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..