What a difference a border makes – as you enter Bulgaria from Romania following the Black Sea Coastal road, the topography stays the same but the roads are tree-lined and the fields are smaller. Around the edges of the fields there seems to room for wild flowers and wild-life, and as well as the standard corn and sunflowers there are also now fields of peppers and aubergines.
About 10km south of the border we reached the small fishing village of Krapec; it has a couple of year round groceries come cafes plus a couple of small resort style hotels and apartments, which are all shut up when we arrive during the last week of September.
We take a small tarmaced road left out of the village, which passes an old camping area before becoming a dirt beach road. The beach is pretty stunning; miles of empty sand and sand dunes. We parked on an area of hard sand behind the dunes, which gives us protection from the prevailing North- North-Easterly wind.
With the weather finally in our favour, we spend a week there; swimming and walking. Either side of the town are saltwater lagoons, which form part of the Shabla Nature Reserve. We’re closest to the Drankulak Lake. This is one of the main migratory routes for birds on their way South to East Africa via the Bosphorus or the Eastern Mediterranean. They are the Winter homes for thousands of wildfowl that have spent the Summer on the Siberian Tundra. The rare Red Breasted Goose for example. Unfortunately for us, they’re not here yet.
It’s very quiet here with very few people about; only the sound of the wind and waves for company. Our peaceful life is only interrupted by a brief trip to the nearby town of Shabla to buy a few supplies, an off-road rally along the beach on a Sunday morning, and a posse of mice playing tag for nights on end!
We’ve been attempting to humanely trap the mice since they made an appearance in Romania, but traps Mark 1 and Mark 2 failed to produce results, so back to the drawing board. Mark 3, is an 10 litre empty paint bucket, placed on a piece of lino, with a slice of apple underneath and one edge propped up with a roll of gaffer tape to which a long piece of string is attached. The trap is a success yielding five mice; the downside is that it is man operated so involves the operator trying to keep awake, whilst sitting in a chair with a torch to provide ‘mood lighting’. Although the mice were released quite a distance from the van, we felt at least a couple were return visitors but also they were telling their friends the route into the van! After a week of this I’m afraid we got mean, we turned to WMDs (weapons for mouse destruction) basically flypaper for mice, very effective yielding 4 mice in total. As I write we’ve now been mice free for over a week.
Whilst in Vama Veche, just over the border in Romania, you’ll recall that ‘Battie’ paid us in visit. We thought he only stayed the one-day and left the same evening. However two weeks later, whilst we were on an early evening mouse watch (in the dark, blinds open, moonlight) Battie appears from the over cab bed! And this was after we’d taken everything out of the van and given Heidi a thorough Spring-clean in an attempt to make her less attractive to the mices. Can he really have been in the van that long! Anyway, he’s definitely gone now, or is writing that tempting fate?
In much of East Europe, ‘camping’ used to mean renting a small chalet, a cross between a beach-hut and a shed. During the communist era, this is where the common man went for their holidays. With many Eastern Block countries having very little or no coast, the Black Sea, was the destination of choice for many many thousands of people. We have found acres and acres of these chalets in varying stages of repair. The demand is obviously no longer there, since the fall of the Iron Curtain. People are able to travel further a field, stay in one of the new holiday resorts, or camp for free using their own caravan or tent. Having said that, many are in stunning locations and very cheap to rent and some are being to be restored and improved.
Staying in one of the chalets in the almost derelict Campsite at Krapec, we found Diana from Moldova; a young fashion designer who lived in Bucharest having completed her MA there. She had been staying there for three months to get inspiration for her work. She loved the place, as we did, saying how she preferred the simple life with space to think about what she was doing with her life rather than the busy city, where it was always a rush to work work work, to be able to afford rent on a flat that she didn’t like living in. She was an interesting person. We talked about the rights and wrongs in the world and the harm that the television does, telling people what they ‘should’ have. She was perhaps surprised to find that we, from the perceived established and rich West, agreed with her.
Diana was maintaining, and making use of, a vegetable garden established by a previous occupant and told us that here in Bulgaria, farmers are generally still able to grow what they want, well, in good soil without the use of pesticides etc. In Romania, most farmers are now told what they can and can’t grow, having to abandon the traditional peppers, tomatoes and aubergines in favour of, for example, huge fields of sunflowers encouraged along with plenty of chemicals for oil production and the soil is deteriorating as a result. It’s a mad mad world.
We had decided to leave Krapec Beach on Saturday 27th September, however the weather had other ideas, Friday night brought torrential rain, thunder and lightning. By Saturday morning we were too late, the road was flooded and the sand waterlogged. Heidi was stuck. The rain continued until 4 o’clock in the afternoon, then came the wind and thankfully by Sunday the floods were subsiding.
We tried to move Heidi but she just dug deeper into the sand. Peter waited by Heidi to see if he could commandeer one of the 4x4s that regularly used the road. Meanwhile I went in search of help at the Camping hoping to find Diana who had friends in the village, but instead found a ‘weather beaten knight in sandy slippers’ who kindly came to the rescue with his trustee old wreck of a Peugeot 405. Unfortunately it wasn’t powerful enough, so a second knight with a tractor was sent for, and slowly but surely he pulled Heidi free, our heroes. Back on solid ground, we bid each other a cheerful farewell, and then they rode off into the sunshine with our heartfelt thanks and a small reward (“for the tractor” – which certainly needed a bit of money spent on it!). The above was achieved with not a single word of common language. We thought he had indicated to come to the local beach café for a drink, but when we got there, we fond it like most others, shut up for the season with no one about. The kindness of strangers – amazing!
Monday we bid a fond farewell to Krapec, and head to the nearby town of Shabla to stock up with provisions again. Shabla seemed a pleasant little place. It’s got everything; shops, banks, cafes etc. The shops weren’t exactly obvious. There’s very little signage or advertising, and you never know what you’ll find when you get inside. Vegetables were a bit of an issue. It seems that since the locals all grow their own or get them from a neighbour, there is little need and so little choice. Everything, of course, is in need of upgrade and repair, especially the roads! They are working on the roads, putting in kerbstones and paving, which of course only makes it worse at the moment. Oh, but most importantly, Shabla has a hardware store with an owner who knows the word “mouse” and sells ‘mouse glue’!
We head along the coast until we reach Nos Sabla and ‘Shabla Tulza’, one of three inland lakes along this stretch, and another empty beach. Again in the woods above the beach are hundreds and hundreds of derelict chalets. The sun continues to shine so we enjoy lunch in a rustic seafood restaurant overlooking the Black Sea and walk to the lighthouse at Port Kariya, another small fishing village a couple of kilometres along the coast. There’s plenty of unfinished development here and a ridiculous ‘park’ funded by the EU of course.
Thursday 2nd October we head off along the coast, and stay for one night in Royal Cove 3km south of the town of Kavarna, before reaching Zlatni Pjasaci or ‘Golden Sands’ as it is more popularly known; Bulgaria’s second largest purpose-built resort. A bit of shock after the empty beaches we’ve got used to. We escape the madness and opt for a walk to the Aladzha Monastery through the wooded hillside of the Golden Sands Nature Park. The monastery turns out to be a series of hermits caves half way up the side of a rock face. Information boards showed the monks’ cells, a church and even an area for funerals and burials dug out of the soft rock. An odd choice of ‘residency’! I suppose it was pretty safe from attack or unwanted disturbance though.
We continued to the city of Varna and visit the extensive remains of the Roman Baths, before a bit of unwanted ‘adventure’. Just as we were leaving Elaine was bitten by one of the many stray dogs. It was such a shock as there was no provocation or warning. He just walked past and bit her! So foregoing the Cathedral, we opted for the taxi ride to the local outpatients clinic. The taxi driver, having been flagged down by the attendant at the Roman site, kindly came in with us and explained the situation to the receptionist. The place was full and we waited over 2 hours to be seen. The wound was cleaned up along with a tetanus injection and luckily someone who spoke English was found to explain that we needed to go to a different department in the main hospital; the Dog Bite Unit. Being late on a Saturday, we would have to now wait till Monday morning. Elaine managed to walk back across town, and it was only after we’d got back to Heidi that the effects of the shock began to show.
Sunday, and the bite wounds no longer needed a dressing. The sun was shining and Peter was 46 years young. We strolled through the park, supposedly the largest in Europe stretching 8km along the coast with steps down to the beach, and stopped at one of many trendy cafes, before returning back along the beach. We discovered, to our surprise, that at least one of the streams flowing through the park came from a thermal spring. By the time the water reached the beach the water was still quite hot and was piped off to create constantly flowing hot showers and a small thermal pool right on the beach. It had obviously been there a long time and was very rough and ready, made of concrete and various cobbled together bits of pipework. It was popular with the locals though. I’m surprised they haven’t made more of a feature of it. Later, tempted by one of the beachfront restaurants, we decide on a birthday lunch, lingering for much of the afternoon and consuming perhaps a little too much local rose wine. A good day.
Monday 6th, and we were up early to walk across town to the Main Hospital where we were relieved of 50lev ‘surgery fee’, before being directed to the doctor surprisingly quickly. A quick look and a bit of discussion later and we were on our way with nothing further needed. It seems that an anti-rabies injection carried a greater risk than was present from the dog bite. They do in fact make every effort to vaccinate all the wild dogs here with a tag on their ears showing they’ve been done. Of course we didn’t actually notice whether the dog in question had one, but looking around, we have yet to spot one without a tag, even out in the sticks. We were also encouraged by the fact that the dog’s teath hadn’t actually torn Elaine’s trousers, meaning there hadn’t actually been direct contact; amazing considering the size of the hole in her leg! Asking whether we could have our ‘surgery fee’ back then, the doctor smiled, saying “no, it had already been utilised”. Hmm! He pointed out that, had Elaine had the injection it would have been free, along with any follow-up treatment if it was needed. This may well be how the local system works, and our ‘Europe deal’ of course means we only get treated the same as the locals.
We decided against the museums in Varna as nothing sounded particularly gripping. We visited a small local church as we walk back across town. Like the cathedral, which we did manage after our ‘incident’ on Saturday, its covered in murals inside with very dark, almost black, painted screen dividing the ‘high alter’ / sanctuary from the rest of the church. There are very few chairs and a great many candles housed in oven like contraptions with extractor fans to protect the paintings. As usual in the orthodox churches, there are a couple of significant icons on display with people coming, often very briefly, to ‘visit’ or say a prayer before them. We must try to learn a bit more about these, to our eyes strange, customs.
Even considering our unwanted escapes, we decided we quite liked Varna. It had a good unhurried and surprisingly un-busy feeling to it. It’s often very difficult to tell what makes us like one place and not another. I wonder if opinions would change on a second visit?
After Varna we continued down the coast, stopping at Skorpoouci for a couple of nights. It was very dead at this time of year and the weather had turned cold. It rained hard all night, prompting us to make up our minds to head south to Greece fast. We passed the infamous ‘Sunny Beach’ with its thousands of hotels and apartments; and they are still building! and stopped briefly at Nesebar, the ancient fishing village just to the south. They have thankfully made an effort to keep Nesebar looking like it once was, and even the new construction looks like the unusual original with its timber planked upper stories. It was very quiet this late in the season, but the restaurant touts were still there trying hard. We stopped for the night by a roadside spring and topped up the water tank. Springs are fairly plentiful in these parts; very handy for us. It seems there is plenty of water about, with most of the fields irrigated by pumping systems attached to wells.
On Thursday 9th October we woke to a cold, crisp day and drive through rolling hills. The fields are freshly ploughed, and the leaves in the large areas of forest are turning. It’s feeling very autumny. That is until we head up over a pass and drive down the other side towards warm, dry and sunny Greece. The change was dramatic. It must be a least 10 degrees warmer. The Bulgarian border guards were friendly, practising their English and asking about our trip and where Manchester and St.Asaph (where we were born) were. Then it was through the usual bit of no man’s land to the Greek border. There were no signs, and the Greek border guards stayed in their booth on the other side of the road. I walked across with the passports whilst Elaine stayed in the van. They checked the watermarks were genuine etc. and then grunted ‘ok’ and raised the barrier. They may have been able to see Elaine from a camara, but I doubt it, and no check to see who or what else we might have been bringing in. A taste of Greek bureaucracy. It’s about 300km south to our destination on the Aegean Sea. Let’s get ‘truckin’.