Monday, November 29, 2010

A Taste Of Turkey In The Balkans

From Rila I hitched to Skopje in Macedonia*. My last ride was with a guy called Georgi. He had an interesting way of driving: whenever he reached an even imperceptible slope he would turn off his motor and coast until the car almost reached a standstill before starting up again, all the while with one hand holding a phone to his ear, unless he saw a police car in which case he would, in one lightning fast motion drop the hand with the phone and switch on the loudspeaker and simultaneously fasten his seat belt with the other (and steer with his knees). I tried explaining that it would just be easier to have the seatbelt fastened permanently, but he didn't seem to want to understand. I did, finally, reach Skopje, which was under a drizzly lid of cloud. In a strange quirk of time zones I am now found myself in the same time zone I started out in more than 8 months ago, which probably speaks volumes about my inability to travel in a straight line. It also means that it gets dark by 4:30pm, which means I don't have much time to visit places and see what they really look like.

A typical street in old Skopje (although there aren't many left as most of the town was destroyed by an earthquake in the 60's).

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


Sofia is quite a new capital and so isn't doted with many grand, historical buildings and monuments that one often expects of capital cities. Apart from a few museums and a couple of churches there isn't much to detain you in Sofia for long. The city's main sight isn't actually in the city, but towers over it. The Vitosha massif rises straight from the southern suburbs and reaches a respectable 2290m. Cable-cars get you a good chunk of the way up and the place is well-endowed with marked paths so it's highly popular with urbanites who go up en masse to escape the rat race, if at least only for a day. I did, nevertheless, stay for a while, partly due to the Monday Curse, and partly because I wanted to confront an obstacle that I have yet had to deal with whilst travelling in Europe, but which will become more common once in Asia: visas.

Even this dog didn't find much interesting about Sofia.

Saturday, November 20, 2010


When I left Buzludzha things almost went very bad for me, as it was a race against time to get to the road before darkness set in and I ended up taking a wrong turning which cost me a precious hour of daylight. In the end I had to stumble along the last 5km in the dark, but half of that was on a wide track, so it all turned out OK in the end. I hitched down to the nearest town but the last bus to Veliko Tarnavo, where I wanted to go, had already gone (in this part of the world buses rarely leave after 6pm). Instead I took one to the town of Dryavno, which was half-way, where I knew there was a monastery. Monasteries are great places. Not only are they usually aesthetically beautiful and set amidst stunning scenery, but you're almost guaranteed to be able to stay the night - and if you do have to pay anything at all, then it's usually very cheap.

Dryavno monastery in its beautiful valley setting.

Thursday, November 18, 2010


It was 11pm by the time Deni and Kamen dropped me off in the centre of Nessebar's new town. Perfect for me as the place was deserted and it was easy to sneak behind an empty office and hotel complex and roll out my mat and sleeping bag on their porch with a nice view of the sea. The nighttime view is better than the daytime one because you don't see the unending rows of giant concrete hotels that blight the seafront. The Black Sea coast, especially between Varna and Burgas, is an almost constant sprawl of ugly package tourism developments that cater to the majority of visitors to the country who generally stick to the coast. And despite the crisis building doesn't seem to have stopped, with housing developments sprouting up in the middle of scrubby fields, far removed from any amenities. I don't know who in their right minds would want to live there. Amongst all this concrete Nessebar is the supposed cultural jewel in the crown - formerly an ancient Greek trading colony that thrived all the way to the beginning of the last century under Byzantine and then Ottoman rule. There are plenty of old churches (though all but one of them are either in ruins or been turned into trendy art galleries) and a large number of houses typical of the National Revival style (ground floor stone, first floor wooden with an overhang). However most of the houses, upon closer inspection, were modern and concrete with only wooden cladding, and the whole atmosphere felt fake. I couldn't last long before I decided to head back inland away from the unchecked developments. So I headed down to Burgas and got on the first train to Kazanlak.

Sunrise in Nessebar. (I don't see many sunrises when I'm travelling, but seeing as I was sleeping in someone's back yard I thought it best to get up early before they showed up.)

Monday, November 15, 2010

Hitch To The Unknown

My trip planning is a rather ad-hoc affair. I have a (very) rough idea of the entire route that I bashed out in a basic spreadsheet in 20 mins one bored afternoon, which takes in countries, a couple of stops in each and an estimated length of stay. As I get closer to places the view necessarily clarifies into something more distinct and detailed, and I have a more-or-less set plan 7-10 days in advance. So there I was on Friday in the early afternoon, standing by the beginning of the highway leading south, planning to visit the historical seaside town of Nessebar, some 90km away. A pretty straightforward proposition. After an hour I was getting rather annoyed, especially as the spot I had chosed was really quite good and there was plenty of traffic. But eventually a white family car pulls up with a young couple and labrador. Deni and Kamen were heading to the Rhodope mountains in the south of the country for the weekend and their route passed close by Nessebar, which was perfect for me.

The Rhodope mountains were definitely worth the 700km detour.

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.

Thursday, November 04, 2010


Once you cross the Carpathians the landscape changes dramatically: gone are the gentle hills, bijou villages, Teutonic neatness and general postcard vistas. Instead the Wallachian Plain stretches south like a great hazy, dusty pancake all the way to the Danube. When God was making this little corner of the world he was in a rush and didn't bother with niceties such as aesthetics and wanted to get it over and done with as quick as possible. And things don't improve much when you get to Bucharest.

Most Romanians are quite disparaging about their own capital city. Even people from Bucharest find it hard to muster up many compliments for their hometown. And its hard not to see why: the historic core has been mercilessly gouged and scarred by the senseless megalomaniac whims of Ceauşescu. In the early 80s he embarked on a grandiose project to create a unified civic centre in the city, to be crowned by the unmistakable Palace of the Parliament. Unfortunately Ceauşescu's chosen site for his grand dream was already occupied by the historic city centre. But this posed no problem to the resourceful dictator who showed great resourcefulness in razing a third of it to the ground, including countless churches, monasteries, synagogues and old houses. Many of the buildings were not completed (or even started) by the time of the revolution in 89, and so the city is left with these open wounds, reminders of a painful past, that are still festering, years later.

The ludicrously opulent Palace of the Parliament is famed for being the second largest administrative building in the world, and also the heaviest one. An obscene amount of marble, gilding, silk, crystal and other luxury items were used on this, Ceauşescu's pet project. By the time of the revolution it was about 70% complete and it would have cost more to stop than to complete, and so Romania has been burdened ever since with this oversized white elephant.

Monday, November 01, 2010

The Usefulness Of Maps

From my recent posts it looks as if my time here in Romania has been a constant search for ever more obscure minorities. It may have looked like I had gone as far as I could with the Saxons, but I managed to dig out (almost literally) one more ethnic group despite having to travel quite far (almost 2000 years) to find them.

The name Romania comes from the Romans, which seems obvious enough. It is, however, strange when you stop to think about it. The Roman legions were only in what is now Romania for a mere century and a half before getting kicked out by the Goths. They did leave their language though, which has remained to this day, making Romania an island of Latin language surrounded by Slavic and Hungarian. But the Romans didn't stroll into an empty country. The land was home to the Dacian tribes who were not, by any means, simple cave-dwellers. Though in the end they still got steamrollered by Trajan and the Roman war machine. What I find quite amusing is the pride that Romanians have for being the descendants and cultural inheritors of both the Dacians and their Roman conquerors. For example the unassuming, regional town of Deva has both a statue to the Dacian king Decebalus as well as to his nemesis Trajan, just 200m further down the road (I'm not sure what either would have made of the juxtaposition).

The evocative ruins of Sarmizegetusa.