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?