As I predicted in a previous post, all the meat has gone. The hills have retreated, forgoing a central role to masquerade as dark storm clouds on the horizon. Into the relinquished space roll miles and miles of dull farmland – vinyards and decapitated sunflower husks stretch out, recreating the agricultural deserts I haven’t seen since northern France. This monotonous patchwork of browning fields only punctuated by lively flares of purple, orange and red from abundant wild plum trees that line the route. It is a colour scheme lifted straight from a Rembrandt palette. Although you can’t imagine many painters flocking here. It is not a landscape that inspires. At least not me.
Not that Bulgaria is devoid of beauty; the mountainous scenery along the Greek border is meant to be stunning. But the call of home is strong this close to the end, and so the quickest, most direct route proved irresistible. And what a direct route it is! Arrow straight roads with walnut tree trim that would make a Roman weep with joy shoot unerring into the distance.
Close to the Turkish border, the land becomes even dryer, even more desolate. Tired towns marked by crumbling Soviet high rises and derelict shop fronts. The prevalence of casinos and gambling shops (I assume gambling is strictly controlled in Turkey so the area gets weekend visitors in search of a flutter), added to the whirling dust, gives the place a vague Wild West feel. Then there is the border itself. A no-mans land of barbed wire, rust and decay. I had my passport checked twice by roving border guards in military jeeps just trying to get there. With observation posts on hills, and vigorous checks on most vehicles, you’d be forgiven for thinking Bulgaria was resisting a dangerous foreign invasion. Which, of course, is exactly how they see it.
All in all, I’m not terribly sad to say goodbye. I think in a different situation I could have loved Bulgaria as much as the rest of the Balkans. A combination of thankless scenery and fatigue though, limited how much I got from the county. A route that took me along the main transport artery that avoided many of the small villages, where the curiosity and friendliness reach a peak, didn’t help either.
Although similarities exist, Bulgaria seems distinct to the other Balkan states that I crossed. The language of course is an obvious one but mannerisms also shift. The endearing no meaning yes head wobble that until now I only associated with India is in full force here.
Other differences are more mundane and bureaucratic. After an almost complete absence the last few months, big Western chains have once again reared their homogenising heads. Things feel more sanitised and regulated: toilets bear those “last cleaned by” clipboards, signs warn of non-potable water. Even the horse-drawn carts that vye for space with the legions of Ladas along the highways bear registration plates. Health and safety has arrived here in force it seems. I smell Brussels. I also suspect the agricultural landscape is more than a little bit shaped by generous farming subsidies. Little plaques bearing the distinctive stars of the European Union that pepper the country constantly remind you Bulgaria is part of a special club.
Some borders are little more than a line on a map, where the two cultures it divides bleed into one another indistinclty. Others represent a distinct and massive rupture. The graceful curves of the mosque, whose towering minarets greets you on the Turkish side leave no doubt as to which type of border this one is.
With this shift of the social fabric, the friendliness and hospitality I have come to associate with southern Europe is back. Every hour or so I have to turn down the offer of a lift. It took me two hours to navigate through a tiny hamlet as every cafe-frequenting man and his dog – and it is the unique preserve of men – demanded I sit down for some tea. And thank god the caffeine of choice has switched or I would currently be a twitching wreck.
Anyway, onwards. With salt water in the air and a cool breeze in my face, I’m following the edge of Europe down the Black Sea coast to Istanbul. An unbroken band of white beaches, my own Yellow Brick Road to lead me home.
Oh yeah… One more thing.
I made it.
In other news
- Going to the beach solo? Unsure how you are going to get suncream on your back? Well worry no more because the CreamMaster 3000 is finally here. With its patented extension technology and Smooth Spread membrane TM, you can now reach those arkward places in style. The prototype is a sponge gaffertaped to a selfie stick but the finished product is going to be all chrome and sleek lines. The question is: can you afford not to own one? Kickstarter campaign imminent.
- One more money spinner for you. Some people might know the seminal travelogue written about a 1930s trek to Istanbul – A Time of Gifts. An equally fantastic book by all round nice guy Nick Hunt used this first work to frame his own experiences following the same route. So taking Nick’s oeuvre as a springboard, I’m going to write a book, about a book, about a book. The title you ask? Instepcion. You’re welcome.