I’m sitting at our dining table looking out over the Chao Praya River to Bangkok a light mist hangs over the city yet to be burnt off by the morning heat.
Belinda is with her family in scorching Perth and our trusty van is sitting, frozen, in a storage yard in Sofia. To say the least the month or so since crossing the border into Bulgaria have been an emotional roller coast, especially for Bea.
We continued tracing the coast past Burgas to the town of Sozopol where we found an almost open campsite. While we were proceeding with haste toward Georgia we were still keen to explore parts of the Bulgarian coast.
The next morning we dropped the Van at a local garage for a lube and oil change then went to explore the newer part of town... dead. An hour later we picked up our Van paid an extortionate amount of money for the service... which I am pretty certain they didn’t actually do..ripped off.. Bastards! I suppose we have been quite lucky in our travels and this was the first really dodgy act.
The weather improved the next morning but fog hung in the valleys as we drove to the Turkish border then onto Istanbul.
We stopped around lunch time at a small restaurant set up in truck stop. We may now be on our dash to Georgia, but we loved Turkey last time we were here, so were going to at least enjoy the food. A simple meal but really tasty of koftas in a tomato stew with bread and salad.
That night we stayed in a campsite just outside Istanbul and spent the late afternoon hunting down an ATM and a phone shop to buy a local sim.
Early the next morning we skirted around Istanbul and headed along the main east west hwy toward Samsun on the Black Sea coast where we found an open campsite. It was a nice site located just a short walk to a restaurant strip where after a look around decided to on pass on the donner kebab, I had promised myself I wasn’t leaving Turkey without having at least one, and had a very nice pide. The owner was super friendly and had a daughter in Sydney, of course.
(Parked next to us that night was a delivery van, it seemed out of place in a camping park!)
We had worked out that we would arrive at the border late evening, we weren’t keen on doing what could be quite a long crossing at night so the next night we camped in the car park of a rafting centre on the Firtina creek an hours drive from the border, it was pretty impressive for a creek!
We arrived at the border around 9.30 well we thought we had as the trucks were queued on the side of the road. It was actually another 10km to the border, ominous signs.
Bea had to walk through while I drove the van, besides the usual perusal of car documents and incessant checking of my licence (not sure many Aussies drive across the border) we breezed threw.
One thing you must do once you have entered Georgia is buy car insurance, it’s illegal to drive without it and no external companies cover Georgia. To assist travellers with this a rather robust and thriving market has set up within 100m of the crossing. Hawkers will assist you to park, arrange your insurance, arrange a SIM card, change your money and even flog you cheap booze.
By the time I drove out Bea had already selected our designated hawker and was well on her way to arranging our needs, without the cheap booze!
Successfully negotiating both the border and the shark pit we could now relax and enjoy Georgia. There were a few reasons we wanted to come to Georgia, not the least was this was, it is arguably the cradle of wine. They have been making it here for 8000 years so they should have got it right by now. It also has a great reputation for food, Russians seem to love Georgian cuisine, but this maybe more a reflection on Russian food. Despite this we knew very little about Georgia itself and were looking forward to learning.
Lesson number one- there is a reason that no company will insure cars in Georgia, they are truely maniacs, Thailand is a land of granny drivers in comparison.
After spending much of the day exploring Batumi we drove a little further up the coast where we wild camped at a lovely beach side parking area. A very pleasant, if a little cold, end to the day sipping G&T’s watching the sunset.
Lesson two most cars are missing at least one bumper and or fender, probably related to lesson one.
We headed inland through rural Georgia toward Tbilisi the Capital where we camped in courtyard of the Tbilisi Yard Hostel.
Also parked in the grounds of the Hostel was a Land Cruiser with a camper trailer with UK plates. We met the couple that owned it the next morning, they were Aussies, (obviously different border guy) who had left England a few months earlier on their Grand adventure. They had been staying here for a couple of weeks as they did some repairs and modifications to their trailer.
After a brief chat, we headed to the rail way station. I was over border crossings with the Van and the further east the less insured it was. The plan was to take the overnight train to Baku in Azerbaijan and return, then do a similar trip to Armenia. The lady at the ticket booth was both friendly and helpful and made the whole ticket purchase a breeze.
After a bit of a scout of the neighbourhood we returned to the hostel where we caught up with Mark and Sarah again and they suggested we join them for dinner which we gladly accepted, its always nice to share a dinner with new friends on the road. In the late afternoon Bea received a message from her sister, Her Mum had taken a turn while out of a day trip with her social group and had been admitted to hospital. It was routine and nothing to really worry about.
The four of us jumped in a cab and headed to a cheap and cheerful restaurant they had recently discovered, it was a great night, good food, well the pickled pigs feet may have been a little out there, lots of very drinkable Georgian red and fun conversations. It was almost midnight by the time we got back after being waylaid at another wine bar on the way back!
As we arrived back Bea got the next message, Things in Perth had deteriorated rapidly and the doctors were very concerned, Ruth was struggling to hold it together and Bea started to crumble.
We immediately threw the essentials into Bea’s daypack, grabbed a cab and headed to the airport. Luckily there were still a few agents still operating at that late hour and we searched for the quickest possible options to get to Perth. Bea could leave now but it would take two days and three stops, the fastest option ended up leaving the following night but was a one, brief stop, and she would be in Perth Thursday afternoon. We booked it and with nothing else we could do headed back to the Van.
The next morning with a little time and slightly clearer thinking we formulated our plan. The hostel was happy for us to leave the van in their carpark for a few weeks, which was helpful and allowed me to travel back with Bea. Once we understood the situation in Perth I would return to move the Van, via the Black Sea ferry, to Sofia where we had originally planed to store it.
The rest of the day was spent packing up the van and getting our gear together, there was no real appetite for sightseeing!
Mid-morning Bea face-timed with her mum and though quite sedated was able to say hi and Bea was able to send her her love. an emotional but therapeutic moment for Bea.
The Qatar airways flight left Tbilisi around 9.30pm. 17 hours and one short stop later we touchdown in Perth. Bea was Anxious but trying to remain calm as we left the aircraft, after boarder control Bea headed for the exit and I went to collect the baggage. If the bags were taking too long she would go with her sister to the hospital and i would find my way there ASAP.
Finally our bags came out and I was rushed through the VIP lane and out into the waiting area where I immediately saw Bea and Ruth embarrassed and I realised we were too late.
Trying to pull it together myself we greeted and made our way, in idle chat ‘nice weather’ to the car and to the hospital where the nephews were waiting.
These times are tough, but you reflect on the good times, It was unfortunate that Bea didn’t quite make it, but technology had allowed her to say what needed to be said while June could understand. It puts travel and distance in perspective, wandering means missing family, but again its what we need to do and the world is so small you can get from one outpost to another in 24 hours, that’s incredible.
(Note. On my return to Tbilisi, parked up in the hostel was the delivery van we saw in Turkey and the Land Cruiser was still there. That Night Mark, Sarah,, the @Kingluie guys and I went for dinner, it amazing the people you meet and the friendships you make on the road)
A few days have past since I started writing this blog. It is now Xmas day and Bea is sharing it in Perth with her Family and I am in Melbourne with mine.
We’ll take a break from our adventure for a few more weeks but will be back on the road in march.
Merry Xmas & Happy New year
We crossed the the mighty Danube and, after a couple of strange questions from the border officer like where are you going... Bucharest, do you have a hotel reservation..... arghh we are in a campervan!! We entered Romania.
Romania is a pretty big country so we planned to see the west and north of the country on a return visit, that would include Hungry, Ukraine etc. For now it was Bucharest and the south east corner on the way to the Black Sea.
We headed straight for Bucharest and, not having a hotel reservation, we found a campsite about 30minutes out of town, it was quite new and basic but had electricity, and hot showers. A group of Irish families we met had been staying there for 5 weeks! It was peaceful sitting by the lake having dinner, that was until the band started up at the function centre next door, belting out Romanian hits until about 2.00am!!
Being a Sunday I decided to treat Bea to a bacon and egg breaky (reality was we had eggs, bacon and mushrooms left over from other meals and they needed using up, just don’t tell her)
It was 20kms into town so we took an Uber (first time in taxi for 9 months, well since the 280km ride to Lake Baikal) super cheap, and convenient.
After visiting a local market on the fringes of the CBD, where we scored a lovely marinated lamb belly for the BBQ, we headed to Primăverii Palace, the palace of the former communist dictator Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu.
Funny how quickly the hero’s of the workers become the people they revolted against, funnier still is they were surprised when the working class revolted again!
The BBQ lamb dinner was nice despite it being little cold and a little drizzly, but at least no loud band!
As I noted the plan was to head south east to the Black Sea, so the next morning we turned West! Bea had just realised we were close to Transylvania and wasn’t going to wait a year to do a Dracula road trip. Now obviously Drac never actually existed however Bram Stoker is said to have based his character on this legendary 15th century Voivide of Wallachai, Vlad the Impaler, so we did the same. It is noted at several locations that Vlad the Impaler wasn’t all that legendary, and in fact wasn’t all that brutal for the time, he actually only gained infamy through Mr Stoker. We first visited Curtea de Arges, saw the cathedral that Vlad may have seen, walked down some streets that he may have walked and bought a pastry at a shop that, I’m certain he didn’t.
The final destination was the town of Bran whose castle and (one of) its notorious(ish) inhabitants had first inspired Bram Stoker Dracula’s. As night fell we wound our way, in the dark, up over a treacherous pass in the Carpathian Mountains and into Transylvania. We reached Bran well after dark Bea would just have to wait until the morning!
The castle didn’t open until 9.00 so we had a coffee and perused the souvenir stalls out the front, Vlad may have only lived in the castle for a few years and it was actually an Irish writer who put it on the map, but that wasn’t going to stop the locals wringing out every last Lev from it!!
The castle is unusual in that it is still privately owned by the kin of the last queen of Romania, who actually lived in the castle until 1922
We now finally turned east again climbing through the dramatic Carpathian Mountains and down onto the fertile open plains of rural Romania. This was the Romania of my imagination, undulating farmlands, rustic villages of half built houses, horses and carts and lots of very large cabbages. And I mean lots, truck loads for sale every few hundred metres. Nona’s carrying several back for supper, they must know a few more cabbage recipes than me!
We stayed that night, close to the border, in a hotel car park, (haven’t slept in a hotel parking lot for a long time... sober!) The hotel had good internet, so we went into the bar for a drink and catch up on several things - including our Turkish visas which we had let slip. You have to allow 3 days for processing and we were cutting it fine.
Our plans changed slightly. Initially we intended to catch the ferry across the Black Sea from Varna in Bulgaria to Poti in Georgia. However we found out that the ferry was going to cost nearly $1,500 - ouch! And given the time of year wasn’t leaving until the 24th. We checked the map, if we drove to Georgia it would take 3 days and we could leave a week earlier. So we were now driving around the Black Sea, through Bulgaria and Turkey, to Georgia. Spending some time in Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan then slowly back through Turkey. With the plan agreed, the next morning we once again crossed the Danube, this time by ferry, and on to Bulgaria.
It was early evening and dark by the time we finally crossed the border so we parked for the night in a guarded truckie stop behind a service station. It was cold, we were tired, we couldn't be bothered cooking and there was a restaurant attached to the service station. The place was run by a young husband and wife who made such an effort to make us feel welcome. They hardly spoke English and the menu was in Bulgarian yet with a little help from google translate we managed ordered, the food was actually, pretty good. He, the cook, came out to make sure we were happy and was super pleased when we attempted to say delicious . They even gave us a glass of the local ‘grappa’ on the house.
The next morning, we happily went back into the restaurant for a coffee and to use the internet to upload our latest blog. There was nothing breakfasty on the menu, well nothing western, that we could decipher (bit of a Shirley Valentine moment, sorry), in broken English they offered to make us some sort of ham and cheese dish on toast, it was simple and delicious. We were liking the welcoming vibe of Bulgaria already!
Obviously, he had done this before! He was super helpful and offered a lot of advice on what to see.
Like ground hog day... we visited the old market hall, bought lunch which we ate in a park over the road. The park was right alongside an old mosque that was built as part of an ancient baths complex.
Our fridge had been playing up for some time and was now barely working. Unfortunately the place that was able to fix it also sold a great range of ‘camping goodies’. It was a costly stop... mm a gas bottle that you can just fill up at any auto gas pump need one of those..,.. argh a winter windscreen cover, yep its getting cold... look how dirty the bikes are getting , we really should get one of those covers.... it took most of the morning but the fridge was fixed and the shop was bare!
The Monastery of Saint Ivan of Rila is the apparently the holiest and most famous Eastern Orthodox Monastery in Bulgaria. Located in the south west of the Rila Mountains, a beautiful 2 hour drive through a national parks thick with trees in autumn colours, from Sofia, the Rila Monastery was founded in the 10th century by the hermit St Ivan of Rila. St Ivan lived in a cave without any material possessions not far from the complex which was built by his students who came to the mountains to receive an education and is still in use today.
Leaving the monastery the next morning we stopped at Stob to visit the stone pyramids. To view them, was a steep 2km hike up a hill.
We continued south to the area of Rupite which is actually a crater of an extinct volcano, known for its thermal hot springs and the prophetess Baba Vanga. What a place, hot baths at our doorstep! A couple of other campers were already parked up and there was a steady stream cars coming and going as locals came to enjoy a leisurely soak in the mineral enriched thermal springs.
Baba Vanga was a mystic and clairvoyant who spent the last years of her life in a house very close to the springs. She who lost her eyesight at a young age, supposedly unlocking her powers of clairvoyance. Many believe she predicated the 9/11 terror attack, Brexit and the 2004 Thailand tsunami.
The ruins of the Thracian-Roman town - Heraclea Sintica are also located near the springs. Recently two cities have been uncovered, one built on top of the other. We were looking at city was occupied for 800 years. The ruins had been partially recovered to protect them until there was enough finances to protect them properly
The resort area of town was a mass of hotels and looking at the ski map we struggled to see how all these skiers could fit on the mountain. The old town on the other hand is fairly small but really interesting, winding cobblestoned roads and compact houses and shops occupied by the locals. It was still a community as opposed to attracting tourism.
That night we ate at a local restaurant. The guy hawking for business promised great steaks, sounded too good to pass up - yep suckers! To be honest, it actually turned out to be a really good restaurant, It was rustic pub style, cosy, typical ski village restaurant. The fire was lit and the big TV was showing ski and snowboard aerials, we were very happy. The hawker wasn’t lying either, We ordered a plate of foie gras as an entree to share... yes you read that right - this restaurant did an amazingly good foie gras, perfectly lightly seared with a balsamic glaze and blueberries and apple and served with home made bread. This was fine dining food not expected in a resort restaurant in the off season. For mains I ordered beef with champagne and mushrooms and Pete couldn't resist the local slow cooked lamb dish that was incredibly large. Needless to say most of that came home with us.
On our way out of town the next morning we called past the laundrette to pick up our, very large, load of washing which we had dropped off the previous day. It had been quite a while since we had been able to do a proper wash and it was certainly nice to have everything fresh and clean again.
Sadly it didn’t last long the road opened up onto a broad valley, we were back on the long stretches of highway cum potholed road.
We reached the town of Plovdiv, an ancient city built around 7 hills and the second largest city in Bulgaria. It has been inhabited for more than 8,000 years making it, arguably, the oldest continuously settled cities in the world. We camped up adjacent to a fresh market, about 5kms from the centre. Needing the exercise we walked into town wandering through leafy suburbs and streets lined with fresh vegetable stalls. The town centre streets, like most towns, were cobbled but these cobbles were massive and very uneven, the roads had subsided a little making it even more difficult to walk on. Im glad we were walking, there was no way the van would have survived!
The next morning we were on the road heading towards Bucharest, it was going to be a long day driving, but we were not in a hurry. The roads here keep surprising us -highways can be bumpy and poorly maintained and byroads can be smooth and pleasant. It just keeps you guessing. At one point the road became congested and cars were parked along both sides, it was some sort of market happening..in the middle of nowhere. Being suckers for markets, and in need of a break, we stopped to have a nosey. It was a Saturday flee market with almost anything secondhand for sale, though nothing from the 21st century! Old phones, computers, even skis and I swear Pete’s Dad’s tool shed was out there for sale! Pete managed to pick up a few odd things for the van and i managed to pick up a pancake stuffed with feta style cheese!
Back in the van and on our way. I had a date with the Count - Romania here we come. Bulgaria, we shall return in a few days..
Lake Ohrid lies between Albania and North Macedonia and is one of the oldest and deepest lakes in Europe. The annoying thing about the change in border crossing is that we were now on the lakes’ western side rather than its eastern shore, which we had intended to follow through the Galichitsa National Park stopping along the way to camp for the night. Okay suck it up, things change, we will drive up the west side and into the main city of Ohrid, it was after dark anyway.
We drove to recommended camping park, a large restaurant carpark, very close to the city, where a unfriendly waitress curtly informed me that there was no parking during winter, weird! We drove to another spot but it had a ‘bad vibe’ and Pete’s gut instinct was to move on. We drove back into town to buy a local SIM and do some further research. It is amazing how reassuring it feels when you have internet again, such 21st century problems!! When we first travelled through Europe all we had was a thick Lonely Planet, a dodgy map and a public phone box to find your accommodation! How easy has life become?
There was a 24 hour car park right in the centre, guarded, expensive, but really convenient. We would head there later but first dinner, at an Irish pub! The day had been a little stressful, we were cold and we deserved a good comforting pub meal! We returned to the van to find a flyer under the windscreen for a Campsite only 4kms away, it appeared to be pretty good. We drove to the campsite and were met by the friendly owner who had ridden down to open the gates for us. It was way cheaper than the 24 hr car park and had toilets, showers, electricity and wifi. SCORE! We parked up and hit the sack. We woke to find we were in a lovely setting right by the lake, amongst the beautiful autumn trees. A nice find. (It turned out that the parking guard in town was the owners mate and rang him saying there was a van looking for somewhere to camp so he came in and dropped the flyer on our windshield, now that is direct, proactive marketing, he is now on Park4nights!)
We visited a beautiful old church, the Svetja Sofja (St Sofia), I was a little disappointed that they didn’t allow photos as the interior was covered with amazing old frescoes they were only half restored so they didn’t feel reproduced.
We walked to Plaosnik an old archeological site and to the Amphitheater, built in 200 BC and the only Hellenistic-type theatre in the country. It too was quite impressive and still in use today, it would be delightful to see a live concert or production there. We also hiked up to Samuel’s Fortress but its nothing special... just the outer wall was still in tact, good view of the city though.
That afternoon we bumped and shook our way along the potholed and patched ‘highway’ north before turning off onto a smoother, albeit single lane, road that climbed steadily through the autumn forests into the fog of the Mavrovo National Park.I do love autumn but I prefer it when I can see! 3.30pm, dusk and thick fog - not nice!
Eventually we descended, out of the fog, to Mavrovo Lake and Mavrovo town (known for its ski area) where we bought provisions for a hearty casserole dinner before turning down a small track to the lake edge. There was one camper van already there and another small van followed us down the track. Time to settle in for the night.
Our next destination was Matka Canyon. Road closures and detours along the way sent us through narrow village streets - making the drive more interesting. We were initially surprised to see how busy the Canyon was, especially in the off season however being less than hour from Skopje it made a nice Saturday out for the locals. It was a beautiful area, grey jagged mountains, blanketed in autumn trees, dropped dramatically to the river.
We had intended to stay the night in the canyon yet it was still so early so we decided to head into Skopje, the capital, only about 45 minutes away.
Driving the through the outskirts of Skopje, it wasn’t charming either of us, it wasn’t doing much for me at all. We found a car park close to the river, where we intended to stay the night and then headed into the city area to explore a bit more.
Heading out of the square toward the old bazaar, the city started to get more interesting, a city that had evolved through time reflecting the needs and desires of its population. Never judge too soon, right?
We found their only micro brewery and had an afternoon beer which I have to admit were pretty good. The sun was setting, it was getting bloody cold quickly, so we hoofed it back to the van for dinner, via the fresh market to buy ingredients for a veggie curry. There were a few more vans parked for the night, including the small van that had followed us down the track at the lake.
We wandered back into the city to continue our sightseeing and buy provisions at the markets, however we bumped into Adam, a young Australian / Iranian / Italian guy (a long and colourful story about his ethnicity, but no time here) that we had met a few weeks back in Kotor - it is so freaky how that happens. He is a super friendly, vivacious, guy who set out on a two week trip and nine months later is still travelling. The three of us ended up hanging out for a few hours, catching up over morning coffee, a market trip and an early lunch. Parting ways we headed back to the van minus half the provisions we meant to buy and hit the road.
We had intended on camping the night but given we had seen everything there was to see we decided to head for the border. Bulgaria here we come!