Introduction – Sofia in Springtime
As I sit down to write this blog post, almost two months after arriving in Bulgaria, I am sitting in a sunny, warm Sofia. Bird song can be heard, and the flowers are blooming everywhere. Spring has arrived both astronomically and empirically. I have posted almost 10 kg of winter equipment home, and received a much lighter package of spring/summer gear. I have finished crossing the highest and wildest mountains that I will meet until the Alps this summer, and have definitely come to the end of the opening chapter of this walk. The path ahead, when viewed in my minds eye, seems to be easier and more manageable and the weather more clement than what has gone before – my mind has been lulled into a (possibly false) sense of security, contentment and ease with present, the near, and medium term future. It is thus a little challenging for me to cast my mind back to where it was when I was traversing a flat sliver of Greece in early February, the eastern Rhodopi mountains of Bulgaria growing steadily more massive on the horizon, to the dark place that the mountains, and Bulgaria, occupied in my mind at the time. But I will make the effort to transport myself, and explain why I felt like that, the experiences I had when I arrived, as I traversed the country, and my thoughts toward the end of my time here.
Expectations before arriving – “Bad People, they do bad things”
Most of what I had heard and read about Bulgaria was fairly negative, and some of it down right scary. Reading the Bulgarian section of “Clear waters rising” by Nicholas Crane (one of my key inspirations for the walk) is hair-raising stuff. He walked the same mountains as I was about to enter in the mid nineties, and encountered multiple people with guns, heard wide spread reports of the robbery of travellers, and even suggests that he was shot at by a man in a passing car. He was so scared by the experience that he left the mountains and scuttled out of Bulgaria as fast as possible on the plains out to Turkey. Then there was the opinion of many of the Turks who I discussed Bulgaria with whilst crossing Turkey – they would invariably implore me to be careful, because the Bulgarians are “bad people, they do bad things”. Finally, I was nervous about the physical, animal, and meteorological dangers of crossing the mountains in winter. The Rhodopi are one of the last bastions of wilderness in a largely populated and tamed Europe. They consist of a vast granitic mountain complex, covered largely covered in forest with large and healthy populations of grey wolves, and brown bears. In early January it had been –20 deg C in the Rhodopi, and there were reports of locals and refugees dying of exposure in the unusually ferocious weather. My maps were basic, my knowledge of what to expect limited; which all served to enhance my feelings of nervous excitement and anxiety.
Arrival and initial thoughts – Border Police, sentry towers, similarities to Brits….
I crossed Greece in a my longest days walking so far on the trip – 50 km or so from Edirne in Turkey, to Ivaylovgrad in Bulgaria. As I neared the border it became apparent that Bulgaria started where plains ended and the mountains began (1). At the Greek-Bulgarian border (gaunt sentry towers a visible reminder of when the border was hard and formed the boundary between the free west, and the Warsaw pact), the border guards were almost comically disinterested in me, or any of the travellers. No words were even spoken – just a grunt, a stamping of the passport, and a waving on. This was in dramatic contrast to the Turkish border guards, who, earlier in the day, had laughed and joked with me, asking me who my favourite football team was, asking what I was doing, wishing me luck and imploring me to come back to Turkey soon.
I got to Ivaylovgrad as the sun was setting, found accommodation on google maps, and headed over. Hulking, derelict factories and row after row of dilapidated apartment blocks loomed out of the gathering gloom. My hotel was clean, and even quite comfortable; but when I went down to the restaurant to get some dinner the differences in culture and deportment with Turkey were stark. No one paid any attention to me (nb. I don’t think that I am particularly worthy of attention, but had become accustomed to it in Turkey, where everyone seems to be curious, engaging, and ever ready to offer help or assistance), the service was lackadaisical in the extreme, no one was smiling and the menu was full of somewhat disturbing entries (eg. Chicken scallops with cornflakes, Lamb entrailses country style, Duck’s hearts). I sat eating reading my book, fairly nervous about the state of affairs in the country and the silent intensity of my fellow diners. But it happened to be a Friday night – the restaurant had a live band and soon filled up with groups. Turns out it was the place to be in Ivaylovgrad. Everyone got steadily more drunk, people started to smile a lot more, and then there started up some fairly hectic pop-folk dancing. I had got a little drunk myself, and decided to join in. So that night I realised something important about the Bulgarians – they are pretty similar to Brits – they can have a cold and unfriendly façade, but are much friendlier with a bit of drink in them. My feelings towards Bulgaria relaxed a little with this realisation.
(1). I pondered about this at the time – how come the Greeks had got all the good agricultural land and the Bulgarians were pushed up into the mountains. When you start to delve into the history of the region, it becomes apparent that territory had been fought over and populations brutalised and shunted between the countries on a dispiritingly regular basis. From when the Ottomans were booted out of the region toward the end of the 19th Century right up until the beginning of this century. The particular border quirk I had noticed came about at the end of the first world war; the Bulgarians found themselves on the wrong side in that war, and were forced to cede substantial territory to the Greeks, the Greeks had obviously nabbed the best agricultural land.