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Saturday: through Serbia from Sofia to Szeged

Saturday, October 10th, 2009

Sofia to Szeged, more or less, and all of Serbia in between
In the vans from 7:42am to 12:30, then 1:20 to 5:46pm
(border crossings: 40 and 20 minutes; did not have to leave the vehicles at all)

A foggy mist laying low across the plain in patches looks like white candyfloss. Hills climb up in the distance. Glancing in my wing mirror, I see the sun rising, an orange-red ball. Then suddenly the fog engulfs us. It is so thick, the word *visibility* becomes irrelevant. Later in the morning when a suicide-seeker fails in his bid to make me an accomplice, he  overtakes The Bear Cave in a second attempt to end his life. In similar fashion, another car approaches Rob and by no more than a whisker makes it back to his own side of the road. Rob is rattled.
But right now we are about to leave the country where you shake your head for no and nod for yes, the country where purchases are measured in stotinki and leva.

A border crossing. We open our eyes to capture the differences that must be about to appear. But there is nothing exceptional. Bulgaria is like Serbia; Serbia is like Bulgaria. Piles of firewood are stacked for winter. Backyard gardens hold the remains of the summer harvest. Buildings are derelict. The road is somewhat bumpy.

Then there’s a difference. We didn’t see any rounded mounds of hay in Bulgaria. We didn’t see carved gable ends on houses in Bulgaria. We didn’t see such steep roofs. Or sheaves of cornstalks. The differences were not immediate, but yet again, each country proves to have its own identity, observable even in just one day. Sometimes the difference is a lack. Here, in Serbia, there is no tobacco growing. No grapes.

But there are tunnels. Dark tunnels. The first one for the day has a few dim lights – not enough to make a discernible difference – much like our own headlights! Further from the border, there are no lights at all, even in tunnels that curve! Guess how many tunnels there are in one set of hills alone. What do you think? Did you guess sixteen? Yes, sixteen tunnels! And you know what? Despite the signs warning you not to, they make an interesting place for overtaking!
Speaking of signs, there was a priceless one just before the border. Presumably to complement the sign restricting speed to 50km/hr, another strategically placed immediately afterwards, showed a car upside-down plummeting off the road. Should encourage observance of the speed recommendation on what would otherwise have looked like an open road!

We drive and drive.
For the first time we cover 330km before lunch.

Eventually we come to Belgrade. Unremarkable. We are in a hurry. We still have a long way to go. We don’t stop. We do, however, notice that the shoulder of the motorway becomes a dedicated overtaking lane in the city.

We drive on.
As we travel due northwards, manmade hillocks supporting bridges for the east-west running roads that cross over us are the only bumps in an otherwise dead flat landscape. For flatness, it rivals the Netherlands. In expanse it far exceeds the famous flat land.
The fog, which had lifted, seems to return. Or is it smog? But there are no cities, few factories. How could a handful of factories spread smoke across such a huge area? Into the smoke we drive. We’ve found another burnoff land and we will drive for hours through it, eventually with eyes stinging.

We drive on. We do not encounter any policemen trying to fine us for being foreigners. We note we were not ripped off at the border. We are not given hefty fees at the toll booths. No-one asks for our credit card. We have heard horror stories about foreigners travelling through Serbia, but we do not come out with our own to add. It would seem they are cleaning up their act. There are posters telling you exactly what the tolls are. There are posters informing you NOT to pay anything at border control. There are phone numbers to ring and people to contact if you witness any “irregular behaviour”.

We drive on some more. For hours we have driven on these dead straight roads with not a sign of silly driver behaviour (other than the crazy overtaking in the fog and through tunnels, that is – on the open road everyone was sensible!!) Suddenly and inexplicably a line of traffic overtakes us in a dash of urgent madness. Truck after truck after truck and cars in between pull out to leave us behind. We start wondering if the border closes at 5pm, and we pick up our own pace too, just in case.
When we arrive – moments before 5pm – all is deserted, but there are no signs of anyone shutting up shop for the night. We’ll never know what the half hour of speedsters was all about!

We won’t go *far* in this country today, but we manage enough kilometres to make some observations. The first and most obvious is the smooth road. Really smooth. Our eyes scan outwards – instead of nothing running alongside the road, there are now side barriers made of woven timber lining the motorway. Above us road signs are in both Cyrillic and Latin script as well, with a great profusion of squiggles and dots above the letters…and the place names are L—O—N—G. We pass a few houses with thatched roofs.
We find a truck stop. And stop. Rumbling tummies and the setting sun tell us it is time for dinner, but we still need to cook. Because we have to set our watches back an hour, we eat at a “reasonable” time!
And sleep. Or try to. It’s a busy truck stop with cars from at least seven different nations pulling in beside us over the course of the night, tour busses stopping behind us to allow passengers a smoko-break beside our cracked-open windows, and trucks roaring in to a stop all night long.

Friday: Biser to Border

Friday, October 9th, 2009

Biser to Sofia and beyond a bit – almost to the Serbian border, in fact
In the vans from 10am til 5pm, with an hour’s stop for lunch

Autumn is here. We have felt the mornings grow colder, now we see it as we drive. Branches cling to crisp brown leaves, not relinquishing them for the flight to the earth. Other trees are so yellow they are like a field of sunflowers concentrated on one trunk. Some cluster in groups; others stand as solitary exclamations on the landscape. 
It’s a fine time for a road trip.
The fields are filled with crops – tobacco, cotton, cabbages, the last tomatoes of summer, corn, short-stemmed sunflowers, yellow wheat, apples, grapes.
The villages display their own treasures. Perhaps handmade baskets in every imaginable shape. Or ceramics, lined up on the roadside. Or enormous bags of peppers for sale. Or a lady beside her tomato pyramid. EVERY village has pumpkins and squash, piled up in the sun.
Hillsides dotted with trees become thickly forested rolling mounds. The dark green is dusted with rusty red copper, a hint of the falling autumn.

We drive and drive.

Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, appears. It pokes out of the smog, impressing us with its many monuments, memorials, parks, old buildings, churches, cathedrals and cobblestoned streets. We have an itinerary written out for us by our friend, Elena in Biser, but the only parking we can find is in a no parking zone. We follow the example of the many cars already stopped there and pull in for a short while, but we don’t have time to get towed away, so we don’t venture far. We do, however, drive through the old town, thankful that it is traffic-jam-time, allowing us a leisurely look at  the famous sights.

As we drive along, I contemplate a conversation I witnessed yesterday.
She was a Bulgarian wanting to leave. He was a Brit choosing to make Bulgaria home.
He was full of praise for the country, comparing it to the good ol’ days when he was growing up in England. She could not contain her scepticism. I did not know enough to contribute meaningfully, so became a passive observer.
In retrospect, it would seem, the bulk of her argument was that the few big cities in Bulgaria are too expensive to live in and the villages are dead – full of old people and too boring for young people to stay in for much more than a few months at a time, not to mention lacking education opportunities.
Viewing home education with favour and in particular having grave concerns about the current trend in the west to push children into all sorts of activities from an early age, the latter part of the anti-Bulgaria argument did not hold much weight with me.
As for the boring bit……well, she hit upon one of my hobby horses! What do you mean by boring? Lack of entertainment? Not enough *culture*? How about making your own entertainment? How about creating instead of simply observing? I remember watching young girls and ladies in Laos with their embroidery. They weren’t complaining of lack of opportunity or boredom. OK so not everyone wants to stitch, but surely it is possible to carve out a meaningful life in a rural setting.
I wonder if it’s a matter of choice. When you *have* to stay in a village, because the cities cost too much, perhaps you feel trapped. When someone else has something you don’t have, you feel denied. But having that extra whatever, is not necessarily going to bring contentment or quality of life.
What matters?

I thought about this as we passed the lines of people waiting for their orange tram, an identical orange to our own van, to ferry them out to the apartment-block suburbs.

And we drove on towards the border.

blog-vertorial bulgaria

Thursday, October 8th, 2009
Sakar Hills Camping, Biser, Bulgaria Bulgaria is not a country that beckons tourists. Possibly because there’s next to no tourist industry. But, in my humble opinion, that actually makes it all the nicer. It’s real. It’s raw. It’s relaxing. It’s ... [Continue reading this entry]

bulgaria bids us farewell….almost

Thursday, October 8th, 2009
Biser, Bulgaria We accept a last minute invitation from our campsite owners, Martin and Shirley, to visit the village where they are living. We meet an 86 year old lady, one of eight children, full of smiles and seemingly unaware we ... [Continue reading this entry]

birds-n-bees bulgaria: Random unRelated obseRvations

Wednesday, October 7th, 2009
Biser, Bulgaria A black cloud swoops across the sky and delicately separates into three different strands, each taking its own direction before rejoining into one shimmering mass of darkness again. It’s a flock of hundreds of birds, preparing for migration. ... [Continue reading this entry]

bike, bus and braying donkey

Tuesday, October 6th, 2009
Biser, Bulgaria (and a trip to Haskovo for Rob and Kboy12) by Rach....and Rob writes, too What do you do when two of the boys take a van for the day and you really don’t know how long they are going ... [Continue reading this entry]

believe it or not….

Monday, October 5th, 2009
Biser, Bulgaria We’ve been on the road 365 days….yes, one whole year.

Branching out from Biser…and Back

Sunday, October 4th, 2009
Biser, Bulgaria Lunch in Harmanli, the only town we have been in so far where you have to drive up a no exit street right in front of the police station to get to the restaurant! Staple mixtures of tomatoes, white ... [Continue reading this entry]

Biser emBraces

Saturday, October 3rd, 2009
Biser, Bulgaria We’ve been here a week and haven’t even walked through the village. Unheard of for us! But in some ways it didn’t matter where we were right now – just had to be off Schengen territory and preferably ... [Continue reading this entry]

bedlam, bones and a blowout

Friday, October 2nd, 2009
Biser, Bulgaria What a crazy afternoon!

At midday we had an appointment with the editor/photographer/storywriter from the local rag (who we met yesterday whilst nibbling at pizzas in Harmanli), and at the same time the camp owner (who lives in ... [Continue reading this entry]