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Published: September 27th 2009
After the basic 30 hour haul we arrived in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia. A city of old European architecture, mosques, synagogues and cathedrals. The day started with feta pastries and strong coffee and ended with a chicken goulash. The autumn weather is kind with sunny skies and daytime temperatures in the 20's.
Cyrillic is hard to spontaneously fathom but is a necessary part of getting around. Lacking Cyrillic we bought 4 tickets each for the 2 rooms of the Ethnographical museum not under renovation. Sophia is clearly in transition or has been for the last hundred or so years. Soviet-style apartment blocks are everywhere with new smarter blocks being built with methods which would challenge most OH&S policies.
Picked up a Citroen on Thursday morning and headed out of Sofia. As we drove from chique inner Sophia, Greg was chanting "keep right", and the big hair ladies came out in force. At least there was only 5km of cobbled streets heading out so the plastic cable-ties holding the cars hubcaps on, are still in place. On a pretty good highway we reached the village of Rila. The folk in the village must be pretty keen on paprika and wine as all the houses had twenty to one hundred red peppers tied, drying in the sun. And the yards and footpaths had grapevines on trellises overhead. Up the mountain to the Rila Monastery which was an imposing concrete, stone and wood structure perched on the steep slopes. We stayed in one of the three hundred monastic cells for one night to soak up the silence and atmosphere. The plumbing put a whole new spin on the marketing concept of "wet area" as everything got wet when showering. The service at dawn was full of the chanting of deep male voices and the aromas of francincense and myrrh.
Went for a walk in the Rila mountains. The leaves on the silver berches are just changing colour now. We covered probably 6kms up amongst the conifers and steep slate mountains. Beautiful views back down the valley towards the Monastry. There are very few people here so walking is very quite and peaceful. Greg of course was concerned about the attacking partisans and wolves - they're still in Bulgaria you know.
Greg is working his way through the local beers and the processed meats will get a fair nudge. Bulgaria is a place where the food chain is sampled extensively.
From Rila we drove further south to Melnick. Two memorable things about the road travel in Bulgaria are firstly, the old but still running ex-Soviet trucks that are now coloured by Dulux, and secondly the complete confusion around speed limits. We are the only ones going anything like 90kph, and that is not because we are driving another diesel Citroen. Melnick is a bit touristy but nonetheless crammed village, wedged into a narrow valley between lunar sandstone peaks, and with traditional rural Bulgarian farmhouses. The wine and food were great. We managed also to fit in some walks around the surrounding peaks and to where inhabitants such as Slav the Despot had built battlements and chapels.
Melnick to Shiroka Luka was a spectacular drive through the Pirin mountains to the Rodopi mountains, and basically following the Greek border east. We took a side trip to the tiny village of Gegova Kishta down the valley. Time had stood still for this village. Catherine ended up chairing a beauty pageant of five elderly women sitting on a sunlit bench shelling peas on the warm September afternoon. Firstly they invited her to take their photo. They were not happy with the result on the camera screen and wanted individual photos so they could compare beauty. Catherine left the group with smiles and hugs, and presumably there will be on-going discussions about this interesting visitor. The village itself was in an advanced state of decay but somehow maintained a unique charm. Wooden buildings, and a fast flowing stream. Horses and carts and wood being stacked high for a long cold winter.
On the trip we were also amused. Here we were dodging donkeys and drays, but at the same time logged into the 3G network (consistent and strong) but looking for an internet cafe. Definitely a region in transition. Shiroka Luka is a working village with traditional houses perched up the mountainsides. We stayed at a homestay right up high above the village and the climb really pushed the little Citroen. Slate roofs, wood buring stoves, dairy cattle under the buildings, three Roman bridges. Photos to come when we get to an internet cable.
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