31 Mar 12: Land of milk & donkeys (Bulgaria)
Tran to Harmanli, Bulgaria (23 Oct – 2 Nov)
Total miles cycled: 1,950 (3138km)
Thigh status: Baby manatee
My first day in Bulgaria doesn’t bode well. The sky is black and buckets of rain thump down outside my window. I spend an exhilarating 20 minutes wrapping all my electrical equipment in plastic bags, then venture tentatively out. Ten minutes later, I venture back in again. I can’t see a thing through my glasses and my padded underpants are already sodden. This is almost certainly how I’ll be spending my dotage so I’d rather not start now.
Instead I make my way to the Tran bus station. This transpires to be a grim concrete bunker with water pouring through the roof into oily pools on the floor. A woman in a dark, grimy cubbyhole tells me the next bus to Sofia goes at 1pm. So I return to the hotel to wait it out over a cup of tea and bowl of intriguingly titled ‘paunch soup’ – an experience I still have troubling flashbacks about today. Suffice to say, if a soup costs under 30p there is usually a reason.
When I return, I discover the bus is tiny with almost no boot. But I strip Maud down to her bare essentials and a supportive group of about 17 bystanders help me squeeze her indelicately inside. Then we’re off, and for the next three miserable hours, we plough sluggishly through the tsunami towards Sofia.
By the time we arrive, the rain has slowed to a funereal drizzle and I cycle the final 8km in the growing gloom over heavily cobbled streets and thick traffic. Pavements appear and disappear on a whim, along with the occasional half-arsed bike lane. I have a vague idea where I’m going, having located it earlier on Google maps, but find myself wishing not for the first time that I had a sense of direction. It could come in handy at moments like this, when trying to find somewhere.
I finally arrive at the house of my hosts, a family I found on the cycling couch-surfing website Warmshowers. They have a newborn baby and hyperactive two year old, and the flat is in disarray. She is exhausted and barely able to speak, while he does his best to drag the infant off me while serving cold red wine and pizza. What possessed them to host me, I think to myself? Are they some kind of cycle-obsessed sadomasochists?
Maybe, as it turns out. They are keen cycle tourers, they tell me, and like to take the children with them. This to me sounds like the worst kind of self-inflicted torture – unless it’s possible to harness the wee cherubs like huskies or use them to hunt for food.
They are a sweet couple, however. He is Welsh and works for the British Council, while she is Bulgarian and an electrical engineer. They are gentle sorts with a beatnik edge and unkempt charm. He tells me about the quirks of the country through the eyes of an ex-pat. People shake their head when they mean yes, he says; except those who have been abroad, who tend to nod. So the country exists in an almost constant state of unresolved ambiguity – which may go some way towards explaining why nothing has really been achieved over the past couple of decades.
Tensions still exist between the majority Orthodox Christians and minority Muslims, I learn, and there are concerns about the influence of Turkey that hark back to the Ottoman Empire. We then get onto food, and he confirms my belief that all waiters here are miserable cretins. ‘They expect tips no matter what. There’s no sense of paying for good value.’
On the positive side, the family culture in Bulgaria is very useful, he says. His wife’s mother takes their son every weekend, allowing them some much-needed relaxation time. Wow, I think, watching little P eat the curtains while destroying the parquet floor with his plastic Triceratops. Poor woman.
The next day, I venture into Sofia to explore. Everyone is huddled up as if braving an arctic tundra and seems sad, brittle, brusque. The city itself is attractive, however, full of striking buildings, musty churches and handsome, stray mutts. The architecture is grand and diverse, from the Roman-Byzantine Rotunda of St. George and Neo-Renaissance market hall to the Stalinist Gothic public buildings and Brutalist tower blocks. There’s also a pleasant aura of tolerance about the place, with a church, mosque and synagogue co-existing happily on one of the main squares.
Over coffee, a young lawyer gives me her take on the country. It’s difficult to get anything achieved here, she tells me. Bureaucracy is huge, its cogs oiled by bribery and corruption. Everyone takes their cut: the politicians, police, judges, doctors. ‘Nobody has the will to reform the system,’ she says. ‘Because everyone hopes they’ll eventually benefit from it.’
Despite being an EU country, Bulgaria’s average wage is just €450 a month. Few pay their taxes because they can’t afford to and don’t trust the government. ‘Many people are leaving,’ the lawyer says. ‘Though it’s getting better. Young people have more job prospects than five years ago.’
I move to my second Sofia home later that day. My new hosts are a pleasant young couple with a baby, who chat with me into the early hours. Tensions are growing between Muslims and Christians, they report ruefully, with a climate of fear fomented by nationalistic parties clambering for power. Only a few weeks ago, the Orthodox Church called on the government not to let any more Muslim refugees into the country to prevent an ‘invasion’, they say.
Is the country safe, I ask them? ‘Be wary,’ R, the woman, tells me, especially where the Roma are concerned. ‘One village might invite you in with open arms, but the next may rob you blind. And you have no way of knowing which is which.’
This makes me a little nervous, but I’m aware that fear-mongering is often worst among locals, who are exposed daily to media and political hype about the wolves lurking at the door. In my experience, the reality is almost always better than the perception. And the Roma have long been the last vestige of socially acceptable discrimination, even among the most progressive of souls.
In the morning, R makes me cheese on toast while breastfeeding the baby. Very few people breastfeed in Bulgaria, she tells me, as they think it’s not as good as vitamin-heavy formula: a hangover from the Soviet era, when women were encouraged to return to work quickly.
Plus, there’s apparently a prestige inherent in buying things rather than squeezing them naturally from one’s nipples. ‘We’re a proud nation,’ R says. ‘People have a chip on their shoulder about being poor and see western consumerism as allied to progress. They buy Ferraris and can’t afford the fuel.’
Resignation and disappointment are clear in R’s voice as we talk. Their flat is large and clean, but dingy and cluttered. Both she and her husband have good jobs, but they are evidently struggling. It’s a dull, normalised poverty; unremarkable, unrelenting, unsexy. A low, heavy hum.
Like some kind of pathetic fallacy, it rains constantly in Sofia while I am there, so I spend a couple of days catching up on admin and work at the cafe +TOVA. There I meet O, an art teacher from Washington DC, who kindly warns me about Bulgarian dogs. They can be large and dangerous, he says, though since he arrived five years ago he only knows two people who have been killed.
‘Sorry,’ I say. ‘Killed?’ Yes, he confirms. But they were both fairly old, so not to worry.
Later on, I meet a woman who provides legal support to refugees and Roma communities through the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee. Once Roma enter the spiral of poor education and crime, the battle is already lost, she says. ‘There’s no policy to deal with these issues, just systematic discrimination. Until a couple of years ago, even schools were segregated.’
Where refugees are concerned, Bulgaria was caught entirely unprepared, she tells me. In 2011, it had around 1,000 asylum seekers; in 2013 it was ten times that amount. There were no refugee centres, and integration centres were overwhelmed. ‘The media calls refugees illegal immigrants, while far-right parties say they are terrorists. It scares a lot of people.’
My final host in Sofia is D, a keen cyclist who lives a small, grubby flat in a dank ex-Comecon tower block. Over the next couple of days, he generously buys me food and drink, helps me service my bike, takes me up Vitosha mountain and gives me a spork (not a euphemism).
When I finally leave, he leads me 16km to the outskirts of the city before leaving me to continue on alone. It’s about 2C now and my hands and feet are numb. Having originally intended on outrunning the winter, I am not prepared for this weather and have had to pull together an impromptu outfit that involves four top layers and ankle socks alongside my sandals. It’s so important to be a leader not a follower of fashion, I think to myself, before posting a picture of my new look on Facebook.
My mother is quick to comment. ‘Well, at least you’re less likely to get raped,’ she writes. And with this ringing maternal endorsement in my ears, I head for the Balkan mountains.
After overnighting in the small, sweet town of Markovo, I set my sights on the traditional village of Koprivshtitsa. It’s a damp, grey flannel of a day, and I pass tractors, timber farms and a surprising number of incredibly slow-moving wrinklies hunched double, who I estimate to be somewhere between 300 and 400 years old. At one point, one of them beckons me over and asks me to set a large pile of dry leaves on fire for her. It doesn’t seem a very sensible thing to do, but I oblige helpfully.
Then the day brightens and the mountains appear on my left, glowing red, orange, ochre and green in the soft morning sun. In my excitement, I accidentally veer off the main road onto a rocky, muddy track that draws me high into the hills. But it doesn’t last long, and the final climb through the mountains to the village is pure heaven.
Koprivshtitsa turns out to be a charming place full of vivid, multicoloured houses, ruggedly elegantly under neat terracotta roofs. The 19th century buildings have all been perfectly restored, and I learn that it was here where the first shot of the April Uprising against the Ottomans was fired in 1876.
Two days later, I am back on the road once more. And what a ride! Seventy-five glorious kilometres of downhill, my spirits soaring higher with every metre I plunge (though I have to admit being a tad put out by how easily cheered I am by a simple slope, having always thought of myself as a fairly complex emotional creature). At lunchtime, I arrive in Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second biggest city and reportedly one of the oldest in the world, dating from 5,000 BC. It’s a lovely place, and has a bohemian artiness and vibrant architecture that resembles Koprivshtitsa writ large.
As I check into my hostel, I see a leaflet for the mayoral elections on the counter. Is the owner going to vote, I ask? He shakes his head. ‘They’re all mafia. You have to pay for everything: 1,000 lev for an operation, 10 lev for a speeding fine. Companies have been shut down for not paying under-the-counter fees.’ He sighs deeply, adding: ‘Bulgarians don’t have enough money to worry about anything but today. We have a word for it: prahostnici.’
I leave after a couple of days for the refugee town of Harmanli, planning to stop in a hotel along the way. As I head off the main road to take a more scenic route, a man stops to warns me in German not to go this way as the road is ‘sehr klein und sehr schlecht‘. I thank him, but say I prefer small back-roads. Nobody understands the ethos of the cyclist, I mutter to myself as he drives away. They just don’t get it.
Half an hour later, I’m lying face down in the road feeling a bit foolish. The holes had worsened, as predicted, until the asphalt resembled a pair of fishnet tights after a heavy night on the voddies. Then disaster struck. While ogling a particularly handsome donkey on a grassy verge, I failed to notice the railway track and ditch in front of me – and off over Maud’s frontal lobes I flew.
Excepting a few minor surface wounds, both Maud and I are fortunately ok. But my laptop is a different story. On impact, a carton of milk exploded in my rucksack, drenching everything. My computer, foolishly, was on, and I look on helplessly as the system short circuits before I can shut it down. Why did nobody warn me about the hazardous combination of milk and donkeys, I think to myself? Where were they on my risk assessment form?
I schlepp on miserably to the hotel, which I discover in the middle of a wood. It’s large, pink and ominously empty. An old man takes me to my tiny room, which seems clean except for a couple of friendly cockroaches. At least, the sheets are refreshingly pube-free, which is my new yardstick for luxury.
After an hour or so, I cheer up. This is helped considerably by the bottle of 2006 Zagreus Premium Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon I discover behind the dusty bar, which I tuck into with gusto. As I do so, the old man shuffles over to take my order. ‘What would you like?’ he asks (in German). ‘What do you have?’ I reply. ‘What do you want?’ he repeats. ‘Pasta?’ I say. ‘We don’t have pasta,’ he says. ‘We have sausages and potatoes.’
About four minutes later, he brings out a plate with a slab of dry beef and chips. ‘We didn’t have sausages,’ he says apologetically.
To be continued…
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