Today we have had a long drive down through Western Bulgaria to the Southern Mountains. Our first stop of the morning was to a petrol station to pick up a vignette, allowing us to drive on certain Bulgarian roads. Then we set off, on what proved to be a slow and tedious journey. The roads were appalling – pot-holed and patched, leading to a very bumpy ride. For most of the drive we were travelling on single carriageway roads, shared with heavy goods vehicles and horse-drawn carts, which led to very slow progress.
Our satnav Natasha, however, kept us amused. We have now moved into a world of the Cyrillic alphabet, which clearly she is struggling with. Her normal modus operandi is to tell us, for example, to turn right and then give us the name of the road we are turning into. Natasha seems unable to speak Cyrillic, so she now says, ‘Turn right, into….’, then silence! It has been amusing us all day. Dear Boris, of course, is up for anything, and is willing to give it a go! It does make navigating that much harder, though, when you can’t read the names of the towns.
At one point, we got diverted off the main road, because of roadworks. It ended up being a ten mile or so diversion, through some very rural part of Bulgaria. At one point on this diversion, we came to a tiny village, with a shop cum cafe. Desperate for a pee stop, we pulled in and went inside. It felt as if we were aliens arriving on a new planet! The looks we were given by the locals were priceless. They clearly don’t see tourists here much, if indeed ever. When I asked if there was a toilet, an elderly gentleman in the corner of the bar insisted on taking me there personally (!), and then when we drove off, he stopped the traffic outside to wave us out.
By now the scenery had changed, and we were driving though heavily wooded hills and mountains. There were few communities en route, just the occasional farmhouse. We did, however, notice that every few miles, there was a well-dressed woman standing alone in a lay-by. Reach your own conclusions – Howard certainly did!
As we drove past Sofia, the capital, for a short while the roads improved. In the distance we saw the city. One lone modern skyscraper, and four tall chimney stacks seemed to dominate the skyline. Apparently, the centre of the city has transformed in recent years, but we had decided no more cities for a while – we were heading to the countryside.
After Sofia, we stopped at a motorway services, of sorts. It advertised a cafe and also shopping opportunities. We were temporarily excited, thinking we could pick up fresh bread and milk. However, the shop sold the weirdest combination of goods, from dried pasta and biscuits, to Star Wars models and detergents – most odd. Certainly nothing fresh for tea. We eventually passed by a large supermarket in one of the towns. We were instantly met with a female beggar, closing her eyes, I’m pretty sure feigning blindness, who was most persistent. Of course, we have encountered many beggars on this trip, but none quite as in your face as this one.
Despite joining the EU in 2007 (and NATO in 2004), the upturn in the Bulgarian economy, like Romania, has yet to materialise. Bulgaria was the only country post Perestroika to re-instate a communist party to government subsequently, albeit short-lived, and allegations of corruption remain rife. Political turmoil continues. Consequently, many younger educated Bulgarians left the country in droves, once freedom of movement throughout the EU was permitted, and they were allowed to work permit-free in other countries, many to Germany, Italy and Spain. So, in a similar way to Romania, they have experienced a ‘brain-drain’.
In 2015, Bulgaria had the lowest GDP of all EU countries, and a poll on the International Day of Happiness, reported them to be the most discontented nation. We have yet to really understand the Bulgarian psyche. Having been ruled by the Ottamans, followed by a period of National Revival, and then under a suppressive Communist regime for generations up until 1989, I guess it is understandable that they aren’t always such a cheery bunch.
There is no doubt that some EU influence has helped, helping to restore some historic buildings, and giving Bulgarians a renewed sense of pride in their nation. We have, however, laughed at some of the roads that we have experienced today, supposedly ‘sponsored by the EU’ and requiring a vignette, that have frankly been like driving on a bumpy rollercoaster.
The last leg of our drive became more and more adventurous – up steep winding mountain roads, interspersed with cows and goats, and barking dogs.
Tonight, we are staying by a lake in the mountains, and plan to give Howard a break from the driving for a day or two. He is certainly making noises about beer – oh sorry, he’s corrected me – he’s saying bears! Yikes!!
PS Not many photos today since in van most of day.