Archive for the ‘Bulgaria’ Category

Observations on Bulgaria

6 September 2010

I made some observations on Romania, and as we only left Bulgaria yesterday, it seems only fair, and the right time, to make some comments from our limited time in this country.

Bulgaria is more orderly than Romania, has better roads and urban infrastructure, and a lot less people (7m compared to Romania’s 20+m). Its recent history is quite different of course.

The communist era ended about 20 years ago. We have seen a few cities that have modernised centres that we assume date from this time, with large paved squares, statues, civic buildings and pedestrianised main streets.

The Cyrillic script is a real barrier for visitors. Fortunately most road signs are in Arabic script as well, but signs and other information of interest to visitors is often presented only in Cyrillic. We became familiar with words like hotel (xoten) and restaurant (Ресторант), but there were a few occasions on which we were without any help. Bulgaria celebrates the adoption of the Cyrillic alphabet with an annual public holiday.

It was usually possible to communicate with our half dozen or so words of Bulgarian combined with English. A couple of times we had problems communicating basic things to young people who we thought may have learnt some English at school – eg two beers please, do you have a room? This was both funny and ridiculous, as in each situation there was little else on offer and we thought that what we wanted was obvious.

The Roma community has been more visible to us in Bulgaria than in Romania. We assume that the drivers of the many horse-drawn carts are mostly Roma.

Apart from Kotel, we have been in  untourist regions that are not mentioned in Lonely Planet. And the LP info on Kotel was pretty scant. Once we left Yambul we were in a sparsely populated area where villages were few and had little commerce. Beyond Sredets, to the south, most villages we saw were largely abandoned. Of course the Black Sea coast is where most tourists go. We heard from Kiril that this area was greatly affected by the GFC and he lost his job in a resort there when that occurred.

The Bulgarian people largely left us alone, but always helped when asked and returned our greetings when we waved or said hello. Food, drink and accommodation was good. Beer is very cheap. Best thing was having shopska salad (tomato, cucumber, roasted capsicum and grated white cheese) each night with dinner. It’s delicious, healthy, easy to make and I am going to introduce it to the Royston Park area.

Sredets to Malko Tarnovo

5 September 2010

This is probably our last night in Bulgaria. We rode from the resort near Sredets to Malko Tarnovo, 5km from the Turkish border, on almost deserted roads through oak and beech forests. We’re staying in a doss house, discouraged by grottiness from showering this evening.

A breakfast highlight was the sulky resort staff who were more interested in their early morning cigarettes (smoked in the restaurant) than supplying customers with breakfast. We persisted and were ultimately successful. One waitress was on our side and made an effort to help us.

On the road, at a spring in the heart of the forest, two Bulgarian guys offered us a lift to Burgas, ‘One bike in the boot and one on the roof – no problem! Big kilometres.’ We thanked them kindly and continued on our way after filling our bottles.

The feature of the day were the flies. Who said Australian flies are bad? They haven’t experienced these little blighters. Strangely, they don’t settle or bite, but hover in dense clouds within centimetres of one’s face and hands – very aggravating and a great incentive to keep riding. We could drop them if we could achieve an air speed of about 15 km/h which proved a hard ask on the many hills. The slightest head wind was welcome assistance.

Tea time in the forest

We did manage to find a place to stop to brew a cup of tea. There was shade but it was in a clearing on the top of a hill with enough breeze to keep the insects at bay. Ah tea! We’ve been suffering from severe tea deprivation on our trip and it was a pleasure to stop and sip, slurp and gulp some – partial compensation for not getting lunch (no stopping and no opportunities).

We met a young Dutch woman, Suzanne, who left Holland 3 months ago. She’s cycling alone (with tent) and had got this far on her way to Istanbul. She had come via Serbia, Croatia and other countries that were formerly Yugoslavia. She admitted to having had a miserable night camping in the forest with the flies.

We’re now just 160 km from Istanbul as the crow flies but, STOP PRESS, we’ve decided not to ride there. In order to beat the traffic we’re heading south to the Gallipoli Peninsula. From there we’ll take a ferry across the Hellespont/Dardanelles (Rosalie’s tempted to follow Byron’s example and swim) and then another ferry across the Marmara from Lapseki (hopefully) or Bandirma to Istanbul. That’ll probably mean an extra 100 kms of riding but it increases the chance of survival compared to braving Turkish traffic into Istanbul.

Cycle route:
Sredets – Malko Tarnovo

Kotel to Sredets

3 September 2010

Phew! 159 km is too far. We decided to ride to Sredets from Kotel – too far but there was nowhere to stay between Yambul and Sredets. Contrary to expectations and advice obtained in Yambul there was no accommodation in Sredets either (or so we were told there) and we had to ride on 6 km, and climb 200 metres, to the only hotel in the area – a holiday complex called Bogura. It is Homer-esque. We must be close to Greece. We regretted the beer we confidently drank in Sredets *before* asking about accommodation – hubris! We are definitely close to Greece.

The descent from Kotel was quite cold but we didn’t resort to gloves and thought about the warming climb to come. We saw a number of horse-drawn gypsy carts with red pompommed horses and children wrapped in blankets. We stopped in Gradets to check out the tail-end of an informal gypsy market and received a warm and enthusiastic welcome.

Gypsy in Gradets

The villages we passed through today seem quite poor with little commerce. Most feature communist-era statuary and have an adjacent Roma community in more humble buildings.

We’ve had a nice cool sunny day to ride through beautiful Bulgaria. In the morning mountains (not too severe) and in the afternoon fairly flat farmland. In between fairly uninspiring Yambul although it did have an extensive car-free and shady area in the centre. We encountered our first child beggars in the steet today 😦

For most of the day we have been riding on well paved but quiet roads.

Our first donkey cart

Cycle route:
Kotel – Sredets
Sredets – (not so) nearby hotel

Kotel with Kiril

2 September 2010

We succumbed to encouragements from last night’s translator, Kiril, to spend the day in Kotel and allowed him to place us in a cheaper and perfectly acceptable hotel (Hotel Konstanse – looks like ХОТЕЛ КОНСТАСН tel +359 887 786 600). There’s actually a lot of accommodation here but it’s not easy to find. The Cyrillic script and inconsistent transliterations make discovery of Bulgarian businesses quite difficult on location or on the web.

Kiril is a local gypsy with excellent language skills and an interesting mix of local community roots and a global view. He is obviously proud and enthusiastic about his community and home town and has plenty of reasons to be so.

Kotel, Bulgaria

Apart from being simply a beautiful mountain village it also seems to be a spiritual heartland of Bulgaria being the home and location for much of the Bulgarian revival (for that read ousting the Turks). There’s a renowned gypsy music school here and a large gypsy community living mainly in an adjacent unofficial town (not officially recognised on tourist maps, etc).

Feel free to Google to your heart’s content about Kotel and its famous sons. A notable contribution from Kotel’s less-famous daughters can be found in the tapestry weaving museum. Impressive decorative and functional weaving from a well-established weaving community.

Tapestry weavinf from Kotel, Bulgaria

We had a pleasant day with a charming and helpful guide but the steep streets have left us leg-weary again.

PS Rosalie thinks I should change my rear tyre. The black tread has worn through to a contrasting layer all the way round now. However, that tyre has a Kevlar, puncture-resistant belt that the replacement lacks. So, I think I might persevere a little longer. Also, my wheel is dirty and I’m going to get grubby changing the tyre. 😦

Kotel Gypsies

2 September 2010

We’ve made contact with the Gypsies! While wandering the almost deserted streets of Kotel a couple of men greeted us. They invited us to come with them to their restaurant in the lower part of town – the gypsy part. With a few misgivings we accepted and an excellent evening was had by all.

Both of the men were called Angel. One of them owned the restaurant and both played clarinet in their band which assembled soon after we arrived (three clarinets, one piano accordion and a drummer). They asked us whether the band could form and play for us. We were a bit worried we were booking the band and not sure what the bill for the night would be. Anyway we enjoyed the good food and excellent spirited playing and when the bill for dinner arrived it was perfectly reasonable. We added some money as a tip for the band.

Gypsy band in Restorant Zlaten, Kotel

Kotel is a renowned source of gypsy musicians who travel across the Bulgaria and Europe for gigs when the money’s available. There’s a music school here. The GFC has hit this area hard with 70% unemployment in Kotel apparently. The band played their cabaret/show set and then followed up with their local Gypsy music. They don’t use the machine-gun staccato tonguing of the Romanian wedding bands. Their ensemble was tight and in tune and, as I say, spirited. The place soon filled up with locals once the band started.

In addtion to ‘Roma’ and ‘Gypsy’ they also seemed to refer to their community as ‘Tsigani’ – possibly even prefer that term but it was impossible to explore the potential connotations that the various terms carried.

We’re a bit embarrassed about our early concerns regarding the way the night might be heading. We had a great night and have decided to stay another day here.

So when you’re next in Kotel, seek out Restorant Zlaten (Golden Restaurant) and hope that the band’s in town.

Bucharest to Razgrad, Bulgaria

31 August 2010

Yesterday, after visiting the PP and trying to buy maps in Bucharest, we spent the rest of the day preparing to change countries again.

This morning, preparation completed (as far as possible), we cycled to Gara de Nord to take 2 trains, the first to Videle, 50km SW of Bucharest, the second to Giurgiu, on the Danube and a border crossing into Bulgaria. Our Bucharesti friend, Radu, recommended this method of reaching the border. The woman in the ticket office said there was no train to Giurgiu and it was not possible. We did it anyway.

Interesting sight en route to station: at least a dozen dogs lying and snoozing together on footpath. There is no shortage of dogs in Romania; on the platform at Videle I saw a dog suckling 9 little pups.

Interesting sight at Gara de Nord: Orient Express, looking very classy; we saw it again at on the bridge over the Danube at Giurgiu. Our trains were not in this league, but they left and arrived on time and were completely satisfactory. There were no gruesome murders on our train.

We left Romania where there was a long queue of trucks waiting to enter, then rode across the Danube which looked drab and industrial, and had our passports stamped.

Our first Bulgarian city was Russe, the delights of which were not immediately evident. It did, however, have an interesting pedestrianised centre with a large plaza surrounded by historic buildings. We bought some brezels and hot bread rolls before riding out of town.

The main challenges of Bulgaria so far are the Cyrillic script, the language of which we learnt 3 words on the train, and the currency. An unfamiliar script adds another layer of alienation for the traveller too gormless to have learned the local language before arriving. But we are managing so far.

As we climbed out of the valley of the Danube (for the last time) we passed a young English cyclist who is also headed for Istanbul. We had a good tail wind and soon left him behind. Because we had little knowledge of road conditions and accommodation options we took the main road to Razgrad, about 65km. This was not too bad, with road surface quite good, road space ok and traffic volume tolerable and not life threatening. The only thing is that we are not really considered to be legitimate on-coming traffic so we have to watch out for vehicles overtaking towards us.

We have seen several mosques today, in Russe and Razgrad – the first for a couple of weeks. They appear abandoned.

Apparently abandoned mosque in Razgrad

An entertaining and potentially embarrassing feature of Bulgaria is that they nod their head for no and shake for yes!

Cycle route:
Giurgiu (Romania) – Razgrad (Bulgaria)

Paris of the East

30 August 2010

Here we are in the Casa Gabriela. It’s quite a nice, newly-renovated pension/guest house. We have a palatial suite at a cheap rate with room for the bikes and a novelty toilet seat featuring barbed wire set into the acrylic – very funny. We seem to be the only guests.

We’ve been enjoying Bucharest’s shabby chic (or is that faded glory). The traffic situation is pretty dire and hard work for cyclists and pedestrians until the cars jam up and then we’re off the leash. Bucharestis are excellent at parking cars – much more inventive and successful at finding places to leave their cars than almost anyone else in the World.

Orthodox church squeezed by Communist-era buildings

We’ve found cafes to be ridiculously expensive and selling below par beverages. Most humble cafes in rural Romania do better for a fraction of the price. We have found a number of hole-in-the-wall bakeries selling pastries and covrigi (Romanian pretzels) which are cheap and good.

We leave this Paris of the East tomorrow morning by train hopefully headed towards Bulgaria. At worst it will get us out of the city. We’ve been struggling to get Bulgarian information (maps, guide books in English or consitant traffic advice) – we’ll just have to wing it.