162 nights : 6,238 miles travelled : Countries visited: 13
“Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real.” Cormac McCarthy
We realised we should put the skates on our snail when we looked at options for winter sites. Whilst there are many possibilities for stopping overnight, every couple of weeks it is necessary (and nice) to pitch up for a few days, do the laundry and give Brian a really good airing. We were surprised at how many sites close before the end of October, even as far south as Greece and Turkey, so we planned for a couple of days of serious driving.
We left Hungary and clipped the corner of Croatia before crossing into Serbia. Croatia instantly felt different as we drove through a series of small rural villages and hamlets. Many were only one street wide and we saw the most number of national flags on civil and private buildings; maybe a public holiday? As we passed through Vukovar, the first major town, we noticed that many buildings were pock marked and some completely crumpled. We then saw signs for a memorial centre and later read that the town was the scene of an 87 day siege in 1991 during the Croatian War of Independence. This was followed by a horrific war crime when the victorious Serb paramilitaries and the Yugoslav Peoples Army massacred civilians and prisoners of war. Damage to buildings continues to be evident in the villages all the way to the border with Serbia. We were shocked that people are living with the scars of the past so long after the war has ended.
I mentioned this to Alexandr at Camp Dunav in Serbia that evening. The bright and welcoming site manager suddenly looked incredibly sad and told how he had initially been able to resist the military call up, but that as the Yugoslav wars had escalated he was forced to join. He reflected how the ambitions of a few can destroy so much and damage so many lives. It was obvious that he still felt real pain when talking about that era and we realised that the deepest scars are not always visible.
We crossed Serbia diagonally from north east to south west in two days. We had camped just outside Belgrade, once again next to the Danube. The capital marked a divide in the landscape. The north was gritty, not pretty. We then drove south on an empty motorway through a rich tapestry of colours and textures stitched by vineyards, dried maize, ploughed fields and yellowing trees. Industrial scale food production had given way to human scale farming.
Our first night in Bulgaria was near Sofia behind a motel frequented by bikers. On the plus side, there was a tattooist and salon and we both got a short back and sides from an extremely nervous hairdresser. Her favourite English word was “super” which she repeated frequently but without conviction! Our second night in Bulgaria was near Plovdiv behind a motel frequented by prostitutes…and their customers! Our initial intrigue at the comings and goings around us quickly subsided and we watched a James Bond movie which felt slightly less surreal than our surroundings!
Roman ruins lie exposed in the streets of Plovdiv like bones breaking through skin. The forum is currently being excavated in the main square. Further up, the curved end of the stadium is clearly seen whilst it’s length still lies beneath the modern high street. Next to it, the 14th century mosque bears witness to the time when the city was conquered by the Ottomans. However the most impressive sight is that of the Theatre of Ancient Phillippopolis (as Plovdiv was in the Roman period) The theatre was only discovered in the 1970s and is used for events and performances today.
Plovdiv was originally built on seven hills; only six remain after one was dismantled to provide stone to pave the streets! Many of these volcanic plugs are visible from the 5,000 year old ruins on Nebet Tepe hilltop, which also gives excellent views of the city both old and new.
We joined a free walking tour and our excellent guide Boris talked about the legacy of communist rule. Buildings which for nearly 50 years had been owned by the state were returned to the original owners or their descendants, who often did not have the money or knowledge for their maintenance, so the buildings fell into disrepair. This was the case for much of the area known as ‘The Trap’, a historic network of small narrow streets of artisans and commercial properties. In recent years this area was very run down but is currently seeing a revival with galleries and cafes moving in. Plovdiv will be European Capital of Culture in 2019 and investment is being used to develop new growth as well as preserving the past.
The past and the present sit slightly uneasily beside each other in Bulgaria. Horses and carts run alongside modern highways. Small huddles of goats and sheep are tended by a solitary herdsman with a stick, a stool and a mobile phone. Functional communist architecture is tacked onto a beautiful mountain. Twenty-first century refuse is ploughed into ancient soil. But many British people settle here and we can see why. Despite being swallowed up by numerous empires throughout time, Bulgaria has a proud national identity and a warm welcome.
We met fellow motor home travellers David and Carol in Budapest and decided to travel into Istanbul together so that we could keep an eye on each other’s vans. We arranged to meet up near Veliko Tarnavo on a campsite run by British expats. It was fantastic to spend a few days on the wonderful site run by Nick and Nikki enjoying hot showers and peaceful nights.
We were sold on the free walking tour principle of giving a donation to a volunteer and once again, the history and sights of the town were brought to life by a well educated, humorous young person. Plami made our three hour walk so interesting that I felt ready to sit an exam on Bulgarian culture and history. She also cleared up the mystery of the obituary posters that we had seen plastered everywhere. We had speculated that they were marking the upcoming All Souls Day but Plami explained that there was a tradition of publicly displaying obituaries at frequent intervals all year round. Many young people are baffled by this tradition but posters still coat doors, lamp posts, bus shelters, fences and trees.
We learned that the red and white braids hanging from trees around the town are called martenitsas. Wool is woven into a bracelet or made into a pair of little dolls and worn from March 1st until the wearer sees the first stork, swallow or budding tree. They are then left on a tree to herald the spring.
We returned to the town the next day to visit the fortress and the enormous monument in the centre of the city.
The Shipka Pass was the scene of a Russian Turkish Battle in 1877 which is marked by the Freedom Monument. We bumped into David and Carol there who had walked up a long way to see it. We hadn’t hidden Brian well enough to pretend we had too.
Bulgaria is responsible for creating the Cyrillic alphabet which we have been struggling with since Serbia. Our middle aged brains just can’t cope with so many new challenges. To compound the problem, technology is letting us down. We had been relying on the Sat Nav for clues on pronunciation of place names but even she has given up. Recently we get just the first syllable “turn left for Duh….” or sometimes there is just a complete blank !!!! This week we have had serious issues with time. Our German made cuckoo clock has lost synchronicity; there are four less cuckoos than hours….so now we have to do subtraction to hear the time. To finish us off, the Turkish government (we are currently in Asia!) decided to postpone putting the clocks back last weekend for two weeks. But we didn’t know and were baffled as phones, clocks and computers all disagreed with each other and we missed a guided museum tour. What does it matter? Initially we were happy to forget about months and dates but lately we’ve lost our clue to the day of the week, as I keep forgetting to take the tablets! Now the hours have gone, disorientation is complete.
M & G xx
Treat of the week: No, he wouldn’t let me keep it. Perfect for hiding my Bulgarian hair cut and the mosquito bite on my cheek. Still, had fun trying it on!