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In Romania & Bulgaria 2010 PDF Printable Version E-mail

 

IN ROMANIA AND BULGARIA: AUTUMN/WINTER 2010

Margaret and Barry Williamson
November/December 2010

Following our 8,500-mile winter and early spring journey through Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Malta, Tunisia, Greece, Albania, Montenegro,UK_2010_(13).JPG Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia, etc, we left England again on Midsummer's Eve, on our way to the land of the midnight sun.

The Norfolk Lines ferry took us from Dover to Dunkirk and we travelled slowly along the coast of the North Sea, through northern France (briefly), Belgium, Holland, Germany and Denmark, before taking the Stena Lines ferry from Frederikshavn to Gothenburg in Sweden.

We followed Sweden's E45 (Inlandsvagen or Inland Road) north for 1,110 miles (1,770 km) crossing into Norway north of the Arctic Circle. Entering Finland, we hugged its border with Russia all the way south to Helsinki, and the 2-hour Tallink-Silja Line ferry for a smooth crossing to Tallinn, the capital of the first of our three Baltic Republics, Estonia.

Following a journey through Latvia and Lithuania, we exited into Poland and followed its eastern border country south to the border with Hungary and thence into Romania. This is the story of the journey through Romania and so to Camping Sakar Hills in the southeast corner of Bulgaria.

For the full travel log of this earlier part of the journey, click: Holland & Denmark 2010, In Sweden 2010In Norway 2010In Finland 2010, In the Baltic Republics 2010 and In Poland & Hungary 2010. Our October Newsletter: Life and Death in the Forests of Poland is a highly relevant summary of the journey through Eastern Poland. 

Images of the Journey:

In Holland 2010    In Germany, Ferry Crossing the Elbe    In Denmark 2010

In Sweden 2010    In Norway 2010    In Finland 2010    In the Baltic Republics 2010

In Poland 2010      In Hungary 2010     In Romania 2010    In Bulgaria 2010

Articles

Our Paul Hewitt Touring Bicycles   Our Fleetwood Flair Motorhome

From Flair to Sprinter     Summary of Tour of Southern Europe and Tunisia 2010

From Greece to Tunisia 2010      In Malta 2010      In Tunisia 2010

Lest We Forget     From Greece to the UK 2010 

Images

Pendle Bike Racks From Sprinter back into Flair

1 Dover-Dunkirk Ferry
3Frederikshavn - Gothenburg Ferry
4 The Arctic Circle
5 Nordkapp
6. EU Easternmost Point
7. Helsinki-Tallinn Ferry 
8. Sobibor & Belzec
Camps

Scandinavia_Summer_2010_I.jpg
The motorhome journey through Eastern Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, across Romania, into Bulgaria past Camping Veliko Tarnovo and down to Camping Sakar Hills in Biser in the Southeast corner of Bulgaria. When the first of the winter snows arrived, we moved on down to Alexandroupolis, ready for Turkey. Bulgaria_2010_G[1].jpg

OCTOBER 2010

(This journey is continued from: In Poland and Hungary 2010 and is continued at: In Turkey Winter 2010)

Puspokladany, Hungary to Simeria, Romania     Villa Doerr Guesthouse & Camping     €10     175 miles     685 ft asl

Another day of bright sunshine after a frosty clear night. We drove east towards Romania on rd 42/E60, turning off briefly in Puspokladany to the well stocked Lidl (credit cards OK), where we bought a total of 8 DVD films in original English, with Hungarian subtitles or dubbing. Not recognising some of the titles, there were a few nice surprises later. One turned out to be 'Papillon' with Steve McQueen; another was Brad Pitt in the lovely 'A River Runs Through It' directed by Robert Redford.

In Barand, the next village along rd 42, several houses advertised rooms: Zimmer Frei or Szoba Kiado in Hungarian, one offering Gulasch soup. Between villages the flat plain stretched to the horizon, the fields mostly harvested with just a few pumpkins or corn cobs left. At 18 miles we passed a TIR Park charging 1,600 Fts. By the roundabout at Berettyoujfalou, 5 miles later, there is yet another Lidl and fuel stations. Driving on, all the oncoming traffic flashed a warning of the police car lurking ahead. It's a wonder the Rendorseg ever catch anyone speeding!

There were more hotels, TIR Parks and fuel along this busy route until we reached the frontier at Artand (38 miles). There is still a double check point, despite both now being EU countries). Leaving Hungary, we changed our remaining Forints into Romanian Lei (approx 4.8=£1 4.2=€1) and bought the Romanian Roviniete, compulsory on all roads (15 lei cash, for the minimum 7 day period). No vignette sticker is issued – keep the receipt in case of a check!

Entering Romania at Bors, the officials looked at our passports and checked inside the motorhome before waving us on. It's something of a relief to know we are fully legal on the roads, and the Latin-based language is also much more user-friendly. We didn't bother to put our clocks forward an hour onto Eastern European time, since tonight (30 October) all clocks go back one hour!

Continuing east on rd 1, past a horrendous Soviet-era power station, we reached Oradea after 8 Romanian miles. This Austro-Hungarian city, ceded to Romania in 1920, is supposedly a fine example of Habsburg elegance but we saw none, as we skirted the centre and turned south-east on rd 76/E79 following 'Deva'. At 49 miles we saw a huge shiny shopping mall on the right (Carrefour and Brico) and pulled in for lunch. Nearby an old shepherd was grazing his goats along the railway line, oblivious to the traffic all around him. Leaving Oradea, new housing estates were springing up along the highway – a great improvement on the crumbling concrete apartment blocks on our way in.

Road 76, much rougher now, continued through Baile Felix at 55 miles - a thermal spa resort, with a camping site (closed) on the right and plenty of hotels and guesthouses. Then it made its way through rural villages, the scenery almost making up for the state of the tarmac, which limited us to 30 mph! Plenty of time to watch the men at work hoeing the land, leading their cow home, tending their beehives or sitting on an upturned box enjoying a beer, while women fed the chickens or swept the yard. Girls helped, boys escaped to play ball! Some graves at the little wooden churches were being decorated with flowers for All Souls Day, though with less opulence than those in Poland and Hungary. Romania and Bulgaria remain the poorest members of the EU.

The narrow road climbed through autumnal woods, soon reaching over 1,000 ft/300 m. At 75 miles we passed a new TIR park/hotel/restaurant 'Silver' but it was too early to stop. In Beius at 88 miles we passed the Burger Beer and minerals bottling plant (good water up in these ranges of hills). Men were walking home carrying their pitchforks; hand-scythed haystacks stood in line in the fields. A lovely afternoon: 13ΊC at 3.30 pm.

We climbed to the town of Dr Petru Groza at 100 miles, up at 1,345 ft/408 m, then zigzagged upwards through forest where woodcutters were at work, loading logs onto small trailers. The top of the pass (2,040 ft/615 m) was at 111 miles. 

Apple sellers sat at the roadside as we descended through villages for 9 miles to Virfurile, down at 870 ft/264 m, where we met and then followed the Crisul Alb river, still on the bumpy rd 79. At 145 miles in Brad we made the mistake of following a sign diverting trucks around the town centre, along a couple of miles of jarring cobblestones! Next time, better to ignore it and drive through.

20 miles south of Brad we crossed the long River Mures (flowing west to Arad, then into Hungary as the Maros). Here we turned east for Deva, on the blissfully smooth rd 7/E68 (that shadows the river to Arad and the Hungarian border at Nadlac). Dusk fell as we drove through the busy city of Deva, the light too poor to photograph its dramatic hilltop castle ruins (the gunpowder store exploded in 1849!)

It was another 8 miles along the Mures Valley to the village of Simeria, unremarkable except for a guesthouse & camping we remembered from 4 years ago, less than 2 miles from the highway. It's easy to miss the sign: turn left into Simeria along 1 December Street, cross the railway line, then turn right at the end onto Biscaria Street. The road soon forks, with Villa Doerr guesthouse and restaurant on the right and the campsite below to the left.

We were greeted by owner Paul Doerr, who welcomed us to park (with electric hook-up and water if needed) in the safety of his yard, since the campsite was now closed, its water turned off. An excellent arrangement, with the use of a bathroom (complete with hot bath, towels, soap and shampoo) inside the guesthouse and a WiFi signal that reached the motorhome.

Paul is a big man in every sense, a German-speaking Saxon, who told us his story as we sampled Frau Doerr's cooking in the cosy restaurant. There has been a large minority of Saxons in this part of Transylvania since medieval times. They came as merchants, but left during the Ceausescu years. Paul (whose brother and family remain in Germany) returned to Simeria to spend five years getting his parental home back: five years of bureaucratic struggle. But he has - and turned it into this lovely Pensiune & Camping.

We spent a good evening with him, via Margaret's German, catching up with Romania today. The word 'Krise' (crisis) came up often and the gate was firmly locked at night. In parallel he served us white wine from Iasi, salad, bread, chips, pork schnitzel surprise (stuffed with cheese, mushrooms and liver), then pancakes with chocolate sauce and bananas. There was also a large dish of garlic sauce, which he insisted that we used liberally and widespreadly. Garlic is, of course, a sovereign remedy against Transylvanian Vampires and it worked - we haven't seen hide nor hair of one!

The perfect end to a long day.

Simeria to Carta, Romania     De Oude Wilg Camping     €10 (42 lei)     98 miles     1,315 ft asl

A grateful farewell to Paul Doerr as he left for Sunday morning service: a good Catholic Saxon, looking very much the part in his best overcoat. Then we returned 1.5 miles through Simeria village to rd 7/E68 and continued NE along the Mures Valley. The only problem with a good highway in this country is that Romanians race along like maniacs, overtaking blindly. At least the poor state of our earlier road had acted as a speed control!

It was another beautiful sunny morning after a crisp night, the outside temperature 6ΊC by 10 am. We passed men watching over cattle grazing the cornfields or flocks of sheep on the hillsides, apple orchards and bucolic villages. After 20 miles we passed the left turn for the village of Aurel Vlaicu, site of a good Dutch camping. 14 miles later, in Sebes (at 890 ft/270 m) with Saxon church and old town walls, the River Mures turns north to Tirgu Mures, while we kept east for Sibiu. There were several TIR Parks along our route: one at Hotel Rin in Miercurea Sibiului (at 48 miles) looked good. There used to be another Dutch-owned campsite a few miles south of this town, in the village of Girbova, but the sign had gone and we are unsure if it still exists.

After reaching today's max height at 1,883 ft/570 m, the road dropped to 1,400 ft/425 m, its surface deteriorating as we approached Sibiu. This 12thC Saxon city is also known - to the third of its population who are German-speaking - as Hermannstadt. With a fine medieval centre, it developed into the Habsburg capital of Transylvania. It's well worth a visit, which we've done more than once. See http://www.sibiu.ro/ for tourist information.

At 67 miles we turned right, round the ring road to the south of Sibiu (follow 'Brasov/Bucharest'). This circuitous route was busy with people leaving church or shopping at the open market and it was a relief to turn right onto E68 again after 3 miles. Remembering an old XXL supermarket on the left of the highway, where we might park, we were amazed. Not only had it transmogrified into a smart 'Penny Market' (a German chain seen in Hungary), it was dwarfed by the gigantic 'Carrefour' (along with KFC and other stores) opposite! We did stop to eat our lunch and ventured inside the French hypermarket, buying bread, croissants and a hot roast chicken. (That was a good find, providing a roast dinner, a curry, sandwiches, plus soup from the carcass!) The size and choice in 'Carrefour' was overwhelming, the assistants travelling the length of the store on roller skates! We wondered what the peasantry, who can afford little beyond what they grow themselves, think of it all.

Continuing east on rd 1-7/E68, we now had a view of the snow-flecked Fagaras Mountains ahead (the Carpathians, including Romania's highest peak at 8,392 ft/2543 m). At 77 miles, rd 7/E81 turned south. This would be our onward route to Bucharest via Pitesti but first we wanted a break at a favourite campsite, De Oude Wilg, 20 miles east along E68, now numbered rd 1 (to Bucharest via Brasov).The road began to climb in earnest up the wooded Oitul Valley, past wayside stalls selling local cheese and honey, then a refurbished Best Western hotel.

We passed another good TIR Park at 80 miles, 5 miles before the village of Avrig where passengers awaited the Sibiu train. The gipsy (Roma) women wear long red flowery skirts and colourful scarves over their black plaits. A man riding a bike had a day-glo yellow vest over his otherwise traditional black clothes, topped with an astrakhan hat.

At 95 miles a new roundabout marked the turning for Bilea Cascade and Bilea Lac (the long and winding road south, known as the Trans-Fagarasan: Romania's highest asphalt). We didn't take it (not in a 6-ton motorhome!) though we have explored it in the past by car, motorbike and bicycle. It's just one more mile east to the left turn for Carta village, signed for 'Camping De Oude Wilg' (the Old Willow).

Follow the narrow lane over the railway line and then take the second left (signed) to the campsite, tucked away in a quiet garden-field behind a traditional house. This used to involve crossing a shallow stream on a fragile bridge but, to our surprise, bridge and stream had both disappeared making the approach much easier!

This delightful camping place has been developed over the last 10 years by Tudor (a local artist, who teaches in the village school) and his Dutch wife, Manette. Living at the house, they remain open year-round. On our previous summer visits it was busy with campers of all nationalities but now, the last day of October, we have it to ourselves – with unbelievably summery weather.   

NOVEMBER 2010

At Carta, Romania     De Oude Wilg Camping    

The weather remained perfectly warm and dry - light frost at night, clear blue skies – while we enjoyed a week's 'half-term' break. We walked into and around the village without coats, and dried laundry on the line in a couple of hours – in November! The WiFi signal from the house didn't reach the camping field but we could sit with laptops on-line nearer the house: in the sunny garden or in a barn attic. 

Carta has changed little since our last visit 4 years ago – some of the substantial houses have undergone external renovation and the main street is being widened, though the side turns are still dirt lanes. The Roma in the gipsy quarter greeted us, as we wandered along the lane by the river. They breed horses and keep poultry, collect and saw logs, and travel locally in horse-drawn carts. Tourism does eventually spoil that which it comes to see, however: they now expect a tip of money or cigarettes for taking a photograph, even of their geese!

Whilst here in July 2006 we visited Sibiu (26 miles west) by train from the little Halt in Carta but this is no longer possible, as the local railway bridge collapsed in May of this year. One of the concrete pillars was undermined by the torrent of the Oitul River in spate, closing the Brasov-Sibiu line east of Avrig. We walked along to see how repair work was progressing – the answer is SLOWLY! Nor is there a bus to Sibiu, leaving those without cars to hitch a lift to their nearest city until some time next year.

A folder in the camp kitchen has local information in a variety of languages. We were pleased to see 'Romania Revisited', our own illustrated article which was published in MMM in March 2005 after an earlier tour in the Four Winds motorhome. There is also an interesting piece, in both English and German: 'Roma, Cistercians and the Art of Camping' by Elli & Beau Capper.

The reference to the Cistercians is to 'Transylvania's most beautiful ruin': the Cistercian Order's easternmost monastery in Europe, founded right here in 1202. We wandered freely round the crumbling buildings, though entry to the restored church (still in use for Protestant services) or ascending the tower requires a key from the adjoining vicarage (price 3 lei).

Carta's Orthodox church, on the main street opposite the priest's house, sits between the two school buildings: one for kindergarten (from age 3) and juniors (7-10); the other for seniors (until 14). Schooling is compulsory up to age 16, so the pupils have to travel to Avrig or Sibiu for their final years.

We were extremely privileged to be shown round both schools by our campsite host, Tudor, who is a class teacher in the junior school as well as teaching Art to all the children. The kindergarten and juniors are on autumn holiday this week but we met pupils and staff in the senior school, including the charming Direktor, Juliana.

The schools, with a total of 150 children and a generous number of teachers, have a wonderful friendly and cheerful atmosphere – a happy place to learn. Tudor's art work brightens the plain white interior walls throughout. Both of the 2-storey buildings, though old, have new double-glazed windows, a good heating system and new indoor toilets. We were extremely impressed with all the classrooms and their equipment, the library, the computers, a basement gym and theatre. Tudor's drama group has won many prizes.

We learnt that education is free for all, with school hours from 8 am to 1 pm. Some optional classes take place on Saturday mornings, such as an art and craft group (Tudor again!) The children receive free milk and biscuits mid-morning and there is a small kitchen for staff, sometimes used for teaching cookery. Idyllic as this may sound, there are many problems – not least, the Romanian government has just cut the pay of all public employees (including teachers) by 25%. And much of the consumable equipment and books is bought by the teachers themselves, out of a diminishing salary! In city schools there is parental help but in a poor, partly gipsy, village there is little support from families, who may be illiterate and see little point in education.

Our visit ended inside the 19thC Orthodox church, once the caretaker had been summoned. It's kept locked to protect the treasures and frescoes inside but was willingly opened for photography.

Tudor is a modest man of many talents and we finished our stay with a 'Tudor Banquet'! Whilst studying art in Holland, he worked as a chef at the restaurant owned by Manette's parents – and the rest is history! He hasn't lost his culinary skills and can be persuaded to cook a meal for campsite guests: 3 imaginative courses, served with wines in the dining room of the beautifully furnished house. We dined in splendour – a starter of smoked salmon, followed by surf & turf (king prawns and steak) with assorted vegetables, then a creamy and alcoholic mousse for dessert. It's a long time since we had such a good meal, anywhere at any price. How sad we are to leave – and how keen to return!

Carta to Giurgiu, Romania     Motel/Service Station on E70/E85     10 lei     215 miles     80 ft asl

A lovely crisp sunny morning of perfect autumn weather. Through Carta to rd E68, then right (Sibiu direction) via Avrig and Brad (each with a good motel/TIR Park). Down the twisting road past the Best Western (double rooms 130 lei per person) and the wayside cheese stalls, to a large roundabout at 21 miles. Here there is a good fuel station where we got a new 7-day Romanian vignette (Roviniete – price 12.79 lei).

We now left our outward route, turning south on E81/rd 7, which shadows the Olt River on a bumpy road (signed as the truck route for Bucharest!). The beautiful wooded valley was filled with sunlight as we made a gentle ascent to a low pass (1,580 ft/350 m) at about 30 miles. The road surface improved after the pass, running parallel with the railway through working villages like Lazaret and Cineni. Side roads were signed to isolated monasteries; sheep and cattle grazed the slopes. There were several TIR Parks along the way and we paused at one in Tutulesti at 45 miles (1,075 ft/325 m). The road remained level as it twisted and turned with the bank of the broad river, where herons fished and cormorants perched on rocks to dry their wings. There was another good TIR Park/motel in Brezoi at 52 miles (1,000 ft/303 m).

At 56 miles we entered the small Cozia National Park and 2 miles later our road detoured left across the river, to bypass the town of Calimanesti and the Monasteries of Turnu and Cozia. At 62 miles we crossed the river once more, onto a section of rough concrete road for a mile until rejoining the better E81/rd 7: 'Drum Bun' (Road Good) as Romanian welcome signs say, even when it isn't! At 64 miles we passed a 'Popas Turistica'(restaurant/motel/camping).

Approaching the town of Rimnicu Vilcea at 70 miles, the E81/rd 7 crossed the Olt River dam (no photos) and turned east for Pitesti, then climbed steadily. We parked for lunch at 88 miles, up at 1,664 ft/504 m, by a small cafι with stalls selling local souvenirs - knitwear, sheepskin slippers, basket work, etc. The top of the pass at Moraresti was 1,798 ft/545 m. We passed more TIR Parks (eg the International at 93 miles) and a sign to a 14thC Monastery lying 3 miles off the road, on the descent to the industrial town of Pitesti.

Avoided Pitesti centre by joining the A1 (a good 4-lane motorway that follows the River Arges to Bucharest) at 108 miles, down at 900 ft/272 m. After 8 miles of smooth highway we took the first exit, having spotted a shopping mall next to the motorway with a giant Carrefour. After restocking we rejoined the A1 and continued through a flat landscape, where agriculture alternated with a 'nodding donkey' in an oil field, a Dacia (now Renault Group) plant producing cars here since 1966, and smoking factory chimneys. There was no shortage of fuel, with 5 service stations along the 68 miles of motorway to our exit for the 'Centura' (Bucharest Ring Rd) at 176 miles.

Turning right onto the 'Centura' was a shocking change, from 4-lanes-good to 2-lanes-very-bad. Badly surfaced, badly signed and badly driven, busy with impatient traffic unable to overtake the international trucks. It was a great relief to leave it after 5 miles, turning onto a smooth dual carriageway, E70/E85/rd 5, which leads south across the flat Danubian plain to the Bulgarian/Romanian border at Giurgiu/Ruse. The Bucharest ring road is certainly a very weak link between the A1 and A2 (which continues to the Black Sea coast at Constanta).

Looking for an overnight parking place, we passed a couple of TIR Parks that were crowded with Turkish trucks. Hoping we wouldn't have to cross the Friendship Bridge border tonight, we were pleased to see a fuel station/motel on the right about 3 miles before Giurgiu. Sadly the restaurant was closed but it had a good level well-lit parking area at the back, which we were welcome to use for a small fee. There was even a good WiFi signal! We slept very well after a long drive.

Giurgiu, Romania to Dragizhevo, Bulgaria     Veliko Tarnovo Camping     €10 (4 nights for €30 or 7 nights for €50, low season)     87 miles     745 ft asl

Sunday morning dawned sunny, dry and even warmer – how can this be November? After driving 3 miles into Giurgiu, it was left at the roundabout for the border (after visiting a new Kaufland supermarket to the right, in order to spend our remaining Romanian Lei).

The next mile to the border is complicated by a lack of signs – watch out for any to 'Ruse' and follow the flow! At 5 miles we managed to exit Romania, paying a €12 'bridge tax' to cross the Danube on the 2.5 mile long, iron-clad double-decker Friendship Bridge, which carries road and rail traffic, dating from an era when the 2 countries were far from friendly. Cyclists and pedestrians must still cross by passenger ferry. The river was busy with barges, with no hint of the dreadful red sludge from the recent chemical catastrophe upstream in Hungary. This is an easier (and much cheaper) alternative to crossing the Danube on the Vidin/Calafat ferry, which is due to be replaced by a bridge currently under construction.

At 8 miles we reached the Bulgarian frontier, where a surly guard checked passports and asked where we were going. He looked nonplussed by the answer 'Bulgaria', no doubt regretting the power he once had to demand a full itinerary. We needed a Vignette for Bulgaria's roads but the border post only sold them for trucks, pointing us to the next petrol station, where it was difficult to park. Welcome to Bulgaria! Joining the queue to buy one from a woman who spoke only Bulgarian or Russian, we eventually persuaded her to issue a sticker for a month (€16) rather than a week (€7) – not so much to save money as to solve the renewal problem.

Unlike Romania (not to mention all the other countries of North and East Europe we'd visited since June), daytime headlights are not needed year-round in Bulgaria - but they are compulsory from the beginning of November for the winter, so they had to stay on. We continued down E85/rd 5, a good dual carriageway avoiding the centre of this busy border port, and eventually left the smell of industrial gas behind. At 15 miles we passed the right turn which once led to a decrepit campsite by the Danube, now signed for a restaurant/hotel. Then our road narrowed as we left the river and headed south into the hills.

In Borovo village at 37 miles we passed a TIR Park, then stopped a mile later to eat lunch in the little square by a war memorial. An old car parked nearby was a familiar scene: dad peering under the bonnet, mum and kids watching in exasperation, until eventually a friend collected them all. A more reliable horse-drawn cart carried an elderly couple past our window, with a friendly wave.

Continuing south, we soon met a diversion (due to road works on E85) onto a minor narrow road that twisted down through woodland, dropping from 990 ft/300 m. Rejoining a dual carriageway at 46 miles in Byala, down at 140 ft/42 m, we crossed the River Yantra on a fine bridge and passed another TIR Park at 48 miles. Then the new highway ended, reverting to potholes –Romanians and Bulgarians still compete for the EU's worst roads and most reckless driving, pushing Greece into third place!

5 miles later at the junction with E83 (west to Pleven) we kept south for Veliko Tarnovo on E85, along the Yantra. At 66 miles we passed the right turn for the Roman site of Nikopolis ad Istrum, lying 2 km along a narrow lane (see more details from our visit on 20 June 2009). There is a rough sign for a campsite (known as Trinity Rocks) on the left at 72 miles, in the village of Samovodone.

Entering Veliko (= Great) Tarnovo, the highway bypasses the centre with a pair of short tunnels under the river, followed by modern flyovers that are well signed. It's a fine city (a former national capital) but not an easy place for us to park. At 79 miles we turned east on E772/rd 4, signed Varna (on the Black Sea), rather than west for Sofia.

At 84 miles we turned right onto rd 53 towards Elena, soon slipping off right again, into Dragizhevo village. Here there is a very well equipped British-owned campsite, now in its second season though still lacking road signs (Bulgarian bureaucracy strikes again). To find it, turn left after passing the grass circle in the middle of the village and follow the lane, past the post office/mayor's parlour and then the community hall/library on the right. The campsite lies on the right, less than a mile from the village, at the new home of Nick and Nicky Kinson.

We were warmly welcomed to the empty site, due to shut down for the winter in mid-November. The extremely popular cafι had already closed at the end of October after the Halloween celebrations, though Nicky promised us a roast dinner before we left. We were the first camping guests when they opened in June 2009 and it was good to see that their brave venture had succeeded. See: http://www.campingvelikotarnovo.com/.

At Dragizhevo, Bulgaria     Veliko Tarnovo Camping    

We settled in for a few days, catching up on laundry and practising the art of English conversation, after almost 5 months out of the UK without meeting a single native speaker! To challenge our fluency, we were eventually joined by an Australian family we'd met briefly at 'Oude Wilg' in Romania. They are making an extensive caravan tour of Europe, schooling their 3 children as they go. The weather remained warm but very windy, ideal for kite-flying with the kids.

Major writing was put on hold, as there were connectivity problems with the campsite WiFi. We walked into the village to post M's mother's 96th birthday packet and were shown round the community hall, the largest building in Dragizhevo. Downstairs there is a small folk museum, displaying some lovely handicraft and embroidery along with tools and implements probably still in use in the local cottages. Also an exhibition of children's art, though the school has closed, leaving only a Kindergarten in the village. Upstairs is a lending library, the children's section decorated with scenes from 'Little Red Riding Hood', 'Cinderella' and other fairy stories, which perhaps make more sense here, where wolves, woodcutters and pumpkins are still at large. Anyone can join the library for a tiny annual subscription and a couple of elderly computers are available for a small charge.

There is a considerable British ex-pat presence in and around Veliko Tarnovo and we met a fine Scottish couple, helping to plant the campsite gardens, as well as Keith, a retired master-joiner with a sense of humour to rival Les Dawson. Jo, a hairdresser who has settled in the village with her husband and young daughter, called by again to keep us both in trim.

As promised, our hosts invited us to an outstanding roast pork dinner, where we met their assistant wardens, Bev and Gary. The sticky toffee pudding was especially memorable – no wonder it's the cafι favourite.

Nicky was extremely helpful, taking us on a shopping expedition into Veliko Tarnovo. We acquired Bulgarian currency (2 Lev=€1 or almost 2.2 Lev=£1), had coffee in Mother Bulgaria Square, browsed the produce market, and visited another 'Kaufland' in nearby Gorna. V-T, as it's known, was an early capital of Bulgaria and remains an important religious and university site. We drove through the historic centre and past the fine medieval Tsarevets fortress, perched high on its massif, where a Son et Lumiere show is held in the summer months. Visit http://www.velikoturnovo.info/setLanguage-1/ for more.  

Dragizhevo to Hlyabovo, Bulgaria     Garage Forecourt     152 miles     1,120 ft asl

It was 1.5 miles back through Dragizhevo, past the armaments factory where some of the villagers work, to rd 53. Left here, then left again at 3 miles and right over a bridge onto E772/rd 4, signed for Varna.

We drove east through hilly terrain – dropping to 215 ft/65 m then climbing to almost 1,000 ft/300 m in the first 20 miles, on a good 2-lane road. Police lurked in every layby, hoping to catch someone with no lights, but cars flashed each other warnings. By Antonovo at 28 miles we'd reached a height of 1,620 ft/490 m. A 'Happy Eater' services 8 miles later in tiny Kyosevci reflected the popularity of this route to the Black Sea coast.

We turned right in Omurtag at 44 miles (1,550 ft/470 m) - a depressing industrial town, still sporting 3 Soviet fighter planes on a plinth. Our road 46 led south to cross the Kotlenska Planina (Balkan Range) on the low Kotel Pass, which signs assured us was still open. After a mile we passed a large TIR Park, where 2 trucks of sheep were having a noisy break.

By Zelena Morava at 50 miles we'd reached over 2,000 ft/610 m, the bare trees hung with mistletoe giving way to pine woods, but then our smooth road descended to Tica, 9 miles on, at 1,100 ft/333 m. This small town, where many of the older women wear Turkish dress, had a TIR Park and a busy little produce market.

Now we climbed in earnest to the Kotel Pass (2,300 ft/700 m) at 65 miles, passing fountains where spring water was collected in an assortment of bottles. The town of Kotel, 2 miles below the pass at 1,500 ft/455 m, did not seem prosperous. Past the fire station, we found a parking area outside a grim disused factory, where a pair of sad and hopeful stray dogs watched us eat lunch.

The road twisted along following a river, with frequent 'Black Spot' warnings, though the surface was good. After Gradets at 77 miles (1,380 ft/418 m) there was a steeper descent for 5 miles to the junction with rd 7, and 3 miles further south in Mokren the height was only 790 ft/240 m. We'd hardly noticed crossing the Balkans, with no protest from the Flair.

At 92 miles our rd 7 crossed E773/rd 6 (running east-west from Burgas on the Black Sea to Sofia). We stopped by the busy roundabout, remembering the croissants at a petrol station cafι, then continued south across a flat treeless plain at about 500 ft/150 m, with ploughed fields and an occasional small vineyard. Zimnica at 99 miles looked a very poor village, with a roughly built gipsy quarter and donkey carts. Swifts and swallows gathered on the telephone wires, planning their own escape.

3 miles later, rd 7 diverts left to bypass the town of Yambol on a road that is far too narrow for the purpose. This is farming country, marked by a trio of concrete statues: a ram, a shepherd with his dog, and a woman holding a sheaf of corn. Real flocks grazed the sparse hillside and horse-drawn carts mixed with Turkish trucks as we drove through the gipsy village of Mogila (= Hill).

At 113 miles we rejoined the highway at Okop, after which the road surface deteriorated for the rest of the journey, limiting our speed to 15 mph in places. We passed the town of Elhovo at 16 miles later, with several TIR Parks along the route. At 135 miles rd 7 bore left for the new Turkish border crossing, while we turned right. Over the next 11 miles our rd 76 climbed from 300/90m ft to 880 ft/265 m in Topolovgrad, a small town we know well.

On the way to Hlyabovo (= Bread Village), 6 miles on, we reached 1,220 ft/370 m – these are the Sakar (= Sugar) Hills. In Hlyabovo we parked on the forecourt of the small petrol station, which is owned by the Mayor and run by his wife. As on previous visits, they welcomed us to spend the night there, at first refusing the small payment we made.

We had alerted friends who live in the village of our imminent arrival and Derek appeared almost at once, to take us home for a very welcome meal that Barbara had ready. It was lovely to relax with them, admire the progress they had made and catch up on the news of other ex-pats in the area. Derek, a skilled carpenter, once built the 50-ft yacht on which they lived for several years and he is now making a thoroughly professional job of restoring and extending their cottage. Lucky we'd been practising our conversational skills!

Hlyabovo to Biser, Bulgaria     Sakar Hills Camping     €10     32 miles     300 ft asl

Before leaving we took a walk round the rustic village, which has a kindergarten/junior school, a post office and a couple of simple shops doubling as cafes. Some employment is provided by a broom-making workshop and a gun factory. Another Hlyabovo resident who was a good friend, Ruth, has now returned to her native New Zealand.

It was again warm and still, with a faint mist on the hilltops, as we drove south on rd 76, climbing through the Sakar Hills. After about 2 miles there is a layby on the left, to park for the short walk to a Thracian Dolmen (Iron Age burial tomb) – worth taking for the view as well as the antiquity. Another 2 miles to the aptly named hamlet of Balgarska Polyana (= Bulgarian Fields).

At 6 miles we reached the high point of 1,834 ft/555 m, where a very poorly surfaced minor road turns left for Lyubimets. We stayed on rd 76, descending now through the tiny villages of Cherepovo, Branitsa and Bogomil (all above 1,000 ft). At 17 miles (779 ft/235 m) we passed the left turn for Kolarovo, opposite the 'Malkata Zvesda' (= Little Star) winery. This is an area of prime vineyards, with Kolarovo boasting a huge wine making plant, as well as another small winery. Martin & Shirley, owners of Sakar Hills Camping, also live in this village, producing (among much else) a perceptive if irregular newsletter: 'The Grapevine'.

After the next village, Balgarin, at 20 miles (470 ft/140 m), the surface of rd 76 deteriorated but at least road workers were attempting to fill some of the larger pot holes. We crossed the Maritsa River at 22 miles (255 ft/77 m), then turned right at the junction for Harmanli (rather than left onto the recently opened section of A1 motorway for Svilengrad and Turkey).

In Harmanli 3 miles later we parked outside the new market hall and strolled round the town, the nearest shopping centre to Biser village. In addition to the new Billa supermarket, an even newer Plus store (a chain recently acquired by the Lidl group) has appeared on the old market site. Luckily the little shop selling music and films had survived the demolition and we rifled through the collection of DVDs in English, kept under the counter for our visits! We dined on pizza at the Verona cafι on the main square by the post office, before the final 7 miles east along rd 8 to Biser village, where the campsite is signed off to the right. Sakar Hills Camping is another favourite of ours. Owned and run by the (English) Jeffes family, who have become good friends, it's ideally placed by the road to/from the Greek and Turkish borders.

Once settled onto the quiet site, behind the house occupied by Martin & Shirley's son Matt, we talked until dusk, sitting out with Matt in the balmy evening, noticing flowers and butterflies (in November?) The only other campers, Brenda & Adrian (first met at Finikounda in Greece), are currently on a flying visit to the UK, leaving their Fleetwood Fiesta motorhome here.

A packet of mail from home had arrived for us to deal with and the campsite WiFi is working well, so we have some work ahead.

At Biser, Bulgaria     Sakar Hills Camping     November/December 2010

FLU!

Our planned few days' break at Sakar Hills actually lasted a month. In the extremely mild weather of late November we passed many an hour with old friends and made some new ones, while a few less welcome days were spent recovering from flu. This was a particularly vicious virus, fresh off the plane from England, via visitors who passed it on to the Jeffes and anyone else in the vicinity. Having no resistance to the British strain, we succumbed and went into quarantine.

FRIENDS

By the time we recovered, Brenda & Adrian Wilson had returned to their neighbouring motorhome. We saw little of them during the daytime, as they spent the daylight hours working on a hillside summerhouse they are demolishing and rebuilding above Harmanli. Martin & Shirley Jeffes took us up to visit this undertaking and admire the view from the cabin that the Wilsons have turned into a cosy and well equipped shelter alongside the building site. Back at the campsite, we spent a sociable evening or two together, catching up on news. Since we first met in Greece in May 2006, this intrepid couple have toured Australia and also visited the USA, where they bought their present motorhome and drove it coast to coast before importing it into the UK and converting it to LPG. Brenda's articles on their adventures can be found on this website. Adrian, a professional mechanic, gave us an overdue oil change and also helped when our motorhome's external step collapsed - a very willing friend and neighbour, who we shall miss.

Martin & Shirley Jeffes invited us to lunch at their beautiful home in Kolarovo, where we greeted their neighbour, Stefka the Lady Mayor, and admired Martin's new garage/workshop. We had an exciting Land Rover excursion, to walk round the undiscovered site of an early Thracian settlement north of the nearby village of Oryahovo, before dining in international style, with Bulgarian wine, Italian pasta and good old English apple crumble and custard.

Another excellent meal together was at a new restaurant, the Atlas, which we all agreed was the best food we'd ever had in Harmanli. Highly recommended!

Matt Jeffes, in addition to managing the campsite, is becoming known in Harmanli as a fine singer. His parents very kindly took us along to his first evening engagement at Tania's Bar/Restaurant. Together with Brenda & Adrian, we shared various chicken dishes, chips and salad, whilst listening to Matt perform a variety of favourites, from 'Hey Jude' and 'Candle in the Wind' to more modern numbers. We were well impressed and more than willing to go and hear him sing again (and run a karaoke) at Harmanli Tennis Club, watched by a local fan club that included Otanis the police chief, Kamen the hairdresser and their friends and family. Not a spare seat in the house! Our thanks to Martin & Shirley for driving out of their way on two cold dark evenings for these nocturnal outings.

Carol & John, warm-hearted Liverpudlians now resident in the heart of Biser village, were more than kind. They took Margaret into Harmanli to shop and also lent us their car for a day. Over a roast chicken dinner at their comfortable home, they introduced us to their friends David & Bryan. As we all got along so well, they later drove us out to David & Bryan's village of Bryagovo, where we also visited David's parents. More on this below!

Carol & John remain involved with the Bulgarian Woolly Project and they helped us to distribute some good warm bed linen and blankets we'd brought (from Margaret's mother's now empty flat). These have gone to several poor homes with old folk in the village and they were very much appreciated. There are no 'old folk's homes' there and pensions are pitiful, so new bedding was very very welcome as winter bites.

Matt also encourages campers to bring children's clothes and toys, which he will take to a local orphanage and hospital.

And if any readers are interested in buying a property in this area (near Svilengrad, close to both the Greek and Turkish border crossings), Carol & John have an empty snack bar for sale, suitable for conversion to a house. (See *** for more details and email Carol at )

David & Bryan, Irene & Gerard are the quartet living at Bryagovo, a tiny village tucked among the hills, off the main road from Harmanli towards Haskovo. David & Bryan have spent 5 years lovingly restoring a spacious house with a large plot of land and sweeping views. They have provided a fine home, not only for themselves but for a very lucky collection of animals: Esther the horse, Hannah the donkey, a flock of retired chickens, 4 dogs and 10 cats at the last count. A gentler couple we have yet to meet.

After lunch, we all walked across to see David's parents, Irene & Gerard, who live opposite, though divided by a small valley with a stream and bridge. Here we had the warmest of welcomes and made another pair of new friends. Over tea and cake, we found that Margaret and Irene had much in common, both having taught secretarial skills in technical college. Here again was a beautifully renovated house with land and dogs – and a barn that they had converted into a simple Evangelical Chapel! Irene & Gerard are both fully ordained Pastors and they hold services and meetings for the local Roma community, helping the women and children learn to read and supporting them in many ways. This was a complete – and very humbling – surprise. We left with their blessings and a generous number of books for our winter library.

We did our best to reciprocate by inviting the Bryagovo Four to come and see our motorhome and have tea at Sakar Hills Camping, entertaining them in the vacant first floor rooms of Matt's house (this apartment is let in the summer months). Margaret made a walnut tart (thanks to Derek & Barbara for the huge bag of walnuts, and to Google for the recipe) and bought a German Stollen cake from Plus, and we had a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon. We certainly hope to take David & Bryan up on the invitation to park our motorhome at their house for a future visit.

Derek & Barbara at Hlyabovo had welcomed us on our way to Biser and we returned (in Matt's car) to take them for dinner in Topolovgrad, finally leaving with the above-mentioned bag of walnuts and a giant pumpkin, which became soup. On a second visit (this time in John & Carol's car), Barbara had prepared us a super meal of chicken and rice, followed by cherries from their productive garden. Unfortunately, that was on a rare foggy day so we didn't dare linger long by their cosy log-burning stove, reluctantly leaving it to them and their purring cats.

WHAT ELSE?

In and between the extremely sociable life among this diverse expatriate community, where we have made lasting friends, we kept busy with the usual domestics (cleaning the motorhome inside and out, laundry, etc). Apart from day to day cooking, Margaret baked a Christmas cake which awaits icing (Barry's speciality) and also made mincemeat. Carol & John enjoyed our farewell offering of mince pies and mulled wine, joined by Adrian & Brenda. 

There were plenty of letters/emails to answer, as well as our website to update (including Romanian campsites, motorhome insurance, and articles by several fellow travellers in Portugal, Spain and Greece). Our own insurance was renewed, after spending a day on the phone obtaining quotations or refusals (thanks to Voipwise on the laptop via campsite WiFi). We did not have a happy experience with Comfort Insurance! Bulgarian TV was not entertaining (!) but we had plenty of DVD films and books for the evening – and good old BBC Radio 4 on the internet.

Margaret had a check-up and treatment at the excellent German-trained (and therefore German-speaking) dentist, Dr Angelos in Harmanli. Adrian & Brenda gave her a lift in, then she returned for 6 miles on the local bus (1.5 leva, compared with around 10 leva for a taxi). Recognising the local shepherd, Dimou, on the bus, M tried to explain they'd met when Dimou was ploughing Carol & John's garden with his donkey. As the only Bulgarian M managed was 'Carol & John – Friends', Dimou became convinced she wanted taking there. He carried her shopping bags from the bus stop, past the campsite gates, and she had to prise them off him as he protested that Carol & John lived further on in the village!! Sometimes sign language is not enough!

DECEMBER 2010

Biser, Bulgaria to Alexandroupolis     Alexandroupolis Municipal Camping     €18.30 (after CCI discount)     122 miles     15 ft asl

After a month of mild weather, which felt positively tropical compared with news of exceptionally Arctic conditions in Britain, winter suddenly caught up with our corner of Bulgaria in mid-December, when the wind turned to the North. We left on a Monday morning (13 December) just as it began snowing, bidding Matt farewell as he set out for Harmanli to have winter tyres fitted.

Our first stop was 7 miles down the highway in Lyubimets for fuels. Petrol/diesel are now much cheaper in Bulgaria than either Greece or Turkey, and we also filled the LPG tank (for domestic use) as 'Autogas' is rarely found in Greece. The filling station did take credit cards but we spent our remaining Bulgarian currency. We also took the opportunity to renew the Bulgarian vignette in case of a border inspection, buying the minimum 7 day sticker for the equivalent of €5, much cheaper than a fine.   

Keeping on the old highway towards Svilengrad (rather than left onto the motorway for Turkey), we then turned right at 14 miles onto a well signed dual carriageway for 1.5 miles to the Greek border. The Bulgarian exit post (passport check and a quick look inside the motorhome) was separated by a mile of no-man's-land before entering Greece (with another passport check). We had some snow on the road through the border regions but as we went south into Greece, on the well shod E85, the snow turned to sleet, then rain and then dried up.

We crossed the River Arda, in full flow at 36 miles, then turned off 10 miles later at Orestiada North (the first Greek town). At Alex Pak, a large DIY store on the way into the centre, we bought a new fan heater to replace the one that Barry had mended – and a good buy it proved to be (much more heat for the same 1 kW setting). Squeezing through the town centre - busy with shops and shoppers - we turned right at the main square and drove a mile (keep left when the road forks) to Lidl and its generous car park. An hour later, after coffee and shopping, we walked back into the crowded centre of Orestiada for our second treat of the day – lunch at Goody's in the square, graced with an unlikely looking Santa and some fibreglass reindeer.

Back in the motorhome, we rejoined the E85 highway at Orestiada South (at 51 miles), just as it began to rain again. By the time we passed the exit for Didymoteicho, 9 miles later, it was sleeting. The next 10 miles of unimproved old road alongside the railway awaited roadworks, then the highway was good with 2 snow ploughs at the ready, though it was only settling on the higher hilltops. This is an agricultural area, with a sugar beet factory and a depot for the trucks that carry the cotton crop from the fields in autumn. It felt good to be back in a country that at least appears more prosperous than Bulgaria, with well-stocked shops, well tended cemeteries, nativity cribs outside the churches and warmly dressed people, whatever the financial news says about Greece. We were, however, shocked at the rise in petrol price over the last year – now a record €1.60 per litre (compared with €1.10 in Bulgaria). One way of forcing Greeks to pay their taxes, we guess. We also noted that VAT had risen from 9% to 11% on all food – and this even applied to medicines in the pharmacy.

After a total of 96 miles, we turned right onto the new A2/E90 for Alexandroupolis (rather than left for Turkey), also dubbed the 'Egnatia Odos'. This 4-lane toll-free motorway ran through some high country (max 575 ft/175 m) with mist and snow, until we turned off at the sign for Alexandroupolis airport and port at 112 miles. Dropping down to the coast, we met  and rejoined E85 after 6 miles (opposite another Lidl) and turned right (west) to drive through the centre of Alexandroupolis. A sign showed the temperature as 5ΊC at 3.45 pm.

The extensive municipal campsite (signed) lies along the Aegean shore, a mile west of the town centre (turn left into the entrance at traffic lights). It's open all year, with a town hall employee sitting in Reception all day with the standard Greek attributes – cigarettes, TV and little or no languages other than Greek. We have the entire site to ourselves, complete with clean hot showers and (new since our last visit) free WiFi, though there is still no washing machine. There is also a new ATM at the site – useful, as payment must be in cash Euros.

We parked with a sea view through the windscreen and settled in as darkness and rain fell. A text message from Brenda & Adrian, back in Biser, described walking through blizzards, their car snow-bound, while here about 100 miles south it's several degrees above zero! Thanks to internet weather forecasts, we left in the nick of time.

At Alexandroupolis     Municipal Camping

This campsite is described as being '7 verdant hectares' - that is, there are a lot of trees, complete with robins (and a pair of pretty ginger kittens for us to feed). We were joined in our splendid isolation by one English motorhome, carrying a friendly couple (Barrie and Margaret!!) on their way to Kusadasi on the south coast of Turkey, where they own an apartment. We had two pleasant evenings together, hosting each other to tell our stories and compare motorhomes (as you do) before they continued on their way, with an invitation to visit them if we pass.

The weather remained dry and cool, above freezing – apart from the day we walked into town to post some cards, when it sleeted! At this time of year Christmas emails and ecards start to arrive from friends far and wide. It's good to hear their news, especially those we haven't seen for some time, and we were kept busy on-line. We recycled an ecard from Dr Bob & Sandra in Spain, featuring Santa and his musical reindeer band – great fun. We also wrote our own end-of-year review, processed photographs, updated the website travelogue, wrote letters and cards to family, ordered on-line flowers for M's Mum, etc. It will be good to head for Turkey (very appropriate) with all correspondence up to date.

The campsite WiFi is good except that – a BIG negative – it cuts off every 30 minutes without warning, all day long, meaning you have to log in again every half hour, often losing work! What a crazy system (perhaps designed to prevent the downloading of films?) Naturally, we reported this to 'Reception' who claimed to know nothing about it (has no-one ever mentioned it to them before?!) and then decided it must be a fault on our laptop (both of them, different makes and ages?!) When we persisted, adding that the same happened to the neighbouring Margaret and Barrie, a phone call was made to the 'technician' but nothing happened. After all, this is Greece.

(Continued at: In Turkey Winter 2010)