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?

Snippets from Four Countries-

I last visited Strasbourg as a teenager. But Husband had never been and one advantage of becoming ancient is that you can revisit old haunts and not remember a thing about them.

       It is a gloriously hot, blue-skied day. We are able to cycle from the site into the city, which is thronged with shouting school parties but still gorgeous with its covered bridges, medieval architecture and sparkling waterways. We stop to rest our feet [a feature of sightseeing these days] at a table outside a bar in a pretty square and remember why we like to travel this way.

        Next day we are off through Germany, taking in the edge of the Black Forest, which is all cuckoo clocks and cow bells, and catching some squally rain as we climb higher, the temperature having plummeted as we arrive at Salem, near the Bodensee, our stop for the night. Just outside the village on a hillside, the site has a small bar with the type of German beer that Husband likes. The night turns icy enough for our little heater and extra blanket to be barely adequate.

The following afternoon we cycle to the Bodensee, a magnet for German tourists though precious few foreigners. Few places are open but look set to begin the season in earnest for Easter weekend. We lose the next day’s travel due to over-excited consumption of beer, but set out for the German/Austrian border on the next morning, settling for Wertach as an overnight stop. It is a pleasant, Alpine farming town. I am startled by the cigarette machine in the washing up area.

As we are leaving an older German fellow tells me ‘We CAN NOT understand the Brexit’ and I can only reply that ‘No, neither can we’.

On to Austria, a slow crawl across the Fern Pass on an ill-chosen, holiday Saturday. But the scenery compensates for the traffic jam-snowy peaks glistening in the sun, ski runs zig-zagging down under gondolas and ski-lifts. Our chosen destination-Feriensparadies on the Natter See- is elusive, confusing Mrs Garmin, our austere SATNAV lady, who sends us off up winding mountain tracks filled with pole-wielding hikers in an unlikely quest for the site. At last we arrive to Feriensparadies, which justifies its coy location by being spectacular; a sun soaked hollow in the snow peaks with pitches facing the cherry blossom fringed lake. The staff are charming, the views are breath-taking, a free shuttle bus can take us to Innsbruck, where we can ride the funicular and gawp at the splendid medieval buildings and the services are nothing short of luxurious. All power to the Austrians!

Regrettably, after 2 nights it is time to crack on-and so on to Venice, which I don’t need to describe since a great deal has been written elsewhere about this extraordinary, watery city. It is another re-visit for me and new to Husband. As we meander the alleyways and over the bridges with our cornettos I ask him if it lives up to the hype. ‘90%’ he says, not revealing the 10% in which it fails…

Home Alone?

                An item on a radio magazine programme recently concerned people who, by accident or design will be spending Christmas alone. Listening to these individuals explaining their situation, one stand out feature came across. The women had made a deliberate choice to spend the day in solitude, whereas the men felt themselves to be ‘shut out’ through no fault of their own and felt aggrieved. Some of the stories were painful to hear, such as the father who’d split from his wife and would not get to see his only son due to his ex having a new partner.

                There is a strange irony to all this. Even in this era of [slowly] increasing emancipation it is, at best unusual to see a woman sitting alone at a bar or a restaurant table, whereas a man in such circumstances would not be considered out of the ordinary or an object of speculation. The Dad who felt abandoned could simply take himself off to a hostelry. He might not know anyone but would at least be able to observe the revelries from the fringe or even get involved. The women in the programme had all planned their solo day already. They would not be leaving their homes, but knew exactly what they would eat, watch and do, and all were eagerly anticipating and expected to relish their time alone.

                During a mid-life period of singledom I took the bold step of booking, not one but two holidays as a single traveller. Although this rash action was partly a result of a messy relationship break up I forged ahead with the first- a week long skiing trip- not without a modicum of self doubt. ‘Think of it as a course you are going on’ encouraged a friend [I was a virgin skier]. I will never forget boarding the coach to the resort and explaining to the puzzled holiday rep that there was one in my ‘party’, or descending to the dining room at the hotel and forcing myself to ask if I might join a couple at their table when there were no empty tables available, then the continuing, painful experience with a lone breakfast supported only by a book as a prop. When I descended to the basement to join a beginners’ ski class the holiday underwent a miraculous conversion. My fellow beginners were a charming, friendly, inclusive bunch who invited me to join them for meals, après-ski, breakfast and outings for the entire week. The encouraging friend came to collect me from the airport, finding me cheerful, refreshed and hopeful-hopeful enough to approach the next lone exploit with confidence.

                I went to The Gambia, without the support of a ski class, but with a ‘go-for-it’ attitude. I engaged fellow travellers in conversation, chatted to fellow diners, went for tea with stallholders in the market, booked excursions, including a two day trip up river to stay in a thatched hut with a party of Netherlanders. Everyone I met was friendly and kind.

                These days, as blog followers know, I travel, dine and spend Christmases with Husband, a companion who, on balance, I prefer to be with than without-but I wonder when lone women diners and travelers will ever be a natural phenomenon?

Happy New Year, Brian Meadon! [part 4]

It is 11.52pm when they pull in to the entrance to the lane leading to ‘The Orchard’.

“I’m going to have to leave the car here, sir. I don’t want to be going up there and not be able to maneuver or turn the rig round.”

“No problem! We can sort it out tomorrow. As I said, Rob will know what to do.”

Once the offending car has been detached from the truck the AA man is as eager for departure as Brian is for merriment. Brian pumps his hand, more in a desire for him to disappear than in gratitude, staying only briefly to wave as the truck rumbles away. Having stuffed his pajamas back into the overnight bag he sets off round the bend towards ‘The Orchard’.

It has stopped snowing. Against the inky sky there is the silhouette of a house, but as yet no sound or hint of light. He walks on to find a gate, more easily visible now that his eyes are accustomed to darkness, unlatches it and continues up a path to the front door. He stops to listen, straining to hear a hint of music or a voice, gazing at the windows for some chink of light, any sign of activity or, as a frisson of anxiety begins to insinuate itself, an indication of occupation. There is a small click. Brian is instantly illuminated by the security light, setting off a tirade of furious yapping from the bowels of the house. ‘Strange’, he muses ‘that they never mentioned owning a dog’. He procrastinates on the doorstep in a doldrum of indecision. It is clear even to him that there is no party taking place. The unnerving idea that this may be the wrong house fills him with dread, since he has waved off the kindly AA man to whom he’d exaggerated the description of his acquaintances as ‘almost family’. It is now twelve twenty one am and he is freezing.

Faced with the choice of once more donning his pajamas and towel and sleeping on the back seat of his car or rousing the inhabitants of this house, whoever they may be, Brian opts for throwing himself on the mercy of the householders even if they are strangers. At the sound of the doorbell the yapping acquires new vigor and he feels both anxious and relieved as an interior light is switched on and he hears a muffled voice. There is a momentary hiatus while locks and chain are undone then the door is opened a little to reveal part of a pajama-clad body topped by a pale, wary face. The face speaks.

“Yes?”

Brian feels weak with gratitude to some unformulated source that it is Rob who has answered the door, albeit not the party-animal Rob he’d envisioned; the ‘life-and-soul’ Rob of the pistes. Nevertheless this suspicious, guarded individual is recognizable as Rob.

“Hello Rob. Happy New Year!”

He proffers the half bottle of wine, affecting a merry grin in the hope that his teeth are not chattering too much. The distrustful figure in the doorway peers further out at him, blinking until recognition dawns.

“Oh it’s um..”

“Brian. From skiing! You know. Last February”

“Brian. Yes. Brian. From skiing.”

There is an interval during which Brian lowers the wine bottle to his side and Rob continues to stand in the small gap he has allowed between the door and the frame and contemplate the visitor. Somewhere in the background the yapping continues apace.

“What did you want Brian?”

Happy New Year, Brian Meadon! [part 2]

An exploratory foray into his overnight bag yields little of any use to Brian except for a towel, which he drapes around his shoulders like a cape. He has also brought some pajamas which, whilst the additional layer would be beneficial he feels reluctant to don in case of rescue. After deliberating he decides to bear them in mind as emergency clothing supplies. His feet are by far the most pressing problem, having become totally numb inside his shoes so that he compelled to scrunch his toes up periodically in attempt to regain some feeling. Should he, perhaps break into the bottle of wine he brought along as a contribution to the New Year do? He thinks not, for now; best to keep something in reserve in case, Heaven forbid, the situation worsens.

Another glance at the phone reveals the time to be 8.57pm, and forty five minutes since the last vehicle passed by. Brian realizes with a grimace that his careful calculation of timing in order to arrive not too early and not too late will now be academic. His arrival will now be, at best, late. What will the reception be like if, and when, he arrives? Misgivings flutter through his digestive system like tipsy hens and peck away at his confidence. Rob and Shelley are people he met almost a year ago and spent one week with, when comradeship was enhanced by the thrills and spills of the ski slopes. But they were charming, friendly and fun, seemed to really like having him around, have kept up with emails. The invitation had been issued with genuine warmth and re-issued as a result of his last email enquiry as to whether the party was going ahead.

Brian decides that he can utilize more of his clothing resources if he curls up on the rear seat. The time has come to employ the services of his pajamas-which he acknowledges he only brought as an afterthought, thus freeing up his towel as a foot-wrapping. The achievement of all this takes some time and energy, resulting in the opening of the wine, thankfully of the screw topped variety. He lifts his head up enough to swallow a mouthful and then shudders as a yawn escapes him. He wonders what is happening at the party now and imagines he is there, glass in hand, chatting up a woman, asking her to dance, getting close, feeling the rhythm, moving his feet, becoming warm, hot, sweating, thumping.