So here’s the thing. We buy a motorhome which soon becomes our pride and joy and we float on Cloud 9 dreaming of adventures and the freedom of life on the open road! We’ve done our homework, we’ve got our insurance, put security measures in place and now happy times discovering the world is surely our reward! What could possibly go wrong?
The one thing we’ve learnt from 18 months on the road is that travelling; full-time or long-time still brings its own stresses. We don’t magically escape from life’s challenges just because we’ve decided to go travelling or have a long-term holiday… there are still a whole host of issues that may need dealing with.
So how do we cope when our tyre bursts, our bikes are stolen or our brakes don’t feel right? All situations that could well happen to any one of us, at any time, in any country. And when they do, they will most likely be completely out of the blue and throw us into a potential complete frenzy. Add to the mix that we’re likely to be in a country where English is not the first language and a whole dictionary of technical words and phrases may be needed to resolve the problem. Tricky!
Is this the stuff that travellers’ nightmares are made of? Perhaps, although let’s face it, if we worried about these types of issues, we would never leave the house, let alone go travelling into new and undiscovered corners of the globe. So knowing how to cope with these challenges is an important part of the travellers’ toolkit and once mastered will see us gliding through the problems with ease and minimal stress.
Why, you might ask, am I writing this blog today?
Good question… After being in the northern reaches of Romania heading south towards Bucharest, we drove down a gravel path from a car park, only to hear a strange noise coming from the front wheel. ‘It’s ok’, I said, as if I had some sudden hidden knowledge of motor mechanics, ‘It’ll be some loose gravel got into the brakes. It’ll be fine!’ I’m not sure who I was trying to convince more with my comforting words – myself or Myles.
As Myles has some mechanical knowledge from his youth, he decided to take off the front wheels to assess the situation. His report was neither full of positivity, nor was it a message of disaster. The brake pads on both sides were almost out and in fact he was adamant that both needed replacing ‘tout de suite’ as they say in France. They were fine for our short journey to the city, although it needed immediate attention.
So we discussed the options; we either stayed put in the hope that we could get fixed at the small Fiat dealer in town, or we limped our way very slowly to Bucharest, where being a city, we would hopefully have more options and a better chance of repair. Given that it was late Saturday afternoon and nothing would be open on Sunday, we decided travelling south was our only real option. The mountainous terrain didn’t help our nerves and a five mile traffic jam added to our intensity, although we made it to our destination.
With a bit of googling, we found four Fiat garages and with a plan of action conjured up over a glass or two of something soothing, we headed for an early start before the morning’s rush hour. Of the four garages I had found, the first one had long since closed! Hope slowly stumbled… The second was in a tower block where getting the camper anywhere close to the suggested location was an impossibility… Hope was sighing now! The third was on the opposite side of a dual carriage way. So with the dexterity of a spring lamb I hopped out of the van and armed with Google Translate I found someone at the garage and asked, in my best Romanian, if they could help. And indeed they could, on 28 August. Given it was 14 August and we needed to be in Budapest by 2nd September, my hope gasped in horror.
We consoled ourselves with the compromise of buying a set of brake pads and Myles fitting them. It was doable; not our greatest outcome, although doable. As we made said purchase, in a passing conversation with a young mechanic who had spent 12 months in UK, I asked him how long brake pads would take to fit. He said no more than an hour and, unprompted said he would talk to the boss. Now this was the boss who had already said ‘no way today’. So could my hope finally have a little rally? Oh yes! And then it did a dance when the boss started to fill out the job sheet – happy days. This young chap had secured us a place on their morning’s schedule and to say we were grateful is an understatement.
And indeed within the hour the job was done and Scoobie was back on the road, fit and well once again. And with a bill of €100 plus a little tip for the mechanic who saved our bacon, we were as you can imagine, over the moon.
So what have we learnt from this challenge, probably one of our biggest in the last 18 months?
- Don’t panic. These situations are going to happen at some point. We had little notion of how long brake pads would take to wear on the camper as we only have a car as a comparison. And whilst we have travelled 19000 miles there’s no rule book that says when to be prepared. We have a figure in mind now so that’s a great lesson for us. And of course wear and tear on brake pads is dependent on so many factors including the terrain you travel and how often you use the brakes. We all drive differently although for our travel style we’ll diarise to have them checked on 37000 miles.
- We Googled dealers that were close to us and made sure that we had a number of options, not just one. Don’t assume just because they are listed on the internet that they still exist. We were glad to have had a number of alternatives to choose from.
- Keep your phone charged so that you have enough juice to keep in touch with garages, friends or each other if you need to split up to assess your options on the other side of the road. A uncharged phone is like a chocolate fire guard.
- Get the co-ordinates of the places for your Sat Nav because if you have to navigate around a city with just an address, it could be costly – for your stress levels.
- I was so grateful for Google Translate on my phone so I could communicate clearly and without anxiety. We always go into countries with conversational basics, one of which is ‘do you speak English’. That is always a good starting point. From there Google Translate and its playback facility becomes your greatest friend.
- Have a back up plan. If this third option of ours had not worked out, then we planned on going to another car manufacturer and asking for their help. They could then at least ring around their network and source a solution for us, rather than us trawling around a town or city looking for a needle in a haystack.
- Worst case scenario. If we had needed to, we could have contacted our European Breakdown Cover and asked their advice.
- Our final option was to head for a campsite where we could consider our options. Whilst not all campsite hosts speak English certainly those we have come across have been incredibly helpful and they will, most of the time bend over backwards to get you the help you need. At least you will be safe and secure at a site and you can then look for options in the cold light of day.
- And finally, take one step at a time. It’s so easy for our minds to go into overdrive and start worrying about the ‘What if’ scenarios. Although this really doesn’t add anything to the situation. We just simply dealt with what was facing us in that moment and decided to suspend any other conversations until they arose. The situation has the potential for so much stress, so don’t add to your load.
We learnt a long while ago, and it was reinforced today, that you should never loose faith when incidents like this happen. Things going wrong with the camper are inevitable at some point on your journey and in fact it’s no different to a problem arising in a house. It just needs tackling with a clear head and a strong resolve. Thankfully we managed to get things sorted out and all is well. It tested us that’s for sure, although with some teamwork, we navigated around the problem and now we are ready to continue our adventure. Problem solved!
Romania is famous for many things; Transylvania and its Medieval Castles, Count Dracula and Bran’s Castle amongst other things. Although perhaps one of its lesser known assets is its collection of monasteries in Moldavia. Whether you are religious or not, these magnificent houses of worship are dotted all around the countryside in this north-eastern region and you can not help to be impressed by their stature, reverence and story-telling painted walls.
Most people head straight for Transylvania and miss out this corner of Romania. Yet if you decide to make the effort to come this way, then you will be in for a treat. With its charming countryside and rolling hills laced with tradition and folklore, fused with Romania’s eclectic mix of brightly painted homes with Russian and Asian styled architecture, you will not be able to blink for one second.
The main attraction of Moldavia are the Painted Monasteries of Bocovina; displays of incredible artistry, both inside and out are to be admired, especially given that they are between five and six hundred years old. The artists’ palettes dating back to the 15th Century are a sight to behold and it silences you into respectful admiration.
Do not be fooled however, because whilst these masterpieces may certainly impress, your tour of this enchanting fairyland starts way before Bocovina and so we must start our monastic journey right at the beginning…
Romania’s religious scene
Romania is a secular state and has no state religion, although it is one of the most devout countries in the EU. The country recognise 18 different denominations, according to the latest Census, although over 80% of the population are identified as Eastern Orthodox.
It’s important to understand that we’re not just talking about a few cute little churches. We’re talking about entire settlements; communities that have built up within and around the monasteries, where nuns and monks live, work and worship together. It is a symbol of harmonious, co-dependency living that has survived through the generations.
Moldavian Monastery Guide
We have put together this comprehensive Guide to Moldavia’s must see Monasteries to inspire you to travel here, which we offer to you download for free. Click the blue link for immediate access to the Guide.
It shows you the path we took as we travelled around this fascinating region of Romania, a detailed list of must-see monasteries and our camping spots, if this is your chosen style of travel. Over five days we meandered our way around this endearing countryside and up through the Carpathian Mountains, drawing ever closer to a feeling of nirvana.
It is an incredible region and gifts you with a pocket full of amazing memories of this unique corner of Europe. You must come here…
Our Recommendations for your Monastery Trip
Moldavia is a huge region, with much to see – not just monasteries. You have hiking in the Carpathian Mountains, buzzing towns to stop off along the way and the general historical depth of the region to absorb. Doing a whistle-stop tour would miss out so much. Here are our recommendations about how to get the best of your visit.
- Take a least 3-4 days to explore from Piatra Neamt in the south over to Sadova in the east. This is not a place to be rushed, so do build in some rest time if you can.
- Don’t come to Moldavia just for the Painted Monasteries – come to see the range of churches as we’ve mentioned in this Guide as this will capture the real spirit of the region.
- There’s a lot of options for staying overnight in this region from campsites if you have your own camper or tent, to hotels in the larger towns and plenty of guest houses (Pensiunea) in the villages along the way. Even in August it didn’t feel overrun with tourists.
- Travelling in our motorhome, our overnighters were at Bistrita Monastery (46.957125 26.289086), where they kindly allowed us to stay in their car park in our motorhome. Outside Neamt Monastery (47.262982 26.208707) we had a couple of nights in their car park with water and free WiFi. Camping Dragomirna (47.757902 26.22857), which is a basic site offering a few pitches, wooden huts and a car park with access to showers and electricity for €8.50 per night. Pensiunea Cristina Camping d Guest House (47.602546 25.852718) €10 per night with full facilities.
- For all monasteries there is a dress code, so come prepared. For ladies, you must cover up with trousers or long skirt and a head scarf. For men it is less strict, although they prefer not to have shorts and t-shirts. In the larger monasteries like Voronet and Sucevita they have wrap around skirts for men and women to wear. Although in others, you may not be allowed into the churches if you do not have the right attire.
- For all the Painted Monasteries there is an entrance charge; 5Lei (€1 per person) and a Photography Tax of an additional 5Lei to take any pictures or video. For the other monastery settlements we visited, there was no charge, unless you wanted to take pictures and then there was either a donation or a 5Lei fee. During our trip we spent 100Lei €20, which isn’t bad and it funds the churches’ upkeep.
- The Painted Monasteries are generally open from 0900 until 1830 every day, although weekends get significantly busier.
- Time your visits ‘on the hour’ as you will then witness the traditional ritual of the call to prayer. A nun will take up a piece of wood (a ‘toaca’) and beat it as they walk around the church, which is followed by the ringing of the church bells. It’s a practice that goes back to the siege of Moldavia by the Ottoman Empire when the Turks didn’t allow the ringing of bells and the wood tapping replaced the chimes.
- If you have your own transport, then getting around to the churches is easy. There were only a couple of roads that were gravel and they were short lived. The Painted Monasteries are all accessible by good quality tarmac roads.
- If you don’t have your own transport, then why not pick up a personal tour guide such as Sorin Fodor who has a great website over at www.paintedmonasteries.ro. We didn’t use him, although we were impressed by the information he gave on the Painted Monasteries. Alternatively local buses and taxis will give you plenty of options for visiting as they are on the local tourist trail.
- We only came across one monastery car park that needed paying for, the rest were free. Voronet required a tariff per hour depending on the size of your vehicle. Not expensive, although worth knowing.
- And finally, do watch out for beggars who loiter around every monastery. Some are children who arrive on horse carts, others are mothers with young children holding kittens asking for money for an operation, yet are wearing the latest branded shoes. So just be vigilant.
And finally…. Here’s a little piece from Myles and there’s a little rendition of ‘The Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Now tell me you’re not intrigued?
“One day I’m gonna write,
the story of my life,
I tell of the night we met…”
My God, I had the Marty Robbins classic stuck in my head for the whole day after I met Myles and Karen, The Motoroamers, whilst sat on a cliff top overlooking the Black Sea. It one of those infectious songs you just have to hum along to and that can’t be done without a smile on your face.
A few months back I’m not really sure if I had a smile, it could well have been a grimace.
A bout of stress and depression left me jaded towards a job and a life I should have loved.
Michele and I had the classic aspirational lifestyle, if we wanted it, we bought it. We had to have the lot; the sports car, a German Chelsea tractor, a 55” plasma downstairs and a 40” in the bedroom and the Caribbean holiday at least once a year. Come to think of it, I didn’t own any clothes without a brand name on them ( I still don’t, but that is because it will be a long time before I need anything new.)
And to pay for this lifestyle, I worked a 60 hour week, getting into the office at 0630 and leaving 12 hours later, having not even stopped for lunch. Once I was home, I was then plagued by the phone ringing or that annoying ping of another e-mail arriving. The side-effect of being on the go, was that sleep felt like a waste of time. So I was existing on about 3 hours a night; it was normal to wake after an hour or so get up for a bit, potter about and then go back to bed.
Then one day…
Me, of course!
.. it was all too much. I cracked and toys came out of the pram. It was just all too much. Thankfully we had a friendly GP whose only real question was “how long do you need”. That’s not the question you ask a man whose only other time off sick was 6 weeks to recover from an operation, of which I took 2! Apparently I had to admit that I had a problem.
I opted for a week off, leaving that morning with my prescription for a course of sleeping pills. I felt like a failure. One week passed and with loads of sleep I started to feel normal. I went from eating one meal a day to two or three. After the second week, the fog had lifted and I was in need of something to fill my days. At the time we had an old campervan and I threw myself into updating her, on the dry days and, when it rained (you get a lot of these in March) I started to read a travel blog called “Europe by Camper” – a young couple Adam and Sophie had taken a year out and were driving around Europe.
A 5-year Plan was hatched
It was one of those ‘daydreaming – never really going to happen’ type of plans. After a couple of month’s rest I went back to work and I was determined, at the beginning, that I wasn’t going to slip back into the old habits. But as the months rolled on it was too easy to step backwards.
That moment you never forget, happened one Wednesday morning on a cold September day and I pulled into the car park, parked in my normal space and just sat there. I sat and sat. I couldn’t go in. Eventually I manned-up and went to work, but the whole day I was a mess…
Michele and I had discussed my hair-brain scheme, and we decided that we would need 5 years so we could be debt-free, buy a nearly-new motorhome and be able to afford to travel for a year.
That weekend, that plan changed. During a typical trip into town for some retail therapy, Michele pulled off the dual carriageway onto the roundabout and straight off the other side. Not once did she look; not once did she see the oncoming car. Thankfully after a lot of hooting and some angry looking drivers we got back on track. But what had happened? She had suffered a panic attack.
A trip to the GP for Michele left her with more fear, after rounds and rounds of blood tests and high plasma readings – it felt like it would never end.
After a long, late night heart to heart, we decided that we both needed to get out of the rat race – but how where we going to do it? We had originally said 5 years, but now it needed to happen yesterday. So our dear old campervan ‘Roxy’ was sold, the X5, that I had craved for years but only driven 2000 miles, was sold and we started looking for a larger motorhome. Night after night we scrolled through eBay and Autotrader and, eventually. we found the one.
Enter Paloma – it was time to travel
After a bit of haggling, ‘Paloma’ was ours; a 7m, 6 berth, left-hand drive van ready to travel Europe. Just the small question of sorting out all the loose ends.
We knuckled down, choosing rather than to go shopping at the weekends, to work on the van, doing all the bits and bobs to make her ready to be our home for the next 12 months.
The next hurdle was Christmas. This year, like the last, we agreed to not buy presents and, for once I stood by it (last year the diamonds, this year not a bean) – but that meant a whole heap of money directed into our savings for the big trip. We also told all of our family on Christmas Day that we were travelling for a year; they were very supportive and didn’t let on how much they would miss us.
Fast forward to the middle of January 2017, where I’m sat at my computer typing that resignation letter and it was probably the one of the happiest days of my life. Although with only three months to go, we had a lot to do !
With pretty much all the unused stuff we had collected over years, (why had I got so many screwdrivers? Probably because I couldn’t find one, so just bought some more) we were ready. It felt like a long time, almost living a half-life, as the end approached we were trying to live off all the odds and ends in the kitchen cupboards, whilst sitting in deck chairs in our now empty front room, with no tv, no phone and no internet connection.
There’s no ‘going back’
Me and ‘er!
Although the day did come and we hit the ferry port on the 26th of April and we haven’t looked back once!
Someone once said to me that you measure success, by what you had to give up to achieve it, but I now know that I have only given up things that meant nothing to me. We are so rich in time, that we have reconnected with each other and have fresh faces to take on the world. And all because Michele was willing to take a jump out of her comfort zone, give up her cosy life and blindly follow me off into the sunset, with my ‘let’s see how it goes’ type of plan.
A few months in and we are not thinking “This will be over next year.” Instead our mindset is changing to “How do we make this real life last a lifetime?” I’m not sure either of us could ever, wholeheartedly get back onto the treadmill of work, sleep, work …..
Bentley, our travel companion
“So Michele it …..
Starts and ends,
Starts and ends,
Starts and ends with you.”
Paul and Michele Kingston-Ford
Read more about our travels over at; www.ourleapoffaith.co.uk
As we prepare to hop over the border to Romania, our minds naturally glide over our month in Bulgaria’s beautiful realm. What will we member most about this eastern beauty?
For me, Bulgaria will represent a country of the inner journey rather than the actual miles we covered. Life on the road makes you a student of this great classroom and if you embrace it, it will enrich your soul and I am particularly thankful for my personal insights. As they say, “Every day is a school day”, if you are open to its teachers.
A Game of Two Halves
Our biggest reflection is that Bulgaria is a game of two halves. We are not quite sure why, although there was something about the southern half of the country that really connected with us. The Rhodope mountains that dominate the landscape, our first taste of authentic Bulgarian life in Melnik and the simplicity of mountain life really does get right underneath your skin. Even heading into the Central Balkan mountains gave us the thrill of discovery and exploration that we so love and that feeds our curiosity.
And then we entered the second half… A game that didn’t offer us the same deep connection and heart-bursting revelations that we had been experiencing. There felt like there was something missing, a real disconnect that we struggle to pin-point.
Don’t get me wrong, the northern half of the country around Veliko Tarnovo, Ruse, Shrumen and the Black Sea coast have their highlights, although there was a definite shift in energy for us that happened along the way. Whether it was because we entered into the poorer region of the country or the transition of the modern Bulgaria that is littered with a determination to fit in with its European family or the mafia mentality – something didn’t quite fit for us. There felt like a real struggle here – a fight to create an identity that releases them from their historical past and stand independently amongst their peers. Life just didn’t flow so effortlessly in the north as in the south.
And there we have it – we have hit the nail on the head. Bulgaria, as we reflect on our two halves, is a country of extremes – of polar opposites and it makes it hard for the visitor to make head nor tail of its culture. Is Bulgaria the innocence and simplicity of the southern mountain region or the more modernistic, spotty teenager of the north striving for respect from its European comrades?
Bulgaria has a reputation for being the poorest country in the Union and our feeling is that this strikes deep within the hearts of the younger generation and they are rising up to challenge this fiscal label. And that’s what we’ve been feeling – a struggle, an internal battle. How interesting that it synchronistically matches the internalising that I have been working through this month. In beautiful harmony I have been in tune with the changes we’ve felt from north to south. Bulgaria’s new European face is still so young and it will undoubtedly evolve, although in their effort to find themselves, the country has an underlying identity crisis.
What is this oppositional energy that we’ve picked up here?
Young and old
It is so obvious as you explore this fine country that there are generational challenges. The old folk who lived in pre-Communism Bulgaria through to today’s EU partnership, cling on to their simple way of life. They work their land with reverence, their curved backs evidence of their daily rituals. They sit watching the world pass by or tend to their herds without any thought of success or financial improvement. Just very happy in their traditional lives of simplicity and authenticity. And as the youngsters leave their village retreats for a life in the city, a huge gap begins to open up between the generations. Family homes with decades of ancestry are left to decay as the kids search for their wealth in the expanding cities, whilst their elderly kinfolk hold onto the fabric of their family life.
Rich and poor
The extremes have been eye opening, where you see the meagre lives of the country peasant contrast with the Audi’s, BMW and out of place, top of the range Porsches of the younger generation. It leaves you puzzled as to how that cavernous gap has been created. The gypsy camp we saw in Varna leaves you affected by their lifestyle and constantly grateful for the life we lead. The pony and traps that course their way through the countryside laden with worldly possessions as they find a way to scrape a living versus the petrolhead generation with their new European wealth. It’s a puzzle.
Communism and EU
Evidence of Bulgaria’s Communist state, that formed the country’s backbone for 35 years following WW2, is clear across the northern half of the country. Square tower blocks stand as a reminder of their Communist rule, although their struggle after the fall of Communism is clear to see in the dilapidated industrial buildings, the unfinished projects and the struggle to find their way in the new world. Interestingly we saw International Partnerships from Japan, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway, as they fund the restoration of Bulgarian history in an attempt to create greater equity in free trade. Since 2007, the EU has embraced Bulgaria into its family and now the younger generation have the responsibility to bring the nation into a new culture of prosperity and stability after its tempestuous history of struggle and battle.
Muslims and Christians
It has been a humbling experience to witness the harmony of Muslims and Christians living side by side. Villages hold no shame in having the two temples as neighbours, honouring everyone’s faith and respecting their right to worship their own gods. More countries could take a leaf out of Bulgaria’s book.
Facts and Highlights – Motoroaming style
1. Despite this divide, Bulgaria is an intriguing country that really does entice you to spend more time here. Although I think if we did it again, I would come north to south, as we leave Bulgaria with an energy of curious confusion that needs to be processed.
2. The cost of living is incredibly cheap in this Balkan beauty and you will spend so little money here. Petrol is cheap, LPG easy to get hold of and food good value for money. For our month here, we have spent about £500, which is well over half of general expenses in the western European countries we’ve visited.
3. If you come to Bulgaria with a camper, campsites are few and far between. Along the Black Sea there are more options, although wild camping is generally accepted here, even in high season. We simply asked permission and everyone was happy to let us stay. We found some amazing spots along the way and although we have been a bit uncomfortable in the last week or so in the northern region, it has been a positive experience making sure we avoid the complacency trap.
4. The language is tricky although with a few basic words and your 1-10 numbers, you can get by. In the towns and cities, many people speak either German and/or English, although in the mountains there is nothing except Bulgarian. Although a warm smile and a wave goes a long, long way in building relationships with the locals, who are a wonderful nation.
5. Cash here is king. Like its Greek neighbour, Bulgaria likes to deal with liquid cash and not cards, so when you first arrive in the country, get straight to an ATM and draw out some money. We used to get 400BGN at a time, which is about €200. The only place we managed to pay by card was in Decathlon and the Apple store in Varna.
6. Lidl is everywhere in Bulgaria although if you fancy a change, then you have Billa and in some larger towns you have Kaufland, a German shop which has a large range of goods.
7. The roads are generally ok here. We travelled on one dreadful main road from Sofia to Ruse anTryavnad Veliko Tarnovo, which is a main route from the Romania border in the north – and it is AWFUL! Pot holes, cambers and a tyre graveyard from lorries shedding their blown out rubber. Obviously the villages are less well maintained, although we thought the roads in Italy were worse than Bulgaria, on the whole.
8. You will see very few motorhomes here as many don’t venture this far east. Those that you do see are typically local vans.
9. The kids break up at the end of June, so if you are here in the summer, factor this into your plans. That said, nowhere is really that busy.
10. Fruit is great to pick up from roadside sellers which is often personally harvested and much cheaper than the supermarkets.
11. There are no tolls on Bulgarian roads, except for the two bridges that span the Danube over the Romanian border, which are €6. Although you will need to buy a vignette, which will cost you €20 per month and can be easily picked up as you cross the Border from Greece.
12. Water is very easy to get along roadsides especially in the southern region. In the north, they are less profuse, although they do still exist if you keep your eye open. We never had a problem although did resort to buying bottled water rather than drinking from our tank, even with a super duper filter.
13. Eating out is really cheap in Bulgaria and the wine, so Myles tells me, is delicious.
14. Whilst you’re here, do not miss the Rhodope mountains, the Central Balkan mountains, Shipka and Melnik, just as a starting point. Etâr is wonderful for seeing authentic artisans at work and definitely worth a visit. Veliko Tarnovo is good for a day’s visit and full of history and charm.
15. Bulgaria is a land of sunflowers, fields of golden ears of wheat, sweetcorn and tombs in the north and quaint villages, mountains, gorges and caves, geological rock formations and simple village life in the south.
16. When you think of crowded beaches, tourists and busy roads, then halve that image and then halve it again and you will probably have Bulgaria’s high season. It is a place yet to fully arrive on the tourist scene, so now is a great time to come, even in the height of summer.
So what would our closing thoughts be of our Bulgarian experience? A contrasting one that has taught us so much about Europe and its developing communities. It has opened our minds to the modern day fight for independence and identity. It’s taught us how a fusion of east and west and Muslim and Christian can live in harmony and it has reminded us how simplicity brings more happiness than complexity.
Finally it brings home how some countries struggle to find their own identity through the myriad of challenges that the traditional world and our modern fight for survival create. No where more than Bulgaria has this been so evident. It has been a great classroom.
A country rich in natural beauty and traditional simplicity that stands amongst its European rivals effortlessly. A country that needs to be explored and, with interest, observe as it creates its personality; holding onto old values whist embracing modern free trade rules. Bulgaria is a fascinating country whose growth and emergence will continue to intrigue us as the years unfold and they find their feet. Let’s hope it retains its traditional roots whilst finding a progressive route through their European opportunity. We will return as there is so much more to experience and so many more lessons to learn. Thank you Bulgaria, it’s been an interesting tour.
Route 2 – Bulgaria Tour
Trekking north from our southern Bulgarian initiation, left us a little sad, only because of the innocence and raw beauty of this undiscovered piece of heaven. And as we said goodbye to the pine forests, we came into flatter land; well relatively speaking. There were, in truth, some rolling hills and golden fields of corn, which offered us a lovely contrast to the mountains, and here sunflowers reigned supreme. With heads bowed to the sun’s dominance, acres of bright yellow start to give way to a lime green hue as the season’s fruit bears its gift.
The Stone Mushrooms
Petrified Stone Mushrooms, Beli plast
A little stop at the rock phenomenon, Stone Mushrooms, just outside Beli plast village, in between Kardzhali and Haskovo, is worth doing. 2.5m high stone formations unique to this area, shows Mother Nature at her best. 20 million year old volcanic rocks that have been weathered by sun, rain and wind hold great legend. It is said that the petrified mushrooms are the daughters of a villager who lived in a fortress. The fortress was attacked one day by the Turkish Ottoman army and the daughters took defensive action, killing the Ottoman leader. The slain soldier’s friend took his revenge and caught the murdering daughters and, one by one with his magic staff, killed each one, turning them to stone. Geologically speaking, the rocks have a high volume of zeolite minerals, which are said to purify water. A great little stop.
Camping Alexandrovo – A little retreat
Alexandrovo Campsite sunrise
Our retreat, after what seemed like a big exploration of new territory that left us a little travel weary, was Camping Alexandrovo, just east of Haskovo. (41.987199 25.726452 www.alexandrovocamping.com). A fabulous home-from-home spot that allowed us to rest up, run by the lovely Matt from England. The wildlife here was wonderful, with Golden Oriels, Hoopoes, Woodpeckers, nesting doves and Wolves as our nighttime melody and the cattle being herded – our morning song, lit up by amazing sun rises. Just such a wonderful stopover for four nights and a place we would definitely recommend and come back to.
Here’s Dave’s view of this lovely spot.
This was though, where we sadly said ‘au revoir’ to our convoy buddies from Followourmotorhome as our paths took different routes as we headed directly north, into the central mountains. What treasure would this region hold for us?
To reach the mountains, a passage through Kazanlak was required, which from our southerly approach was seriously ugly and the first time I felt a little uncomfortable. We wanted to visit the World Heritage Site of the Thracian tombs, although finding somewhere safe to park was tricky. So we hopped, skipped and jumped out of there and headed for the mountains.
The Belly of Bulgaria
Our tyres continued to roll towards the Valley of the Thracian Kings, and Shipka, where ancient and modern history both leave their marks. 4th Century BC tombs are scattered in the plains of the Shipka valley, interlaced with lavender and sunflower fields, making a pretty landscape for history to really feel embedded. Thracian Kings and archeological sites are found all over this region. Although what caught our eye more so, was the distant sparkle of something hidden in the woods. And so like magpies, we felt compelled to take a look. What soon became clear was that gleaming mirage was in fact an enormous Russian style Monastery that belied the simplicity of the charming and humble Shipka village. A short walk up hill is rewarded by a breathtaking piece of architecture that transports you to something out of the Kremlin rather than Bulgaria. Although of course the intricate partnership between the Soviet Union and Bulgaria during the Communist rule, soon allows the penny to drop. A short visit to this wondrous religious monument is definitely worthy of your time. Check out the intricate detail of the exterior, its shiny domes and gaze in wonder at the surprisingly small yet highly decorated interior. This is a serene place to while away half an hour or so.
Captain James T. Kirk, I presume?
Our little diversion did not deter us for long though, as our original destination was the Shipka Pass, where talk of a UFO piqued our curiosity. This stunning road allows you to enter deep into the belly of Bulgarian culture, as carved into inch of earth are the battles of the Russo-Turk war of 19th Century, where Bulgarian volunteers played their role in defeating the Ottomans alongside their Russian comrades. Monuments throughout this region offer reminders of this significant war.
The pinnacle of this route though is the almost eerie building that rises up from the mountain’s heart as if in some dominant defiance against the rebels. The Buzludzhanski Monument perched 1441m up on the mountain top looks more like a UFO than the Social Assembly Hall that was its original identity. Looking like something out of Star Trek, this concrete spaceship is, these days falling apart and offers the now democratic Bulgaria a real diplomatic dilemma; repair it – showing solidarity to the past or leave it to decay and focus on surging forward progressively under EU protection. There are rumours that there is to be some investment in restoring the building and turning it into a historical museum – so watch this space – if you pardon the pun!
Scoobie’s wild spot
There’s a couple of great wild spots up here (42.731573 25.389351 and 42.7314 25.3872) where the views up and down the mountain are quite spectacular. The hike up to the now derelict UFO is worth it for the view alone, and the 2 mile round-trip to see the other monuments in the forest is definitely worthwhile.
Etar – Ethnographic Museum
We seriously thought about stopping at this peaceful place, where even the birds seemed to be silenced by the eery eyes looking down the valley. Still after a few days of respite earlier in the week, we carried on, along one of the worst roads we’ve encountered so far in Bulgaria. It was a doable road, although had to be taken with caution and slowness of speed as the rough, pot-holed tarmac left a lot to be desired. Picking up a couple of Hitchhikers, which is becoming a Motoroaming habit, allowed us to stay a little distracted from the stress of the terrain and after dropping them off we found a decent surface, under which we could get into third gear, finally! A short 20 minute journey took us to Etâr, which is an open-air museum presenting historical arts and crafts indicative to the region. The village has been created beautifully and invites you to step into a rustic way of life, with nearly 50 authentic workshops, many of which are powered by water mills. It’s a great portrait of a Bulgarian by-gone era and really helps you appreciate the culture of this central mountain region. And for 5 Leva per person, that’s about £2.00 each to you and me, it’s a steal. Whilst so close, a little trip up to the Sololski Monastery, 6 miles up the hill is worthy of the diesel. Although not as grand as Shipka’s offering, this understated 19th Century religious building, set with the backdrop of pine forest, is a sight to behold. Especially the original chapel, which with its sky-blue exterior and ornate inside, is worth a peak, even if you’re not of a religious persuasion.
A synchronistic meeting half way down the hill with, not only another motorhome – a British couple to boot ended off the day beautifully as we shared an evening together. John and Kath had been hot on our tails since Greece strangely and it was lovely to pass the time and share travelling stories together.
Our finale of this little section of the central mountains was Tryavna, home to wood-carvers extraordinaire. The town, despite its mountainous position and perceived ‘middle of no where’ image, has built on its wood fame and is an elegant and buzzy administrative centre, which we were not expecting. Outside of the touristy central square, the old town gives you the real feel of the carpentry skills that were and still are to some degree, renowned across Bulgaria. The 19th Century artistry amidst a romantic blend of cobbled streets and bridges is a working town, where craftsmen still train. If you look up above the tourist shops, the architecture of the buildings is incredible and every door has an ornate carving of some sort, revealing the talents of the modern day and historical experts. An hour will suffice in this cute little place as Veliko Tarnovo will call you onwards. And onwards we came – a new chapter we begin to write and share with you we will – soon enough.
Until then, we will leave you with images of mountain monuments, spaceships and authentic Bulgarian culture hidden deep within the heart of this central treasure trove of loveliness. Kx