In which Bulgaria grows on me. I may learn to love it.
We were still on Crete. Minty was researching various traveller groups, getting a feel for how the virus would affect our onward journey.
Almost as a throwaway line she read “Do you fancy running a campsite in Bulgaria?”
After exchanging a few messages we called the owners and talked it through.
They needed some time out, but they couldn’t leave their site in high season.
They needed someone to look after the place.
It sounded slightly bonkers, it was hundreds of miles off our intended route, but it sounded like an experience we were unlikely to be offered again.
We said we’d do it.
We arrived at Camping Kromidovo on Monday 13th July, a day before the Greek border became a whole lot more difficult to cross.
We were nervous, if we didn’t like the site we’d have to make a mad dash south again before mandatory testing came into force.
We needn’t have worried.
We met Jon on the road and felt right at home.
We didn’t know a thing about the owners, but Jon and Sara turn out to be English.
They turn out to be English and for years they lived at the opposite end of the street we lived on in Manchester.
The connections got stronger later.
Their delightful site, Camping Kromidovo, is a small area for perhaps 20 tents, or a dozen vans, with some rooms, a tepee and a bell tent. We have the luxury of staying in the rooms, an upstairs two bedroom flat.
Perception versus reality.
We had driven past the village on our way to Melnik a week ago.
We didn’t feel inspired.
Kromidovo is like so many Bulgarian villages. Knackered.
Most of the population is over 60. Most of their houses are in a state.
The streets are dusty lanes full of potholes and axel cracking speedbumps.
Like in India, garden waste, and other rubbish, is burnt in the street.
The shop, that’s also the bar, looks as though it could be an asylum.
And yet. And yet when you sit on the terrace looking out towards the Pirin Mountains in the north, and the Rhodophe range bordering Greece to the south you realise what a special place this is.
At the end of the lane there’s a 25m mineral water swimming pool, closed at the moment because of the virus, but it’ll soon be an asset once again.
All around are vines, and there are five excellent vineyards within walking distance. Cherry orchards have been planted on flat land and will fruit next year. You can buy every vegetable you need for pennies at roadside stalls. Trees are heavy with apples, pears, figs and walnuts. There are plums, but most are taken by the birds. Every garden has a crop of tomatoes, corn on the cob, cabbages, glistening aubergines, a few vines for personal use.
Despite being poor this is a land of plenty. It has to be. State pension pays just €125 a month.
It’s popular too. This is the area most popular with the Sofia crowd who come for the wine, good food and the fact that it’s only another two hours to get to a Greek beach.
The day starts with a cockerel, and once he has woken a few friends the songs really get going.
There’s plenty of tweet tweet, but there’s also more defined song such as the golden orioles that have dropped in to bring colour to the summer.
Storks clatter their beaks as sparrows build their homes within the dinosaur nests. Larks ascend. Turtle doves tuuuurrr tuuurrr in celebration of their decision not to risk the guns of Italy. Jays squawk. Flycatchers do what they do.
Over our door a family of swifts have set up home and Jon has provided them with an extra platform from which the juniors practice acrobatics.
In the evening pygmy owls hiss at each other before demonstrating their manoeuvrability while chasing bats. Later still the silence is broken by screams as birds of prey take a snack.
We’re here to look after the campsite and other animals.
There are eight cats, apparently. We’ve seen six so far including a proud ginger and white that mixes happily with the dogs, purring her content when Tubby nudges her.
Tubby. Tubby’s a Bulgarian Barak, a solid, strong hunting dog with a calm nature and obstinate will. He was only a few weeks old when someone left him outside the campsite in a tub. He spent his formative months terrorised by cats. Tubby will walk and run all day and didn’t seem to be losing any ground when chasing a hare this morning.
Myra. Myra’s a Bulgarian Scenthound or Gonche who was dumped after she had the misfortune of getting the wrong side of a gun and took a load of shot in one knee. She has been here a few months now and can take a good walk, but she needs time in the morning to get the damaged leg moving again.
When walking a sight hound and a scent hound on the lead the usual delight of seeing a leveret hopping unawares towards us was spoiled somewhat as I nearly lost both arms when the dogs spotted it.
Scrappy. I don’t know Scrappy’s story so let’s create it here. Scrappy had an eating disorder that led her to pile on rather too many pounds until she could no longer squeeze through her home cat flap. After a couple of nights sleeping rough she heard tell of the excellent care available from an English campsite. She waddled the 6 or 7 miles to Camping Kromidovo and has been here ever since. Although her diet isn’t strict she has shed a few pounds. She wanders around happily, but she rarely joins the hounds on their expeditions.
That’s the gang. What could possibly go wrong?
The Cornish Wanderers took charge around 8.30 on Friday morning.
First duty was walking the dogs.
By 9.00am Polly was injured, Myra had run towards home as soon as her lead was off and Tubby had run for the hills.
So that left Scrappy. Except that Scrappy doesn’t bother with walks anyway.
I left with four dogs, came back with one, and that one was broken.
Having done as many jobs as we have we’re aware of the concept of teething troubles, but this felt like a particularly bad start.
Tubby is his own man (or dog) and will often take off on a walk. He wasn’t a worry.
Myra hasn’t lived here long and was clearly unsure of the new people taking her away from the place she’s only now coming to know as home.
And Polly? Well, she seemed to tumble, catch herself, and then hobble home, signing herself off for the day.
Since then it has been a bit too calm. Too calm for a business.
The site is on a transit route for much of Europe into Greece. Bulgarians, Germans, Czechs, Slovaks, Romanians, French and a few Brits all come through here, resting up at the site before taking the border in the morning.
On Tuesday Greece introduced the need for negative Covid-19 tests at the border, and there has hardly been a soul here since.
Feet up then?
We seem incapable of simply sitting around. So we’ve cleaned the van, emptying every nook and cranny for the first time in ten months. We’ve flushed his tanks, repacked our goods, shed some things we haven’t used.
Next came Jon and Sara’s car. I like cleaning cars. I know that in a dusty place like this it will soon be back to its original state. But I feel happy knowing that for a few days it shone.
Then guests arrived. Yee ha! A French Bulgarian family. We chat a little in French, we must talk to the children in English. I need to learn a few key words of Bulgarian.
Oh Polly. After her tumble on Friday morning she walked later as well as usual, perhaps limping a little.
On Saturday she was OK, but didn’t come on the long walk.
In the night she was licking her paw quietly, incessantly. Dogs do that.
We couldn’t see a wound and we weren’t too worried.
Then at about 5.30am, the cockerel had crowed, and the golden oriole was just tuning up. Minty was awake. She whispered “I can smell blood.”
The poor poppit’s bed was a mess.
A dog with only three good legs isn’t a good candidate for a poorly paw and she was clearly trying to work out which of her two right feet she could put weight on.
Tomorrow she’ll go to the vet. Today she has been carried for every need, and in between times she has lain with her bucket of shame and a beautifully bandaged paw. In Minty she has the best unqualified nurse she could hope for.
Later on Sunday the Germans arrived. Five adults who’d made it from Dresden in just two days (it’s about a thousand miles).
They asked about restaurants, but were clearly too knackered to drive to Melnik where there’s a good selection.
That morning I’d made a goulash that was to feed us for a few days, it had simmered for hours, it’d pack a flavour punch and be good.
I looked at the dad and knew I wouldn’t be eating the goulash. He didn’t hesitate when I offered to feed them, and 30 minutes later they were washing it down with the excellent local wine that the campsite sells.
We had beer for dinner that night.
Walks with the hounds have fallen into a rhythm. We’re out for an hour of stanking across countryside that’s a mix of wild and vines, with distant views of mountains reaching almost to 3000m.
42% of the Bulgarian land mass is forested, or scrub – imagine that much wilderness! In England there’s only 10% tree cover.
A few hundred metres from home Tubby is let off his lead and he legs it, chasing anything that needs chasing. He checks in with me every few minutes to make sure we’re still heading to the same place then he’s gone again, just a head bobbing through the distant grasses.
Myra sticks with me. We’re forming a bond. I’ll not let her off the lead again for a few days, but she doesn’t need the bursts of speed anyway. She gets reassurance and love, although her habit of rolling in the most rotten thing she can find makes that love a challenge at times.
The nearest significant town of Sandanski is trying to pull itself out of its post-Soviet gloom, but with most of the housing stock built in the 1950s and 60s that’ll be a long slow journey. Flats in crumbling tower blocks have been individualised recently as owners have carried out their own repairs. Sometimes the outside walls of a single flat many floors up have been painted – how did they do that?
The streets have a huge number of clothing shops and bars and it’s a heck of a lot busier than anything in Britain right now. Mature trees shelter from the heat and there’s a large park at the far end with the largest hotel. Mineral water gushes from a spring at 76°c!
The Vets of Sandanski.
Our first vet was in a residential area, she advised of the grasses that have caused Polly’s harm and showed us what she’s looking for. She does it all the time she said. It’s worse when the grass penetrates the ear – that always needs an operation.
Polly stood still on the table as her searching surgical tweezers went far under the skin. Finding nothing she gave Polly an injection of serum from a tarantula that helps flush foreign materials from the body.
She also gave us a prescription for antibiotics.
The frightening cost – just 15 Leva.
She booked another appointment with another vet across town for the afternoon.
I love it that they work together rather than in competition.
In the afternoon longer tweezers prodded a couple of centimetres into Polly’s foot, but still without success.
A shot of anti-biotic. A pat on the head. A hope that it’ll sort itself out. 10 Leva.
And a Leva? There are more than 2 to a pound. Two vet visits, an hour of attention, and all for about £12. For readers unaccustomed to the cost of a vet visit at home – we’d have paid about £150 at Polly’s regular vet.
We’ve tried to visit the modern Orbelus Winery up the road several times. We’ve been in, walked around, but we haven’t found anyone to sell us their excellent product.
The Rupel Winery is an hour’s walk across country and while I like the idea of walking there, we’d not be presentable after a hard dusty stank in 35°c, so we drove.
The attractive chateau that I intended to walk to is their party frock, where they hold events and grand tastings. Business happens at the modern shed out on the road. That was OK. It was cool inside and the delightful helper there talked us through samples of many fine wines in good English.
Their very best wine is a stonking oak barrel aged red that sells at 36 Leva – a great wine for a special occasion. Their every day varieties are truly good wines and only a fraction of that price.
Interestingly here, like in Greece, there is no price incentive to buy more. A 3L box might cost 12, and if so then the 5L will cost 20. The same per litre price. They’re confused when I ask why.
Rover to Mars.
Does anyone else snigger when they hear reports of the Arabs, Chinese and Americans launching a Rover to Mars?
Minty usually comments that she’d be nervous taking a Rover to Camborne.
Jon and Sara came back on Wednesday, rather sooner than they’d planned, but they need to take off again next week.
Rather than sit back in the sun we took off on a new adventure. In a clean van.
A clean dashboard, clean seats, clean windows, clean bedding, clean living space, even the bodywork is clean. It won’t last, but for now it feels great.
Two weeks in and I can feel Bulgaria growing on me.
It’s too easy to find the bad. As I drive along today I’m seeking the good.
Heading north the relatively new motorway stops where the road enters the Struma Gorge and the mass of lorries thunder along at the same speed through what would be a beautiful road without them.
There are points where there are truck stops on either side of the road. Girls with knowledge of certain tricks service truckers while older women cook them steaks that they’ll better enjoy after their tussle. Other customers may arrive on horse and cart, or in a Mercedes that cost far more than a decent house. They eat meat together.
The van is showing a crazy temperature, but we’re happy, absorbing our surroundings.
I used to avoid taking the same road, or the same path, there and back. Now I understand how different everything looks from the other direction. We backtrack all the way to Bansko, but only now and then do particular features remind us that we’ve been this way before.
Diving deeper into the countryside the minor road follows the railway for a long while, with the rails on the very edge of the road. I’d love to drive along with a train towering over us that close, it’d put an edge on things.
The Dancing Bears.
The logging town of Belitsa was an interesting place with saw mills left and right and huge lumber trucks manoeuvring oblivious to other vehicles. Horses are still used to drag trunks from awkward places so there are a fair few animal drawn carts for added confusion.
From there it’s a climb through a territory of interesting black barns. I love a black barn. We were entering the Rila Mountains National Park.
At about 1400m we reached our destination – and were greeted by a bear!
Thankfully he was behind a fence, but only a fence such as you’d see around an English tennis court.
Night on bear mountain.
Cooking dinner just a few feet from that fence it was the most thrilling experience to see huge brown bears wander by, sniffing at our lentils, but deciding that crunching 50 walnuts, shell and all, was a better bet.
There was just one roar in the night, but it was enough to make us glad to be in the van.
The Dancing Bears sanctuary was started by Brigitte Bardot’s foundation 20 years ago to rescue dancing bears from their Roma captors.
The spectacle is hideously cruel as cubs are forced to “dance” on hot metal plates at a very young age, then live lives of misery in chains. It still happens in some Balkan states, but here it was made illegal 1998, and the care of 30 or so bears was negotiated. They now live in retirement in near wild surroundings.
Seeing a single species proved far more interesting than seeing several as you might at a safari park, and getting so close was incredible. Interesting they have no obvious smell, I thought they would stink.
We’ll leave you here. Next we’re heading through the stunning forested Rila Mountains and on to the bright lights of Plovdiv, but this story is already long enough.
Kromidovo at dawn.
This post is huge already, so I’ll share mainly pictures from an early walk around the village, with a few words for context.
It struck me as I wandered that this is what we risk when cuts hit our public services. We might not care much when the first public toilet closes…
Veg plots and fruit trees. The dawn view from our balcony at the campsite’s rooms.
One of many. Spring in the village. Pure water. Cold. Free.