Alexandroúpolis, Thrace, Greece Monday, September 22, 2008
Our second day at Vampire Camping was spent on a trip to nearby Brasov. This is a historic walled city, surrounded, as always, by traffic and ugly buildings. Within the walls, though, we found a comparatively peaceful, almost cosmopolitan,
centre with a relaxed and easy atmosphere. What a pleasant change to sit in a town square with a cup of coffee watching attractive men and women walk by, no stray dogs, very little litter and many beautiful buildings. The main streets were pedestrianised
and filled with pavement cafes.
There is a wonderful church there, called the Black Church, decorated with 120 Turkish rugs, gifts of merchants trading with the Ottomans. Bet you've never seen that before! Also within the church is a display on the life and works of Johannes Honterus, a 16th century scholar and philosopher who would have been famous but for the fact that he was living at the time of many other better known scholars and artists, such as Luther, Michaelangelo, Cranach, Holbein and Henry VIII. As the display was all in Romanian we are not quite sure what he did do, but he should have been famous for it anyway.
The main attraction of the town, featuring in all the guidebooks and literature, is the cable car ride up Mount Tampa at the edge of the walled town. In spite of its fame and popularity there was not a single signpost to it, and it took some finding. However, once up there, and having had the ten minute walk from the top of the ride through mountains of litter to the "belvedere", the views were stunning. The belvedere is actually hidden at the end of huge white Hollywood style letters spelling out Brasov.
It was raining next morning when we left Vampire Camping. In fact this is only the second time we've had to pack up in the rain, which isn't bad! We continued south towards Bucharest. We'd been advised against entering this evil city of crime, sin and 200,000 stray dogs by the Vampire Campsite owner, so our plans were to camp overnight just north of the city at the only campsite in the Bucharest area, then take the ring road to the south. The campsite, Casa Alba, was one of the strangest ones we have stayed in so far. It's a little village of wooden chalets in a forest by the airport, with room for tents under the trees but no pitches as such. However caravans can park in the central square under a giant oak tree. The wind and rain overnight meant that we were bombarded with acorns all night long. They make a rather loud and serious-sounding noise hitting a fibreglass caravan roof. As the Alan Rogers campsite guide had warned, there were a number of dodgy-looking youths hanging around the site, and the toilet block had several hospital beds in it, which added a mysterious and rather sinister note. The inevitable stray dogs barked all night, adding to the general cacophony of rain and falling acorns.
Next morning we asked for directions to the ring road and were told that as it was Sunday there would be no traffic in Bucharest and we should go through the centre. This we did, seeing the huge communist -inspired central government buildings and finally the Palatul Parliamentuliu, the palace Ceausescu built for himself and currently the world's second largest building after the Pentagon. (incidentally the sudden deterioration in the weather continued. It was only 9 degrees C in Bucharest, as if it had suddenly gone from summer to winter!)
We found our way out of the city southwards more by luck than anything. We have since met two couples who ended up paying a taxi driver to lead them out! The road south to the border town of Giurgiu (we never did find out how to pronounce it), was reasonably good by Romanian standards, although still passing through poor villages lined with people selling their wares. At Giurgiu, which is a port on the Danube and the main border crossing to Bulgaria, we looked in vain for a signpost to Bulgaria or even to Russe (the Bulgarian town over the river.) Eventually we found a little side road which led through wasteland to a huge border control on the Romanian side. Here we had to part with 10 Euros for the toll bridge (this replaces the old "disinfection" tax which had to be paid at the border), then drove on through more wasteland and over a rickety old bridge to Bulgaria.
Bulgaria greeted us with apartment blocks which were even more decrepit than those in Romania, which we found hard to believe. However after the first 10 miles or so, mainly road works, we were on a beautifully engineered smooth highway through very pleasant rolling countryside.
We were heading for a campsite called Trinity Rocks, near Veliko Tarnovo, which is owned by an English couple and has an excellent website. What we found when we got there was not quite as the website described. Unfortunately none of the campsite guides cover Bulgaria, so while we were in Vampire Camping John had made use of their internet facilities to do some research, and had come up with 2 suitable sites, both owned by ex-pat Brits. Trinity Rocks struck us as a work in progress, rather ramshackle but with the potential to be very nice. It seemed to be an old pig farm with a number of outbuildings in various stages of refurbishment, and a flat grassy area by a river for camping. The owner jury-rigged an electric hook-up for us, which gave John an electric shock, but there was a shower and toilet and washing-up area, and as it was just for an overnight stop it was adequate. (N.B. This was in 2008 - apparently the work in progress is now completed and the result looks very good.)
After lunch we drove into the nearest town, Veliko Tarnovo, an interesting old place with houses spilling down the steep banks of the river which snakes its way through a gorge at this point. In the 12th century Veliko was the capital of Bulgaria, and has a huge ruined citadel dating from that period (although there are also traces of occupation by Thracians, Romans and Byzantines.) We spent an hour or so clambering around in the ruins and only saw a fraction of it. Unfortunately the weather was still cool and drizzly, so we headed back for the campsite and sausage and mash.
We left Trinity Rocks next morning and had a nightmare journey over the Shipka Pass. It was a good road, and in fine weather the views would have been amazing, but low cloud meant visibility was almost zero, which is a bit worrying when negotiating hairpin bends with a constant stream of heavy lorries coming in the opposite direction! We finally emerged onto the plain and found a petrol station where we had a much-needed coffee. Things were fine for a while but the final hour or so of the journey was another nightmare as the road surface deteriorated drastically. We drove through a largish town called Simeonovgrad which was entirely cobbled - and badly-maintained cobbles at that. We were afraid the caravan would shake to pieces! Luckily the campsite that awaited us was excellent - Sakar Hills, near the village of Biser. It's been built from scratch by an English couple, Martin and Shirley, to English standards. They and their son, Matt, were extremely pleasant and helpful and we decided to stay an extra day to unwind. The weather was warm once again and, best of all, there were four delightful kittens who entertained us with their antics.
There was one other couple staying there, Margaret and Barry, retired lecturers from Huddersfield, who have been on the road with their camper van for 14 years! And we thought we were adventurous! They have an excellent website about their travels with all sorts of useful tips and information for long-term travellers. Their trips include a 12,000 mile round the world cycle ride! Read about them at www.magbaztravels.com
While we were at Sakar Hills John was able to give the caravan a good wash. It had become embarrassingly dirty after all our travels. Most campsites don't allow this, but Martin was happy to oblige with a hosepipe and brush, and John spent a couple of hours restoring our little home on wheels to gleaming whiteness.
Although we had been a bit dubious about going through Bulgaria it proved a lot pleasanter than expected. The local people we met were very friendly, the cost of living is cheap and there are an enormous number of archaeological sites worth seeing. So we think we would like to go back one day, and would certainly return to the Sakar Hills site if we could. But in the meantime, Greece was beckoning, so we headed for our next stop, Alexandroupoli.