In our second week in Bulgaria, we’ve enjoyed another farm stay, gone foraging in the woods (Stuart), performed in a Bulgarian folk song concert (Helen) and picked up a bug particularly experienced by travellers here from the UK.
After saying farewell to Beti and her family at Wild Farm in Gorno Pole we headed northwards aiming to get to a campsite close to the Jrebchevo dam lake where, maybe, Stuart could do a bit of fishing.
At first, the roads were awful. The weather was dreadful too.
Memories of Albania here…..the 55 km journey was going to take us hours at this rate.
Thankfully the roads improved but we had to slow down occasionally for the local wildlife…a stork crossing.
…a nice change from a pelican one.
Our route took us through bleak industrial landscape…..not the Bulgaria we were looking for.
But getting closer to the campsite, the scenery around us became more rural which was good except…
… the campsite was most definitely closed.
It seemed from the website it had opened fully in April. We were a bit fed up after the bumpy journey in miserable weather to hear from the handyman on site that until May, it was opening at weekends only. Maybe the unanswered phone when we’d called should have been the clue.
He called the owner who very kindly offered to open up and let us stay for one night. But they also told us about another campsite a few miles up the road which they said was owned by a British couple and they knew it was fully open. We kept going. What was another forty miles if we could find somewhere we could hunker down and sit out the few days of the awful weather predicted.
Good call – we reached Nick and Nicky’s fantastic campsite Camping Veliko Tarnovo where their bar was open for apricot raikia, we could get a hot meal and, if it would only stop raining, a dip in their pool.
But no chance of swimming this week. We woke one of the mornings to see snow. Actual snow.
Last week we were slapping on factor 30 for our walk into the Rhodopes. Now it was back to the thermals. Apparently it’s the latest in the year they’ve had snow in this part of Bulgaria in 45 years.
Still the bad weather meant we had no excuse to get out of doing something cultural…the jaded feeling over seeing so many ‘centro historicos’ still lingers I’m afraid. We headed into the Veliko Tarnovo which is a short taxi ride from the campsite.
The city which ranges over three hills is Bulgaria’s historic capital.
We joined the small group of tourists assembling outside the tourist office for a free walking tour of the town.
Our guide Plami was great and when explaining the Bulgarian 1 March ‘Baba Marta’ holiday, we realised the significance of the red and white knitted dollies we had seen in Albania decorating the Ottoman Market for Korce’s street party.
Baba Marta which translates as Grandma March day is a tradition dating back to pagan times. The red and white ‘martenitsas’ – either dolls or wrist bands – are exchanged as a wish of good health for coming year.
The recipient wears the martenitsa until they see the first sign of spring. Then they take it off and hang it on a tree….
Spring has obviously arrived in Veliko Tarnovo.
And sitting on the steps of Bulgaria’s first National Assembly, we heard about how the Russians liberated Bulgaria in 1877 after nearly 500 years of Ottoman rule which we found interesting……
…though maybe it’s not so enthralling if your job as the building’s security guard means you have to sit through it every single morning…
…and as Plami said, Russia’s role as liberator, followed by the many years under Soviet influence, explains somewhat the love/hate relationship Bulgaria still has with Russia today.
And Plami wasn’t the only to talk to us this week about the conflicted feelings within Bulgaria towards the Communist regime which ruled the country between 1944 – 1990.
Nowadays when the country is considered to be the poorest in the EU, there are many among the older generation who look back with nostalgia to those days when everyone had a job and a guaranteed salary, the crime rate was low, education was cheaper and there was sufficient food for everyone.
Of course, that was balanced against the complete lack of freedom, repression against critics of the regime, complete cultural isolation…
Tour finished, it was time for a local speciality, coffee brewed on hot sand…
…and another shopska salad…
Then we headed back to our campsite after having looked at the fortress (from a distance….!)
I’m sure we will get our tourist mojo back soon….but not just yet.
Back at Camping Veliko Tarnovo, we enjoyed chatting to Nick and Nicky and hearing their story about how they came (from Cardiff originally) to open a campsite in Bulgaria. Some 10 years on, they are firmly established in the local community and post-Brexit (aaaargh!) are bracing themselves to take the language test required to obtain Bulgarian citizenship.
We saw one estimate that there are about 18,000 Brits now living in Bulgaria. A large percentage are retired or living on rental income from property in the UK. Others, like Nick and Nicky have set up their own business in tourism.
In the bar attached to the local village shop, we met Peter and Jane who have been living here since 2005.
We had a good chat with them about their motivation in moving to Bulgaria. Don’t mind what anyone says, Peter told us. The biggest lure for the Brits is the cheap property and the low cost of living. They told us about people who’d bought a house here on eBay, sight unseen and never having been to Bulgaria before.
Old hands by now, they’ve seen quite a number who’ve bought on that basis come and then go back again.
The first winter is usually the biggest challenge. If you can hack it when the temperature drops down to -28, then you’ve a good chance of making it, they reckoned.
They both clearly love the place and speak sufficient Bulgarian to get on, take breaks away to explore the country and Peter especially is looking forward to 1 July.
That’s a festival which seems to have started in the 1980’s where all gather on the beach to watch the sun come up to the strains of, what else ‘July Morning’ by the UK rock band Uriah Heep. It’s a tradition which has developed since the fall of Communism.
And look who else from the UK is big in the music scene in Bulgaria?
Sam Fox! Remember her?
Her post-Page 3 pop career is clearly thriving in Bulgaria. Visiting one of the many, many houses for sale (and yes, this is the bug we caught this week), we saw this framed photo nestling among the household possessions ready for clearance.
Before leaving the Veliko Tarnovo area, we stopped off in the village of Arbanasi for lunch where Stuart’s rabbit stew is now up there among the best food so far on the trip.
Then we were on the move again, heading for our second farm stay.
The nearest town to where we were staying is Popovo. First impressions? Well, the high rise apartment blocks dotted along the roads into it ……
…and graffiti weren’t too appealing.
But the village of Palamartsa where we were staying was a peaceful rural idyll. Once it had a population of 3,000. Now it’s just 300.
We were staying at Wild Thyme Farm which is owned by Chris from Sheffield and Claire from Derry. They offer a really tranquil haven.
We left Molly was parked on the roadside outside….
….with the occasional herd of cattle to keep her company while we stayed in one of the three rooms on the farm which involved stepping over the dog….
…and sometimes the cat.
It’s a very relaxing spot and Claire and Chris dish up great food. We spent our days at Wild Thyme Farm walking up the hills around the village…
…and one evening we went with Claire, Chris and fellow guests Danny and Nicky to an art preview at a nearby village.
The artists are from Germany and are also permanently based in Bulgaria.
Nicky’s partner Danny Mooney is also an artist, based in St. Leonard’s, near Hastings. He gave us the lowdown on the etiquette of attending a preview…..first compliment the artist on their work, then find the bar.
I think Stuart mastered it.
And back at Wild Thyme Farm, as they had already lined up a Bulgarian folk singing course to run during our stay, I signed up.
Well why not? I’ve just about got over the shame of over-hearing a friend tell someone to listen to me do ‘my heart will go on’ on karaoke ‘because she’s so bad it’s funny’. (Thanks Zana!). My fellow students were Nicky who is already virtually a pro as she sings with the close harmony group the Acapella Bellas and Steph who is another Brit in Palamartsa and has already joined the local choir.
Thankfully our singing teacher Stella transcribed the words from the cyrillic alphabet so we could have a go singing the words phonetically …
Then we listened to Stella sing….
.. along with Mitka on the accordion and occasionally Chris having a go on the fiddle
..and every day we practised….
….and to get into role got into costume, borrowing Steph’s choir gear for the occasion …
Well any excuse to dress up.
For our big performance in the village community centre, we went for the casual look. That was unlike the village choir who welcomed us and performed for us and also did us the great honour of letting us perform for them.
We worked through our repertoire of seven or so songs and but for IT illiteracy, there would now be a link to those videos showing us perform with great gusto….ah well, it will just have to wait till the album launch.
And while I was singing, Stuart was communing with nature….
Posted by Stuart
Chris kindly arranged for me to spend the day with Stefan, a well-known hunter who lives in the village. The hills around Palamastra are densely forested and I was keen to have a walk through the area with someone who knew his way around.
Off we headed at a furious rate up the field tracks in his ancient Lada Niva. What a machine- 40 miles an hour over any rut and pothole-in a Landrover I would have had concussion by the time we arrived. I want one!
We were accompanied by “Dog”- half Russian and half Bulgarian. Bred as a wild boar hunting dog, his ears has been chopped off when he was young to make him “super- agresssiv”. I certainly wouldn’t want to get on his wrong side.
It was great to be in these well managed woods and I picked up and remembered much with Stefan’s prompting. Although his English was mainly limited to calling things either “Super” and “Top Super” we seemed to get some understanding of each other as we walked deeper into the forest.
After about five hours we made it back to “Lada Niva”.
Clearly this had been thirsty work so we popped into the hunters lodge for a wee rakia. Under every bed in the lodge were similar bottles of home-made hooch- those cold winter evenings must pass by in a blur.
Made from apricot and of highest quality, this was the best rakia I have tried. The pictures on the wall seem to show that the hunters hold lovely ladies, wild boar and the former Communist Premier Zhikov all in equal esteem.
The afternoon could easily have become a bit hazy if we had carried on sampling the rakia so sadly we piled into the Lada and belted off home.
A great day with a real character. Top Super man.
Posted by Stuart
I mentioned we’d caught the property bug. So here’s Stuart being shepherded around houses in Palamartsa by Mel (originally from Wales) whilst suffering serious envy of her vintage Lada.
If we can’t shake this off, we may end up returning to the UK after our trip with more than a Moroccan rug.
But tomorrow, whatever happens, we head to Varna on the coast to meet with Dave and Carol who are flying in from Inverness to spend the weekend with us.