“I’m a feartie Sassenach, get me out of here!”

Somewhere in Bulgaria – July 11, 2015

According to the great Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson, “It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive.” We’ve long been followers of his advice while exploring foreign parts, not sticking to a fixed itinerary but striking out in a vaguely general direction and seeing what turns up.

We’ve also got into the habit of avoiding motorways. We’re never in a screaming hurry to be anywhere by a given time, and the few minutes saved by using the M-whatever is more than cancelled by the accompanying driving stress.

Why contend with a stream of juggernauts and six lanes of traffic, all seemingly set on creating new records for getting to wherever they’re going? The byways are invariably more interesting than the highways. You see more of the countryside, come across interesting villages, and get to know the locals when stopping for solid and liquid sustenance.

The road less travelled is always the better option – to paraphrase another literary great, the American poet Robert Frost. And that was the spirit in which we set off for our return to Srem.

There’s not much of a freeway to begin with so the potential for route indecision was minimal. The northern route is being converted to dual carriageway but it’s still under construction so diversions and holdups can be expected.  To carry on in the same vein of literary quotations, Dr Samuel Johnson famously observed: “The finest prospect a Scotsman ever beholds is the high road that leads to the south.”

We were thus soon beholding the southern back roads but the prospect looked no finer to my Sassenach companion and navigator. It was winding, bumpy, and severely potholed. Average speed was 25 km/h at best, but why worry – the scenic countryside was very pleasant, even if HRH was getting increasingly voluble and protesting: “We’re miles from nowhere, this road would test even Vladimir’s jeep, there’s no phone signal, and if you break down we’ll be lost forever.”

The only other cloud on the horizon was a big black one, looming ominously right in our flight path. We’ve discovered that afternoon showers are fairly regular here, and as we were still in bright sunshine it would probably disperse before we got close. Cue another quote, this time from George Bernard Shaw who described second marriages as “The triumph of optimism over experience.”

Much the same as our meteorological expectations. Within minutes, a few spits of rain on the windscreen had grown to a downpour of tropical proportions. The wipers on our wee Noddy car could barely cope. The sunshine was blotted out and visibility was down to a few yards.

This became a white-knuckle ride, even if it lasted only 15-20 minutes our progress was reduced to a crawl. But like tropical storms it cleared as quickly as it came and we were bowling along again (10-15 km/h) as if it had never happened.

The densely-wooded roadside stretches create another driving hazard. Shadows often hide potholes and with alternating bands of bright sunshine give the feeling of passing over a strobe-lit bar code. Disco without the music. (That’s a blessing I should definitely count.)

Less so the navigator. Map-reading never has been her strong suit, especially when road-signs are in Cyrillic and map place-names in Roman. Yes, another set of road-signs are in Roman – about 200 metres later and often just before the desired turn-off, so the potential for error goes up by an order of magnitude.

I was persuaded to turn back because we were supposedly heading south to the Turkish border and we did not want a closer encounter with the polis. Bad mistake on my part. Turned out the navigator was holding the map upside down and we’d been heading the right way after all.

Tempers were getting ever so slightly frayed by this time, but a village called Izvidhze looked like a landmark and from there to Voroloi and we’d be almost home. Izvidhze arrived, but all exit roads were now no better than goat tracks and no sign of (or to) Voroloi. Ask a local and show him the map. Shakes head and traces route on map – back to Burgas and take the main road.

That would be admitting defeat, so after more map inspection I found an alternative back road. Only one small problem. The earlier downpour had left loch-sized puddles and ditches so progress was held up by repeated stops to check depths and the best way through. If HRH’s protests had been vociferous before, an hour later they were now reaching hysterical crescendo.

“Go back! Go back! No one will ever find us if you get stuck! The only other people daft enough to be on this road will be ISIS lunatics and they’ll think Eid’s come early.”

Fair enough, but a U-turn was impossible. Even a multi-point turn was hazardous – given the surrounding ditches, swamps, trees, and boulders – so onward non-Christian soldiering was the only option.  After another 30 km or so, the road improved a bit… now just two parallel ruts with a grass-covered ridge in the middle.

“See? That wasn’t a problem at all, was it?” I reassured HRH, who was hyper-ventilating on her third pack of fags for the day. “Stick with this road and we’ll connect to the one to Srem and we’ll be there in another couple of hours.”

Strangely, the reassurance had little effect. “We’d have been there two hours ago if you weren’t such a stupid, stubborn, bloody-minded idiot,” was the response, along with much more in stronger vein.

A few kilometres later we emerged on an open plain, relief reducing HRH to garbled incoherence while pointing animatedly to a distant hillside.  “Over there, over there – cars, traffic, proper road, find it and get on!”

I did, and it wasn’t long before we were in Srem and reunited with Ian and Cursty, who had collective ears bent about the hell ride she had endured. That’s where the aforementioned (almost) ambulance came in.  Perhaps it was an error of judgment to suggest that HRH would be the better for one, and a trip to the nearest ward for terminal exaggerators.

Suffice to say that my need was suddenly in greater threat. And has abated only slightly. Which prompts another quote to sign off. This time from no less an eminence than Albert Einstein and who am I to argue with his genius?

Asked what was the most difficult question he ever had to answer, Einstein had no hesitation in answering: “What does a woman want?”

summer 14 027Vlad, John, and ersatz Volvo – aka a Russian army GAZ

summer 14 016

Candle power… do non-believers benefit from shrine duties?

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Nastrovya! A happier HRH shares a glass with Vladimir in Grammatikivo.

summer 14 024

Another well, another fountain, another shrine…

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Army, police, and ambulance (almost)

Grammatikovo, Bulgaria – July 10, 2015

PS: (If it doesn’t also stand for pre-script, it should – and does now)…

Technical hitches have delayed recent updates. This time the lack of a cable to connect camera to laptop and download pix. HRH Official Tour Photographer left it in Dubai. Finding a replacement is proving impossible so word pictures will have to do, along with file shots. Relevant illustrations will be added should a new cable ever be found. Meantime, just use your imagination. Rakia helps.

Army, police, and ambulance (almost)

Within half an hour of hitting Grammatikovo, we had attracted the attention of the local constabulary. Not for the usual offences of drunk and disorderly (HRH) or subverting the peace of the realm by attempting to blow up symbols of the Liz that’s never been – Scottish letterboxes bearing the crest EIIR (me).

No, this time we were suspected illegal immigrants, maybe even traffickers of illegal immigrants.  The border polis here are very hot on such things. Syrian refugees are reputedly trying to make their way through Turkey to Bulgaria and onward to Calais, over the channel, and the promised land of benefits, Osborne austerity style. (Personally, I think I’d rather take my chances in Damascus. Maybe if I claimed refugee status they’d speed up my claim for old age pension.)

Our wee red Noddy car, parked outside the Asteya, had quickly been spotted as a stranger to the village and hotel boss Stoyan was quizzed as to its provenance and occupants. Stoyan assured them we were harmless geriatrics and that was that. (He didn’t know any better then as we were still on our first pints of Kamenitza.)

But had he not told us, we wouldn’t even have known we’d hit the radar. That certainly wasn’t the case with our army experience the next morning. The Russian army, no less, and almost equally geriatric. It took the form of Vladimir’s ‘zheep’ – a green and bull-nosed veteran with a large Volvo badge on the grille.

Vlad pointed to it and shook his head, saying “Russka” and tracing 1950 in the dust on the bonnet. The Volvo badge is Vlad’s oneupmanship on the decrepit Ladas that form the bulk of Grammatikovo’s vehicle population.  Consulting Mr Google later and comparing images of post-war Russian 4x4s confirmed it as a GAZ – Gorkovsky Avtomobilnyi Zavod – the Soviet equivalent of a Willys Jeep.

It’s worn well, and with a throaty growl we were off and soon heading cross-country, Vlad constantly pumping the clutch, manipulating four gear levers of different sizes, and flicking various switches on the dashboard. Driving this thing must have been practice for Concordski pilots. We negotiated the usual herds of sheep, cows, and goats – bumping and jolting over a rutted track as Vlad gave a running commentary on landmarks which we interpreted as mountains, Turkish border, and monastery which seemed to be out ultimate destination. Forests, fields, and bramble bushes eventually gave way to a clearing where a hut about the size of a large garden shed faced a semi-circle of tables and benches.

As monasteries go, assuming that’s what it is, this one is a bit on the low-key side. Vlad dispels any doubt by handing us a few pencil-sized candles and leading the way through the unlocked door. He bows and shuffles forward, head down. As our eyes accustom to the gloom, we notice a shrine at the far end –more unidentifiable holy and haloed saints, surrounded by burnt out candles stubs.

Vlad genuflects and crosses himself. I try to pass myself off as sanctimoniously ignorant while HRH pretends to be invisible. Being a smoker sometimes has its advantages and when Vlad gestures to the candles I know what’s expected. Fire them up, melt the ends, and place them glowing next to the iconry. The added light does not reveal much more. Bare walls and rafters, earthen floor, no seating, no stained glass or graven images. My Calvinistic ancestors would have approved.

Observances completed, we retreated as we came in – heads bowed – and resumed cross-country exploration. The GAZ coped admirably with everything that came our way in another half-hour or so of scenic adventure. Vlad pulled up at a footpath next to a stand of fruit-bearing trees. He pulled off handfuls of ripe plums, pears, and cherries – using the waist of my T-shirt as a makeshift trug. The harvest was dumped in the bag of the GAZ and Vlad beckoned in the direction of the footpath.

A 15-minute walk on level ground turned into a steep descent through a dense forest, heavily canopied and admitting only a few shafts of sunshine. These monastery candles would have come in handy. Down and down we went, the decline becoming ever steeper. I risked a thought about the return trip but being ever the optimist decided not to worry about that till the time came.

It came all too quickly, but not before we’d bottomed out at the river that runs through the gorge. It’s fed by a spring emerging from a moss-covered boulder and topped by yet another shrine. More obeisances, and more candle-lighting. At this rate, I’m at risk of Rohan Roberts excommunicating me from Café Scientifique meetings when we get back to Dubai.

At least a much-needed sampling of the cold, clear, and very refreshing water helped set me up for the return journey. It was every bit as painfully torturous as expected. My knees and thigh muscles haven’t hurt so much since Jonathan was a baby – only slightly smaller than he is now – and bouncing on them. Getting back to the GAZ and eventually the Asteya was glorious relief. Never has a pint of Kamenitza been more welcome. Vlad and HRH made light of my discomfort but were equally quick to get noses into beer jugs. Stoyan kept bringing refills so I took the opportunity to ask him how much we should give Vlad for accommodation and allied kindness.

“Already paid!” was the happy retort. “That was included in the 100 lev you gave me last night.” Suddenly my aching thighs were feeling a lot better. Even more so as another mystery got put to rest. Our supposed Women’s Institute group were actually teachers – 41 women and three men. So that’s who the guys were huddled in a corner by themselves the night before. How odd! Is such segregation common academic practice everywhere? From what we know of Rohan Roberts and Chris McDermott, our Dubai authorities on teaching-related matters, it seems unlikely. Potential story here for Cursty and James Mullan and their Which School? website.

A fond farewell to Vlad segued to a fond welcome to Stoyan’s wife Lapcheva, joining to celebrate her birthday. And quite a celebration it was. No wonder we felt part of the Asteya family by the time we left next morning. And the ambulance of the headline? We’re running out of space, so that will have to wait till the next instalment.

PPS: Half of this piece was lost in transmission. You can now catch up with the full story – and make more sense of the episodes that follow.

vlad drum

Grammatikovo pipes and drums in the making minus the pipes.

local dress wall

Grammatikal purity

Grammatikovo, Bulgaria – July 9, 2015

Heading for the hills proved a great decision. HRH vaguely remembered Cursty mentioning a hunting lodge that’s well worth a visit and after studying the map she reckoned the place we wanted was Grammatikovo. (How either of them remember anything after lengthy discussions fuelled by tankards of Kamenitza and Bombay Sapphire is still a mystery.)

Such suspicions grew just a teeny bit as we made our way (supposedly) towards this seemingly mythical destination. “Left at the next junction – no, wait – straight on I think. Or is it right? What does that sign in Cyrillic say?”

With a navigator like this, I don’t think I’m in the running to emulate my late countryman Colin McRae as a Bulgarian rally champion, even if the roads were very suitable for the sport. After about three hours of semi-inspired guesswork –more by good luck than good judgment, I reckon – behold! A turn-off and a legible sign saying ‘Grammatikovo – 18 km’.

Equally magically, another sign appeared as we drew into the town – or almost village, more accurately.  This one bore a deer’s head, lots of antlers, and a Cyrillic name that could reasonably be interpreted as ‘hunting lodge’.

Within a few minutes we were pulling up outside the Asteya – as as it’s called once you see a rendering in Roman script. A tour bus had beaten us to it, prompting some misgivings about room availability. Justified. But no problem for Stoyan the owner. (We were not quite on first name terms at this stage, but that was soon to change.)

“You can stay with my friend Vladamir. I’ll call him and fix.”

That was quickly arranged but it would take an hour or so for Vlad to make ready for us. Would we like a drink in the meantime? I think that’s what philosophers call a rhetorical question. The hour stretched to two, maybe even three, as Stoyan kept delivering a seamless flow of draught Kamenitza.

The tour bus occupants who had booked out the accommodation looked like a Bulgarian Women’s Institute outing. Mostly middle-aged but totally uninhibited about baring expansive bodies and splashing noisily in the pool.  One or two were of more recent vintage, and studying the slim one with the long dark hair and dayglo green bikini was an essential part of figuring out the age disparity and the WI conundrum.

Vladimir eventually arrived and joined us. A big, jovial fellow only too happy to have guests who shared his enthusiasm for beer and spirits. Vlad’s English is even more minimal than our Bulgarian, but that was no barrier to communication. Kamenitza and rakia have a wonderfully transformative effect on language skills.

While we were still capable of walking, we thought it better to drop our kit at Vlad’s and get settled in. That involved a tour of the premises, and what a fascinating tour it was. Half national museum, half botanic gardens. Lots of traditional Bulgarian gear; a profusion of flowers, vines, and fruit trees.

Vlad quickly had me in national dress – red embroidered waistcoat, astrakhan hat, an ancient rifle (de-weaponed, I hasten to add), and a soldier’s drum. As you can see from the pix at the end, I think I’m definitely going native.

More jugs of beer were needed to celebrate my conversion, along with shots of home-made rakia and slivovitz just in case our enthusiasm for life in the hills was flagging. More learning here. ‘Slivi’ is Bulgarian for plums, so that took care of time-consuming research into the etymology of slivovitz.

Vlad then demonstrated the age-old method of making fire – sparking a flint on what looked like a steel knuckle-duster and igniting a pile of shavings scraped off the container that holds all the kit. After much mime and mangled language, we figured out Vlad’s explanation that the container is the hollowed-out stalk of a large mushroom that grows on trees. Science and botany now added to the curriculum as well as linguistics.

True to her famed party-pooper reputation, HRH finally called a halt. We had to go back to the Asteya for a feed.  On the plus side, that would also mean availability of draught beer so Vlad and I fell into line.

The grub was outstanding. I had a massive platter of game roast – wild boar and various kinds of venison. HRH polished off an equally gargantuan portion of chicken fillets in a creamy sauce. Vlad declined eating and disappeared for further WI research. More than one was at least his match for height and weight.

By now they were in full-swing party mode, having swapped poolwear for evening finery and limbering up to the music pumping from the outdoor sound system. There would be a few WI sair heids in the morning, I reckoned.

To pre-empt any chance of sharing the same fate, maybe it was time to head back to Vlad’s and an early night. It was about 10:30 pm by now and Vlad was taking us on safari in the morning. He’d shown us his ‘zheep’ earlier – a bull-nosed 4×4 of uncertain vintage but just the job for the cross-country exploration he had in mind.

We managed to extricate Vlad from WI research and located Stoyan to pay the bill. That came to a wee bit short of 100 lev, bigger than we’d come to expect in Bulgaria, but not excessive considering all the food and beverage disposed of. We wouldn’t get very far in Dubai on the equivalent of less than 200 dirhams.

We walked back to Vlad’s house under a clear and brilliantly starlit sky, dominated by a full moon. Sounds hard to believe but it was genuinely dazzling.  After stopping to stare at the sky, night vision was very much impaired when resuming head down and homeward march.

Unusually, we declined Vlad’s offer of a night cap, instead choosing to gratefully hit the sack and reflect on what a good idea it was to head for the hills.

gram pool

Asteya and pool – all quiet after the departure of the WI tour bus.

vlad flint

Vladimir demonstrates the Promethean art of flint, steel, and tinder.

vlad john

Vlad and John get to know each other over a glass or two.

vlad gun

Going native in national dress… wonder if this rig would work with my kilt?

 

Burgas can’t be choosers

Burgas, Bulgaria – July 8, 2015

Despite the attractions of Srem (we could easily park off there for the rest of the summer), there’s still no excuse for failing to explore other parts of Bulgaria. On that principle we headed for Burgas, a popular resort town on the Black Sea coast and the main regional centre in this part of the country.

It’s also Bulgaria’s fourth-largest city, with a population of about 360,000, but getting around is remarkably easy. We quickly found our recommended hotel – the Gran Via – only to be told “Sorry, we’re full.” Booking might have been a sensible precaution, but that’s not in the spirit of free-fall tourism.

The Luxor, a couple of blocks away, was suggested as an alternative and there we struck lucky. Free valet parking, even.  Not just a customer service but an essential aid to strangers who don’t know their way around. The parking lot is at the back door and reached through a labyrinth of alleys and side-streets.

Local knowledge is essential so the porter/parking attendant does the driving, keeping the keys so cars can be shuffled around as visitors come and go. Double-rooms were going for 80 lev a night (about 40 euros or 80 dirhams if you’ve forgotten the exchange rate already).

HRH decided to lash out and upgrade to a studio – all of 10 lev more – to avoid any traffic noise. She generously offered to forgo breakfast (5 lev) so that would halve the added expenditure. I thought of asking how much extra it would cost to avoid her snoring, but for once discretion won out over valour.

The studio proved spacious and well-appointed, with choice of large double-bed or slightly smaller version and free wifi as part of the package. Hint here for hotel chains in the Middle East and UK where such high-tech new gadgetry often incurs a ridiculous extra charge.

Solid and liquid sustenance was sorely needed after the afternoon drive from Srem in our hired SEAT Ibiza, a name which is not lived up to. I can’t speak for the Ibiza part, never been there, but its seats must the most uncomfortable since Henry Ford stopped installing wooden saddles. There are several levers for multiple position adjustment but I’ve yet to find a combination that doesn’t induce instant backache.

Relief was not far away, in the form of the Golden Fish restaurant (that’s the translated name) round the corner from the Luxor. Being right by the shore, and trusting in the name of the establishment, seafood seemed a good option. And so it proved.

I chose mussels in a sauce of wine, onion, herbs, and garlic and could not have made a better decision. The 1kg portion looked a bit daunting but it was quickly reduced to a bucketful of shells. HRH went for spag marinara, also arriving a Queen-sized helping. After washing it all down with a couple of pints of draught Kamenitza each, time to summon up courage and the bill.

Shock, horror! It came to 30 lev and some change. That wouldn’t even cover the beer in Dubai – and we’re talking big city rates, not Violetta’s taverna in remote and rural Srem.  Chalk up another plus-point for Bulgaria.

Well-fed and watered we headed back to the Luxor for an early night and recharging of batteries for proper exploration in the morning. That was a walk in the park – literally – or the Sea Garden as it’s formally known, full of trees, shrubbery, and sculptures. Hard to tell of whom – that’s the problem with Cyrillic inscriptions – but the most important is supposed to be the Alexander Pushkin monument.

(For those of you thinking that the vodka equivalent of Johnnie Walker definitely merits a statue, not so. First and foremost, he was a famous Russian poet, not a brand name.)

Close to the park is a city-centre pedestrian area, crammed with a curious mix of coffee shops, pubs, tourist tat kiosks, and even second-hand books. A junk shop/antique showroom (easily qualified as both) provided an interesting spell of browsing. Spinning-wheels, hand-leaving looms, wagon wheels, assorted bits of what looked like agricultural equipment – wooden plough shares and harrows – were piled high alongside antlers, stuffed foxes and pine martens, and ancient typewriters and sewing machines.

Among a stack of musical instruments in various states of disrepair, a button-key melodeon caught my fancy. Just like the one I used to play in my distant youth. Cue HRH and foot-stamping protest. Cursty on fiddle and me on guitar make more than enough Scottish music for her to handle, thank you.

Time to move on to the second-hand bookshop. Plenty beautiful old volumes on display, but unfortunately all in Bulgarian.  One shelf had a small selection of English titles. Obviously very valuable as they were each parceled up in clear cellophane. Closer inspection revealed the authors – Jackie Collins is clearly very popular with Burgas literati, along with EL James and 40 shades of various colours, Dan Brown, Danielle Steel, and other heavweights notable for their non-appearance at the Dubai litfest.

I could hear HRH breathing a sigh of relief that another few kilos would not be added to the luggage limit, the usual outcome of my visits to second-hand bookshops.

A visit to the museum of antiquities was another highlight of the day. At 5 lev each entry fee, expensive by Bulgarian standards, but well worth it.  A fascinating couple of hours discovering the country’s Thracian history, right up to relatively recent times and the reign of Tsar Simeon.

Day two in this part of the world was to be spent visiting the smaller resort towns further down the coast. Bad move.  Sozopol, Primorsko, and Kiten proved to be each as bad as the other – a mix of Blackpool and Benidorm, beaches crammed with tourists, new hotels and holiday apartments rising by the minute. We’re obviously not the only ones discovering the joys of Bulgaria.

When half the country appears to have decamped to the seaside, time for us to head for the hills.

PS: HRH had technical problems with her iPad and conventional cameras (whether due to gin or charger, I can’t say) so the Burgas pic selection is a bit thin. I’ve added some from the archives to make up.

beach burgas

Burgas beach is relatively quiet and peaceful…

beach primorsko

Primorsko is the other extreme…

pork carving

Camera-shy Cursty finally caught in the act – carving up the first roast from pig-sticking operations.

goats sheep

The evening procession makes its way homeward. Note the different configuration of Bulgarian sheep compared to the Scottish variety. For further enlightenment you can draw on Bob Cassie’s Aberdonian expertise in such matters.