Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Ignoring Your Neighbours

You can really feel the difference when crossing from Romania to Bulgaria. Despite sharing a long border the neighbours are not particularly close. The Danube forms Bulgaria's northern frontier with Romania for over 460km and yet there is only a single, solitary bridge along this entire length, between the towns of Ruse (Bg) and Giurgiu (Ro). And a very unscientific poll I organised in Ruse showed that even at this vital communications node between north and south isn't that attractive to locals, with several saying that they had never visited the country they can see every day across the river. Instead the country seems oriented more towards its eastern neighbour Turkey (no surprise given 500 years of Ottoman rule). Yoghurt, ayran, fresh salads and kebabs are big on the menu, a few pencil-minarets can be see here and there and public water fountains are ever-present (a particular delight for me as drinking water is important for the frugal traveller). There is also a sizeable Turkish minority in certain parts of the country and so on buses you might hear the odd çok güzel, or even get picked up by a truck driver called Mustafa whilst hitching in some random rural backwater (very friendly guy even stopped to buy me tea).

Locals doing a traditional Balkan hora dance at a village fair close to Ruse.

But then this is the Balkans after all and it's all one big confused melting pot with influences from everywhere. One thing, however, that Romania and Bulgaria have in common is that they are the newest and poorest members of the EU, with a per person GDP of only 40% of the EU average. That is quite a difference. If you were just to look at the figures you would expect the countries to be falling apart at the seams. And yet the grinding poverty is not really a reality, or at least people don't let it show. Sure, there are some pretty awful housing blocks and abandoned buildings, stray dogs and grim post-industrial towns, though I'm sure you could find those back in Britain too if you wanted to. Instead people here exude an everyday normality and joie de vivre that belies the fact that teachers are paid a miserly 200 euros a month. Women are stylishly dressed, families stroll in the parks, bars and cafes, though not bursting, are doing a brisk trade. People here are experts at making ends meet and everyone either has a garden, or connections with a garden, from which they make zacuscă, ljutenica and other preserves along with a steady supply of fresh fruit and vegetables. Instead the main thing that seems to set the countries apart from their EU peers is the corruption of the politicians which is a permanent topic of conversation (and anger) amongst everyone you meet.

But yes, Bulgaria. Well so far it has been lovely. Great people, amazing weather (20 degrees and wearing shorts and T-shirt in November!) and a nice collection of your tourist staples such as churches, musea and pleasant cities. I won't go into details but would like to mention a few stand-out moments and places. Whilst in Ruse I popped into the tourist office, partly to get some information (such as where the local internet cafe was) and partly out of the novelty of there actually being a functioning tourist information at all. I came back out almost two hours later after having a rambling discussion with the three guys who worked there covering such topics as my Scottish accent (or lack thereof), the Scottish language in general, Bulgarian culinary specialities, politics, corruption (of course), Persian culture (Surprisingly, here in Eastern Europe when my Iranian heritage comes up the immediate response is rarely that of Ahmadinejad, terrorists and nuclear weapons, but rather Omar Khayyam, Darius the Great, silk carpets and world cinema. People here have a far greater grasp of world culture and history than we generally do.) and Bulgarian cinema (the guys transferred a couple of classic Bulgarian films to my flash drive, which I am looking forward to discover when I get a bit of time to myself and a computer).

Posing with my new-found friends at the Ruse tourist office.

From Ruse it was on to the town of Shumen, which is in the region recognised as the cradle of the Bulgarian nation. To commemorate this fact the Communist regime erected a giant memorial on a hill overlooking the town on the 1300th anniversary of the founding of the first Bulgarian state. The structure can be seen from miles around and looks somewhat reminiscent of a cement factory. I wasn't expecting anything from it, but had to visit it nevertheless if I was to remain faithful to Erik's 2nd Rule of Travelling: If you see something high, go up it. So up I trudged, some 200m above the town, carrying my backpack with me (I was cursing the lack of left luggage facilities by the end). Upon reaching the top I was pleasantly surprised by the majestic views of the Danubian plain and the strangely appealing statues climbing out of the recesses of the giant concrete box. As you can see from the video below, the early Bulgarians were descended from Transformers.

The memorial to 1300 years of Bulgaria (and my first attempt at a video embed).

From Shumen I headed east to Varna on the Black Sea coast. About 15km before reaching the city the road passes by a line of columns stretching off into the distance. The ruins of a Roman city. But as you approach, you notice that the columns aren't as uniform as they should be and a little more haphazrdly placed. Instead the Pobiti Kamani rocks predate the Romans by some 50 million years. Nobody really knows how these hollow rock columns formed, or why they're only to be found here and nowhere else in the world, but they do display once again that the world is a truly strange place and a lot still needs to be understood.

The bewildering rock formations at Pobiti Kamani.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi, Erik. It's Dean from the Tourist Office in Ruse. I hope this comment finds you in good health and high spirits. So far I've only read your latest blog entry and I've enjoyed it! I enjoy your way of looking at things, your writing style and especially your exquisite sense of humor. I'm planning on reading your old entries when I find the time. Have you had the chance to send to our office mail the photo we took together? This is more of a short e-mail message than a comment, but I could not find any contact e-mail address in your profile. Anyways, just in case, you can contact me at ( And may the true adventures never cease for you! Chao.