Welcome to the blog for our round the world trip.

16 February 2008

Bulgaria to the Balkans

Bugarian Mural, Veliko Turnovo
Originally uploaded by rtw2007.
After a couple of days of R&R in Istanbul, we were back on the road headed north-west into the border area shared by Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey. As we approached the border zone, we wondered whether a war had started and no-one had bother to tell us: unlike the modern checkpoint coming in from Greece, the roads were very heavily strewn with litter and the road-side supermarkets and cafes had been abandoned leaving only empty, dusty shelves and broken windows. At first sight the border looked to be entirely closed, but eventually we found an open lane through which we proceeded painlessly past the pot-holes, plastic bags and bored officials into Bulgaria.

When we visited Romania, which joined the EU at the same time as Bulgaria, we were struck by what a big event their accession had been: there were EU flags lining the streets; “Welcome to the EU signs”; and even “European Union” school stationery in the shops. None of that in Bulgaria. There was one small, torn and rather pathetic little flag at the border, but little after that (we were instead welcomed into the country by a prostitute in knee high gold boots standing in a lay-by, who was rather disappointed when she realised that we were only stopping to have a quick sandwich!!). Perhaps the apparent lack of enthusiasm isn’t surprising for a country which was still trying to join the USSR in the 1970s, though.

On entering Bulgaria, we were now back into the world of the Cyrillic alphabet. Yet again we were glad to have learnt the Cyrillic letters when we were in Russia, because otherwise reading shop / road signs etc would have proved tricky. With that, we managed to navigate our way to two towns: Plovdiv in the south and Veliko Tarnovo which we reached via a trip over a beautiful snow covered mountain pass to the north. Both places had pleasant old towns, but were unfortunately dominated by the ubiquitous large, ugly Yugoslav concrete apartment blocks. We amused ourselves by admiring the outrageously out of date Russian dress sense of many of Bulgaria’s inhabitants, complete with older ladies sporting a range of “blue rinse” style hairdos, though rather than being blue their rinses were in every conceivable shade of red, pink, orange and purple. At least the scenery in between the towns is stunning, though, which made the driving quite pleasant.

Having been pretty uninspired by Bulgarian towns, which are hard to love because they are none too easy on the eye, we opted out of going to the capital, Sofia. Our guidebook assured us that the towns we had already visited were the stars of the show and that Sofia would provide more concrete than anything else. So instead we headed on towards the catchily titled “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” (or “F.Y.R.O.M.” for short), stopping only at a VW garage on the ring road to have our front and rear tyres swapped over in anticipation of the icy mountain passes which may lie ahead.

We reached the border post, located at the top of a 1,100m pass, just before nightfall and rather nervously decided to camp there before crossing into Macedonia the following day. Thankfully, the weather had warmed up slightly, so although we woke up to the usual sheet of ice on the inside of the van windows, we didn’t freeze to death. The next morning’s border crossing was slightly more complicated than usual, both because we have left the coverage of our Green Card again (meaning we had to buy insurance from a kiosk that was unwilling to accept or exchange any of the Bulgarian cash that we had crossed with) and because for some reason the gruff customs official was very concerned about exactly how long and for what reason we had been in Turkey. Eventually we escaped and began winding our way down through the mountains towards the capital, Skopje.

Immediately Macedonia has a fresher, different feel to Bulgaria, and our first impressions were very good. The scenery is still pretty spectacular, but on top of that the towns are now much more pleasant; the houses are in a much better state of repair; and we found all the people who we met in shops etc en route to be very friendly indeed. The country is quite small, with only 2 million inhabitants, and well over a quarter of them live in the capital. Perhaps the low population helps us like the place more: we have come to realise on this trip that we are really very adverse to over-populated places and are naturally drawn to wide open spaces where people have decent amounts of land to live on.

Skopje itself is a small but quite pleasant place. Yes, it has its fair smattering of Yugoslav concrete. Yes, the Soviet dress sense has continued (at lest in the older generation), not least in the hair dye (yesterday we saw an older lady who had died her hair pale pink to match her winter raincoat and her scarf… why wouldn’t you?). But it also has a pleasant riverside promenade with some very smart bars and cafes frequented by well dressed young Macedonians. On the other side of the river lies a Turkish bazaar, some impressively restored old Ottoman bathhouses and a bustling Albanian market. The only disappointment of Skopje has been that we are now back in the world of having to register with the authorities on our first night in the country (Soviet style paranoia obviously applied in Yugoslavia too and still seems to run deep), which has forced us to take a room in a hostel and end our run of 24 consecutive nights in the camper van.


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