29th July – 8th August
On our way north – and it is not all over yet.
It was no surprise, Bulgaria was a surprise. Of course we pick out the best bits, thanks to ‘Lonely Planet’, and Bulgaria has some nice bits, indeed quite a few. We first went to Lake Batak, close to Plovdiv, then north-west to the Rila Monastery, followed by the old capital Veliko Tarnovo and then to the Black Sea just south of the Rumanian border.
Just out of interest I have copied Sue’s card to me on our Anniversary, see the 1st photo. It seems that we are getting there, not long ago I would have been upset but they seem happy enough to me. I have also copied an update on our camping table. Originally a piece of soundly engineered aluminium, it is now clad in a Greek table cloth and somehow Sue has found a vase for some flowers. Fortunately it is too hot for a duvet cover.
Lake Batak was wonderful. We had entered Bulgaria on hot afternoon and had crossed a dry slightly barren plain – much of the grain harvest is now in – dotted with sad towns with large derelict factory complexes and also sad 70’s blocks of flats and it did look like the sad man of Europe. However, as I now know, much of Bulgaria is not on the plain and higher lands abound. L Batak itself is 1,100m asl, the lake being formed by a hydroelectric dam. The piccis tell there own story, it was beautiful. The campsite was great, more an activity centre site than a tourist one. The guy developing and running it, on family land, had worked in Newcastle for a couple of years for Proctor & Gamble – it clearly had not had much effect on him as he spoke with a distinct American ‘twang’. He now runs a software company in Sofia but for 2 months a years opens the campsite because he enjoys it - running mini Olympic weekends and team building courses. We stuck to taking a kayak out one day and nearly exhausted ourselves, and on the other day biking around the lake on hired mountain bikes. The hiring was a good idea as the route was very rough in part, especially where we became lost in a forest. 40k but with a lunch stop, a distance well within our capability but with the terrain and heat it took a lot out of us. The lunch stop was a typical meal, small tavern type restaurant at the end of the tarmaced road round one side of the lake. The son spoke English, learnt from films and the internet, and we ordered a salad, 2 bbq chicken breasts and a plate of chips. It was a large Shopska salad (chopped cucumber, tomato, onion with grated soft cheese on top – very refreshing) the chicken was ALL the breast opened out in a heart shape, one ALL-the-breast for each of us. By the time the chicken had been consumed, along with bread we were very full indeed – then the plate of chips came. As you can see the lake is completely open with meadows running down to the water, both cattle and horses graze the pasture and Bulgarians come to camp, fish and relax. About one old caravan or Campervan every 400m. The trout from the lake were wonderful.
We did a day trip to Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s No 2 Town. Very historic with a lovely centre, roman amphitheatre and wonderful merchants houses from Bulgaria’s revival period (means when they kept trying to throw the Ottoman’s out) in the 18th and 19th C.
We left Batak after 4 great and varied days and visited the country’s most important monastery at Rila. This was a little higher than Batak and was a little cooler or colder depending on your viewpoint. Spectacular Monastery and setting with beds for 300 monks. The campsite was beside a fast flowing river and we shared it with, amongst others, some 40 female (and 4 male) Belgian Scouts. Sue did say at one point that if I looked anymore I could be accused of voyeurism – she did have a point but most shed their uniforms very rapidly and for most of the day roamed around in their bikinis, it was hard not to look as there were so many of them. Apart from bikinis the main point was their campsite, it looked as if a bomb had hit it – not helped by the racks of beer cans and bottles of vodka. Oh Dear, things have changed since I was one!
We then crossed the Stara Planina mountains and made our way to Veliko Tarnova, the capital during Bulgaria’s 2nd Kingdom, 11-13th C. The old town is set on the steep slopes of a river valley, at a very sharp ‘V’, on its way to the Dunav. We enjoyed ourselves walking the streets, taking a 4hr ‘free’ walking tour learning about the local history and more about the complexities of politics in the Balkans. The tour was fairly new and run by 2 guys who do it because they want others to know about their town and country. We also visited a reconstructed ‘old’ village in the hills to the south, rather like Singleton in the Downs, we followed that by completely failing to find any of the real old villages nearby. Sue was navigating but the villages were small, as were the roads, and there was the added problem that we were in Bulgaria. Some road signs are written both in Cyrillic and in Latin script, but not all. Trying to decide on the correct turning normally meant an extended perusal of the road sign before the latin equivalent sank into the brain – if at all. Anyway it was a lovely ride. Our camping site was British run, and run very well. A nice size swimming pool was very popular with the locals and with the considerable expat community in the area. Bulgaria is cheap to us and property even more so. Also, looking out over the green fields in the vale to the south, with low tree clad hills behind, you could well have been in England – though it was somewhat hotter!
We moved from Veliko Turnova to Varna on the Black Sea coast and then north to the border. The early part of the trip up the coast was very pretty and hilly. The hills gave way to plains and our place for the next 2 nights was, shall we say, rustic. The camping was cheap and generally ‘you get what you pay for’. One thing I will remember was the extraordinary number of swallows and a small species of martin (we think). On the 2nd morning we think we espied why, to one side a of a couple of poplar trees was a cloud of insects swarming in a similar manner to starlings, creating ever changing patterns as the birds seemed to pick of the stragglers rather than diving through the swarm. On talking to a Bulgarian camper he said that the site was plagued by flies later in the season.
A 4-star rating for Bulgaria, we loved what we saw and would come back in a flash.