Sunday, July 29, 2007

Bulging in Bulgaria

From John:

Dobar dan!
Where were we? Romania? And tomorrow we will take a bus from Plovdiv to Erdine in Turkey. Almost out of Europe. The past month has flown by in a shoe-melting month of heat. We have dashed through Bulgaria - but this is a relative term. For some three weeks in Bulgaria is a long holiday and for others it's a long time full stop. For us it has been three weeks of very good food and sweltering heat with quite a bit of sight-seeing and one nice walk in the mountains.

In eager anticipation of meeting friends and making use of the time before they arrived, we left Brasov and took a night train to Bucovina in north east Romania. Our plan was to spend four days visiting some of the painted monasteries in the area. We found a room in a pension with a nice garden and a pool in a small town from where we reckoned we could walk or day-trip to the monasteries. The daytime temperatures were creeping up to the 35C mark on a regular basis, to the point where we were taking siestas in the middle of the day. Our very first afternoon Gayle met a Russian woman and a Bulgarian couple staying at the pension. The man, obviously desperate to get a break from his missus, offered to take us in his car to the nearest monastery. We piled into his Dacia (essentially an old Renault 12 built in Romania), and with Abba blaring from the tape deck, hurtled down the country lanes. Mamma Mia, the man could not drive. When we careered towards a haystack on a cart I thought it was our Waterloo. At one bend in the road we crossed the dotted white line and slid into the corner, which had Gayle contemplating sending out an S.O.S. The Name of the Game was basically to hang on. We soon arrived at the monastery and fell out of the car, and I minced my way to the entrance like a Dancing Queen. Okay, okay, I'm flogging the Abba gags. The monasteries are Orthodox Christian, and were built and painted at a time when the good time boys the Ottoman Turks were marauding northwards. Apparently the poor plebs who had to defend the villages were not allowed inside the churches, and so the exterior walls were decorated with scenes from the Bible, but with a topical flavour: at Voronets, the gory paintings of the saints being killed (plenty of these) depicted the baddies wearing turbans. Must have been Turks.
"Half an hour!" our volunteer driver had shouted as we entered the monastery. Ludmilla the Russian objected to this Japanese-style visit, but he was insistent and came to get us when our time was up. "Right, next one!" He then drove us to another monastery. "Half an hour!" Ludmilla muttered and grumbled, but for me it was plenty of time to look around. We then shot back to the pension broadcasting the best of Abba and in 90 minutes had completed two days of our itinerary. Never to miss an opportunity to do nothing, we did it. Our excuse of course was the extreme heat and the temptation of a quiet garden with a pool.

We returned to Brasov on a slow but wonderful train ride through picturesque landscape. The area was settled by Hungarians and the rural scene was almost perfect. Back in Brasov we discovered that one friend, Val, could not meet us, but that Lance was on his way. We had a small problem - good cheap accommodation was hard to come by, and our preferred place was booked up. It was run by a nice couple, and we rang the husband who spoke English to see if we could book for our friend. It turned out that they lived just along from our back-up hotel, and Ladislau suggested we call round in the evening to check with his wife. We did. Theresa was very friendly and offered us coffee and tea, and apologised that they were booked up but they were having a barbecue and would we like to stay to eat with them? Ladislau emerged from the garden shed with the barbecue and promptly lit it. It turned out to be a wonderful evening for us. In addition to the huge amounts of meat and red wine which we were offered and very politely consumed, we also had a good chat. We wanted to ask them about Romania and they wanted to ask about our journey along the Silk Road. Ladislau was half German half Hungarian and spoke good English. Theresa was Hungarian and spoke no English but did a good mime. It was like being with old friends. I could fill another page with our conversation, but it might bore you. To our question about life after Communism Ladislau quoted his father: "Before, everyone had a bit of money but there was nothing to buy. Now, you can buy anything, but only a few have got the money."

A couple of days later we were back in the Fagaras mountains walking with Lance. It was his first time walking with a full backpack and we all sweated buckets on the climb up to the ridge. It was a glorious sunny day, with a cooling wind on the top, and in the afternoon we found a decent spot to pitch with a spring not too far away. Over a a tasty tea of tortellini, pesto and parmesan we studied the map and route description of the ridge and plotted our next day's walk. What fools. We awoke to thick mist and then heavy rain. Visibility was down to 5 metres and we decided to wait it out. We waited all day. Disaster struck - the toilet roll we were all sharing got soaked. The emergency spare was a little bit small for a five day trek. The next day it was still cloudy but dry and we continued on our way. One tricky stretch involved an exposed traverse along an eroded path. I went first and Lance followed behind Gayle. He was very good at encouragment - sometimes I was too frightened to speak. Thankfully it was so cloudy we couldn't see the drop below us. Late afternoon saw us drop off the ridge (not literally) and out of the cloud to a tempting spot for pitching our tents. We awoke next day with the cloud still low and so after a bit of humming and hawing decided to walk out. The walk was long and up and over a couple of spur ridges, finally descending past a grotty cabana and down to the end of the road, where there was a restaurant. Here we tried to phone for a taxi to avoid a long slog along the road, but the waiter asked a family who were leaving in a pick-up truck to give us a lift, which they did. Wonderful. On our train back to Brasov we had the best views of the mountains - the clouds had disappeared completely, as always.............

We spent a couple of nights in Bucharest, which is probably two too many, although we all enjoyed The Museum of the Peasant - which turned out to be far better than it sounds! The highlights were a traditional wooden house, church and windmill. Our plan had been to stay at an original caravanserai (trading post/inn) which still stands in the centre of the city, but we persuaded Lance to stay near the train station which was more boring but far more convenient. As it turned out the caravanserai was being renovated - destined to become a five-star hotel. We also visited the People's Palace - an enormous white elephant of a building begun by the despot Ceaucescu. This monument to his ego was built with no expense spared and after the revolution the politicians decided to complete the project. It remains unfinished but is used as a parliament. And it still consumes vast amounts of money which could be better spent elsewhere. Donald Trump apparently offered 4bn US dollars and they stupidly turned it down. It is the world's second largest admistrative building in the world, after the Pentagon, and quite ugly really............

We bade Lance farewell and took a train across the border to Veliko Tarnovo in Bulgaria. The short journey began badly when I discovered that my seat number did not exist on the train! It took forever to get to and cross the border and we disembarked into a world of Cyrillic. Apart from this there was no immediately appreciable difference with Romania. But that was until we went to eat. As dedicated self-caterers we have had a holiday in Bulgaria and enjoyed excellent cheap food (salads! hooray!) and drink, probably fattening up a bit along the way. The choc-ices don't help either. And it has been soooo hot. We have been lucky with the sunshine on this journey but even we have blanched in Bulgaria at the temperatures. We have passed fields and fields of sunflowers with heads bowed - all hiding their faces from the fierce sun.

Our route has taken us through small traditional towns and to Orthodox monasteries which are visited as places of pilgrimage by the locals. (You must have heard of the ikon of three-handed Virgin? No? The religious paintings (ikons) are revered and kissed and the three-handed Virgin at Troyan monastery seemed to be particularly popular and well-known in Bulgaria. Anyway.......) The best monastery is at Rila - a large complex set high in a valley of pine trees just south of Sofia. We enjoyed the capital - it was not overbearing and we were treated to an international folk-dancing competition for two nights running in the central park (nothing on at the cinema!). Okay, not really our cup of tea, but the dreary proceedings were considerably enlivened by knife-throwing Georgian cossacks and the Venezuelans brought a huge band with them too.

In the middle of the country we stayed in a village called Koprovititsa
(bit of a tongue-twister and not sure of the spelling!). This was a touristy little place full of traditional wooden houses and it turned out to be the only unspoilt tourist spot we found. The other places we visited seemed to be over-developed. In Veliko Tarnovo every fourth shop was an estate agents, and in Bansko, a ski resort, a massive building programme was in full flow as developers look to cash in on British and German interest in holiday homes. It was quite sad really and made us think of the Spanish coast. On reflection, we think Romania was much nicer mainly because it seems to have avoided this trend, but for how long.............

Bansko is in the Pirin mountains and from here we escaped the heat and trekked for a couple of nights - it was all we could manage, but was well worth it. We climbed a couple of peaks and found lovely lakes to camp beside. And from there we came on a scenic bus journey to Plovdiv, a big city with an old centre full of tree-lined streets and a Roman amphitheatre. We will enjoy one more Bulgarian meal before departing for the land of kebabs............

ciao for now