Wednesday, 19 January 2011

The road to Bulgaria

Broken down in Bulgaria. The sign shows just how close we got.
4000 km isn't bad. Just 200 km from my aim of Sofia, literally a few metres past the Bulgarian customs, the car gave up.

After the minor hitch in Austria, we'd left Vienna and arrived in Hungary, near the town of Kecskemét, without further problem. Swinging past Bratislava and Budapest we drove deep into the countryside with only the faint lights of what we hoped was our hotel in the distance. It turned out to be much more than a hotel: a large resort catering for vast numbers of nature viewers/hunters; I can only assume they all come in the summer. The best dinner so far (a huge pot of goulash) as well as the best breakfast (actual eggs) were followed by a dash around the reserve in a chariot - boars and deer darted away from our angry horses.

Driving through Hungary.
And then onwards and eastwards on what became the most tortuous drive of my life. We were making good time in Hungary, even stopping for lunch in Szeged's decidedly proud centre, but it was upon entering Romania that the journey turned nightmarish. Imagine: the main road from the Hungarian border to Brasov and on to Bucharest is a potholed, single-lane carriage way. It's the most direct route for lorries, making overtaking pointless and highly dangerous; this didn't seem to stop the Romanian car drivers whom after several hours I could still see only a few lorries down, attempting to swerve in and out of oncoming vehicles. In addition, the road seems to be covered in a kind of grime reminiscent of '80s horror movies, caking the windows with opaque muck. At least I can't blame the thick fog on anyone. The oncoming lights were blinding and all I could do was aim for the back of the lorry in front in the hope that its driver could see better than I.

Romanian roads
At 1am, after ten hours' driving and 550km, we arrived in Sibiu. A policeman stopped and breathalysed me. "Have you been drinking?" he asked. Of course I hadn't. "Why not?" he replied. A very good point.

Sibiu has a large, communist-era belt surrounding its gentle, pretty centre. The buildings are incomparable to any others I've seen, but just what I expected of Transylvania: tiny, close-knit, dilapidated but colourful houses sitting next to leaning churches. Hunched old ladies shuffled along as if in search of a lost paving stone. The mist was appropriate.

Sibiu, Transylvania
We picked a random town in the south and settled on Slatina, it being roughly on the way to Sofia. The journey was much easier (it being daylight) but Slatina has to be one of the least inspiring places I've ever been (and I've been to Slough). Its high-rise people-containers don't stop on the outskirts and its centre is a jungle of concrete steps and viewing platforms over more steps. Going out for dinner there were people everywhere but no matter who we followed they didn't seem to be going anywhere, like robots placed to make the town look busy. I sent a message to a Romanian friend to ask him what we should drink; he replied, "Don't worry about the drink, just get out of Slatina." We left early the next morning.

It didn't seem right to go straight to Sofia so we decided to drive southeast towards Niš in Serbia. I had passed through last summer but really wanted to see more of it. We made it to Calafat on the Danube extremely quickly: it was a perfectly sunny day (the first, save for being above the clouds in the alps) and the road was traffic free and smooth - at least as far as the town centre. But then things became difficult: we knew Bulgaria (which we'd have to pass through briefly yo get to Serbia) was on the other side but we couldn't find a bridge, a sign or anything else helpful. We could see lorries on a ferry in the distance and we headed for it. A sign: Port!

Why are so many people employed here? We bought a ticket at window number one and the barriers opened, then were stopped at window number two and asked for taxes. No money left, so escorted by the police back out of the port, shouting at window number one to open the barriers for the stupid tourists to get out. To a bank to get cash, then back to window number one, then number two. Waved on to window number three who spent a worryingly long time checking the passports. A man approached and tried to explain something to me about the sound of my engine; it's always made that painful squeaking sound, but perhaps this was an omen. Cars and lorries drove around us and the ferry left. We waited an hour for the next one, finally arriving on the other side after an hour's loading time and another hour's crossing. A thorough checking by the customs officials and then we were driving comfortably towards Serbia.

Steam. A tell-tale dripping of water from the engine. But perhaps it was just condensation. We refilled the empty radiator with all our water in the hope that it would be as innocent a problem as in Vienna. A small boy came to investigate; a police car pulled up; a taxi driver gave us all his water: everyone was extremely helpful. The dripping had stopped, we drove on.

Bulgarian breakdown
The temperature gauge shot up, a stream of water. This was definitely the end, under a poignant sign for Sofia. I limped the car back towards the centre and spotted a yard of piled cars. The family's ten year old translated for us, and through him the man explained that it would be a lot of work and that he couldn't do it. He was trying to direct me to another garage but I knew it wasn't worth it. Would he like to buy it, perhaps? He thought for a moment. He walked around the car, muttered about the steering wheel being on the wrong side, made pleasing noises about the state of everything but the radiator. We haggled by writing prices in the dirt on my door. We settled on a price that made us both very happy, four times what I would've got in the UK, probably a lot less that I could've got had there been more competition. I gave my car a final kiss goodbye, wondering if he would mean as much to them as he did to me. I suspect he'll be pulled apart and his organs harvested.

We'd missed the last bus to Sofia, but the man's wife drove us to a hotel and got us a very good deal. It was very strange taking the bus the next day; I kept checking the signs and working out if our heading was roughly right. Sofia was disappointing: there's no sign of its illustrious history as one negotiates oneself past its dusty grey buildings into the centre. The hostel was populated by drunk old men who kept trying to give me money (I honestly didn't deserve it), and the employee who greeted us couldn't tell me one thing to do in Sofia (except drink). But just around the corner is a yellow brick road leading past huge, imperial buildings and suddenly I realise where I am.

I escaped for Plovdiv: Bulgaria's second city, containing a tiny, old centre on a hill, a sanctuary from the business below. Looking out over the sunset I see monasteries, orthodox churches and mosques and I know that this is the meeting point of east and west, of ideology and religion. Tonight I take the night train for Istanbul.


  1. I'm disappointed that there were no threesome stories this time, nor any sightings of vampires in Transylvania. Love you though.

  2. Goodbye to R&B... They will miss your company, and Mr Car! Mmmm, I'm not sure if those countries are suitable for motorbikes...
    and now onto friendly muslim countries.

  3. poor red car...anyway organ donor is not so bad...
    looking forward to read about your adventure with Turkish in the train to Istanbul...have fun!

  4. Hi Jas, very much enjoying your blog. Sounds like you're having a fantastic time so far. Look forward to reading more! RIP Mr Car. Sian xx