Firstly, because it’s traditional on this blog, name 5 famous Bulgarians.
We drove down to the Romanian town of Calarasi, which, in all honesty, is a dusty miserable hell-hole. When I see some of these southern Romanian towns, I realise that those who argue that Transylvania is a different country have a point. I don’t mean that politically or nationalistically, but geographically, and I suppose in some senses culturally (though I recognise I’m barking up a sensitive tree with that one). People here talk about Wallachia, the south of Romania, as being “Balkanic”, while Transylvania is much more Central European. When you see some of the towns south of the Carpathians it’s hard to argue with that – not Bucharest, as Bucharest is a rich city which seems to have well over half the money in Romania floating around it, but the other places. Perhaps Craiova or Pitesti are better, but certainly anywhere on the Ploiesti – Urziceni – Slobozia – Calarasi route seem like a different world from places up here.
At Calarasi, you have to get a ferry across the Danube. We drove along this potholed disaster area of a road to a massive brand spanking new ferry terminal. Which was all locked up and surrounded by “No Entry” signs. So we turned round drove back 100 metres and turned down a side track which had a few cars parked down it. This was the ferry terminal. It consists of a café, and a small caravan in which they sell you tickets. We’d seen a largish modern passenger boat on the river and wondered if that was the ferry. It wasn’t. The ferry was a flat pontoon pushed by a tug boat, owned by a logging company. This meant that although you’d got a ticket, any tractors pulling loads of logs had priority over you. Helpfully though, the guy working at the on ramp came round and told us all this before the boat arrived and told us all to just go for it as soon as the cars had come off, since that way we’d beat the tractors and guarantee our place on the boat. All told it was about an hour and a half wait/trip across the river. I guess the new ferry terminal is there as a result of EU money attempting to finance a more viable border crossing.
So anyway, we finally made it over the other side, which was actually still, just, in Romania, since Calarasi marks the place at which the Danube turns north and ceases to define the border. So we drove off the boat straight into the frontier at Silistra. If you look at a map you will find that there are only about 4 places on the border between Romania and Bulgaria where you can cross. The important one is at Giurgiu, south of Bucharest, which has some big fancy bridge, and presumably lots of modern trimmings. We had been going to go that way, but had been told that (a) the toll for the bridge was extortionate, and that (b) the border itself was packed and took ages to negotiate. So, using the trusty viamichelin website for European route planning, this option presented itself. The border at Silistra, though one of very few, is certainly not overcrowded or jammed in any way. It is (in character with its surroundings) a dusty little collection of buildings with a few indolent people wandering around thinking they look somehow official. There are two lines of cars – one EU one non-EU. This means that straight away the locals who are using the border crossing are discriminated against (the EU line is dealt with first – there aren’t the facilities for processing more than one car at a time). Once Romania and Bulgaria are actually in the EU this will at least feel a little bit more rational, but at the moment, it is dead odd. So, this scruffy bloke came round and asked where we were from and we told him half the car was British and half the car was Romanian, which flummoxed him a bit, but he directed us to the non-EU line. Then he went to the car behind (which was actually the car bearing our holiday companions from Csikszereda). Discovering that they were all Romanians he asked them for an environmental tax. Gyözö, who was driving, had noticed that no money had changed hands in his conversation with us, so did what all Romanians do when confronted with a charge they don’t believe they have to pay – he asked for a receipt. At this point such charges tend to be waived, as was the case here.
So we waited in this very short line (there were two cars ahead of us), next to a group of Rroma who were all stood under a tree milling around. From time to time they would mill too far forward crossing some invisible line and one of the semi-official blokes would come out and herd them back (and I mean herd – never have I seen people treated quite so much like animals, it was utterly shocking), shouting and arguing with them. They (we learned) had been there since the early morning waiting to cross. When we got to the passport bloke, he looked inside and seeing that we were (a) white; and (b) with a baby, burst into a “why didn’t you say you had a small baby, we could have advanced you up the line” speech at which point he saw our passports and added “and she’s a British citizen too, oh my god, you should have said, you should have said”. Basically the order of hierarchy in being dealt with was clearly EU Citizen in car > white Romanian/Bulgarian in car > white Romanian pedestrian > Gypsy. Not sure what happens if they ever got a gypsy bearing an EU passport there, I think they’d implode. Fortunately the Bulgarian side was somewhat more professional and rapid, even though we did have to pay to drive through a sheep dip and hence rid ourselves of some nasty Romanian germs.
It’s quite difficult to not find yourself comparing Bulgaria with Romania. The two countries have had their fates and their current situation linked by the EU in that they will enter the block together (this seems absolutely certain – we don’t yet know whether it will be in 2007 or in 2008 but it seems to be a given that they will enter together). When I first arrived in Romania, two years ago, the feeling coming out of Brussels was that Bulgaria was ahead of Romania, which I was told was seriously embarrassing to Romania. Now it seems Romania has caught and passed Bulgaria, and the last report from the EU suggested that Romania is nearly there, while Bulgaria has some catching up to do still (which means that either Romania’s advancement will drag Bulgaria in early, or Bulgaria’s lack of progress will drag Romania back).
First impressions driving south through Bulgaria, then, were the following:
(a) there are no people in Bulgaria. We passed through a couple of villages in which no signs of life could be determined. In a similar village in Romania there would be loads of people sitting outside cafes, returning from the fields, going to the fields, wandering around drunk, on bikes, with animals. Here nobody. But all the fields seemed remarkably well attended to, so there must be people in the country
(b) The roads are in slightly better shape on average – no terrible potholes, generally less danger of being killed either swerving to avoid some road obstacle or not swerving to avoid one. This may have something to do with (c)
(c) There is very little traffic in Bulgaria. Romania’s roads are packed with trucks, cars, horsecarts, bikes, you name it. Bulgaria was very quiet. They did have donkey pulled carts though, which I haven’t seen in Romania (though I am assured they do exist in the south)
(d) Roadside prostitution, which seems to be dying out in Romania, is thriving in Bulgaria. On one short 5 km section of road near the town of Dobrich I counted 6 women all waiting for the passing non-existent traffic.
(e) It seems desperately poor. Much poorer than Romania. All my companions commented that the villages and towns we saw all reminded them of how Romania looked 10 or 20 years ago.
We drove down to Varna, where we met the bloke I’d been emailing about the villa we’d booked, and the older couple who owned it. We then followed them down the coast to Byala/Bjala/Biala (take your pick of spelling) to the villa. Which was gorgeous. Biala is a small village with a large uncrowded sandy beach (one of the only uncrowded sandy beaches in Southern Europe in late July?). There’s significant construction going on there at the moment as the coast in general gets developed to attract tourists, but at least for now it’s a beautiful little place. It’s not far north of a slightly more developed tourist town at Obzor, but even that is not exactly overcrowded. The big thing for tourists to do it seems is to buy property – there were billboards all down the main coastal road in English advertising villas, land, and various other deals.
One day we drove down to a town called Sunny Beach (yes, in English), which turned out instead to be kind of a gated resort within a larger Bulgarian town the name of which escapes me. It was bloody horrible. Vast modern hotels/timeshare apartment buildings surrounding a large shop-till-you-drop area of restaurants, bars, clubs, the ubiquitous estate agents, and shops selling all kinds of rubbish. In the short time we walked around it I got a headache from the noise, flashing lights and crowds. This may be because I’m an old man, but I take comfort from the fact that my sister-in-law in the UK who is a travel agent, and a lot younger than me, visited the place as part of her work, and came away describing it as a “shitpit”. A succinct but very apt description, I feel.
Just a little bit beyond Sunny Beach is the old town of Nessebar, built on a island attached to the mainland by a causeway. It’s one on those UNESCO world heritage sites, but it’s been a bit overtouristified, with every gorgeous old Turkish style house occupied by a gift shop or fish restaurant. Still, it was still a nice place to wander round and take in something slightly more cultural than sun, sand and sea.
But most of the trip was just that – sitting around in the sun, on the beach, in the sea, or just in the shade back at the villa. Eating fish and salad out on the terrace, drinking Hristo’s (our host’s) potent home made grappa, basically relaxing. Dead cheap too – in 7 full days in Bulgaria we spent 100 Euros (for the 4 of us – and that included a full tank of petrol for the drive home). Dead good. And Paula managed to endure what turned out to be a 12 hour journey (when feedings, border crossings, and boat waits are factored in) in a small hot car when she was teething, without crying once. She is my hero.
My answers to the opening question (with explanations in case they’re a tad obscure – my memory is an exceedingly odd thing sometimes)
Christo – artist who covers very big things in material. Apparently this “reveals by concealing”
Georgi Markov – dissident who was killed by means of a poisoned umbrella in London. No idea why I remember this, but I do.
Hristo Stoichkov – footballer of some repute
Todor Zhivkov – Communist dictator
Mehmet Ali Agca – bloke who shot the Pope. I thought he was an ethnic Turk from Bulgaria, but seems like he was actually Turkish, so instead I’ll have…
Simeon Saxe Coburg – ex king who actually ended up being elected prime minister. I am hugely suspicious of anyone with the name “Saxe Coburg”, and while I have no idea of his record in democratically elected office, I can only naturally assume he was rubbish. Like the rest of his inbred parasitical extended family.
Bulgaria marks my half century. The 50th country I have spent time (meaning than greater than one night) in. Only another 180-ish to go.