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]’.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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…