Saturday 30 July 2016

The Twenty-First Week

Sunday 24-7-16

So today we decided we'd seen enough of grey Bulgaria. We grabbed one last fried breakfast at the campsite ran by Brits at Veliko Tarnovo and headed North. We crossed the Danube at a town called Ruse, leaving Bulgaria on one side of the bridge and entering Romania on the other.

The border wasn't that busy and after showing our passports we were through. At the first petrol station we saw we bought a vignette for 7 days which cost us 6 euro. The difference in house styles and the tidiness was immediately noticeable. It seems the Romanians take a bit more pride in where they live than the Bulgarians. We had a long drive north over flat boring countryside then just after a town called Ploiesti we started to climb into the mountains. The scenery was alpine and the towns had the alpine chalet look you get all over Europe. Along one road we came across lots of cabins selling plastic tat. We later asked a Romanian about this and she sighed and said yes, Romanians like plastic, the brighter the colour the better.

At Tre Brazi we found a campsite with a very energetic owner who ran around sorting us out and then showing us the river and all the facilities. It was a nice site with great views of the hills. They'd even built a beach at the side of a pond.

That evening we had a lovely sunset to watch. We decided we liked Romania.

Camping Cheile Rasnoavei, Romania. N45.54705 E025.50713

Monday 25-7-16 and Tuesday 26-7-16

The next morning we drove back down the 5km gravel road from the campsite to the main road.

There was an info board all about the bears who live in Transylvania. Unfortunately it was all in Romanian so we were none the wiser.

Today we were heading to a friends house who lives just south of Brasov. But first we needed to do a big shop. We found a huge Auchan supermarket on the outskirts of Brasov. Inside it had the largest bag and weigh section I'd ever seen.

My friend lived in a small town called Cristian . When we got there he was out and so we found a nice shady spot by the fortified church for lunch.

After lunch we caught up with him and he installed us in this yard. He also gave us the use of a granny flat attached to his house with a balcony. We'd be sleeping in a house for the first time in 5 months.

That night he and his Romanian wife organised a BBQ and invited some friends around. We got to meet some more Romanians and another Englishman who had a house in the town. He invited us to a BBQ at his house the next night. We couldn't fault the hospitality. The next day I took the opportunity of having access to some axle stands to rotate the front wheels with the back. The rear ones have a deal more tread on them and would do a better job on the front. As ever I had expert supervision from my co-pilot.

We had a walk around the town and it felt friendly and like a nice place to live. In the evening we all went to the BBQ. He had also invited 11 Irish people he'd met in Brasov who were touring Romania. He had a huge house where at one time he and his wife had run a children's home. The Romanians, like the Bulgarians love to cook pork over charcoal. His Romanian mate took charge of the cooking and didn't stop supplying us with food for two hours.

The Irish got drunk and danced and we got drunk and watched them. We had a great night.

Cristian, Romania.

Wednesday 27-7-16 and Thursday 28-7-16

We said our goodbyes and left Cristian. Thirteen years ago I got the chance to buy a plot of land in the mountains of Transylvania that had permission to build a house on it. We'd never visited it, just seen photos, so it seemed like a good idea to go visit it and camp on it. It was 30km north of Brasov and we found the turn off to it on the road then drove 3km up a gravel track. When we got there to say we were pleased with our purchase would be an understatement.

Our neighbour in the house on the left introduced himself as Gabriel. He invited us on to his balcony and we told him why we were there and he told us lots of stuff about the area and building a house here. He gave us his phone number and said we should keep in touch. We pitched up in a shady corner and sat and looked at our 900 square metres of Transylvania. 

That night I carried on with the pork over charcoal habit we'd formed and burnt some ribs.

The next day Gabriel took us up into the woods blackberry picking and we got to know about the bears, wolves and Lynx that live here. I felt a bit uneasy about wafting my meat odours around last night, we decided on pasta tonight. We had a good look at Gabriel's house. He had a 12m bore hole for water, solar panels and a wind turbine to charge a big bank of batteries that fed a 240v inverter and a log stove that heated his water. He said we could build a house twice the size of his for 20k euro. We sat outside the van that night and made plans.

Wild camping on our plot of land, Persani, Romania. N45.76465 E025.29696

Friday 29-7-16

We said our goodbyes to our new best friend in Romania, Gabriel, and drove back down the track to the road. We'll hopefully be driving back up it in April next year with a caravan to leave on the plot while we erect some fences and start to build a house, lets see what happens. We drove on north through some lovely countryside. I had some coordinates for a small camping in the mountains and after a steep climb we found it. From what we could gather it was just called Camping. That's all the hand painted sign said, we gave a young lad five euros and we got a pitch next to a big covered table.

It had a brand new toilet block and a river. It was our kind of place. Being Friday lots of Romanians turned up with tents, dived into the forest and dragged wood out for fires, then proceeded to light them. I made do with a crappy foil BBQ which needed some encouragement to light.

That night it was like a scene from Apocalypse Now with fires and smoke rising above the trees. You wouldn't get this on a Caravan Club site in the UK. This place was far better.

Camping Camping, Romania. N46.77943 E025.75345

Saturday 30-7-16

And then today, we headed further north. Driving through a gorge that was as spectacular as the Verdun Gorge in France and over mountains with hairpins and switchbacks.

The Romanians had also installed some more little wooden tat shops to make the experience complete.

We drove over a dam and then followed a lake for 40km, the views were great. The only problem was the roads, so far we'd had good roads but here the surface was appalling and then did 100km of potholes and bumps.

The churches here are something special too. They have domes and spires and they cover them in gold and silver tiles.

We found a camping ran by a Dutch couple, small and tidy, the site that is not the couple. We planned to have a week in Romania, but today we stopped and bought another 7 day vignette. It's a great country and we want to see more.

Camping Vuurplats, Romania. N47.53493 E025.415871

Below are the numbers so far for 144 days away.

Cheers, the Van Brian Crew.

Saturday 23 July 2016

The Twentieth Week

Monday 18-7-16 and Tuesday 19-7-16

So after our weekend at Lake Batak with lots of Bulgarians having fun we moved on today. We paid the nice young couple who ran the site and chatted about the thing we always seem to end up talking about, Brexit. The sun was shining on the lake as we drove up the hill.

From the Lake to our next stop was more miles away than we'd normally do in a day. But the dearth of campsites in Bulgaria meant it had to be done. What helped was a very good motorway for 90 km of the drive. I was thankful for the gps, the road signs bared no resemblance to the town names on our maps.

After the motorway we were back onto Bulgarian A roads. We were now getting used to seeing horse and carts and people working in the fields using tools that could have been out of my garden shed.

Liz was on camera duty today as we drove and she managed to capture an image that summed up the small towns in this area. Tatty houses, horse and cart, storks on a pole and badly maintained roads.

We got to Camping Alexandrovo just after lunch. We were met by the owner and his wife, Matt and Kako. The place was a gem. A grass pitch with a decking running down one side with wonderful views across the valley and a brand new shower block. Best of all, we were the only ones there so we had all this to ourselves.

Liz wasted no time in getting her tan topped up on the decking. We decided to stay for two nights.

Matt pointed us in the direction of his fruit trees and told us to take as much fruit as we wanted. So Liz waded into the plums.

It really was a relaxing place to be and it felt like we could have stopped a lot longer. But we had more of Bulgaria to see and a fixed date to meet up with a mate in Romania.

Camping Alexandrovo, Bulgaria. N41.98705 E025.72682

Wednesday 20-7-16 and Thursday 21-7-16

We said our farewells to Mat and Kako. We had a big shop to do today and then a short drive to our next camping. In the town of Alexandrovo they'd mounted a jet fighter on a pole, which was a nice change from the awful communistic concrete statues of hard faced soldiers looking to the skies, that most towns seem to have. 

We found our new favourite supermarket in a big dirty town called Haskovo. Move over Lidl, Kaufland has taken your crown. While wandering around it trying to work out what was in the tins and jars, I spotted a bargain. A single ring electric hotplate for the equivalent of six quid. Seeing as we were now doing lots of campings this would give us more options for cooking and save on our gas. Although gas wasn't a problem here, it seems that every garage in Bulgaria sells LPG. We filled up on gas on our way out of the town, it was 30p a litre, another bargain. Then 30km up the road we found Sakar Hills Camping. When we got there the owner Martin was looking very English, riding around on his lawn mower and cutting the grass. He welcomed us to the completely empty campsite. It had a bit of a bleak appearance, one side was a railway embankment and around it a few of the usual dilapidated Bulgarian houses, the landscape reminded me of the Lincolnshire fens. He said we could pitch up anywhere. Empty campsites were becoming the norm here. Martin jokingly asked us if we wanted to buy the site as he was thinking of selling, an offer we jokingly declined. So we plonked ourselves in the middle of the site on a nice flat concrete slab.

The chap who lived next door had a fine collection of hens on the other side of the wire fence and from what we could see at least five cockerels. These chaps liked to do the cock-a-doodle do thing and soon became annoying.

The owners son, Matt, had a chat with us and told us they'd had 300 cancellations this year, mainly motorhome group partys from Germany and Holland. He put it down to the trouble in Turkey. That evening while roasting a chicken for our dinner, not one of the annoying ones unfortunately, we got to watch a big full moon rise.

On Thursday after being woken up at five thirty by “the bloody cocks” we had a wander into the town. It met our expectations by being untidy and grey. We also got to see another one of the concrete war memorials that all the towns seem to have, it even had the soldier looking to the skies.

We had a coffee in a bar in the town square, but the view didn't really make you feel like lingering around and watching the world go by. I'm not really selling this place am I? We talked about why anyone would up sticks and move out here and the only reasons we could come up with was that it was a simpler, cheaper way of life and the weather was good. Apart from that I'd have to be living in a pretty bad area of the UK to think that a Bulgarian town was a preferable place to live.

A neighbors dog started howling at eleven that night but he shouted at it now and again, so that gave us a variety of noise at least.

Camping Sakar Hills, Bulgaria. N41.87079 E025.99136

Friday 22-7-16 and Saturday 23-7-16

After paying we drove away from the worst place for noise we've stopped in in four months, and that's saying something as we've wild camped in the middle of towns. I wouldn't recommend the place unless you're profoundly deaf, no wonder the owner is trying to sell it, that and the Turkey issue.
We had 250km to do today but Martin at the last site had given us a good route that was scenic and took us through pine forests and mountains. Every now and again we'd hit a town and the tarmac would be replaced with gravel and bomb craters to negotiate. The rest of the time the roads were good, small and bendy. Until we rounded one bend and the road opened out into what could have been a three lane motorway, with hard shoulder. For about a mile it was straight and flat, it felt like an airport runway. And then it went back to the usual small bendy road. We wondered if it was an emergency runway for the military?

We found a Lidl and did a shop, they have nice sausages in Bulgarian Lidl's. And then a few more miles on we found Camping Veliko Tarnovo. We were welcomed by the duty manager, who was an English lady. We were asked for both our passports and all our details got copied out onto a registration form. It's seems that this is the law here but this was the only site to ask for them. We were given an info pack that included rules of the camping, another first. The site felt like one of those very organised Caravan Club sites in the UK apart from they had sunshine here.

The facility's were great, they even had a swimming pool that Liz took to immediately. I had a beer on a nice cafe terrace and spoke to a Scottish couple. They were stopping here as they'd come to see the progress of the renovation of their property in a nearby village. It'd had cost less than their 14 year old car she proudly told me. In the corner of the site was a converted county council library bus.

I went and spoke to the couple who owned it. He was a plumber by trade and they'd sold up in the UK, had just put a bid on a derelict house and were waiting for the deal to go through. I'd asked both couples what the villages were like that the properties were in and they both said they were OK for Bulgaria. Perhaps I was wrong and there are some decent places? That evening I created a new dish. I've made pizzas in our BBQ before but the only ready made pastry we could find here was filo pastry. But I gave it a go, I put six sheets on the bottom and added tom purée, chopped toms, Gruyère cheese, sliced mozzarella, wafer thin bacon and slices of tomato. I then put six more sheets of pastry on the top, wrapped the sides over, rubbed it with olive oil and created a pizza pie. It turned out to be good, surprisingly.

Another bonus we had at this site was that they served full cooked English breakfasts in the morning. I was up early and dragged Lizzie up to the cafe to order two. They were great, after five months of travelling I'd missed this heart attack on a plate delicacy.

And that's us done for another week. The site advertises that a mobile hairdresser is available, so Liz has booked a lady called Pepper to come and do her roots and give her a trim this evening. I've enjoyed Bulgaria's countryside and forests but it seems everywhere a Bulgarian puts down his roots he turns into a mess. A shame really, it can't be just down to lack of money as we've been to poor areas of other countries that the locals take a pride in and are nice places to be. Tomorrow we head for Romania and the Transylvania region.

Camping Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria.  43.06717, 25.75362 

Below are the numbers so far for 137 days away.

Saturday 16 July 2016

The Ninteenth Week

Sunday 10-7-16

So the forecast today was for 37 degrees. It wasn't wrong. My solution was to spend most of the day in the shade of the van, write up last weeks blog and upload it. The wifi on the site was fast and free. I also backed up and recovered photos after our wine in the keyboard issues with two previous laptops. This was all aided by our recent big blowy fan purchase. The evening had been mapped out too. We were eating out at a grill restaurant, part of my ongoing search for grilled lamb chops, then cocktails in a noisy beach bar and then the Euro final. Liz being French having a keen interest in the result. We showered then wandered to the restaurant. Bingo, yes they had lamb chops. To say we were happy is an understatement.

They were great and we got eight each for 10 euro. Then it was part two of the mission, noisy beach bar. We found one playing AC/DC, old Rock n Roll and Santana, right up my street music wise. Liz had her cocktail and I crammed three ice cold Alpha beers in before kick off.

We saw the first drunk Greeks of our trip, they were happily knocking shots back and being nice and loud. Great stuff. Then it was back to the van and the dongle plugged in the laptop did it's stuff again. Shame the game was so boring and the French lost. But we'd had a good night whatever.

Camping Poseidon, Platamonas, Greece. N40.01329 E022.59299

Monday 11-7-16.

After a very steady pack up, last nights festivities had dulled my enthusiasm a bit, we paid up and left the camping. They tried to charge us 56 euro for two nights but Liz waved the ACSI book at them and they reduced it to 34 euro, the last date of the discount rate was today so we'd just got there in time.

We bought spinach pie and bread at the baker then jumped on the motorway to Thessaloniki. 55Km up the motorway we jumped off it and found a camping. Small, quiet and a lot cooler than yesterdays.

We walked around the site and found a cracking old Land rover with a very unstable camping box thing stuck on it. It was abandoned in a corner of the site and the last tax disc in the window was 2005. I liked it even though it looked like it'd handle like a pig on a pushbike.

We had coffees by the pool and then did some jobs. I put straps on the foil backed beach mats so they'd attach to the windows to act as sun shades and sorted the fan out with a strap to hang it over the bed. We also spent an hour putting a months worth of facts and figures in the trip log spreadsheet, another victim of the wine keyboard interface.

Camping Methoni, Greece. N40.42766 E022.60406

Tuesday 12-7-16

So we dropped back onto the motorway, paid our tolls and headed up to Thessaloniki. Luckily it has a ring road. Looking at it from the ring road which was above the town it looked like a hot busy mess of apartments, shops and businesses. We then headed south down the coast and into the part of Greece known as Halkidiki. We stopped to buy cigarettes in one of the seaside towns. I double parked as is the custom and a guy on the other side of the road double parked. All quite acceptable here.

The towns were busy and the beaches full of parasols. It was looking like yet another campsite night until we wandered into Paralia Trigias. By an old harbour building we found a quiet spot to park up next to some well looked after grass.

At the end of the road was a beach taverna. We had coffees then lunch back at the van. About four we wandered back for ice creams and two old Greek blokes started talking to us. We sat with them and they shared their retsina wine with us. One was a communist called Tito with Che Guevara tattooed on his arm the other was a capitalist called Georgos who loved money. This they told us in a mixture of Greek, German and English. But they were best friends non the less. The capitalist was off to Germany to work at the beer festivals making pizzas, he went by the name of Pizza George. The communist said he'd stay in Greece and drink wine. They called Liz Her Majesty when the found out her name. They were both very drunk. We left them after an hour and Pizza George drove his friend home. We sat outside the van in the shade and drank beer and read.

Wild camping at Paralia Trilias Beach, Greece. N40.26917 E023.18122

Wednesday 13-7-16

We looked at the map and I declared my total disinterest at seeing any more random Greek beaches. So Halkidiki was crossed off the itinerary. Seeing as where we were gave us a great opportunity to head north to Bulgaria that's what we decided to do. We backtracked up the dual carriageway to Thessaloniki then hung a right for a place on the coast called Stavros. The road was new and smooth and paid for by the EU. When we hit the coast we decided that as tomorrow would be a border crossing day we should find a campsite with Wi-Fi . We needed to find out what we needed, we didn't even know what the currency was in Bulgaria. And in Asprovota we found what we wanted. And it was probably our strangest Greek campsite yet.

We found a nice spot in the shade and then ambled around the place. It was huge, hundreds of pitches, but only maybe 10% occupied. You could see it had once been very busy and well maintained. But now it was struggling. We had become used to seeing Greek caravans left on the sites and people using them as weekend cottages, with little fences and paved areas they'd installed themselves, but here they took things even further. They were planting veggie plots outside their caravans.

The seafront was a bit bleak, but some of the residents had been watering the bit of grass in front of their plots to keep it green.

The Supermarket on site had seen better days too, we were glad we went to Lidl before getting here.

But it was quiet, the toilets were clean with hot water in the showers and the wifi was fast and free. In Lidl today we'd done a bit of shopping and found mozzi nets on offer. We bought some and I spent some time cutting them up to replace the tatty nets on the van door screen. Liz also made a small one to fit over the drivers door using the magnets they came with so we can have that open while we're parked up.

On the free wifi we sussed out Bulgaria border requirements, found out they spend Levs in the shops, learnt how to say hello and thank you in Bulgarian and found a campsite to head to just over the border for tomorrow night. So we were all set, I do like a plan.

Camping Asprovolta, Greece. N40.73553 E023.71797

Thursday 14-7-16

Bulgaria bound we headed north for the border, we waved bye bye to the sea as the next time we'd see it would be in France in two months time. On our way north we passed this fine fellow. No idea what it was but it looked old.

We reached the border after an hour and a half. We'd dug out our insurance docs, V5 and driving licences as we'd read we'd need them to enter Bulgaria. After a short queue two policemen, one Greek and one Bulgarian asked to see our passports. The Greek then asked us what we thought of Brexit. We told him and he gave us a long lecture about why it was good and what would happen next. He kept us talking for 5 minutes even though there was a queue of cars behind us. Eventually he waved us through and that was it. None of the other docs needed. About a mile up the road we pulled in for fuel, it was cheaper here so we'd waited till over the border to fill up. A nice chap filled us up and then gave our window a wash. Liz went and paid and also bought a carnet for 15 euro to allow us to drive in Bulgaria for a month.

We found the campsite I'd spotted on Google maps yesterday. It was run by an English couple called John and Sarah. It was small and tidy. The showers and loos were brand new and we had use of a kitchen in the house if we needed it.

They invited us for drinks and a game of darts after dinner. They also had two Spanish lads stopping there doing work for them in exchange for room and board, these two lads from Bilbao were referred to as the Spaniels and they'd learnt to play darts that week. They beat us all.

Sometime in the early hours we made it back to the van, Bulgarian rakia had made me sleepy.

Kamping Kromidovo, Bulgaria.  N41.45472 E023.36283

Friday 15-7-16

I woke up at 10am. We went to see John and another Brit called Ian with our map and they helped us with suggestions for places to go. This done we packed up very steadily as we had fuzzy heads and it was 41 degrees. We waved bye and headed for a big supermarket Sarah had recommended. We found it and it had an ATM which was handy as we had no Levs, we'd had to pay for the camping with Euros. It was a big place and we found everything we needed. The advertising poster outside caught my eye, the lady on it seemed to have far too many teeth.

After this we headed east and into the mountains with an idea that it would be cooler higher up. Just before the town of Predel at 1100m above sea level we spotted a sign for Camping. We followed down a dirt track through a forest and came across a completely empty campsite. A very happy man ran out the house and shouted “hello you want camp?” at us. We said yes and he said anywhere, which was obvious really as the field was empty apart from a lot of small wooden camping chalets. I asked how much and rubbed my fingers together in the internationally recognised way to mean money and he held up 10 fingers. 10 Euro, bargain, we pitched up and he plugged us in to the only electric point on the site.

It was sunny but a lot cooler than at the bottom of the mountains in the valley. Mission accomplished for the day.

Camping Predel, Bulgaria.  N41.89648 E023.33054

Saturday 16-7-16

We paid the happy campsite fellow and headed for Lake Batak. There was a camping on the lake that we'd got a discount card for. I took a photo of our personal campsite as we passed it on the dirt road.

The way to the lake took us through the mountains. There were people turning hay over with pitch forks in the fields and we passed lots of farmers with horse and carts. In one town we spotted a Lidl so did a small shop, really we just wanted to compare it with the Greek ones. More cooked meats and less Feta cheese was the answer. We were met at the gate of the camping by a young lady called Jana. She showed us a pitch and apologised for it being busy, it was Saturday and all the Bulgarians would go home tomorrow after their weekend away. We had a nice view of the lake and the cloud was clearing. Another night sorted.

Camping Lake Batak, Bulgaria.  N41.95861 E024.15475

I've managed to rescue my facts and figures spreadsheet and updated it. Below are the numbers so far for 130 days away.

Cheers, the Van Brian Crew.