The storks are back and spring is sprung

As we don’t like taking the motorhome into big towns and cities when we can avoid it we opted for a taxi for our trip into Veliko Tarnovo. Last of the big spenders we are not at a cost of £4 each way it seemed easier than finding a safe place to park, so we went for a proper tourist day out and didn’t even take our own sandwiches!Veliko Tarnovo (5)

 the River Yantra runs through and around town

Until 1877 Veliko Tarnovo was part of the Ottom Empire, it was liberated by the Russians and then was declared the capital of the Principality of Bulgaria, so that’s its major claim to fame. Today it has taken on the mantle of university town and very popular tourist destination, not hard to see why as it has a lovely mix of history, modern shops and a big cafe culture with outdoor eating the at every turn. The oldest parts of the city are built on three hills which look down to the River Yantra weaving between them. On top of the highest hill, Tsarevets, sits a medieval fortress, built in the 12th century, which is surrounded on three sides by the river. A fairly un-sturdy looking bridge crosses the gorge to enter the fortress with the river very far below. We walked as far as the bridge, saw the bus loads of tourists all heading the same way and gave it a miss. Only so many castles we are going to see and we are saving ourselves for the biggy in Transylvania :).

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Tsarevets medieval fortress

Back in town and we took to some of the backstreets, mostly cobbled and called the Craft Streets, meaning really they are real tourist traps. One or two sold some interesting masks and wall hangings and there was an artisan baker but the majority sold the same pottery, jewellery and general souvenir stuff that you could find anywhere. We found a couple of giant chairs positioned for photos – all good except they are down an alley with pretty much no view of anything, we found them by accident but took the tourist snaps as you do anyway.

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Not really sure what we expected the city to be but it was a surprise in a lot of ways. We thought it would be poor and run down, and a bit colourless, that propaganda of grey concrete Eastern Europe that it’s hard to forget. It really wasn’t any of the things we thought it would be. The only big buildings were those of the university and art galleries, with the exception of one colossal concrete hotel but one we can overlook. The colourful houses are built up into the hills around the city, balconies defy gravity or in some cases don’t – there are some big gaps where once stood a veranda or two. Plenty of very good shops including a good few designer outlets where prices made our eyes water – even though they were in LEV. The university students resemble those of any city, all the latest fashions and not a one seem without a latest version mobile phone glued to their ears. Pretty much every cafe or restaurant that faces the river has a balcony which faces down to the river and the landmark city monument,  four gigantic statues of the Assens Tsars, built in 1985 to commemorate the 800th anniversary of the town being declared the capital – in return for the walk down for a closer look are fabulous views back up over the town perched on the side of the hills.

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 Veliko Tarnovo from the monument to the Assens

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 the monument of the Assens

Being a little heavy of pocket here we treated ourselves out to lunch, the campsite owners had recommended a little restaurant in the town. First problem of course is finding said restaurant when the name has been written down in Cyrillic, it’s way harder than you imagine to find a sign that matches the squiggles on a pieces of paper. Well worth the effort, the food was wonderful and the decor something slightly over the top and as un-Bulgarian as anything we had seen. Two main courses, a basket of garlic bread and drinks set us back just under £7 – we eat out infrequently and when we do usually end up with toasted sandwiches, so this was a massive treat in that the food was not just cheap it was delicious.

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Lunch time venue – very posh for us

Whilst we normally avoid cities as much as possible this one was worth the visit. Plenty to do and for us to spend five hours exploring in a built up area is fairly unheard of. When we had enough we decided to get another taxi, slight panic in that we could not remember the name of the village we were staying in 😦 .We were sure the taxi drivers would know where we meant – nope, they just looked blank ! Rather embarrassing and lucky for us we were just up the road from the Tourist Information and after a quick chat between themselves they worked out where we were staying, you have no idea how sad it makes you look when you can’t remember where you are staying and you have to ask someone 🙂

The last place we wanted to visit before we leave the area was  Arbanassi which is fairly near by and has a famous Nativity Church. Originally built during the 15th century its nothing much to look at from the outside, inside is a different matter. Every inch of the four vaulted interiors are covered in frescoes painted between 1597 and 1649. We tried the door and it was locked but a local Baba appeared from nowhere with a massive key and let us in. She did tell us no photos but I will shamefully admit to taking a couple with out using a flash, just couldn’t resist having a memento of such a beautiful place. The village itself was very upmarket, more Mercedes than Lada and an astonishing number of hotels and restaurants, all of which very open and doing a brisk trade. Most of the tourists appeared to be local, lots of black leather jackets and very, very chunky jewellery – and that was just the men!

Weather update for the week – its been spring with a hint of summer. Bulgaria seems to go from winter to summer in a week. The cold winds have all but gone and just left the sunshine. The Bulgarians have a tradition where they give each other woven yarn red and white bracelets, called Martenitsa, and worn from Baba Marta Day (March 1st) until they see the first stork returning or the first buds on a tree, which signifies spring has arrived. Once either of these have been seen the bracelets are removed and tied to a tree with buds, its a lovely little tradition that seems to be followed by young and old. We have seen several storks now and many trees are in bud, hence the abundance of woven bracelets in trees such as this one

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Tomorrow we were planning to move on but the forecast is for 70 degrees, then rain for the following few days. Quick change of plan and we have decided to stay an extra day here at Camping Veliko Tarnovo and enjoy a day of sitting doing not too much in the sun and a wander around the village. It’s an absolutely fabulous campsite, not sure they come much better than this anywhere in the world. Added to that the village is just wonderful; old women sit on the edge of the road snapping twigs and putting them in baskets (they have been there for two days and we have no idea why they are doing it); the local hard-wear shop sells anything you can think of from socks to soil – its like Aladdin’s Cave and the grocers is like a time capsule from 1930, its our idea of shopping bliss.  So we are going to stay tomorrow and enjoy Dragizhevo and then head off on Friday towards Transylvania in search of vampires.

Pothole capital of Europe

Bulgaria has become a bit of a revelation to us, it was down as a transit country – it was here or Albania and this looked easiest. Now we are here we are counting ourselves lucky that it was ‘in the way’ of our route, this is for us a seriously under-estimated destination. Whenever we have said we are going via Bulgaria people looked shocked and asked why, we were warned it wasn’t a good place to visit, it was poor, it was dangerous and the Roma were a real problem. We agree its very poor, other than that its totally amazing. The countryside is a mix of very green farmland, mountains and rolling hills, the people are as friendly as anywhere we have been, we have yet to drive past a horse and cart and not be waved at, the Roma have not bothered us in anyway and without exception when we speak to people they respond with a smile. For us the worst thing about Bulgaria is they shake their heads to mean yes and nod for no – no matter how hard you try its nearly impossible to to do this whilst using the appropriate words.

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Water fountains everywhere, with the added bonus of a cup on a chain to drink from 🙂

Driving from Harmanli to Boyanovo we took the country route and in an hour saw only three cars but at least five horses and carts. Then we had the experience of joining  the main TIR route from Turkey – it’s worse than anything we could imagine – potholes do not describe the state of the road. At Elhovo, the ring road was such a shocker, we had been advised to avoid it and drive through town instead. The trucks didn’t have that option though and we watched them crawl along the ring road, at less than 5 miles an hour in places. Everywhere we have been there were empty and derelict factories, when the Russians left they took the money that kept these Soviet owned businesses running, its gives an understanding as to why there isn’t any money to fix the roads when there isn’t any work to start with.

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Empty and derelict factories are everywhere

We stopped off for a couple of nights in Boyanovo, at a brilliant little campsite called Gemmagos right in the village.  As with much of Bulgaria the village is very  old, very poor and really does seem like stepping back in time with cobbled streets and outside loos. The housing was once of good quality with most property having very large gardens, many still in use for growing vegetables; keeping chickens, sheep and even a few cows in some. Dotted around the town are several derelict apartment blocks on which demolition has stopped midway, these were where many of the 10,600 Russian troops who were stationed at Boyanovo military base on the edge of the village lived before the Russians headed home. If and when they get around to completing the demolition then the village will be an attractive place again. Many of the houses and some apartments in the centre of the village were also semi-derelict but they were inhabited and the lack of windows, doors and in some cases walls seemed to be something they accept as a way of life, some of the poorer people have no choice.

Not the best side of Boyanovo

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Away from the derelict apartments – very lovely

As with much of Southern Bulgaria even the better housing was in need of either a little of an awful lot of repair and renovation, the obvious exceptions were those owned by the ex-pat community. Again in a small town of less than 800 residents there were over 100 Brits in town, it was easy to spot where they live as the houses are well renovated and the massive satellite dishes really give them away. For the local Bulgarians there is very little work, as we walked through town  a young Roma lad approached us and asked if he could work on our house – he assumed we must be the latest to buy a house there. Many of the Bulgarians prefer the freedoms they have now but the older generations miss the Soviet control which gave them  security of work, money, food etc. However, there doesn’t seem to be any resentment towards the high numbers of ex-pats moving into the villages and towns, really the opposite as they bring money and work.

We were told we could pick up a Trabant for a couple of hundred LEV – that’s around £80 (Iain is not keen on towing one around for the next 7 months though).

As we had gotten used to the abject  poverty in Southern Bulgarian then as we moved North towards Veliko Tarnovo things changed slightly. The villages were not quite as poor, plenty of young and old men standing around with not much too do but everywhere seemed a bit more hopeful. Without a doubt the fact that spring had sprung played a major part. As we drove through Sliven the sun came out, clouds disappeared and temperatures rose, lucky for us then as we were heading over the mountains. There was a little snow left but in general it was clear, a good road for a motorhome and very beautiful. The mountain pass was probably in better condition than many of the main roads, hardly another vehicle around, except for a couple of trucks and several horses carrying logs, in over 35 km.

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Sliven – covered in tramway wires but we didn’t see a one

As we neared our campsite we came across a road closure, always a pain as we really had no idea where we were so what route to take instead. Deciding the best plan was to wave down a car and use my multi-language arm waving skills, we do and a lady slowed and wound down her window. It is the best feeling ever when you say a bit too loudly and slowly “can we use this road” and the reply is “no it’s closed, but do follow us” in a very well spoken Home Counties accent! Bulgaria must have more British than they know what to do with, said very kind lady led us the 25 km to Lidl (we spend way to much time in there, we know) where we were stunned to find things were the same cost as in Greece! After a few minutes it clicked cereal that was €2.99 in Greece was LEV 2.99 here (£2.16 vs £1.11) i.e. same price different currency so our budget goes so much further here 🙂 Likewise campsites here are coming in between £5 and £7 with electric, showers, wifi etc. and to be honest the three we have used here have been three of the best sites anywhere we have been.

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Spring has sprung – or as they say here  Chestita Baba Marta

We are now in the village Dragizhevo, roughly 25 km from Veliko Tarnovo. After the poverty of the South it is certainly more prosperous here. Still plenty of horses and carts and a good few village matriarchs (known at the Baba) sitting on wooden benches outside the houses whiling away the late afternoons. The village is known as ‘the Cherry Village’ due to it producing the first crops in Bulgaria, and they say the best. Camping Veliko Tarnovo is at the end of the village and overlooks the mountains, its just us on the site – the campsite doesn’t officially open for another week or so. We had emailed the lovely couple who own the site, Nick and Nicky (yup more Brits), who said of course we can stay, they have put on the electric and opened the showers so we are being totally spoiled again with top class facilities and not a soul to share them with.

Today its been a corker, wall to wall sunshine and temperatures in the high teens / 60’s. We have therefore been somewhat idle and sat in the sun for most of the day, the forecast here it will be progressively warmer over the next few days – what is not to like about Bulgaria? 🙂

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Dragizhevo village – who needs a car?

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Dragizhevo