Monday, July 21, 2008
We are sweltering now (July 2008). I have the air conditioning on and am still hot and sweaty at 9pm. It is
about 39 today but very sticky too.
We have just come back from ten days in northern Greece. We went way up north near the Turkish and Bulgarian border and over the border for a quick visit to Bulgaria. After staying a few days in the east we then drove across to the west of Greece near the Albanian border.
Bulgaria was not a place I would revisit quickly. There are many thousands of Bulgarian refugees in Greece and you can see why. A lot of the transport was still horse and cart - though there were a few BMWs too. The houses were poorly built, red bricks with no plastering and in bad condition- broken windows, tiles falling off roofs and although everything was very cheap there wasn't much worth buying. It seemed to me, back then, dirty and grimy and the loos, literally a smelly hole in the ground, down the end of the garden path. We were thinking of going over into Turkey too but after the poverty of this area we decided not to. It was enough for one trip. The Turkish city of Adrianopolis (called Erdine by the Turks) is only an hour away from here.
This part of Bulgaria seemed to be mostly agricultural. There were roadside stalls near every small village selling tomatoes and zucchinis, alongside toilet rolls and bottles of lurid coloured drink. We travelled into Bulgaria with another couple, friends of Poros friends who lived in a small northern village. We met them briefly and they kindly invited us to join them on a quick visit to relatives the next day. The wife was Bulgarian so we got the inside deal. We were very appreciative of their hospitality. If we had visited by ourselves we would only have seen the view from the car and the inside of a restaurant.
She took us to her sister's house, where we used the hole in the ground down the garden path and also to the house of a cousin. All very friendly people with whom we did not share a language. The houses were full of crocheted doilies and cheap bric brac. Comfortable but basic family homes. At one house we sat out in the garden all squashed into a garden gazebo. I was at my biggest then and it was painfully obvious they were pointing out my size and laughing as we squeezed up to each other. It just washed over me but it's surprising what you understand without having that common language. We drank flourescent coloured orangeade and listened to the small birds in a quite fancy aviary next to us. Outside on the road there were a few old cars but mostly agricultural equipment and there was a shack/store from where we saw the bright orange-ade being carried.
Our first stop a few kilometres over the border was at a money exchange desk at a hotel. 'Hotel' I wondered, and still wonder 'who stays here' or maybe 'who does what here'. With our pockets full of 'lev' we walked along rough roadsides without a pavement to a big market for everything from clothes to birds in cages, local sausages, cheese and farm animals. Our new greek friend took us to a stall selling grilled kebabs and we had a few of them with a couple of bulgarian beers. All very good, the kebabs were wonderful and spicy, lamb I should think. We had a look at the clothes but didn't buy anything. They were cheap and gaudy.
The Bulgarian wife had some work to do in the town so we went to a small taverna, a shack which had a gas stove with a big pot on it, plates in a glass fronted cabinet, old wooden chairs and tables with stained plastic cloths. Like Greek tavernas 40 years ago. K and greek friend had tripe soup and more beer. I had a meatball soup. And very nice it was too. Both the tripe and the soup are popular dishes all over Greece. Nothing strange to us . Then toilet time again. These were the normal kind but we had to pay to use them and get a piece of toilet paper and use the sink afterwards. There were doilies in the loo too. The state of the loos? Useable.
The second town was much larger with open squares, newer cars, a big covered market and a large supermarket.
We went to the covered market and I bought a large ceramic snail which I still have in the garden and some clothes for grandchildren.
Looking back now I cannot imagine what clothes I bought. They were all cheap nylon and bright colours. I doubt if any grandchild actually wore them but it was all so cheap I had to buy something.
From there we went to the supermarket which was very similar to what we had on Poros but half the price. The Greek bought long rolls of salami, blocks of cheese and crates of beer. He only had a very small car where we were already squashed so we refrained from doing any more shopping.
Somewhere there I also bought a thick ceramic plate which I was told was for cooking pancakes (tiganites) over a gas flame. I've still got that too though I've never used it. It's sitting on our wood stove now. Time to experiment I think. We do have an outside gas stove but the top of the wood stove gets hot enough to cook a pancake.
We visited 2 towns. Harmonli, population 9,000 and Huskovo, population 28,000.
We didn't need a passport, simply used our Greek ID cards and were told we could do the same if we went into Turkey. Its no longer so simple. The towns in southern Bulgaria are now full of miserable Syrian refugee camps. But back then crossing into Bulgaria we didn't even get out of the car or see a policeman or soldier. Our friend took the ID cards in to a small office and came back 2 minutes later. We then drove into Bulgaria.
I must emphasise that this is My description of south east Bulgaria in 2008. The tourist areas up around the Black Sea and the ski resorts close to greece over on the western border crossing are very different, upscale and luxurious.
Back in Greece again.....
The farming in northern greece reminded me a little of NZ. They were bailing hay though it was much, much drier . There were fields and fields of sunflowers, all facing in the same direction. And storks! The powerpoles had platforms around the tops of them and the storks build huge nests up there. In the evening there would be two or three of the stork family standing up there, and they would call with a loud 'clack-clack'.
This must have been the first time we booked a hotel online. In the photographs it looked new and clean and appealing. Up close it was shoddy and the bathroom in our room was 'grotty'. I won't use a worse word but I wore jandals (flip flops ) even in the shower. The sheets were clean! Unfortunately it also had a swimming pool attached to it. A swimming pool open to all and sundry, the sundry being groups of loud youths who swam and splashed and yelled till early morning. After dark it became a bar, a very popular bar.
From then on when booking accomodation I took a sharp look at the critical reviews. 3 stars is not a sign of a good hotel and never believe the photos you see.
Our Poros friend was from a tiny village which we found along very dusty narrow roads and went there to eat a couple of times and have a coffee. It was peaceful and was literally in spitting distance of Turkey. The lights on the hill opposite were from a Turkish village. There was only the wide river Evros in between the two countries.
NB Nowadays there's a 5 metre high fence running many kilometres along the banks of that river keeping the illegal migrants out.
The village, 'Praggi', population 304, had a tiny square surrounded by the village houses and 2 cafenions. The coffee was good, the beer was cold and we sat under the plane tree and watched village life while the villagers checked us out. Only men were sitting at the cafés. The owner of 'our' cafenion did more business than the other because his wife, the waitress, was blonde and busty and extremely friendly.
A kilometre away beside the river was a taverna where the owner, a farmer during the day, grilled pork from his farm. We sat under lights strung through the trees and I marvelled at the sight of those Turkish village lights and now and again the dull 'thud' from a far away gunshot. Gunshot probably from hunters but still, it could have been from the nearby army base or some small conflict, I thought.
The mosquitoes came out at dusk in clouds and the owner provided mosquito spray. Thankfully they disappeared once darkness settled.
The meat was very good, the Greek salads huge and it was unbelievably cheap.
Earlier in the year we were planning a trip to Bulgaria, going up through a different border crossing to some towns near the greek border which are known for their natural hot water spas. Since then we've heard that these towns specialise in 'porno-tourism'. Better than Thailand - anything your 'heart' desires plus a bit of natural spa therapy thrown in as well.
There is so much more to see and do. There are orthodox monasteries, picturesque mountain villages, spectacular scenery, delicious cuisine and wonderful ski fields. I would definitely visit this part of Bulgaria if I could, along with North Macedonia and Albania. The added advantage of these countries is that you can drive there. When you have your own transport you can drive straight to the accomodation and then tour at ease. But we never did make that trip. 2 years later the economic crisis began and all trips were put on hold and are still very much 'on hold'.
There was a reason for this visit, so many kilometres away. K had just retired from the Navy and he gave his new residence as that town in Northern Greece. The travel to your new permanent residence was subsidised by the kilometre. We signed in at the Army base up north, no questions asked, and got a free holiday.
No longer applicable by the way. Rules have changed.
Next installment, the mountains of Northern Greece
Oddly enough I only took one photo during the first half of the trip. One photo of the storks and none at all of Bulgaria. In 2008 I had a phone which had no camera. I had two cameras with me but I hadn't yet turned into today's photo reporter.