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Bulgaria Bound

Saturday, September 26th, 2009

Biser, Bulgaria

When we set out, we had NO intention of going to Bulgaria, not even as a destination to zip through to get somewhere we might want to go (like poor ol’ France, which turned out to be so wonderful in the end and we wished we’d been able to stay there for longer).

When we set out we were not certain we would make it to Greece, although there were some high hopes amongst us that this dream would come true. Sitting in the solid non-stop Lindisfarne rain for the third day in a row (and after weeks of at least *some* rain every single day), we agonized over the question of skipping Scotland in favour of Greece. There we were, ten people cooped up in twenty-five square metres with washing dangling wet around our heads, knowing that at that precise moment it was thirty degrees further south……looking back it seems a no-brainer! At the time it wasn’t so simple, but we have no regrets (oh yes, we still wish Scotland had featured in this pilgrimage, but there was not time for both and Greece has been more than we could have hoped for).

So we made it to Greece.
And now we need to get back to Berlin to get rid of the vans. But we have to get out of the long list of countries that have signed the Schengen agreement first for a couple of weeks to “earn” some time for the last German stint and Poland (we’re only allowed on Schengen land for ninety days every six months).
We plotted a route through Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia……only to discover our vehicle insurance is not valid in Macedonia. That put an immediate and unquestionable end to that plan. Taking a ferry up to Venice sounded most attractive, but would cost almost as much as our air tickets home again and didn’t get us out of Schengen territory anyway. Albania presented itself as another option, but quite frankly, we couldn’t be bothered with the rigmarole of getting visas. This left Bulgaria, which sounded like a good option after the horror stories we had come across about driving in Bosnia et al.
That is to say, it seemed a good idea until we read the following:

The Bulgarian road system is largely underdeveloped. Some roads are in poor repair and full of potholes. Rockslides and landslides may be encountered on roads in mountainous areas. Livestock and animal-drawn carts present road hazards throughout the country, especially during the agricultural season. Some roads lack pavement markings and lights, and motorists often drive with dim or missing headlights. In some cities traffic lights late at night blink yellow in all directions, leaving rights-of-way unclear and contributing to frequent accidents.
Driving in Bulgaria is extremely dangerous. Aggressive driving habits, the lack of safe infrastructure, and a mixture of late model and old model cars on the country’s highways contribute to a high fatality rate for road accidents.  Motorists should avoid confrontations with aggressive drivers in Bulgaria. In particular, drivers of late-model sedans are known to speed and drive dangerously. Motorists should exercise caution and avoid altercations with the drivers of such vehicles, which may be driven by armed organized crime figures.

“Underdeveloped”…does that mean it is as bumpy as Belgium or as itchy as Italy? We’ve managed both of them, so no problem.
We’ve become accustomed to seeing rocks falling signs now, and more recently travelled roads where evidence of the rocks lay at the roadside as a more poignant reminder than the signs themselves. Yes, we’re used to that too.
Livestock….animal drawn carts. Wouldn’t they add to the day’s adventure?
Some roads lack pavement markings? Why, most of the roads we’ve seen lately lack pavements, never mind the markings!
And as for dim headlights, sounds like we’ll be in good company, though we do try not to drive at night if possible anyway, because our own lights are virtually non-existent. And we always give way if in doubt.
Aggressive driving habits. Maybe that’s just how this author describes people who overtake on blind corners….but we know WHY they do this. There’s an unwritten law that says if you cannot see a car approaching, you are free to overtake….and you can never see a car round a corner, so this is a perfect place to overtake. Or perhaps they are referring to the speed with which some drivers enter narrow spaces – clearly the author cannot understand that the smaller the gap, the faster one must go to get through it. Or that the numbered signs at the side of the road are minimum allowable speeds, not maximums as we would once have understood them to be.
As for the armed organized crime figures, well, maybe that’s who we saw trying to get unlawfully into a car in Bari….now the children know not to stare and point excitedly, but to pretend they didn’t even notice whilst dropping to the floor!

So it really does sound like we are ready to drive in Bulgaria.
Not that we’ll be doing a whole heap of driving. We’ve gone straight from the border to a campground, where we plan to have a couple of weeks “camping” at a real campground. We’ll read up about Bulgarian history and culture, sample the food, play with new currency and new words, meet some people, check out a “poor kids’ project” and count it all a bonus.

But before we got to Bulgaria, we needed to go right across Greece almost to the Turkish border….we were so close to the country we’ll be leaving for home from – for a moment it almost felt as if we were close to leaving, but we still have over three months to go and we have a long way to travel before we’ll actually get on to Turkish soil.


On fantastic roads, we flew across eastern Greece, so different to the rest of the country. Instead of islands or mountains protruding from flat plains, there were gently rolling hills, quite reminiscent of home, although here the shepherds seem to sit with their sheep for the day instead of leaving them to graze unattended. Additionally, mixed flocks of sheep and goats appear to be the norm. But the grass, the trees, the ploughed fields….they all had a slightly kiwi look about them (until we looked at some pictures later and realised that New Zealand is greener than we remember!)
This part of the country lacked road traffic. We drove for long stretches without seeing another car, without even being passed by one. It felt quite uninhabited (maybe that’s another reason it felt like NZ), and we realised Bulgaria is probably not on most European itineraries.

But it ended up on ours….so long as we could get in!
At the border we had a slight hiccup with the guards.
Rob was waved through in The Bear Cave, but I was pulled over. According to our passports we had been on Schengen soil for four months already. Overstayers! You see some countries (not China or Mongolia or Russia or Vietnam!) are particularly lax about stamping passports and we didn’t have anything to prove we had left Schengen territory for five weeks; no stamps leaving England, no stamps entering France, no stamps into Italy. Ah well, after some quizzing (when did you arrive in Greece? where did you come from? which country was the first one in Europe? but you were in Latvia long ago?), a phone call to someone, checking numbers in a book and something on the computer, he took my passports off to another room, then came back with them, stamped them and without further explanation, instructed me to get the ones from Rob’s van too.  Six more stamps later, and without further ado, they let us go.

We arrived in Bulgaria.

Philippi Fun

Friday, September 25th, 2009

Nea Karvali, Greece

Some days are all-round good days. Today was one of them.
Breakfast at the top of a ridge overlooking a lake and hills.
Good morning driving. Easy roads. Fast times.
Pastries and a delicious birthday cake for lunch, eaten underneath a fortuitously-discovered-by-us funerary memorial for one of Alexander the Great’s generals. It had been built in the fourth century BC, fell over (presumably in an earthquake), and was rediscovered by Greek soldiers digging in the 1912-1913 Balkan War.

Lonely afternoon driving around the deserted coast – perhaps half a dozen cars passed in an hour!
Great site to visit in the afternoon. Well signposted. Mostly devoid of tourists.
With playground and dog attacking turtle on the path (huge interest factor for the smaller kids while the rest of us contemplated the historical significance of the place).

Quick stop in the fishing village of Kavala, the place where Paul allegedly arrived on European soil, and which still has a most impressive Roman aqueduct.

Gyros for dinner, ordered from a lady who gave us a very good deal that we still don’t really understand……just after a total stranger had crossed the street and gifted us a soft plaited loaf of sweet bread.
Quiet extra-wide residential street to stop on for the night – last night in Greece, and not one Euro cent spent on accommodation the whole time.

So which site did we visit?
Philippi, the ancient town with a speckled history. As we have been following Paul’s journeys, we focussed our attentions on his adventures here.

In 49 or 50 AD, he visited during his second missionary journey. According to a biblical account, Paul was guided there by a vision of “a man of Macedonia” (Acts 16:9). Accompanied by Silas, Timothy and Luke, Paul preached in Philippi. The Jewish community there seems to have been small, but Paul and his friends found Jewish women gathered at a river to the west of the city on the Sabbath. There Paul baptized Lydia, a purple dye merchant, who invited the travellers to stay at her home (Acts 16:14-15).
Today you can stay at Hotel Lydia – we wondered if the linen is purple.

In another account recorded in Acts, Paul drove out an evil spirit from a slave girl, who worked as a fortune teller. Her owners became angry at their loss of income and dragged Paul and Silas into the marketplace, complaining about them before the magistrates. A crowd joined in the condemnation, and the missionaries were stripped and flogged, then thrown into prison. At midnight, however, a great earthquake came and the prison doors flew open. Expecting the prisoners to have fled, the jailer came close to killing himself, but Paul talked him out of it and converted him. The next morning, the magistrates released Paul and Silas and asked them to leave the city. (Acts 16:16-40)

This structure is traditionally identified as St. Paul’s Prison. However, it is not where a prison would have been located, and it was actually a cistern transformed into a Christian chapel.
On the walls are still some frescoes – quite amazing all the same.

Paul visited the city on two other occasions, in 56 and 57 AD. The letter he wrote to the Philippians dates from around 54-55 and shows the immediate impact of his preaching. The subsequent development of Christianity in Philippi is well-attested, notably by a letter from Polycarp of Smyrna addressed to the community in Philippi around 160, and by funerary inscriptions.



With stories like this, space to run, big structures to hide amongst, beautiful things to look at and time to explore, it’s little wonder we had fun at Philippi.

Just The Facts

Thursday, September 24th, 2009
Thessaloniki, Greece Knowing Jboy13 had been taking notes as we drove, I asked him for blog-inspiration, “Did you write about the tunnels in your journal?” ”Just the facts. Not much really,” he succinctly replied. And so you get Just The Facts. Tunnel 1: ... [Continue reading this entry]

words do not describe

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

Meteora, Greece

neither monks-n-nuns nor monasteries nor mountains nor magnificence

the approach along a long straight road across the plain

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gourmet greek

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

Meteora, Greece


Being on a limited budget with lots of mouths to feed means eating out in Europe is a rare occurrence for us (or it means you buy one tiny cheesecake and each enjoy ... [Continue reading this entry]

the earth’s navel

Monday, September 21st, 2009
almost at Trikala (having not been able to stop at Delphi), Greece Delphi may not be remembered by us so much as the centre of the ancient world, but as the place we received a hand-delivered letter from The Commander, ... [Continue reading this entry]

the back roads

Sunday, September 20th, 2009
Itea, Greece Main roads tend to get you places quickly. Time not being of the essence, we prefer the back roads. Then you get to see the Corinth Canal, and pull over and get out of the vans and take ... [Continue reading this entry]


Saturday, September 19th, 2009
Athens, Greece Most people spending only two days in Athens, the ancient classical centre for the arts, learning and philosophy, the home of Plato's Academy and Aristotle's Lyceum, birthplace of Socrates, Pericles, Sophocles and democracy, yea even the cradle of Western Civilization, would ... [Continue reading this entry]

Paul woz here two/too

Friday, September 18th, 2009
Athens, Greece Is it plagiarism when you write an email to someone and then publish it on your blog? I think not, if it is your own work! Dear Dad (known on this blog as Grandpa), I'm sitting here struggling to find words ... [Continue reading this entry]

beggars can’t be choosers – or can they?

Thursday, September 17th, 2009
Athens, Greece


Before the ignition is even turned off, one little girl is forlornly looking into my open window. In Greek she asks for money, “ena” for drink, fingers clenched, thumb pointing to her ... [Continue reading this entry]