Getting an early taste of Communism before the real thing

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Europe » Bulgaria
May 19th 1974
Published: September 18th 2021
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We had virtual non-stop rain all the way from Platamon to the Greece-Bulgaria border, which we reached at around 1.30pm. We had no real hassles on either side of the border except that changing money into Bulgarian leva took more than an hour. There was no time change, and nothing special to report at our first Communist border, except the pure excitement of my first ever visit behind the ‘Iron Curtain’, something I’d been looking forward to for years.

The weather cleared for a while, and we got a good view of the Bulgarian countryside. It was very geared towards collective farming, with up to 100 people working in some fields. There was great variety in the size and shape of the trees, flowers and blossoms, with quaint houses made of stone with tiled rooves hidden amongst the trees. The main industry in this region was clearly primary, with a notable lack of any factories or other industry. The people looked to be very much of a peasant mould, similar to those in the early days of Turkey.

We stayed our first night there at Camping Vrana, several kilometres out of the capital, Sofia. A shower of rain late in the day prevented us from having a look around, and we couldn’t even compensate with a cleanup in camp as there were no showers and very mediocre facilities. We had a good meal at the campsite restaurant however, followed by an early night since there was nothing else to do.

After raining most of the night, it cleared up for our Sofia city tour. We spent around 6 hours in all in the city, checking out Georgi Dimitrovs Mauseleum, Alexander Nevsky Memorial Church, Clement of Ohrid University, Sveta Nedelya Church, and several monuments, including Lenin’s, the Russian and the Soviet Army, and the Monument of the Liberators. Nothing like trying to get in some early re-education!

The clothing of the locals is far from trendy, but more colourful and better cut than I had anticipated. Notable sights taken in during our travels were a lot of female street cleaners, huge state-owned apartment blocks along the city outskirts, double buses and trams, paved streets, street photographers, glum faces on the people, motor bike side cars, car covers, and incredible queues at food shops, with people sometimes having to wait up to an hour. As the guidebook summarised it – lots of “people, parks, trees and monuments”. It was a public holiday that day and we even saw a vintage car rally cum festival in progress.

We returned home to camp to receive an invitation to the ballet from Bruce, clearly one of our more cultured fellow travellers. We saw a performance of Prokofiev’s “Daughter of Kaloryana” at the Sofia State Opera House, put on by the Narodna Opera Company. While ballet is not necessary my greatest love, it was an interesting night, with further attractions being a chicken meal at a street stall, an extremely impressive flag waving display by some 500 girls outside the Mauseleum, and the hassles of getting a taxi home at the ridiculously late hour of 10 o’clock.

It was unfortunately an all to brief stay in Bulgaria.

We got away from the campsite early next day in fine weather at 7am. We travelled some 340kms to the Bulgaria-Romania border through countryside similar to the previous run into Sofia, comprising almost exclusively flat, intensive collective farming. There were no hassles with the exit from the Bulgarian side, and ‘no man’s land’ was in fact a trip over the Danube (which was far from blue!) over a bridge that they claimed was the longest in Europe. We weren’t so fortunate on the Romanian side, where a lack of visas for some, plus an intensive check for dope by a couple of frisky Alsatians held us up for some 90 minutes. This was furthered hindered by communication difficulties and super surly customs people, something we were advised we better get used to in the Communist countries.

It took us just over an hour to finally reach Bucharest, which looked quite a large city. The first thing we noticed was the return to the Latin script, so at least we were better able to navigate our way around here. The city was very modern, probably more so than Sydney, on account of its apparently being almost totally burnt down 100 years previously and being progressively rebuilt. The people seem quite well-dressed too and appeared much more friendly towards tourists – in fact it seemed hard to believe we were in a Communist country.

We camped just out of the city at Campsite Bancasa, a very well set out and equipped site. We started the night doing a little black market dealing, where I picked up 20 lei to the USD against the official 14.4, for a total of USD40. We had a late meal but no night activity.

The next morning, we all took off into the city for the day straight after breakfast. While Bucharest is very modern and clean, it doesn’t appear to have a lot to offer the tourist. The people certainly seem happier and more comfortable than the Bulgars, and there seems to be much less of a Russian influence here.

I met up with Jenny and Ro for lunch in the park, and we were further joined by a couple of Romanian students, Petre (Architecture) and Ariana (Science), who were still at Middle School. They had decided to take the afternoon off (their hours were 2-8pm) and they accompanied us to the Village Museum and uptown to check out the Triumphal Arch. We had really interesting discussions with them on lifestyles and differences between our cultures, but it was notable that whenever anybody who appeared to be in authority came into view, they noticeably drifted away from being seen with us.

The whole bus had an open-air dinner by the lake with a set menu of hors d’oevres, filleted meat and side salad, with a fantastic choccy cake for dessert. Not cheap at 50 lei, but a pleasant change from a night in camp.

The following day’s trip through to Husi was a pretty mundane run through flat farming country to a campsite just short of the Russian border. The latter part of the trip was slightly mountainous as we bordered the end of the Transylvanian Alps. The campsite was pretty crude and with everyone having blown the last of their Romanian money, it was an early night for all in anticipation of an interesting border stop at the USSR tomorrow.

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18th September 2021

We had planned to go to Bulgaria next month but the country has shut down to visitors again. I hope to go next year. A lovely read.
19th September 2021

I'd love to go back and see what those communist countries like Bulgaria, Romania, Poland etc are like almost 50 years on and free from the Soviet umbrella. I expect not much the same except the scenery and the buildings!

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