Bulgaria: Beauties and Beasts

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We left beautiful, spectacular Delphi, swishing around a series of hairpins into a mizzly mountain rain and on towards Thessaloniki and the seaside town of Nea Moudania for a last blast of sun before the long trek north. In the event, both Nea Moudania and the sunshine failed to excite and we cut short our last blast in favour of discovering the delights of Bulgaria.

Hitherto my one experience of Bulgaria was a solo skiing trip to Borovets, where the skiing, social life and scenery were all delightful, the hotel food atrocious and the staff gloomy and depressed.

Having negotiated the border we knew we’d have to buy a road tax ‘vignette’ and  obtain some currency. The road on Bulgarian side of customs is lined with stalls selling all manner of goods from liquor and cigarettes to bottled water, also currency [exchange-euros for ‘lev]’.

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We set off towards ‘Sapareva Banya’, using the co-ordinates from the German website we’d had to use to find sites. The rolling, green countryside was delightful; the towns were the ugliest I have ever seen-crumbling, grey blocks and abandoned factory sites. This is the legacy of the iron curtain. I wondered how it was possible to create such brutal ugliness and how will it ever be possible to eliminate?

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The co-ordinates took us down an increasingly rutted track and through some gates. It looked promising. Inside the gates the driveway rounded a large, stately building in wooded grounds but nothing resembling a camp site. I ran around to the front of the building and climbed once-grand steps into a huge, gloomy hallway containing booths housing white-coated people with clipboards and papers. My hesitant enquiry as to whether anyone spoke English yielded blank shrugs. I’d stumbled into some kind of sanatorium; clearly not a camp site.

Husband was all for turning back, although we’d had a long day’s travel already. I determined to find the site, striking out down a track I’d spotted where builders were constructing a bar by a pool. A kindly builder explained in good English how to navigate to the site, [next door].

Yes-there it was, down another rustic lane. We pulled in. When there was no response to my ringing a bell at ‘reception’ I thumped on the door which after some minutes was answered by a lugubrious young woman, bleary eyed and shoeless. I imagine I’d dragged her off the sofa and away from an afternoon of daytime Bulgarian soap operas. We could stay, she told me but they were very busy and had little room. This proved to be true, as a large tour group of Dutch caravans was occupying all of the field. We manoeuvred into a sloping slot behind some chalets, relieved to have somewhere to spend the night.

Sapareva Banya had given us no cause to linger and we drove off again in the morning to head north again and find a site called ‘Madona Inn’ from the German website.

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Bulgaria is poor. Horse-drawn carts are commonplace among the town traffic and most small village homes are in need of repair, resources being too scarce to squander on paint, render or window frames.

Madona Inn is easy to find, a guest-house and camp site with bar and restaurant along the road to Belogradchik, where a 1-3rd century AD fortress lies in an imposing position between the dramatic sandstone rocks of the area. With time to explore before checking in we drove up to Belogradchik, a town that has made no concession whatsoever to tourism in terms of beautification. We climbed up to the stunning fortress.

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Madona Inn was everything Sapareva Banya was not, with cartloads of rustic charm, although the Bulgarian cuisine on offer seemed eccentric to our uninitiated taste-an omelette topped with soggy toast topped with pork slices topped with mushroom sauce topped with…a boiled egg.

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It was a beautiful, quirky site and well worth the visit-but little did we know what impact the terrible road surfaces would have later…

 

The Bad, the Good and the Muddly

It was all going so well. When I left you last week we’d found a place to stay in Budva, Montenegro, we’d seen the town and enjoyed a meal on the harbourside.

Next morning the local bin men obliged us by waking us up early, giving us a good start for our entry into the next country-Albania. Before we got there, however there was a dramatic mountain pass to negotiate, a journey that afforded stunning views of the Adriatic, it’s coastline becoming miniature as we climbed higher. Then it was a steep descent with hairpin bends. The landscape gradually flattened and there were lakes and marshes.

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Montenegro is a tiny country-smaller than Wales-so it doesn’t take too long to get to the border with Albania; but it does take a little time to get across the border. Again there is the issue of motor insurance. Whilst we queued at passport control a casually dressed young man sporting a badge on a lanyard approached and spouted a cascade of Albanian at us, seeming to be a question. ‘Yes’, said Husband-and ‘No’ said I. There was a short hiatus, during which Husband and I conducted what I shall term a mild dispute as to whether he was enquiring if we had motor insurance or enquiring if we needed motor insurance.

The discussion was swiftly concluded by Husband’s handing over of a fifty euro note, with which lanyard man disappeared up some steps. His companion-[a would-be translator] waved us into the queue. At this point Husband’s heels dug firmly into the footwell and would not budge; he glowered until he saw a return on the fifty euros.

‘Oh ye of Little Faith’. Lanyard returned brandishing a sheet of paper embossed with a gold stamp-an advance on the scruffy scrap of Montenegro. Whether it was worth any more than the paper on which it was inscribed is doubtful, however we would not have wished to put it to the test.

On then-to Albania’s highways, upon which cows, dogs, donkey carts, pony carts, moped  carts and an altogether eclectic mix of vehicles, animals and humans besport themselves. This is a country where the population has the utmost faith in other road users-so much so that they feel confident to wander across a ‘motorway’ or wheel a barrow along the central reservation.

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The driving is outlandish, with meandering across to the other side of the road commonplace. Somehow we arrived at the campsite we’d selected near Berat and swung through the gates to see a smattering of van and motorhomes-as usual the intrepid Germans-and even another British van.

This was a little oasis with shaded pitches, beautiful showers, a bar and a restaurant. We heaved that inward sigh that follows an anxious day of travel and determined that we should follow our site neighbour’s advice and take a look at Berat, The White City, Albania’s poster-boy city.

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Ever-hopeful, and armed with a scribbled map that Donna, the camp-site owner had drawn us, we drove into Berat.

Five hours and three attempts to find the road south later we retraced our route back past the camp site and back towards Montenegro. Frazzled, frustrated, hot and defeated we acknowledged that the road marked on the atlas could not possibly exist. Mrs TT [the satnav slag] had taken us in circles or onto unpaved, rutted tracks.

At last, at the end of a long, hot, dusty day we arrived to the Greek border and it was with a mixture of sense of achievement and relief. Greece!

 

 

 

The Way the Garden Grows

                Every year at about this time I marvel at a bizarre phenomenon that occurs in the garden to the rear of our house. It expands. It definitely becomes larger each spring. I don’t understand the reason for this event-especially as the boundaries of the property do not appear to move, nevertheless every area, feature, pathway, patio, border, lawn, pond and structure has grown. I know this principally because it all takes hours longer and produces more aching muscles than the previous year and the year before that.

                I like to think I’ve got the measure of our garden. After seventeen years of designing, redesigning, trying out plants, failing, digging, planting, weeding, chopping, trimming, mowing, pruning, staking, composting and the rest I am under the illusory impression I have the better of the beast, but the reality is I haven’t got it under control at all.

                During the May holiday weekend, along with everyone else, I made my annual pilgrimage to the garden centre, a visit which never fails to provoke a feeling of optimistic fantasy. I trail around the stands of bright, bushy perennials with my trolley, scrutinising their labels and picturing them in the border; a riot of dazzling colour bursting forth and wowing the neighbours as they peer jealously over the fence, or eliciting exclamations of ecstasy from visitors. I fill the trolley. I bear the trophies home in a rush of excited enthusiasm. I set to, identifying a location, soaking the plant, preparing the planting hole, adding the compost, ladling in the food granules, settling the roots in, refilling, firming and watering. I go out each day to check.

                But it is the garden that has the last laugh. It cannot be fooled. It grows what it wants to grow, its favourite diet consisting of robust ‘self-comers’ that seed with effortless abandon or send out subterranean wires of roots that pop up anywhere and everywhere, resisting wind, frost, slugs and drought regardless. Thus I have a garden brimming with Aquilegia, Montbretia, bluebells and spiderwort-all very pleasant and worthy of their place in moderation.

                Here we are battling strong, coastal winds, salt laden air, poor, sandy soil and droughts. Once I had more time to devote to growing things I developed ambitions to grow things to eat. Knowing how unsupportive the soil is I persuaded Husband to build some raised beds, explaining that we-[I]- could fill them with rich, organic compost. The first year I was inspired to sow a wide variety of vegetables, including beetroot, asparagus, potatoes, runner beans and onions. Success was limited. The beetroot never grew beyond miniature, the asparagus failed to rear its head and the onions remained in stubborn infancy long past the time when it should have grown up.

                I still dabble with vegetables, but in a limited way. I seem to be able to produce tomatoes [provided there is any sunshine], spinach seems to quite like our gaff, and most herbs are tough enough to cope. There is only one problem though; we are almost always away in September, when  we should be enjoying the harvest. Let me see-travel or tomatoes? Fortunately there are others around to see they aren’t wasted!