough room to pass oncoming vehicles for miles.
The scenery feels Austrian.
Meadows deep in flowers. Black barns. Pretty cows.
The one village is typical, all side roads are just dust tracks, houses look abandoned, the only shop is hard to identify as such, but we’re getting used to it now.
We’re on route 84. It is stunning.
The rail line runs along the road for some of the distance, then disappears into very long tunnels.
All the way the road cuts through dense broadleaf forest. The cliffs of the gorge soar either side.
It’s cooler. The soft greens are calming. There’s a river alongside. Springs gush from the hills.
There’s hardly another vehicle on the road.
It descends for much of the 100kms until finally turning onto the A1.
This is the ridiculously straight road between the capital, Sofia, and the second city Plovdiv. Suddenly it’s hot, busy, there are “no horse and cart” signs. There are horses and carts.
We fill with fuel. The cheapest I have bought in years. 82p per litre – last year in Italy we saw diesel at over £2 a litre. Yet the poverty of the poor is such here that they’re driven to demonstrate against these fuel prices.
PLF in Plovdiv.
Travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor had been here in 1934 and loved the town despite being less than positive about much of Bulgaria. I suspected that things might have changed a little in 90 years. I was keen that we find out for ourselves.
We have been to most of the big eastern European cities in the van, and nearly every one has been a challenge. Vilnius takes the trophy for being the hardest.
Minty had arranged our parking but the map to the space showed many tight switchbacks. We decided to ditch ArchieVan and cover the last bit on foot to ensure it was possible.
Fifteen minutes later ArchieVan was shaking over the wild cobbles of Plovdiv’s old town, pulling up at the gatehouse, having our documents checked, and being waved into the inner sanctum. The oldest part of the old town is only accessible to residents, and those lucky enough to stay at one of the few lovely hotels within. We were the latter.
The Hotel Hebros had a space reserved for the beast. Right outside.
We’d both searched for a place to stay in the city and both landed on the Hebros.
The c19th building is an architectural treasure in a city of interesting buildings.
It was our first special stay since Bucharest last September, although that was just an AirBnB. This was to be our first hotel of the trip – and it didn’t let us down.
The old trader’s house is rich with wood panelling and period furniture. Our room had the most outrageous ceiling and cornicing.
“Could we have a bedroom with a bath on a pedestal?” “Of course.”
Their restaurant was closed, but that forced us out to explore more.
The wifi was just about good enough to stream Nick Cave’s solo performance at Alexander Palace*.
Down the years.
Plovdiv was ruled by the Thracians. Phillip of Macedon took it from them and called it Phillipopolis, well, why not? He was the father of Alexander The Great. The Romans took his well built fortress and made it into a military and cultural centre. Some of their recently discovered ruins are the best Roman remains in Europe.
The Huns and Goths wrecked much of the place as was their wont, but the Byzantines set about putting that right. In 1385 the Turkish took control and unlike most places under their power Plovdiv continued to thrive as a trade centre.
It was the last important city ceded by the Turks to the Bulgarian state in 1885. 500 years under Turkish rule.
What are we creating today that might last 500 years?
We dug straight into history at Nebet Tepe.
It’s Turkish for Watch Tower, it’s the site of the original fortress and the name of the highest of the seven hills of Plovdiv.
I don’t remember learning much there…
Ah! It’s also the name of the bar with the best view in town and that’s where we headed.
We drank Rakia. We drank beer. We ate like kings. We spent like paupers.
Real life happens in Kapana. It’s the artists’ quarter. It’s where the cool bars are. And the beautiful people come in their droves.
We haven’t seen the beautiful people in a long time. Perhaps since Athens. And here they are immaculately dressed.
There are so many boutique shops selling most individual clothing, and so many willowy women wearing truly exquisite items that are approaching haute couture in everything but price.
There’s a row of shops that all sell sparkly long dresses – nothing else.
Several shops sell only tulle skirts, immodestly flaring from the waist.
Curiously there are also many knitting and knitwear shops.
Galleries. Galleries on every corner. Exciting antique and bric-a-brac dealers.
Fountains. The Soviets loved fountains.
It’s hard to photograph but this particular sculpture stopped me. Called The Witness it’s a memorial to all those who disappeared, were murdered, tortured, often all three, during the communist era.
The Bulgarian approach to their assets is inspirational. The Roman theatre isn’t just an archaeological feature. It’s a venue for opera, and for heavy metal. Festivals happen in the parks, in the streets, wherever there’s space.
The Kapana Bakery on ul. Yoakim Gruev looks pretty similar to any other in the town. The product though is exquisite.
Never has a pain au raisin and a coffee tasted so good.
Their seeded bread lasted one serving for two people.
Minty’s almond croissant sent her to food heaven.
Can I open an account?
Plovdiv is small (less than 400k population), exciting, affordable, elegant, clean, hard under foot (the cobbles are mean to dogs and man). It feels safe. A subway looked much like any subway at home, except, instead of stinking of piss it smelt curiously of biscuits.
Plovdiv is the first place we’ve been to in a while where we’d like to stay in for a few months. I hope we’ll come back so that we can visit some of the museums and galleries. Two nights is enough for orientation, but not exploration.
I expected to be interested by Bulgaria.
I didn’t expect to be writing about the country as one of the more beautiful that we have visited.
The dusty, dilapidated, hard edge that greets you from every entry point is a perfect foil for the natural beauty of the forested mountains.
On my first visit I passed through Montana on the western corridor route between Romania and Greece. It was the most grim place I remember. Now I know that only 10kms to the west is one of Europe’s largest forest areas, stretching way into Serbia and continuing in an arc as the Central Balkan Park almost uninterrupted to the Black Sea.
After the plains we began to follow the Vacha River. Oh my this is beautiful. It’s dammed at three points. The largest dam, the Vacha Dam, took ten years to build and its scale is truly intimidating. The reservoir it creates is a 35km long ribbon of water, and yesterday, a Saturday, we had its beauty to ourselves, passing perhaps a dozen cars in that distance.
Where there’s flat space runner beans are the crop of choice, along the lake and through the mountains. Higher, in wilding meadows, small half acre plots have been fenced off. Here potatoes are cropped, and the roadside stalls nearby have plenty.
Most beautiful drives come at the price of a terrifying road. Here the surface is good, it’s wide enough, and it has plenty of stopping points from which to soak in the views.
Stained glass stalls.
Roadside stalls sell vegetables, fire water, fruit and honey.
Many shades of honey are arranged in towers, with the sun glinting through they rival stained glass windows.
At the head of the dam the spa town of Devin deserves more time than we gave it (where doesn’t?).
Picture if you can an ex-Soviet town, grey is the dominant colour from settled concrete and road dust.
Roma lads drive their carts chariot style, standing on the back, long whip in one hand, reins in the other. The industries are logging and quarrying. Heavy transport thunders through, shaking down more dust from poorly constructed buildings.
Then picture slinky ladies in Hermes print chiffon gowns, slit to the waist, gliding between their resort hotels.
Davos or Devin. Some of the characters are the same. Mostly the scene is different.
We didn’t spend time in the town because our destination was a few miles up the Devin River where a deep gorge cuts further into the mountains.
There are swimming pools here where the water is 36° and 39°c. We’d have liked to have tried them, but it was surprisingly expensive, especially as we’d arrived near closing time. Instead we took to nature and followed the trails for a few miles before sleeping like the dead despite thunder rolling around the hills. Even Polly wasn’t bothered.
In the morning as the sun hit the rain soaked moss steam began to rise. There’s an angle of the rising sun that perfectly lights the myriad insects of the forest and it’s a beautiful thing.
Flies are unwelcome guests at our table, but without them we won’t survive long as a species. Here they are in rude health. Darters, skimmers, dragonflies, fritillaries, weavers, leaf beetles, ground beetles, dung beetles, carpenter bees, tree wasps, ground dwelling wasps, crickets and hornets (yuk!), damsel flies and migrant hawkers. And spiders. Oh those incredible engineers building webs that stretch across valleys, creatures I’d not want as neighbours, but whose skills I long to understand.
A passerby just congratulated me on the best office in the world. I think she’s right.
The car park is filling up with Sunday hikers now, we’ll move on and allow them to enjoy this special place, as we weave our way on through the mountains wandering in wonder.
You can’t have read many posts on this blog and not realised that my rock god has long been Nick Cave.
It’s not an easy thing to say. During my formative years Bowie was most definitely my man. I love him still. And probably play more Bowie than Cave.
But. When I first moved to London a friend needed some money. He needed £2000. It was a fortune back then. I can’t even remember why. But I had the sum and I leant it to him.
The friend was from a wealthy (Italian) family, yet still he was grateful. He paid me back.
Much better than that, as a thank you he bought me a ticket to see Nick Cave at the Kilburn National. It must have been 1988.
It was the fourth song that night that secured my adulation.
My man, in a white suit, skidded on his knees and sang “Oh oh Deanna. I ain’t down here for your money. I ain’t down here for your love.”
Thirty odd years later I can think of no better music to live to, to die to, than that of the magnificent Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.
Tonight he released the final part of his film trilogy that started as a well produced tour diary, then took him through his son’s suicide, and culminated tonight in Idiot Prayer, alone at Alexander Palace.
I dehydrated from the tears I shed through his wondrous performance.
I felt creative juices flooding my veins.
I felt a love I cannot explain.
Yet. If I saw him on the street I’d probably walk on by.
30 years ago Kanga, my Irish Terrier, used to stand in the back of my van and howl at Nick’s verses. Today Polly doesn’t have to suffer the volume, but she certainly knows when barking is out of the question. Watching tonight’s 90 minute performance I appreciated the director of photography’s (Robbie Ryan) skill more than I ever did while making adverts. Every cast of light, every angle, the dry ice, Nick’s suit.
Thank you for the introduction long lost Italian friend (also called Nick).