Bulgaria
April 06, 2008 GMT
Introducing Bulgaria

31 Mar – 6 Apr 08
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Lots of stuff closes down on Sunday in Greece so we had a difficult time finding an open fuel station in the north of the country while trying to stay clear of the main towns. After running the tank down just short of the reserve, we headed for the nearest big town (Thessalonika) to find some fuel. When we finally found a station we only pumped 10L before the power blacked out and the pump stopped. We took this as an omen and closed up on the border to overnight at Lefkonas ready to get out of Greece the next day.
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The Bulgarian border was easy. We didn’t get off the bike and we were through in a few minutes.
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The longest part of the proceedings was a short conversation with the immigration man about how far we had come on the bike and where we wanted to go. He sent us on our way with a good luck wish and a big smile. That pretty much set the tone for our first week in Bulgaria.
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Bulgaria got itself free from the Ottoman Empire in the late 19th century but unfortunately only had a few years before falling into the orbit of a Soviet Russia. The 70 year hibernation that followed left the country poor and under developed. In the last 15 years the country has pulled itself into the modern age with the pace of change accelerating over the last 5 years as the country met EU requirements then gained EU membership.
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There is still plenty of poverty in Bulgaria, particularly in the rural areas where the new economy is yet to get moving, but much of the country is starting to express the first signs of a new prosperity. We rode north into a changing landscape…
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…greener, wetter and, unfortunately, colder. There were lovely rivers and creeks…
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…which needed topping up. The regional centres had made good use of the open areas left over from the Soviet period such as here at Blagoevgrad…
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…where a strong café culture had developed around many smart restaurants and coffee shops, although there were also plenty of the old monuments remaining. This cracker was also at Blagoevgrad.
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The capital city of Sofia has about 1.5 million souls and is a laid back comfortable sort of place. It has…
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…a nicely proportioned cathedral that was much more interesting than many of the bombastic monuments we have found in Western Europe. The Russian influence is clear in some architecture like this Church of St Nick.
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There are a few ancient buildings surviving, like the St. George Rotunda which was a Byzantine church built on a prehistoric temple, then a mosque, then a church again.
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But after the wonderful sites of North Africa the historic interest is minimal.
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Sofia has its share of Soviet era dinosaurs including this monument…
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…that is huge, but is falling apart and has been boarded up for public safety.
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We discovered straight off that Bulgarian beer…
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…is great. And in the first few days we tried a local Traminer, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Sauvignon…
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…all of which were good and keenly priced.
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Bulgarian traffic is well ordered in a way that we haven’t seen in any of the Mediterranean countries or North Africa. In the big cities of Sofia and Plovdiv, however, many of the streets are cobbled and in Sofia the cobbles came with tram tracks and rain…
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…which are not good fun. Unfortunately, they are still…
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…laying streets this way. Down one tight lane, in fact, this one…
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I tried to turn the bike in its own length and had what we politely call a “static drop”. There was no damage to us or the Elephant, but it is a fair bastard of a thing to stand up in these circumstances.
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The big cities have modern shopping malls with all of the usual stuff (only in Cyrillic). In one store, we found this promotion…
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…for a new perfume for boofy blokes who can ride a motorbike across Europe one-up with three support vehicles. Jo reckons I don’t qualify, so I won’t need any for Christmas.
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Down in Plovdiv, the old city is being renovated to preserve some important Bulgarian history. The city was the centre for the National Revival Period beginning early in the 19th century and culminating in liberation from Turkey in 1878. Houses reflecting the architecture of this period, and holding historical collections celebrating the significant development of the nationalist movement, have been restored and opened to the public. This one…
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…held the Ethnographic Museum. It was well enough presented but a little light on substance to justify the $5 entry. Others…
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…have been turned into restaurants or apartments. These were a wonderful contrast to still more Soviet era monuments…
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We have been given a definite impression that the Bulgarians have a very clear sense of their history. But, on a sunny Saturday afternoon…
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…after a week of rain, all of that seemed less important than enjoying the benefits of the new Bulgaria in a friendly, comfortable and well ordered city.

Posted by Mike Hannan at 11:08 AM GMT
 


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