21 Jun Some Bulgarian stuff
The language stuff I keep blogging about is probably getting a bit tiresome now. But just to say, the famous four words are much more of a mouthful than in the other Balkan countries but that ‘ciao’ travels very well. The really tough thing, though, is that if you shake your head in Bulgaria it means ‘Yes’! Imagine the trouble this can cause……
You will never want for a pair of shoes here. Shoe shops abound and high heels are trending big time. By ‘high’ I mean a good 6-7 inches. After the Niki tour on Thursday we had a spot of lunch at a place well upmarket from our usual haunts (yes, you can find lunch in Bulgaria), in with Sofia’s best-shod. Excellent cabaret to watch gals clad in tight denims with those expensive designer torn bits tottering and teetering on their towering stilettos while we dived into yet another salad. Guys are more understated with just a little light suede loafer to set off the denim jeans they all wear (except the guards at the presidential palace who wear skirts and pantaloons).
You will also never be short of reading material. There is a second-hand book market in the square outside our hostel that’s open every day. And the Sofia streets are full of bookshops, coming a close second to shoe shops in the national rankings. I found these mesmerising, especially when you see a familiar face on the cover of a book and a title that’s incomprehensible – to wit, Alex Ferguson’s autobiography! So Bulgaria seems to be a well-read sort of place.
Well-fed too. We’ve had the best food of the trip so far in a little Bulgarian restaurant recommended to us by the lovely Sylvia and just around the corner from the hostel. Give them an aubergine and some garlic and they will create a taste of heaven. Flatbreads filled with a soft white cheese and then flipped and toasted or roasted in something that smells and tastes fantastic. Salads with the deepest flavours, nothing too spicy but gentle tastes that seem to subtly linger on your palate. Lots and lots of choice with not a bit of flesh in sight and a supply of gallant waiters dressed with a traditional flourish. Feeling hungry again just writing this!
Restaurants tend to have a gaffer, usually a fierce-looking woman with an ultra-short hairstyle (yes, even shorter than mine, a Number 5 max) that seems to signal authority. These inscrutable ladies strut about a bit but don’t really seem to do very much except practise the art of the disapproving look. There seem sometimes to be as many staff as there are customers and we suspect that hours are quite long, pay is low and there’s often not enough to do. We saw the same signs of economic difficulty here as we did in Belgrade – the money exchanges, empty shops and abandoned businesses. We saw more begging on the streets, not lots but noticeably more than elsewhere.
Bulgaria is a big country and we saw very little of it – Sofia and the lovely Plovdiv, said to be possibly the oldest town in Europe. The three-hour journey between the two cities takes you through countryside that’s heavily wooded, lots of conifers and eventually two enormous paper mills. As you approach Plovdiv you are in a valley with crops, especially sunflowers, fields and fields of them all facing south. The villages are dilapidated but have the charm that comes with those lovely weathered terracotta roofs. Lots of warehouses and industrial units in the country and on the outskirts of the towns are abandoned and there are newer ones that seem unfinished, just the breeze blocks and a roof but no windows. Stations along the route are just like the ones we saw in Serbia, pretty shabby affairs without clear platforms – you just get off the train whichever side you want and walk across the tracks. There is some evidence that new track is being laid here and there and stations are being improved but the infrastructure is decades away from the Europe further west. It’s like deconstruction and reconstruction are going on simultaneously, a massive work in progress.
Finally, if you run into Nigel Farage or any of his chums, tell him that there are 7 million Bulgarians and nearly all of them are still here!