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

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

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

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Another well, another fountain, another shrine…