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

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