Thursday 6 August 2015

Monasteries and Mountains: Our Induction into Bulgaria

Greece & Bulgaria, 3rd – 5th August 2015

After a little over two months in Greece, it was time to move on and see some of Eastern Europe.  We entered Bulgaria expecting something of a blind spot; we have no campsite or freecamping books that cover the country, and our only map of the place is a small section in our Europe atlas that is less than A5.  For a country that is one of the poorest in the EU, we were expecting to want to get through the place rather quickly.  So far it has been surprising us, with lots of interesting things to see.  The fact that our sat nav happens to have fairly accurate road maps despite not listing the country in the terms and conditions is certainly an added bonus!

Leaving Greece

On our last night in Greece, Matt and I had a brief discussion about the build-up of frost in the freezer and when we would get around to defrosting it.  It would appear the fridge-freezer must have overheard our discussion, as when I woke up in the morning my carefully accumulated collection of ice cubes had decided they would much rather be a puddle of water in the bottom of the freezer, and the fridge was barely colder than room temperature.  We’re not really sure what went wrong; mechanically it seemed to be running fine and there were no error lights on the display, so the only thing we could think of was that the system was struggling with a combination of wind/heat and our LPG running low (one gas cylinder was empty and the other was somewhere between half and empty).  There wasn’t much we could do, so just decided to keep an eye on it and carry on our way.  Before we left Stratoni, we made use of our last day of Greek beaches by going for a final dip and a beach shower.  It’s going to be strange not waking up and looking out over the waves, but on the other hand perhaps from this point on I will be spending less time sweeping up sand from the van floor!

Our final overnight spot in Greece at Stratoni

Despite its interesting build, the shower
was surprisingly powerful
Think of all the soup I can make!
After stopping at a Lidl to pick up a few final bits before leaving the country (no raw meat – I opted to force Matt into vegetarianism until the fridge was running again, poor thing!), we set off inland towards the Bulgarian border.  Pulling in at a Shell garage to refill our LPG, the attendant took one look at our gas cylinders and said no, before crossing his hands in a symbol presumably meant to mean hazard.  His loss was our gain; the guy at the Aegean station just down the road had no problem taking our business, and as we were leaving, he gestured for us to wait, before coming back out of the shop with a slice of melon for us each.  As we were parked across the middle of the forecourt eating it, he also came back out and gave us a bag of huge tomatoes – we’d heard that sometimes in Greece people will give you free fruit or veg, but this was the first time we’d experienced it ourselves.  It was certainly a nice thing to remember as we were leaving the country.

And here I was hoping we'd seen enough drama with the fridge...

Entering Bulgaria

Crossing the Bulgarian border, we had no problems.  Vehicles are supposed to drive through a liquid disinfectant on entry (at a cost of €4) but the disinfectant booth appeared unused.  The first security checkpoint looked at our passports and asked if it was just us two before waving us through, and the second checkpoint just waved us through automatically.  From there we pulled in at a place advertising Vignettes (road tax for all vehicles driving in Bulgaria), where the attendant, on realising Matt was British, enthused to him about Manchester United and how they were very popular here.  His enthusiasm didn’t stop him charging us a premium of €8 for the Vignette for a week instead of €5 (in hindsight, we should have made a note of how much it was supposed to cost before we entered the country and perhaps not stopped at the first booth we saw).

Our first impressions of Bulgaria came as somewhat surprising.  We’d prepared ourselves for a bit of a culture shock and we’d been warned by multiple people that the roads were terrible, but we found them to be quite good so far.  The main road from the border going north towards the capital, Sofia, is brand new (an EU funded project) and still in the process of being built and having barriers installed.  Away from the main roads and into the countryside, the road surfaces tended to be very similar to English country lanes, albeit with a few more potholes and overgrown hedges at the roadsides.  Perhaps this is because we are still fairly close to the border, so we’ll have to see how things progress.  The villages tend to be a bit rough around the edges with rendering falling off the buildings and a few gravel tracks on the side streets, and the towns tend to have a lot of scruffy flats around the edges, but the countryside is quite attractive, with lots of wide open fields.

Melnik and the Rozhen Monastery

Our first stop was at the town of Melnik, which is the smallest town in Bulgaria in terms of population.  The town is notable for having nearly a hundred of its buildings classed as cultural monuments, as well as for the wine produced in the region.  Nearly every shop and stall had big bottles of local wine on offer (between 2-6 Lev depending on size – or around £0.70-£2.20!), and a man from the Wine Museum chatted to us briefly in an attempt to gain some punters.  Unfortunately we hadn’t sighted a cashpoint yet, so could only look around for now.  The town was very pleasant and a little less run down than its neighbouring villages, with a stream running through its centre and a small park near the main road.

We still had some time left in the day however, so we carried on a little further up the road to Rozhen, with the intention of visiting the Rozhen monastery.  As we arrived at the village’s main square, a French couple approached us and mentioned the road ahead wasn’t passable - they had a motorhome of their own parked nearby, so seemed a reliable source!  We walked the rest of the way via the path uphill to the monastery (around 1km), during which time I realised that any physical endurance I may have built up from our Italian city sightseeing had left my system during our time of ‘too hot to want to move’ heat in Greece.

Inside the Rohzen monastery's main courtyard
After arriving at the monastery (with a little puffing and panting on my part), we went for a look around the courtyard, which was very pleasant with cobbled paths between the stone buildings and wooden beams supporting overhead walkways.  We didn’t go inside the actual church (no shorts allowed!), but we’ve always been a bit more interested in the outside architecture anyway.  On the way back down we took the main road rather than the pedestrian shortcut to investigate as the road looked wide and fine to drive on; it appears the reason for the other van’s warning not to drive there stems from the fact that at one section the road is crumbling away on a hairpin bend, leaving a steep, narrow section with temporary gravel surface to get around the corner that would have left a vehicle of our weight seriously struggling.

For the night we returned to Melnik (which was on our way back), where we parked up in a small parking area at the edge of town (GPS: 41.52400, 23.39130) that, despite being on the main road running through, was very quiet at night with no passing traffic thanks to its rural location.  The next day, our first job was finding a cashpoint.  We drove through the nearest town of Sandanski, where we spotted numerous cashpoints but none of which were at a point where there was parking room for a motorhome, with the streets very busy with traffic.  We did a lap of the town and had no luck, before deciding to give it another go as we didn’t know when we’d next see one, where luckily this time we found a space where a car had just left so Matt could wait whilst I jumped out and got some cash.  It appears we needn’t have bothered with the faff; when we reached Bansko, we immediately spotted a cash point in an area with great parking!

Bansko and the Pirin National Park

Bansko at a glance
Bansko is a popular Bulgarian ski resort, and feels very different to anything else we’ve seen in the country so far.  It’s made up of lots of hotels and apartments in typical mountainous ski-resort style, with lots of wooden cladding and several of the buildings looking fairly new.  It’s quite an attractive town, and very quiet in the off-season.  The reason we were passing through the town is because we were making our way to the Pirin National Park; we’d read about the place on the OurTour blog, and decided to give it a visit as it sounded very nice.  We ascended into ski-run territory, which gave way to grassy hills at this time of year, and passed between trees that looked to be several stories high at places, with rivers gushing by.  It was a very picturesque place, and originally we were only going to use it as a lunch stop but the cool air was very inviting so we decided to stay the night.  Up in the mountains it was in the low 20s during the day.  Back in England, we would think of this as a warm, sunny day.  After two months in Greece, Matt likened it to that waft of air you receive when you open the freezer door.  Either way it was very refreshing, and when we stayed the night (GPS: 41.76621, 23.42555) it was one of the most pleasant night’s sleeps we’ve had in a long while.

Our overnight parking in Pirin
The view from our parking spot

Rila Monastery and Stob’s Pyramids

Rila Monastery amongst the clouds
The next day we got up bright and early to temperatures of 19/13 degrees internal/external, and got going on our way to the next point of call at Rila Monastery.  After a couple of hours driving, as we made the final approach to the monastery, we were greeted by a rare sight.  Rain!  Other than a little drizzle on our way to Halkidiki, this was the first proper rain we’d seen in a month.  At the monastery itself, clouds hung in the air to either side of us, and thunder crackled through the air.  It added a very imposing atmosphere to the place.  The largest of the monasteries in Bulgaria, Rila certainly makes for an interesting visit, and is worth going to for anyone who is visiting the country.  Entry to the monastery is free; there is a parking charge (6 Lev for a motorhome) for the main car park, but given that it was full we parked a little further down the road instead, where there was no charge.

On the way back from the monastery, we stopped by at Stob’s Pyramids.  These pyramids are sandstone towers that vary in shape, with some of them tapering off into sharp points and others being topped with different stones (known at ‘hats’).  The various formations all have different names, according to the legends attached to them.  ‘The Bride’ is a formation supposedly formed when a Bulgarian girl threw herself from the rocks because she couldn’t marry her Turkish lover due to religious differences.  ‘The In-Laws’ involves the parents in a wedding procession gone wrong being turned to stone after the bride’s face was revealed too early.  The hike to the top of Stob’s pyramids takes around half an hour each way, and has a 2 Lev entry fee per person (although we noted the ticket office was closed when we returned around 4:30pm).  The terrain on the walk started with a gravel track, but around the halfway point it became a narrow, rocky footpath that left us clambering over rocks at points.  At one particular point towards the top, the path was on the top of a ridge with steep drops down onto the pyramids on either side, but the view when you get to the very top is pretty great.  I was getting a little tired walking uphill in the heat, but judging by the snippet of conversation we overheard, one particular American tourist was certainly struggling more than me.  ‘The lady said anyone could do it, in flip-flops or in heels!’ ‘Well the lady obviously thinks you’re a pussy!’

We’d seen photographs of an interesting looking scrapyard en-route to the Monastery; on our way back Matt stopped to go and have a look around.  A teenager at the scrapyard waved him in and showed him some information about the scrapyard that said it was a collection of historic vehicles and objects to help people remember the past Bulgaria, or something to that extent.  He showed Matt inside the building, where there were rows of old motorbikes as well as old televisions, radiograms and typewriters.

Our final stopping point for the day is a parking area off the side of the road (GPS: 42.25428 23.30436) on the way to the Rila Mountains courtesy of Europe by Camper, on the approach to the next target on our list in the morning: The Seven Rila Lakes.  In positive news for me, the fridge appears to be running fine again, so I can work on getting my ice cube hoard built up once more.  In positive news for Matt, this means he is not being forced into vegetarianism!

- Jo

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