Week 29 – Bulgaria – the Eastern Rhodopes Mountains

The view from our window at Wild Farm

We spent this week in a remote corner of Bulgaria enjoying the wild landscape of the Rhodopes mountains, swapping van life  for the comfort of a farm guesthouse.

On our last night in Greece, we wild camped by the harbour in Farni. It’s a village close to the border with Bulgaria and near Lake Vistonida.

It was a good spot for flamingo watching.

But thanks to some boy racers revving up round the van after 3 am, we didn’t have a very restful night. Things did eventually quieten down but we headed for the border feeling exhausted.

Thankfully the crossing into Bulgaria was painless. The road there was excellent and the process very smooth.

Pull up to a booth with Greece passport control in one window, Bulgaria in the other, buy the 15 euro road tax vignette and then we were on our way to the Eastern Rhodopes mountains, home to wolves, bears and vultures. ….

…and very, very loud frogs. (I’ve put a Campervanmatters tweet up with a recording of them…forgive the abysmal filming! It’s the first attempt at putting video on the blog.)

We pulled over by this lake astonished at the din from their mating.

Our destination was the village of Gorno Pole.

We were staying at the Wild Farm where Beti and her husband Nickolai and their four children have lived and farmed for over 20 years. It’s a big organic farm with around 700 cows which they raise for beef. We discovered when we got there that the couple have also very recently become reality TV stars in Bulgaria since they took part in ‘Fermata’ (The Farm).

Bulgaria’s new reality TV star – Beti from Wild Farm

Beti and Nicholai were the ones setting farm challenges to farmers and celebrities in the series which attracted over 1 million viewers per episode hence the reason why she is now finding herself in the odd position being asked for selfies from total strangers when she travels within Bulgaria.

Gorno Pole really is very remote. The village has just 59, mostly elderly, inhabitants.  Most of the young people have moved to the city or abroad to find work.

Here’s the main square of the village…the building on the right is the shop though it’s hard to tell that from the outside.

It only opens in the mornings.

The shop keepers on the way to open up

Judging from the way locals gathered outside in the mornings, it looks like the shop also serves as a sort of community centre for the village and maybe a mediation centre too judging by the heated exchanges we overheard as we passed one morning. It was most likely a row over why one man’s donkey was grazing on a patch normally used by another man’s goats, we were told later.

But the striking feature of the village  was the number of derelict houses….beautiful stone buildings with traditional tiled roofs, all tumbling to the ground.

The problem is that many are impossible to sell for renovation because there could be 50 or more family owners with a share in the same house. So the willing buyer faces a lengthy and potentially costly task even to get to the first base of finding who has authority to sell.

We heard this is a problem not just in this part of the country but in the centre of cities  in Bulgaria where properties with multiple owners have scattered far and wide.

Ivo was lucky. He and his wife came to Gorno Pole because they wanted to raise their young family in the country. They came close to buying one house in the village but discovered at the 11th hour, their ‘seller’ owned just one fifteenth of the property. They pulled out but luckily found another house next door with just one owner. They are doing it up by themselves bit by bit, a story he is telling in a blog called Happyrhodopes.blogspot.com which is in Bulgarian but with the photos and the sometimes weird Google translation, you get the gist of their ‘Good Life’ story.

Before coming to Gorno Pole, Ivo’s career was spent working on vulture conservation projects so he was the ideal person ….

….to guide us to this spot on the mountainside where we saw vultures nesting in the cliffs and, rising up the thermals in front of us, fly overhead…

….including this rare sight, an Egyptian vulture back from Africa to nest.

In the valley below we could see the sweep of the Arda river where during the Balkan war in 1912, after the border with Greece was redrawn, some 2000 women and children trying to return to Bulgaria were killed by the pursuing army of the Ottoman Empire ….

Also in sight is the closest town  to Gorno Pole. It’s Madzharovo, once a prosperous mining town with 10,000 inhabitants…

…and now a ghost town since the closure of the mines in 1997.  Today there are just 600 inhabitants and we heard you can buy one of the apartments in these high rise blocks for about £1500.

Vultures and wolves:

Of course, it’s not strictly true that everyone is leaving Madzharovo. We met Vanya who came to live there very recently when she took up her new job at the Vulture Conservation Centre.

The centre’s work includes giving cows to local farmers on the basis that more stock =  more carcasses = more food for the vultures. But an ongoing challenge for them is persuading local farmers to shoot wolves (and claim the Government bounty for it) instead of putting out poison to kill them which has the result of killing off the feeding vultures. But even though the Government also pays farmers compensation if wolves do kill their livestock, the practice of poisoning is proving hard to stop.

We heard that all the local shepherds have stories of wolves brazenly walking into their herds and flocks and snatching a lamb or calf. We were also told how the cows when threatened by the wolves put their calves into the middle of a circle and run round them to keep the wolves at bay.

However when we went walking ourselves on a long hike through the mountains, it wasn’t the wolves we were worried about. We had enough assurances that they are not interested in attacking people. Instead, we were advised to watch out for the fierce sheepdogs.

Beti was more sanguine. ‘Just throw stones at them. The dogs hate the stones’.

Ivan, the shepherd we met on the hillside, didn’t seem as confident about our ability to protect ourselves.

He was eating his lunch when we walked past him but he called out to us to stop and we understood enough to know from his sign language that we shouldn’t go any further but should wait for him to finish. He then accompanied us down the mountain and safely past his dogs – named Hitler and Stalin – throwing stones at them himself to keep them away!

On our way back that evening, on a different hillside, we heard the tell tale tinkle of bells. A flock of sheep and goats was nearby. We stopped still, armed ourselves with stones, bracing ourselves for when the sheep dogs caught sight of us.  We could hear in the distance someone talking. It was the shepherd on his mobile phone, too deep in conversation to notice the fearty townies stranded and waiting for the signal from him that we were safe to pass….

…….and move into territory where the only animals we disturbed were cows from Wild Farm grazing on the mountainside…….or in this one’s case, feeding her calf.

In the village of Borislatvsi, Beti and her daughter Beti kindly introduced us to Georgi Cholakov. He was a miner but now in retirement devotes his time to building his own private museum where his collection of exhibits from the local region ranges from Roman jewellery to memorabilia from Bulgaria’s recent communist past and more.

He has a special room dedicated to the history of mining in the local area. This photo caught the eye. Camels? Yes, it seems camels were once used to shift loads at the mines before eventually being replaced by trucks.

Maybe for Stuart this was the most eye catching exhibit….it is a catfish caught in the lake nearby.

And they are still out there for the catching apparently. The previous week one of these river monsters capsized a fishing boat….or so they told us.

And also in Borislatvsi, we popped in to the little home factory where Hristo and his wife roast locally grown sesame seeds to make tahini. They also produce their own honey so we had a tasting.

The most delicious was the paste mixed with one quarter honey to three-quarters tahini which is delicious spread on spread or, as we tried it, eaten by the spoon load direct from the bowl.

Easter celebrations:

On Good Friday I joined Beti and her daughter in the small congregation at the Orthodox church service. Amidst the icons, the incense and the candles and the chanting, there was a very contemporary addition. The lay helper leading the priest in procession round the small church was holding aloft his smart phone to read the prayers he was chanting.

And back at the Wild Farm, it looked like our fellow guests were having a very traditional Easter Sunday morning. We arrived for breakfast to be greeted with ‘Christ is Risen’  and welcomed to join the egg fighting.

It looked like the object was to use the beautifully painted egg like a weapon and crack your opponent’s egg to win for yourself a lucky year or lucky day.

At least that’s what we think they said. So far we’ve picked up just enough Bulgarian to say the informal words for thank you (mersi) and goodbye (chao chao) which sound reassuringly familiar.

We’ve had a very relaxing week in the Rhodopes but tomorrow we will be saying ‘mersi’ and ‘chao chao’ to Beti and will be heading northwards to stay on a camp site in the Stara Zagora area and then onward north and west.

week 28 – greece week 5 – the third peninsula, corinth and heading for bulgaria

This week we travelled to the right hand finger of the Peloponnese and east to Argolis before heading north on a 450 mile journey to Kavala, one of our last stops in Greece before we cross the border to Bulgaria.

We visited the home of the Gods at Mount Olympus, saw the amazing Corinth canal and returned to Thermopylae where we wild camped beside a bankrupt hotel that now provides a temporary home for Syrian refugees.

Leaving Gythio:

While we’d spent few days close to Gythio, we never actually got to see the town. Such was our level of sloth that we didn’t budge from the beachside campsite. Even the van was chilled out….it refused to start when we were trying to leave which meant unpacking the boot to get at the engine…

..and giving this gadget its first airing on the trip. It’s a power pack which comes with its own jump leads. It started the van straightaway and we headed off to get to the right hand finger of the Peloponnese.

We followed the coast past this ruined ship…

…and through miles and miles of orange orchards…

…to this Gibraltar-like rock. It’s Monemvasio, linked to the mainland by a causeway.

We climbed the hill leading to the old town spotting a peregrine falcon on the way…

….and a great surprise, bumped into Nadia, Gunte, Ella and Blackie, our friends from Koroni.

Monemvasio is a beautifully restored Ottoman town. Everything is picture perfect with it’s narrow cobbled streets now crammed with smart bars and restaurants….

..and colourful blooms amid the ruins…

…and beautiful views over the red tiled roofs of the Ottoman homes.

We didn’t stop for long though. After a farewell coffee with our friends, we set off on our journey – our ultimate destination as yet unknown. Our only plan was to find a Greek village somewhere near the border with Bulgaria where we could insinuate ourselves into some family’s Easter celebrations.

At least that was the plan.

Our first stop was at the east coast village of  Leonidio on a route which took us across the most isolated countryside we’d seen since coming to Peloponnese. There was scarcely a house and on the two-hour journey we passed just two cars and one donkey.

Nearing the top of the steep slopes overlooking Leonidio, we thought we were driving into a forest fire….

…but we were driving into cloud…..

…or maybe sea fog. It was a challenging drive down. The steep switchback turns left the wheels of the van burning from the heat of the brakes for about an hour after we finally reached our beachside campsite…

…which had the oldest olive tree we’ve seen so far.

Leonido is becoming a really popular place with climbers…at least that’s what we heard from the two Yorkshire men we got talking to at the nearby taverna. They were there to tackle these limestone cliffs overlooking the village.

And continuing our big shunt northwards, our next stop was at a campsite near Nafplion. It’s in the guidebooks as one of the prettiest towns in Greece. It’s also a big cruise stop which explained the number of Americans wearing naval hats we met climbing the many, many steps up to the Venetian fortress overlooking the town.

Up top we paid the 8 euro a head entrance fee in, had a peek into the prison and eh, that was about it up there.

If the admission fee was payable at the bottom of the steps, we might have felt the ticket price included a cardio workout. As it was, we felt, well, a little stung.

So maybe that’s why when we arrived at the ancient site of Mycenae and got to the ticket booth, saw the queues and the prices we  turned round.

The car park was full of tourist coaches and the lines of visitors snaking round the ruins was off putting…

…so we kept going.

Now Mycenae, now you don’t.

We could easily have missed our next stop. Here it is looking like a scruffy wasteland ….

…..very different from how it looked when it opened in 1893 as this print in a nearby cafe depicts.

It’s the Corinth Canal and we headed there knowing it was something special but with only a vague idea of the story behind it. Um, wasn’t it built centuries ago in an amazing feat of engineering with all excavations done by hand? Eh, actually no. Got that one wrong.

Carving a canal from the Aegean to the Adriatic may well have been a dream for many of the ancient rulers but construction didn’t actually start on it until the 1890’s. By then the technology had advanced somewhat from slave labour having to scoop the earth out with their hands.

Up close, the canal is an impressive sight. It’s tall and narrow and steep and for those of us who prefer to be nearer the ground just  a tad nerve wracking to look into.

Eyes straight ahead, firm grip on handrail, terra firma is near….efharisto but am most definitely not interested in bungee jumping into the canal as have not as yet been certified mad.

Here’s the view out to sea….

…and into it’s depths.

It was a shame we didn’t see any ships go through it on the day we visited but nowadays it’s too small to accommodate most modern ships. You can go through it on a tourist cruise though. That’s definitely one for the bucket list.

This week we have mostly been eating…

More Greek salads. Fashion your feta whatever shape you like, it’s still delicious.

But coming in at number one this week is this dish…

It is gyros, the perfect fast food dish, made with chicken or pork with tomato, onion and  tzatziki sauce wrapped in warm pita and –  new  since my days Greek island hopping days as a 19-year old – a few chips thrown in for good measure. Truly a wondrous innovation.

And this week when wild camping with low stocks and a craving for carbs, I had a go at making my own flatbread. Just chuck together flour, a few dollops of yeast, some olive oil and water…..

….knead till it glues to your hands.

Wait for it to rise.

Then cook in the frying pan given no electricity means no oven. The result was perfectly edible flat bread…

…though the leftovers were still not good enough for the stray dog who adopted us that day.

Mount Olympus:

We stopped off in Litochoro, the town which acts as the base camp for hikers climbing Mount Olympus. It had the feel of a Swiss ski resort…..

….which wasn’t surprising given the peaks of the home of the gods are still snow covered.

Every summer thousands arrive to trek its peaks and stay overnight in the refuges up top.

And the scenery on Mount Olympus does look wonderful judging by the photos on display in the interpretation centre….

…but they look seriously challenging so in our case best left to the gods and experienced mountain climbers.

The Refugee Hotel at Thermopylae:

One of our overnight stops on the long road northwards was back at Thermopylae. We had already visited the hot springs on our way down to the southern Peloponnese and now heading back on a route with seemingly no open campsites it seemed a good place to spend the night. After all where better to wild camp than beside an endless supply of hot water?

But on our first visit, we had completely missed the fact that the building we’d seen in the distance  is a temporary home for Syrian refugees. It used to operate as the Aigli hot springs hotel but went out of business and had fallen into disrepair. Then last year, thanks to an initiative by the local governor, it’s doors were opened up to give shelter to some of the many refugees now trapped in Greece since the Balkan borders were closed to them.

Returning to Thermopylae, we drove close to the hotel to be near other motorhomes already set up for the night.

It’s new role as refugee shelter was obvious. The place was filled with families. Laundry was hanging out of every window, little boys were playing around the waterfall and nearby a boisterous football match was underway.

Another motorhome drove up alongside us.  It was a group of young Belgians, all taking part in a relay run to raise money for Syrian refugees. They had already been to visit one of the camps near Athens. I asked if they intended going into the hotel, half thinking we could visit with them. ‘No, we wouldn’t do that. We will only visit if we have contact with a representative there. We don’t want to intrude on their privacy or dignity.’

Point taken. Without an invitation, we didn’t venture closer but it was an incongruous situation – holidaymakers like us parked up to enjoy the sun and hot springs and next day free to carry on with our travels. Meanwhile the new residents of the hotel stay trapped in the Greek bottleneck, waiting for their asylum applications to be processed before they can find a safe and permanent home.

And finally:

We’ve changed our plans. Having got this far north, we’ve decided to keep going and spend Easter in Bulgaria. So we’ve only a few days left in Greece.

So head for the city or the beach? We opted for Kavala for another few days of sloth. We are getting good at that.

Week 27 – Greece Week 4 – The Mani

We are on our way home!

This week we passed the half way mark in our year-long trip and fittingly we spent it at the most southerly point we will reach in Europe.

That’s here at Cape Tenaro at the tip of the Mani peninsula in the southernmost point of mainland Greece.

That’s the middle finger of the southern Peloponnese. From now on as we head back up through Greece, we are journeying homewards.  It will be by the scenic route though via Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, the Faroes, Iceland, Germany, Holland and, eh, Harwich.

But back on the Mani…we  wild camped at Cape Tenaro for two nights and spent the days walking through the beautiful countryside and coastline. One route took us down a narrow rocky path to the lighthouse. The wind blowing in from the sea was fierce but by the lighthouse, sheltered by the rocks, it was a calm and warm sun trap.

The next day we took a circular route from the cape over hills covered with wild flowers…

…and through thick and highly scented yellow gorse down to the small, sandy cove of Porto Kagio.

This beautiful unspoilt area was our favourite part of the Mani and all the better for having the place virtually to ourselves.

That was especially the case at the Caves of Diros .  Judging by the number of boats lining up, the caves are thronged with visitors in high season.

But we took the 40-minute guided tour with just four others so it almost felt like we had this strange underworld to ourselves. The boatman silently paddled us along the subterranean river, through narrow corridors lined with head-skimming stalactites and weirdly shaped stalagmites.

The only sound was the noise of dripping water and the thud of his oar.

It was an extraordinary experience, maybe the best comparison is like those scenes in the 1960’s  film ‘Fantastic Journey’ where a submarine crew are shrunk down to be injected into a scientist and are navigating their way through his blood stream. Based on a true story I believe.

Heading off on our fantastic journey

And outside the caves, there was this statue of a heroine of the Mani to remind us what a brave and fierce lot Maniot people are.

Her statue commemorates the amazing feat of the Maniot women during the Greek War of Independence in 1826. The men were all off fighting on one front while the women were left behind to carry on with the harvest. So when a force of over 1,000 Turkish troops landed at the nearby bay in a bid to trap the men to the north, the women of the Mani succeeded in driving them out with stones, sticks and their sickles until reinforcements arrived.

And the Maniots were also the first in Greece to declare war on the Ottoman empire…

…as this poster in the Mani’s capital Areopoli shows. But the history of this isolated peninsula also has its fair share of serious craziness as witnessed by these towers.

They dot the whole peninsula, either as crumbling ruins…

….or expensive renovations or new builds following the style of the local architecture…

…like these new complexes blotting the landscape.

The towers were the homes for the Mani clans who spent four centuries waging brutal blood feuds against each other  hence the need to shelter behind the fortified high walls sometimes for years.

English writer Patrick Leigh Fermor writes about the ‘dark towers’ in his book written in the 1950’s ‘Mani – Travels in the Southern Peloponnese’. He aptly describes them as having the ‘hallucinating improbability of a mirage’.

We did pass through Kardamyli where Leigh Fermor lived for many years after being won over by its ‘quiet charm’. It didn’t have the same effect on us all these years later. On the day we visited, loud music was blaring out through a PA system to welcome back entrants in The Taygetos Challenge. The place was heaving so we didn’t hang around.

Our last stop on the Mani has been at the seaside town of Gytheio or to be more accurate at a campsite about 3km outside it. As I write, we still haven’t mustered up the energy to actually go to the town. Well after six months on the road, it was time to give the van a complete spring clean, there’s a good taverna a few short walk away …

…with great fish…..

….and plenty of kindling on the beach for a decent fire.

Next week we move on to the third finger of the Peloponnese.