The Ghastly Gathering…

Veteran regular readers of this blog may recall that here in our family residence we collect and curate an esoteric and hideous assembly of keepsakes [more here. ]

Our most recent expedition, which involved 15 countries threatened to be fertile ground for additions to the naff shelves.

A  nervous, hasty flit through Albania yielded nothing, owing to our not having stopped long enough to forage but since Northern Greece and The Peloponnese had been our goal it seemed fitting to acquire a suitably awful object derived from there. How appropriate, then to arrive at Nafplio and discover a wealth of such items! Nafplio is a veritable hotbed of ‘gift’ shops. After some deliberation we settled on this:

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-A fir tree, a church and an egg-timer all in one, it is also a fridge magnet! Were I ever to become a habitual user of egg-timers what better place to keep it than on the fridge? Sadly though I am neither a user of egg-timers nor is Husband a devotee of fridge magnets [a small collection of these was unceremoniously dumped many years ago when Husband confessed his abhorrence of them] so this cunning little object resides on the naff shelves, nestling among the other horrors.

I felt that if we were to obtain something dreadful anywhere it could be Bulgaria, judging from the appearance of its towns and shops. Belogradchik’s fortress and stunning rock formations are not universally known and the surrounding few cafes and gift shops are few and a little desultory. The coffee and snack selection was underwhelming. But a tiny shack with artisanal stuff yielded this:

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I am at a loss to explain what it is-or what the significance may be, as no explanation was forthcoming-or at least not one that we were able to understand. In the context, however of the naff shelves it is perfectly at home.

The greatest prize was won in the wonderful Market Hall of Budapest, where the first floor houses a plethora of magnificent souvenirs so that we were almost spoilt for choice. Once we’d spotted this particular item [shown below] we were in no doubt that it couldn’t be bettered. There was a range of Russian dolls but Husband, a die-hard Rolling Stones fan took a shine to this portrayal of his idols, looking as little like their namesakes as Lady Gaga to Saint Theresa:

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Sir Mick, here on the Russian doll bears a passing resemblance to Jon Hurt. And I can’t help wondering what Keith, Charlie and Ronnie would have to say about their diminished status-Charlie in particular since he has dwindled almost to nothing and manages to surpass only the tiny guitar-doll:

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And yesterday I was able to add another new contribution, kindly donated by Offspring, a gem gathered from a visit to Rome:

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Lovely!

 

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Romantic Romania

The vast and beautiful Danube flows through ten countries-more countries than any other river in the world, also forming several borders including that between Bulgaria and Romania.

Crossing into Romania was a little like stepping into a fairy tale, or into a Constable painting, for while the roads, infrastructure and villages were better kept and looked a little more affluent than in Bulgaria the communities were also quaint and olde-worlde.

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I’ll admit to being surprised, having assumed Romania to be much poorer than its neighbour. Having said this, there were countless signs that Romania is stranded in a bygone age, such as hand-tilling in the fields, hay-making with horses and carts and horse-drawn transport.

The pretty, tree-lined streets of the villages are made up of tiny, single-story homes-many with tiled exteriors in intricate patterns. Outside many homes there are benches positioned to catch the evening sunshine, often occupied by a couple of women in headscarves having a gossip.

On the road we followed an open truck with a horse tethered in the back. The horse was blinkered and attached each side but even so the truck lurched around corners, swaying and jolting but causing no apparent distress to the equine passenger.

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We stopped for lunch alongside the Danube basin, where the waters again form a border, this time between Romania and Serbia, so that the wooded hills of Serbia are visible on the other side.

As in the previous country [see last week’s post] we’d scant information on camp sites but headed for ‘Hercules’, a tiny, five-pitch site behind a restaurant opposite a busy road and railway line. We drew into the driveway to be greeted by the owner and shown to a place, which was not a problem since we were the only van there. The sun beat down into the small, neat back yard, a chance to relax after the journey. Though small, the site boasted clean, efficient showers, a washing machine and every convenience.

This being one location where our mobile internet was unobtainable we took devices to the bar and used the site wifi while we had beers. Later an Austrian couple pulled in to be our neighbours for the night. We settled down to sleep. At around midnight we were woken by loud, staccato bangs from a building next door and looked out to see the sky alight with fireworks. Odd timing-but who are we to judge on another country’s customs?

Next day we were off north again towards Hungary, travelling through ravishing green countryside and rustic scenes that included thousands of beehives. I spotted them in industrial numbers along the verges and in the fields, often being tended by veiled beekeepers, the results laid out in modest roadside stalls. Then there were beehive trucks:

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These unusual vehicles were parked in lay bys or pieces of wasteland. It was uplifting to see such a large-scale industry from bees. At least someone is taking care of them!

Having passed mile upon mile of queued lorries we arrived at the border with Hungary. I felt bereft. We’d whisked through Romania in two days and a part of me clamoured to stay and explore, to wander along the village streets and photograph the countryside. But don’t worry, Romania, we will be back. Besides-a visit to Romania just has to include an exploration of Transylvania.

And then there was Hungary…

 

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…

 

Slip Sliding Away

I’ve never been much of a sports spectator. Other than a brief phase of tennis watching in the 70s [I happened to live in a flat a few minutes’ walk away from Wimbledon’s famous club]. I’ve positively avoided watching the sporting activities of others. Exceptions include international rugby games [I’m currently enjoying the six nations championship] and winter sports.
There is something magical about the winter Olympics. The settings are beautiful; other-worldly and mountainous landscapes providing a background for breath-taking races and stunts. Watching daring ski jumpers hurtling down a slope and flinging themselves skywards before landing the right way up and sliding away is enough to make your stomach lurch, as is the downhill skiing or the crazy free-for-all of the speed-skating.
Most of all the new [since 2014], tricksy snow-boarding contests are spectacular and a compelling watch.
It is more than twenty years since I had my own, brief taste of snow-related activity, when I took myself off for a week of beginner skiing in the much-poopooed [by seasoned skiers] resort of Borovets, Bulgaria. I’m sure it wouldn’t do for those who take to the slopes on a regular basis or those for whom a fashionable resort matters most. But for someone who was new to skiing-and approaching middle age, Borovets was just cheap, cheerful and more than demanding enough.
To this intrepid week of discovery I’d added an extra anxiety-inducing element. I was travelling solo. I did have the advantage of being physically fit, having undertaken running and aerobics in the preceding years but I was also reeling in the aftermath of a relationship breakdown, which meant that solo travel would be a risky business for my battered emotions. Would I be able to forge friendships, find some kind of transitory support network, have any conversations, bond with fellow novices? Friends counselled for and against but in the end the ‘for’ camp won for advising me to see it as learning a new skill-just like going on a course, which of course, I was!
There is an art to lone travel. When I boarded the transfer bus at the airport I was asked which ‘party’ I was travelling with, a difficult question. When a couple, faced with no spare seats at the hotel’s evening meal, were forced to share my table I thanked them for joining me, shifting my novel [a prop] across to make room. Next morning’s breakfast was a solitary affair.
Then I had to find my ski class. I headed down to the boot room, where we virgin skiers were to be parcelled up into groups, get our lift passes and our boots and skis. Once I was in a group everything changed. We were united in anticipation, endeavour and terror! We laughed, clutched each other, fell over, encouraged one another, made progress. At the end of that first, exhausting, exhilarating day I had a group of friends. We ate together, went out together, drank together, shared our stories.
I loved skiing, but I never did it again. It was not long before he who was to become Husband came along and lone holidays became a thing of the past. There is no doubt that, like most sports, skiing needs to be taken up when young. But that holiday holds fond memories for me, as does skiing, so for anyone who is wavering about skiing-or indeed about holidaying as a singleton I’d say go for it! What can go wrong?