The sky is getting a strange translucent cover, like a sheet of gray pearlescent silk lit up from behind. It makes the heat thicker, and moist. The friendly border guard tells us names we can't remember of places to see in his beautiful country. Admittedly, we're kinda ready to be taking leave of the lingering starkness of ex-Yugoslavia's troubled history. Though we've met some wonderful people, many a discussion has been had about the overall detached feeling we've experienced as travellers. People do not exchange glances on the street; Erika's typical attempts to smile in a friendly manner have been largely met with blank stares. Perhaps it's the overwhelming difficulty of living in countries recovering from war and economic devastation. Perhaps it's a cultural difference--you don't smile at people you don't know. We have each travelled in numerous places before this trip and neither of us has felt quite this sense if being...if not exactly unwelcome, at least relatively invisible.
Though Romania has had its own share of trauma under the Ceaucescu regime and after, we're hopeful that it will feel livelier and people will be more interactive. Dale in Ljubljana has recommended it after recently spending time there; we also have contacts from Dani, whom we met in Croatia, a pretty cool guy with roots in this country.
The style of houses shifts as soon as the border does. Still flat, the long roads go straight through small town after small town, lined with modest square concrete homes with roll-down shades rolled down, linked endlessly by wrought-iron fences.
Entire towns seem to be miles long and 2-parallel-strips-of-house-wide, with barnlike buildings creating shadowy courtyards and fertile fields stretching out behind. Where are the town centers? Where are the little markets and cafes?
It takes some time to get to a place big enough to host a bank. Maybe we'd have been better off without the bank--or at least less confused. Romanian currency has been so devalued that it takes 1,000,000 lei to add up to $30. Zeros are running amuck everywhere. But if something in the store is labelled "1.5", what does THAT mean? And why does the number on the gas tank need to be multipled by 10? The entire system is to be overhauled in July of this year, so many places list prices both in the old (60,000 lei) and the new (6 lei) versions. After lengthy inept bumbling with incorrect amounts of bills just like the tourists we are, we more or less figure it out. Erika decides it's the coolest money ever because there are little transparent circles on every bill so you can hold it up to your eye and see right through.
Timisoara is the first sizeable town across the border. The outskirts, typically, are drab. The older town center is laid out in a circle and encompasses a beautiful church where the speech was given that helped ignite the anti-Ceaucescu revolution. Everything is in a strange state of crumbling disrepair. Once-ornate buildings display layers of peeling paint and chipped stucco. The river is small and brown. It's hot and muggy, but interesting.
There are few hotels and all are pricey, so it's time for Dave to show off his patented "Ask A Taxi Driver" technique. Six taxi drivers later, here's a young guy who speaks English and bids us follow him somewhere he thinks might be cheap. Not far away, down a small overgrown side street, is something like an ancient YMCA. At $20/night, the big old room painted bright green is the best deal in town. It's filled with young working guys getting kinda rowdy, which is not particularly a problem if you don't mind an occasional beer-chugging human being standing right outside your open window on the balcony his room apparently shares with yours. Don't suppose he's getting any particular thrill seeing us lying on the bed sweltering in our skivvies but better close the window anyway. Gasp.
Besides that, everyone seems to be avoiding eye contact. We order a beer and a gin-and-tonic at a riverside cafe. The hyper-bored-and-trendy young waitress brings us a beer and two gin-and-tonics. She seems rather shocked and disgusted when she hears we just want one drink each. With a roll of heavily made-up eyes she brusquely takes the extra drink back. Another time the waiter brings out a WARM BEER, and Dave is appalled at his total lack of interest in coming up with a colder one. Oh well, says E, it's just a warm beer. But fairly frequently in the days ahead, we'll encounter people whose reactions range from apathetic to resentful when asked politely for whatever service they're allegedly providing. There are helpful people as well, but grumpy service seems to be a popular trend.
It looks like the city's putting some money into renovating the older part of town--fresh paint and patches are livening up the pedestrian promenades and a central square or two.
One of the bridges over town is totally torn up and under reconstruction. The old town is cool, but in a way the strangeness of the crumbling old mansions and overgrown sidewalks nearby is cooler. No one seems particularly happy. Erika continues to want to be somewhere that people smile back. We do find a friendly so-called-Mexican restaurant and order burritos and tortilla chips. The burritos resemble burritos about as much as fishsticks can swim, and the tortilla chips are suspiciously reminiscent of nacho cheese Doritos. It's still good to munch on something other than fried meat and potatoes.
The outskirts leaving Timisoara from the north are even less scenic and more industrial than they were entering from the south. More flat landscapes continue en route to Oradea, the next big town up. Oradea's spacious main square has an imposing statue at the center and is flanked by a startling yellow art-deco building which does not house the cheap hotel promised by our book.
The city is apparently aware of its tourist potential as the other two cheap hotels in the guidebook are closed for renovation. We didn't expect it to be so tricky and pricey to find accomodation in Romania.
As in Timisoara, the Hungarian influence is seen in the architecture of the old town/pedestrian walkway. These cities were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until becoming part of Romania in 1920. Our hostel is run by Hungarians who surprisingly drop the price in half when we start to leave. The woman who runs the place is quick to proudly state she's Hungarian when Erika asks to learn a few words in Romanian. The room is small but festooned with charming decoration, as is a little courtyard where dinner is served.
There are some Roma, known in the U.S. as Gypsies, riding horse-drawn carts along the highway and walking through smaller villages in colorful mismatched attire. In the big city there are also young girls and women holding babies and begging to passing cars and pedestrians. Some Romanians we talk to speak disparagingly of the Roma using their kids to get money, keeping them from school, and being generally untrustworthy. Some tourists who've been taking trains tell of being swarmed with unceasing solicitations after giving coins to a begging child. No similar situation arises travelling by motorcycle--we just wave to people passing in their hay-filled carts and they wave back.
It is pretty disheartening, though, to see the dusty 7-year-olds clutching small babies tugging on people's arms. It's unclear what the story is here. There's always a hierarchy of haves and have-nots -- even in places where most people don't have a whole heck of a lot in general.
Dave has gotten in touch with Alex through Horizons Unlimited; coincidentally, Dani had given us his name also, though Dave doesn't make the connection til later. Alex and his daughter Vanessa live in the bustling city of Cluj-Napoca and welcome us into their home.
Alex meets us on his ruggged KTM 950 Adventure bike and leads us up a hill to a great view of town. Alex has a successful small business and has his next bike on order, a brand-new BMW K1200S. Vanessa is lively and sweet and shows Erika her collection of drawings and books. She has learned good English from attending an international school.
Dinner encompasses another great view from a classy place on the other side of town where Vanessa will discover some cute baby ducks she wishes she could take home. Then it's off to a casual gathering of Cluj's own motorcycle club. There haven't been too many motorcycles on the road, but there is a pretty sizeable number convened for this new group recently brought together by the Internet. It's fun to talk to the local riders about their experiences here and abroad.
As they say, when in Romania, do as the Romanians do and eat some sushi. For lunch the next day Alex takes us to a yummy and surprising affordable Japanese restaurant where we feast on miso soup, tempura, and raw fish. Then it's off to pick up Vanessa at school and see her classroom, where her very own personal art exhibit decks the walls. The evening is topped off with a viewing of Garfield, one of the artist's favorite videos.
Alex takes time to map out a number of possible recommended routes as he knows the roads of Romania well. Erika's hankering to return to the mountains, so a plan is made to take the Trans-Fagarasan Highway over one of the high passes to some glorious lakeside scenery. It's really helpful to get an insider's knowledge and recommendations, not to mention a great place to stay and fun with Alex and Vanessa. Thanks for everything, A & V!
Unusually good weather accompanies the approach to the mountains. It's warm and the sky is clear. Erika is starving so instead of the typical not-too-satisfying-yet-budgetary-dry-puff-pastry-breakfast we stop for a big pizza en route. People are outside in small clusters of 3 or 4, working the sprouting vegetable fields. Look, there's a middle-aged couple bent over farming in their bathing suits! Over there, at the gas station, that hefty woman with bouffant purple hair! And what about that huge stork nest on the telephone pole!
Dave continues his search for Holy Grail #2, a cheap tire gauge, and has mixed feelings to finally locate one, for $40. It's his lucky day though as the next stop will turn up just what he REALLY wanted for $3.
The countryside gradually becomes a bit more hilly, reminding Erika of the area near Livermore in the springtime.
Everything here is reminding Erika of someplace in California, and everyone here is reminding Dave of someone he knew when he was 10. It's a little hazy but finally off to the right are those enticing big mountains.
A small road (reminding Erika of a turnoff from Fresno to the Sierras) eventually borders a pretty river where Erika curses not having stopped for a photo of the huge flock of sheep and shepherds backed by merging mountains (which doesn't remind her of anything in California). The small road meanders up the hillside -- the higher it gets, the less maintained it gets. A little maneuvering is required to avoid the granite cliff-droppings.
The steep zig-zagging road which leads to the pass is visible, but snow spots the mountain above.
A lot of snow is melting and it doesn't seem like much remains. But the closer we get to the top the skinnier the road gets....
until it becomes apparent that it may not be our destiny to cross the pass today.
Still, it's been a scenic detour. Back down towards the bottom of the mountain, there is a rustic little motel near the river (which reminds Erika of a place in some small slightly ticky-tacky town en route to Lake Tahoe) and we head down for a relaxing overnight. The waitress/manager of the place is really sweet; and it's nice to know we don't need to search for dinner or breakfast, as they're just a roll down the steps (ouch, make that a stroll) to the cafe below the room.
En route to Sighisoara, our next destination, some local bikers at a gas station come on over to check out the Transalp. They advise us that the route which looks like a main road on the map is not actually passable. So we hop on the other road, which is newly paved and one of the best Dave has ridden in eastern Europe. This is Transylvania, home of the legendary Count Dracula and his alleged castle. The countryside's really pretty, with small villages and rolling hills and patchworks of fields and haystacks.
Sighisoara is one of the main tourist attractions of Romania thanks to its surroundings and well-preserved German-style walled old town.
Sure enough, it's awfully nice. We have the whole afternoon for exploring the historical center.
There are a few tourist shops, a few knicknack stalls and a few tourists, but nothing like you'd find in a comparable town in Western Europe.
We're stuck behind some obnoxious teenage guys up a long enclosed stairway but manage to lose them by ducking into a hillside cemetery.
Inside there is only calm and birdsong, and pine trees and stately German Evangelical gravestones draped in creeping ivy.
As we rest on a bench, the dark sky starts to put on a show. Ominous gray clouds have gathered, and the lightning looks like it's close enough to strike the pine trees.
Thunder crashes and big plops of warm rain start falling. We figure it's time to get on back, um, somewhere. Crouching under these trees isn't particularly effective as the rain's really starting to come down. We made a mad dash back to that enclosed stairway and huddle up cozily til the storm subsides, nearly an hour later.
The next day brings a few discouragements, like phone cards that don't work and more grumpy service people. We head on to the town of Brasov in the rain and get there in time for a pricey fast-food kebab lunch. Brasov is the most Western-European style town yet, with a very nice walking area, cafes, green hills, big churches and interesting architecture.
Erika finds it intriguing but Dave is starting to feel like all the big towns look the same.
So it's back to the countryside towards Bran Castle of "Count Dracula" fame. Our book says that Rasnov Castle, en route, is better and less touristy than Bran. Definitely not a major tourist spot yet, though it looks like they are trying to re-create the little town within the walls, stone by stone.
There is a rather graphic display of artwork by someone who got his jollies sketching various torture methods from some medieval crusade, and a real live skeleton you can peer down on through glass to the ground below. In the parking lot below, a small crew works on some other project to fix up the grounds.
All saturated-by-tourism warnings aside, we find Bran Castle to be well worth the visit.
The nearby countryside and surrounding village is lovely, though the mountains keep getting obscured by clouds. We manage to keep consumption of Dracula-souvenir-paraphernalia to a minimum
before strolling around the "typical Romanian village" recreation at the castle's base.
Then it's up the hill to the 50+ well-preserved rooms where Count Dracula, who probably didn't exist, probably didn't stay.
A lady stationed in one of the rooms whispers to us in French that she can show us a "secret room the other tourists don't see". Okay, sure, we're special. Up a small flight of stairs, behind a big wooden door unlocked with a massive key, is a thrilling stack of folding chairs and a rolled up rug. Our "guide" proceeds to pull out a pile of hand-knit sweaters and rattle off her prices. Non, merci, we say politely, and are reluctantly led back down the stairs. Later we run into two friendly hiking English tourists who say they were specially selected for this exclusive secret opportunity as well.
Rain accompanies us to the ski town of Sinaia.
A guy near the taxi stand that Dave hasn't even asked beckons to follow him to a room. It's usually preferable to approach someone as opposed to being approached, as those who approach YOU tend to be pretty pushy and aggressive. But it's raining and we're tired, so off we go to an unusual looking 5 story hotel with long wooden eaves and odd triangular balconies. Up up up to the attic which is pleasant and cozy and cheaper than any place where bargaining wasn't involved (though initially there's an alarming lack of water in the bathroom.) There's also a crowded restaurant with lavish traditional Romanian decor and music for dinner later. Romanian food has been tasty and well prepared, though portions seem to have shrunk since Serbia. Every country's menu so far has been dominated by schnitzel, french fries, pasta and pizza.
Sinaia is famous for Peles Castle, the 19th century summer residence of King Carol I.
A cobblestone road leads through a tree-shaded passage bordered with women selling hand-embroidered linens, cups of baby strawberries, and (!?) plastic toy guns. King Carol has a far more elaborate collection of ammunitions, along with other exquisite treasures which furnish his extraordinary vacation home.
Every room (no photography allowed) is in immaculate condition, covered floor to 20 foot ceiling in exquisitely carved wood, sculpted marble, woven tapestries, and crystalled mirrors. It rivals any palace anywhere, even Dave's apartment.
It's a toss-up whether to go to the Danube Delta, which has great ecological attributes, then down the coast; or simply to head to Bucharest. The delta ultimately seems too far away and the coast too touristy, so Bucharest it is. The guidebook says Bucharest has been described as "the Paris of Eastern Europe or hell on earth". Which would we prefer?....
Expecting perhaps the latter, we head out to meet another of Dani's contacts, Vali at Motomania. For some unknown reason we have no problem navigating the big city and locate the motorcycle store in no time. Gabriel and Robert, Vali's coworkers, tell us he's out but to go check out the city and come back in an hour. It's a good opportunity to get our bearings and get a sense of the city. Look, here we are.
Yes, the outskirts of the city look a bit like hell on earth, but the shop seems to be in an interesting neighborhood (near the consulates, the old town and the university).
Later, we meet up with Vali, Gabriel and Robert for a beer at a nearby cafe. The guys are great to talk to and it's interesting to learn about their business, which is doing well. Best wishes for success to Motomania!
For dinner we peer into a pleasant outdoor restaurant where we feel slightly hustled to sit down but the menu looks good, so why not. A young waiter provides highly friendly and un-grumpy service, highly sophisticated and hyper-ungrumpy service, highly ungrumpy and hyper-...was that, slick and slippery? service... Excuse me, the beers are three times the cost of the ones we asked for. And the total on the bill is 20% higher than it should be. Maybe his math just isn't very good. The waiter wordlessly corrects the bill when the error is pointed out. Hmmm...
Bucharest isn't quite Paris, but it's kinda fascinating to see massive communist buildings now crowned with massive capitalist billboards. Ceaucescu had ordered many Western European buildings destroyed and replaced with his special style of, shall we say, stricter architecture, a task which took many years and which fortunately ceased on his execution. So interesting gems pop up here and there between apartment blocks. Up-and-coming small tree-lined streets are sprouting trendy cafes. The old town is in a state of disrepair with little of interest to see, but "give it 10 years", Dave says as he fantasizes about opening up a pub.
En route to checking out the House of Parliament (2nd only to the Pentagon as largest government building in the world) the air seems to be full of water up ahead.
It's confusing figuring out how to cross the street to reach the immense central plaza, but we prove it can be done. This leads to our favorite show in Bucharest--block upon block of dazzling fountains, with spray jumping higher then lower and hula-ing side to side in the afternoon wind.
Finally we tear ourselves away from the fountains and head for the House of Parliament.
The building looks big but kinda empty and unapproachable. The original plan was to go inside, but it costs twice what we paid to see the expensive castles and 4 times as much for foreigners as locals. Guess a few snapshots of the exterior will do. The image of those wild and windy fountains will stay in our minds as we continue on to Bulgaria.
At the beginning of June, the motorcycle registration expired. Dave's dad will get the new one in the mail, which he'll forward to a contact in Istanbul. But there are two borders to be crossed before we get to Istanbul. With an expired registration. Whaddaya gonna do? A little computer magic, most likely, with the scanned version of the old registration. Dave happens to be an accomplished computer magician and has produced a fine-looking-if-one-sided-version-of-a-registration that just happens to expire in June 2006. The following transpires at the Bulgarian border:
Jovial border guy at control booth (skeptically examining fine-looking-if-one-sided-version-of-a-registration): '' What is THIS?''
Dave: ''It's a California registration.''
Jovial border guy at control booth (with skeptical chortle): ''California registration?''
Dave: ''California registration.''
Jovial border guy at control booth (with skeptical chortle): "California registration?!"
Dave: "California registration!"
JBGACB (with continuing skeptical chortle): ''Crazy Californians.''
Thus we are welcomed to Bulgaria.
The welcome feeling continues when we stop into the first town of Ruse, which the book says has one of the nicest main squares in the country. All the signs are now in Cyrillic, so along with the standard new-country feeling of slight disorientation comes the added confusion of inability to read where we're going. All we see is boring apartment blocks. The young guy at the gas station speaks no English but tries his best to decipher our non-Cyrillic map and is profusely apologetic when he can't. He smiles and wishes us good luck. We've had a late start so plans to explore Ruse are abandoned for continuing to the day's destination, the hillside fort town of Veliko Tarnovo. Where we get lost again. Another guy stops to ask if we need help. He doesn't speak enough English to give us any but it's so nice to feel all this friendliness.
The town is laid out on hillside ridges.
The initial approach reveals the castle and some low walls a third of the way down the hill. The road leads into a small older area which appears to be the extent of town until you continue a bit further and find yourself in a more modern main street covered with a plethora of fashion stores and trendy restaurants. You can't tell unless you climb high above on another hill that a typical apartment block part of the city extends much further into the distance.
In the center of town, we're approached by an older woman offering a room. She, perhaps, is too friendly. She takes us up to her apartment, which is okay, but when Dave tells her he needs a place to secure the motorcycle (which she does not have), she will not give up. It is hot and we're sweating in the moto gear but she drags us "just a few minutes" (40, there and back) across town to where she says the moto can be parked. It isn't secure. Still she won't take no for an answer. Over and over and over she says, "My place is in centar. In centar. Is good for you." It is with GREAT difficulty that we finally take leave of this chatty, slightly desperate and obsessive person.
More cruising around town takes place. There are some motorcycle guys, so we pull over to chat. They are from Veliko Tarnovo and one of them apparently owns a hotel nearby. As we stand around talking a bit he pulls a rifle out of his leather jacket. Guess we better tell him we like his hotel. "There's been a problem with wild dogs biting children so we're doing some hunting," says his friend. The guy looks just as likely to shoot some of the children. His hotel is too high-class for us but fortunately the gun remains focused on the dogs.
Onward ho. We spot a narrow cobbled street lined with classic old Bulgarian-style houses.
The approach is quite scenic, with a view of the homes seemingly perched one atop the other, amphitheater style. A murky brown river courses around a small promentory, which harbors an imposing statue and a stately museum.
However the narrow rutted road has no obvious outlet. Not wanting to be stuck in the laps of those curious old ladies who are eyeing the rather large motorcycle, we turn the bike around and head back.
At the start of the road, a bearded academic-looking guy about 40 engages us in conversation. He lives, he says, down the road and has rented rooms to people, but says his rooms are "simple". We don't care, simple is good; but though he brought up the rooms he doesn't seem that eager to show them. After chatting a while he leads us back down the same narrow road, Dave gingerly maneuvering the bike through the cobblestones and Erika walking alongside.
He tells Erika that both his parents died in the last 2 years, that people in the town are not much of a community, and that he lost his job some time ago. 10 minutes later we're back at the same spot where we'd just made the turn back out. A crumbling structure stands before us. He unlocks the door and we step in. Dust lines sheets of ancient plastic covering a bed heaped with clothes, books, a broken chair. Plaster is peeling off the walls. The windows are cracked and dim with dirt. "It would take just a few minutes to get it ready", says the guy. Um. And where is the bathroom? we wonder. He walks across a hallway spiked with protruding wood planks to a small room on the right. There's a low round thing with a board over it and a bucket of something on that, apparently a toilet. He mentions needing to take something out. This is hopefully not a reference to excrement. We like this guy, but. No sign of surprise shows on on his face at our euphimistic apology and departure.
Back up to the center of town, it's been hours since we arrived. We're really hot and tired. When yet another guy approaches us with offers for a room, with a garage, there is no hesitation. He hops into a car and we follow him down that same narrow street, the THIRD time this afternoon, to a spanking new place with a big airy room and a fabulous view across the river. Bingo! Dave stows the bike in the garage. It's a fine feeling to walk by the curious old ladies and say hello without the barrier of our astronaut gear.
And a good thing the place ends up being comfortable, as Dave will be spending the next 48 hours in bed there after picking up a nasty case of food poisoning. Images of sitting you-know-where in the previous crumbling residence and taking out bucketfuls of...stop! enough, we won't go there.
Before succumbing to the evil intestinal bacterial invasion, Dave has time to accompany Erika across the long green ridge draped in fortress decor.
A small group of tourists is entertained by royally dressed marionnettes, their voices propelled from somewhere else like the human sitting next to them.
Historical religious events are depicted in stark modernist style within the fortress church; jolting and incongruous to the traditional setting yet also strangely compelling.
At a small souvenir stall, we are given a short lesson in the Bulgarian language by a sweet young woman who is helping her mom out for the afternoon.
The castle boasts a light show that can be seen from the riverview restaurant, where we watch while being served a truly gluttinous amount of food. Okay, so we ordered 2 pizzas, 2 breads and a salad, but portions were much smaller in Romania. Every last crumb is heroically gulped down as the castle fades from red to green to blue to gold against the darkened sky.
In case you're ready to buy that wispy pastel beachwear and those sparkly summer sandals, Veliko Tarnovo has them. It's a consumer paradise compared to Romania. The large, chain-type restaurants (serving intriguing tidbits like "stuffed chicken mess in veil") underscore the city's gravitation toward Western-style trendiness. We're also struck by the abundance of real estate offices--there must be two on every block. Dave pores over catalogs in one of the offices and considers buying a 15,000 euro fixer.
For the next few days, Erika lackadaisically peruses the merchandise between bouts of nursing unhappy Dave. More interesting than the stores is the National Bulgarian Museum, with its modern religious and secular portraits.
She walks up 488 steps to the top of a hill but finds none of the anticipated views--disappointing, but good exercise. One evening we can see equipment being set up for a concert at the museum/monument across the way. A European Union flag is draped behind the stage, but we can't figure out the actual theme of the event. There are a number of impassioned speakers along with some surprisingly good singers.
In all, 5 days pass before we leave Veliko Tarnovo. A fierce competition occurs between the street's old ladies as to who will get to keep Dave. Luckily for Erika he ultimately decides to continue on with her.
Bulgaria is famous for its monasteries, most of which are in the part of the country we're not going to. The closest to our route is Dryavno, in a small wooded valley en route to Tryavna.
An older guy in the parking lot tells us that the monastery is a 45 minute walk away and offers (for a price) a guided tour. The distance doesn't seem right--isn't that the monastery right next to the parking lot? Erika goes poking around the ajoining grounds (which are indeed the monastery) while Dave talks to our would-be tour guide. He tells a plaintive story of being a French and English teacher for many years but having no work now. When offering his services to a tourist agency in the large seaside town of Varna he was told he was too old. Can you get me a visa to come to America? he pleads. Would that it were so easy...
Instead we continue on to Tryavna, a charming town showcasing traditional Bulgarian stone-and-wood homes.
Though it hasn't been blasted into complete tourist purgatory yet, it is apparently familiar enough with foreign visitors to provide our first taste of dual pricing. Tourist attractions generally cost about 4 times what locals pay. It should be easy enough for the desk clerk at a large hotel to rattle off the cost of a room for two, but instead she must consult her calculator to come up with that outlandish figure. Staying in a local person's home costs less, but it still isn't all that cheap. When will everything start getting cheaper? We enjoy the free things, like finding a local street fair and listening to the old town clock sing Bulgarian folk songs at 10:00 pm.
The countryside isn't as dramatic as places we've been in the past, but the riding is pleasant. We ascend a low mountain pass that from a distance looks almost tropical. It isn't high enough to have pine forest but is covered in thick scruffy groves of trees and brush. At the summit towers a strikingly weird monument. It is Shipska, some kind of war memorial. We mount the stairs get a closer look but don't go inside due to more dual pricing, which Dave boycotts in principle.
The first in a series of afternoon rainstorms starts now. Soon it's pouring down and the mountains disappear from sight. You can smell something wonderful--it's lavender, from fields barely visible in the rain.
The small rutted road gets smaller and ruttier as time passes. Potholes filled with water dare you to guess their depth. Dave doesn't know exactly how deep some of these rain-filled potholes are, but blasts through them on the Transalp anyway. Bump, splash, ouch, bump. It's kind of a useless, surreally nonsensical experience to ask directions from people whose language you can't understand, but worth a try for entertainment value.
In due time we reach Plovdiv. The manager at the accomondations agency speaks French, which she learned by growing up in the same building as the Belgian Consulate, which currently houses the accomodations place. We meet two American-seeming Malaysian backpackers who are also trying to navigate the lodging system. The room is a few kilometers away, with friendly hosts and a big hairy rug. It appears to have been harvested off the back of a yak hibernating near an anthill in a duststorm. One hesitates to speculate what might be nesting within. Erika attempts to shake it out the window. In the nick of time she hoists its mildewed bulk back inside, fortunately sparing any number of unsuspecting innocent pedestrians the tragic fate of suffocation by yak rug. Ick, now the sheets are covered with musty dust. Maybe we can shove it under the bed. Eew, now the floor is covered with musty dust. Perhaps it is meant that we walk on yak hair now as an introduction to yurts to be encountered later in the trip.
Plovdiv is a large town in the center of the country with that classic combination of features: a nice old town, a classic European style pedestrian walkway, tree-lined apartment-block-filled streets, and yucky industrial outskirts. It's not all flashy or striking but again there's something pleasant about the atmosphere.
The first night we discover parks with trendy pubs and the walkways with their abundance of capitalist opportunities. So many more than in ex-Yugoslavia, though the peeling apartment blocks look pretty familiar.
It's confusing to find the old town. We stop at a park bench filled with a group of older gentlemen enjoying the shade.
They pore over our map but can't seem to agree on directions.
After about 25 minutes of listening to animated Bulgarian a friend of theirs comes along who speaks French. He translates the story of his 80-year old friend, clearly a sharp and interesting guy. While the French speaker became a doctor, as did his 2 sons and his wife, his friend held over 20 jobs assigned by the Communists; he was never able to pursue what he really wanted. The 80 year old finally offers to walk us to the old town, as he lives nearby. While the frustrating language barrier has briefly disappeared with the help of our French translator, the liveliness dissipates as soon as we're alone with our Bulgarian-speaking guide. What a richer experience it could be if only we knew more of the language.
The old town turns out to be 5 minutes from the park bench (that was 5 minutes of discussion for every minute of walking.) Its shady cobbled streets are peaceful and classy.
Erika falls in love with some ink drawings done by a kindly white-bearded artist and buys her first souvenir of the trip--you can't carry much of anything extra when a year's worth of gear for two people must fit in two 9"x16"x18'' side cases.
At the top of the hill is the completely preserved and restored Roman amphitheater, still used for concerts and other events, and a good view of the city.
It is fortuitous to meet the French speaking doctor on the park bench as Dave's ear has been stuffed up. The doctor writes up "I need to see an ear/nose/throat doctor" in Cyrillic along with the address of a clinic; so on the last morning in Plovdiv it's off to the otolaryngologist. The clinic is conveniently located around the corner from our room, in (of course) a big communist-style building. Erika anticipates hours of waiting with hundreds of people and is pleasantly surprised to find that Dave's prediction of a brief stay is correct. Dave is pleasantly surprised to find it will cost only 4 times what locals pay ($20) for his ear problems to be flushed away.
The nice doctor does a fine job, though, and 10 minutes later we leave the clinic with city noises returned to their usual decibel.
Leaving town involves the usual disorientation: exiting roundabouts on the same street we'd entered; driving down dead-end roads near abandoned buildings; recognizing landmarks we'd passed ten minutes before. Dave gets it all sorted out eventually. Then there's another rainstorm. More potholes and confusion. After all this, staying away from another big city sounds pretty appealing.
A large restored fort overlooks the city of Shouman. No one else seems to be staying at the lodge in a thick pine forest nearby. The atmosphere seems to be of another era, perhaps one when it was frequented by a more glamorous class of people. It still retains a bit of its faded elegance; fortunately the prices reflect the fading part. The proprietor cooks us what must be the only food in the kitchen at the moment: meatballs and french fries.
Fueled by some after-dinner raki, Erika sets out to find the fort. It's supposed to be a mere 300 meters from the hotel. Walk, walk, walk, not a fort to be found--just a grove of silver trunked trees glowing in the dusky light. After passing a large building where a Bulgarian version of "Hotel California" is blasting, the forest feels very still and the birdsong seems to echo off every leaf. A new sound she can't place contributes a slow, metallic beat to the evening serenade. The faintly visible image is as indecipherable as its accompanying sound, shadowed and dissected by the multitude of tree trunks. Why, it's that big musty yak, returned-to-life, traversing the forest with a green dye job. As its means of transport brings it close enough to see, the yak redefines itself. What do you know, it's a mass of hay, farmer atop, pulled by a horse-drawn cart. The horse's hooves fade away as the cart passes through, leaving the birdsong triumphant once more. Somehow it feels like one of those transcendent magical travel moments. Or maybe it's just the raki.
Next morning, a 300 meter walk in the OTHER direction leads straight to the fort. It's too early for anyone to be at the booth collecting entrance fees, so entrance is free. The walls can be summited for a panorama of Shouman and an overview of the remaining foundations below.
On the way out, someone is walking towards the ticket booth--time to pay up. Instead, the young man takes us inside a small museum with artifacts from the region. He is studying ancient history and searches for the best English he can find to painstakingly explain the meaning of each and every terra cotta fragment. We offer up money at the end, but he waves it aside, saying, "You are my friends".
Shouman is also known for the Monument of Bulgarian Founders, looming over the city on a ridge across from the fort. Our book awards it high accolades along the lines of "ugliest monument ever". From a distance it does look kinda like some industrial complex severed by earthquake into bulky piles of awkward jutting blocky angles. It's almost as strange, though more interesting, up close.
Less interesting and predominantly strange is the old-tasting kebap lunch that day, obtained from a small street stand in Shouman. Erika KNEW she shouldn't have finished that thing.....
It's raining again en route to the big seaside vacation town of Varna.
A sign leads to an accomodations place at the train station, but they insist that there are no places anywhere in town with garages to store the motorcycle. A friendly Bulgarian guy who's noticed the bike strikes up a conversation--turns out he's lived in San Diego for the last 10 years and is visiting Varna on business now. He rides a motorcycle also and expresses regrets that he can't show us the local sights, but his train leaves in 10 minutes. Ah well.
But the eternal question--where to stay? Alongside a bustling shaded street is another accomodations place. In about three minutes the sweet young woman locates a room with garage. Dave is finally to get his wish: lodging in a Communist apartment block! The old lady waiting for us outside the building speaks no English but seems unflustered by the American tourists on the big bike.
We stay in what must have been her son's room; photos of an intense, serious-looking young boy morphed into an intense, serious-looking young man eye us warily as if to make sure we behave in his mother's apartment.
Varna is well equipped as a worthwhile tourist destination. There's the Archaological Museum around the corner (second floor closed for renovation);
the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin (or was that Ascention? what was she assuming, anyway?);
pedestrian promenades with many consumer opportunities;
traditional dance performances by Bulgarian kids and accompanying thunder showers;
and around 8 kilmoteres of beaches lined with restaurants and nightclubs and a buffer of similar length parkland to keep out reminders of the city.
Varna also supposedly has ruins of Roman baths, but they are hidden amidst a warren of narrow streets that refuse to yield any hint of this elusive attraction. Finally someone points us to a street one block from where we'd been circling ad nauseum, and there they are. It's an unusual arrangement: on one end is a pretty church; the rest of the ruins, which cover a small city block, are surrounded by modern residences and condos.
A search for the quieter side of the Black Sea coast leads to the UNESCO World Heritage villages of Nesebar and Sozopol. Both are small, well-preserved historical towns on promentories surrounded by ocean. Not a lot of tourists up til now; but that must be because they've all been in Nesebar, fighting over the best souvenir.
There's a reason places attract lots of sightseers, and it's clear why people are flocking here: quaint to the point of cliche, its cobblestone streets are lined with stores selling kitch to overweight sunburned consumers. It also has seaside fish restaurants with hawkers luring people in and typical Bulgarian homes and churches with their stone and wood facades.
Across the water lies Sunny Beach, which we were told by a few Bulgarians was a must-see. It's a Cancun style community with way too many condos and hotels. Must-leave.
Maybe Sozopol will be better. The ride south is pleasant, with far less (though still some) coastal development apparent. The route swings through the unappealing industrial outskirts of the large city of Burgas, where the thermometer jumps 15 degrees. Fortunately there are no skeletons of uprising highrises as Sozopol beckons in the distance; just a 2 lane road hugging a campsite-strewn beach and a small harbor. We cruise through the still-touristy but less-innundated old town before finding a place on the outskirts. The view isn't so scenic, encompassing as it does some smaller-scale construction to the south.
But there's a beach below for that long-awaited dip in the ocean, and a low-key yet lively stretch of seaside cafes and restaurants where families are strolling and buying their inflatable water paraphernalia. Erika's morning walk a few kilometers to the old town uncovers sleepy cobbled streets not yet tramelled by descending hordes. Sozopol easily earns The Official Dave and Erika Bulgarian Seal of Pleasantness.
There's only one more night before heading to Turkey, and we still want to explore the much-less developed coast further south. The road winds through small coastal towns where the only visitors seem to be cows catching a tan on the sand.
As clouds gather again, we pull off the road into the miniscule town of Sinemorets to a coastline reminiscent of Sonoma County, California.
What a great view of the quiet beach, dramatic with stormy sky. Wonder if that unusual umbrella-strewn geometric blue building might be a guesthouse?
The young, artsy-looking, English-speaking woman at the gate brings us into the high-ceilinged courtyard, where her father and some friends are gathered around a greasy lunch and bottles of alcohol. Haunted by memories of lardy overindulgence at Mihaelo's place in Bosnia, we politely decline. But we accept invitation to stay in the hippily atmospheric upstairs room, complete with triangular balcony overlooking the sea, as Fleetwood Mac blares from the stereo in the bar.
Sinemorets is low key, though the sky stirs up some intensity as winds howl all night and buckets of water dump from the heavens. Luckily only about 2 buckets leak through the balcony doors onto the floor. Next morning's early beach walk under grey is just a short leg-stretcher before we tackle the long ride to Istanbul.
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