Bulgaria August 9 - 20, 2005
A Shift in Attention
The relatively low stimulation of cyclotouring creates long intervals for pondering the world and much of our time is filled with reacting to the environment. We delve into pressing matters like identifying a new tree on the road, marveling at convolutions in exposed rock strata, or learning new foreign words from the local signage. But in the Balkan Peninsula, risk became the overwhelming topic filling our usually tranquil pedaling interludes.
It was the land mine signs in the most eastern tip of northern Croatia that triggered the change. Weeks after seeing them I still found myself hesitant to shortcut across 5' of grass or dirt as it triggered a jolt in me. It was like we had a sample-sized dose of post-traumatic stress syndrome. Of course, nothing at all happened to us when we were traversing the miles of roadway intermittently posted with land mine warning signs, but they instantly had made a deep impression. Being in an area infested with land mines infused our travels with a seriousness of life that had previously been absent. As travelers these last several years our hearts have ached for the people living hard lives in poverty, for the plight of the many stray animals, and for all the needless suffering in the world, but land mines immersed us in an outrageously new twist of hardship.
Political vs Motoring Aggression
As we'd been told, the land mine signs disappeared upon entering Serbia but our new preoccupation was the worsening traffic conditions. The belligerent Croatian driving style had given us gray hairs, but the land mine issue had been more pressing (except for the moments when we contemplated being hit by a car and then tossed onto a land mine). In general, the Serbian drivers weren't as reckless as the Croatian drivers but the traffic volume went up. Daily we evaluated whether the risk of being on the roads was too high and daily we struggled to assess when the combination of irresponsible drivers on narrow, shoulderless truck routes was too high for us to be in the mix.
When the freeway our little road had been paralleling as we traveled south through Serbia disappeared at Niš, we finally decided the risk was getting too high to ignore. All of the auto and truck traffic that had been on the toll freeway would now be on our small, overused road. We spent hours over several days making inquiries, checking databases on the internet, studying maps and pouring over our 2 guidebooks trying to decide between the 2 possible routes south out of Niš and towards our ultimate destination of Istanbul.
In taking the Macedonian route, we risked getting shot in the sporadic violence on the roads and in a couple of towns in southern Serbia on the way to Macedonia. There were also the increasing, though vague, references to land mines in southern Serbia to consider. But taking the other route through Sofia, Bulgaria pitted us against the notoriously heavy truck traffic on the narrow road--significant enough traffic to merit US State Department travelers warnings.
We weren't pleased to be choosing between literally getting caught in the crossfire or getting squished on a shrinking road, but the problems were mounting. The third Niš tourist info person we queried was better informed about the Serbian/Macedonian route and also mentioned recent bombings in Turkey. Hearing him say that tour groups were canceling trips to Turkey only compounded our uncertainty level about our route.
First, we had to decide how to proceed south from Niš given the trade-off between possible violence and escalating traffic volume. Then there was the matter of being able to find lodging once in Greece on the road to Thessaloniki if we went through Macedonia. And now the upswing in terrorist activity in Turkey had to be factored in. In the process of getting current about the situation in Turkey, we learned that flooding there was causing road closures and disrupting train traffic. "Too hard, too hard" came out of our mouths many times a day.
Weighing the risk of being a victim of terrorism was more perplexing than the road safety and the land mine issues. The 9/11 attack in the US and the July 7th attacks this year in London shattered the notions of anywhere being safe. And yet staying at home offered little assurance of safety as our Pacific Northwest corner of the US is at high risk of a catastrophic earthquake and subsequent tsunami.
The more we examined risk, the greater our muddle. We looked at the general trepidation about flying, yet remembered that the odds of dying in an auto accident are greater than dying in a plane crash. Most people regard our overseas biking as perilous, yet we generally find it less treacherous than riding in the US.
And in reviewing our travels, we recognized that we tolerated about one hour-long activity a year that seemed foolishly risky. Most years that extra bit of risk was incurred when scrambling over loose rock surfaces to see a special sight. Doing a 'macro' and 'micro' look at our risk averseness was a sensible exercise to help us plan our next move but it unfortunately didn't deliver any conclusions. We were clearer in our own minds about the issues and up-to-speed on each other's views, but it failed to present a better strategy for making the decisions at hand.
The process of reviewing our beliefs about risk also underscored how one becomes acclimated to it. The level of risk one is accepting can slowly creep up around you without you noticing that your standards have changed. If we hadn't been traveling in Europe these last 4+ years, the large attacks on Madrid and London might have been enough to keep us from coming to far away and unfamiliar Europe. But we were here, being in Europe was comfortable, so even though those terrible events were frightening, we found ourselves becoming acclimated to the risks of terrorism. Interestingly, when faced with the risk of terrorism in farther away and more foreign Turkey, the threat again became intimidating.
A New Option
As Bill poured over the maps and we pondered our next move, we felt even more like we were being lead into a box canyon. We finally decided to play our wildcard by taking the train to Sofia, Bulgaria, thereby sidestepping both the risk of getting shot and the risks of being on a heavily traveled truck route. Once in Sofia we'd search for more information about lodging availability on the road from Sofia to Thessaloniki and re-evaluate the worrisome traffic volume. We would also keep checking on the safety issues in Turkey and postpone the decision about going there until the last minute.
Of course, nothing was easy during this time and that included getting the bikes on the train at Niš. The last tourist info person we spoke with actually had some useful information and had assured us that we could put the bikes in the train car with us as the train was never full. When I went to the ticket counter I was told "No, not possible." Emboldened by prior successes in the face of being told "No," I asked if he would refund my tickets if the conductor wouldn't allow us on. With his assurance of a refund, we headed for the platform and positioned ourselves for a quick boarding. The lack of appealing alternatives meant we needed to make this work.
When the train arrived we began
shuttling our bikes and bags onto the train under the watchful eye of several
train staff people. We didn't ask; none of them said anything and none
approached us so we scurried to load as quickly as possible. A foot in the door
is a powerful thing and we hoped the tourist info guy was right. Once underway,
the conductor asked for our ticket for the bikes, which of course we didn't have
as bikes weren't allowed. That was no problem for
him. We paid him as requested for the bikes and were surprised to be given a receipt.
border, the Bulgarian conductor happily charged us an even higher rate for the
bikes to continue on with us, but offered no receipt.
We were chagrined to be taking the train after biking every inch from Barcelona, but it was our best option out of the box canyon we'd found ourselves in. A quick look at the Bulgarian sights in our guide book narrowed our plan to visiting the museums in Sofia and one in the Black Sea coast town of Varna that a Portlander had raved about. Taking in a few sights rather than blasting through Bulgaria was a way of salvaging this leg of our journey. We opted to not even try riding our bikes in Bulgaria beyond their utility as luggage carts. Instead we would make the break in routine more complete by being public transportation travelers and eating in restaurants instead of preparing our own dinners--it would be our unplanned Bulgarian holiday.
Arriving in Bulgaria
Our arrival in Bulgaria was a set-up for a rocky start as our rickety, pokey train from Niš arrived at sunset. It's always jarring to be plopped down in the largest city of a new country and have to deal with a new language, a new culture and new money, but doing after dark is even harder. Fortunately, several English-speaking Bulgarians offered directional help as we struggled to find our guesthouse on the broken and dimly lit streets. The district we were in felt safe enough, it was just an aggravatingly slow process of getting around with a sketchy map at night.
Our highly rated guesthouse was an instant disappointment. It wasn't the charming place we had expected, nor did it seem like a winner for solving our other problems. We had hoped it was a classy enough place that I could give Fed Ex their address so as to receive my repaired eye glasses journeying back from Portland and that we could stash our bikes and panniers during our 3 night side trip to Varna. But the room was just OK, the staff was unpleasant about the hot water faucet that wouldn't shut off, and the safe place they had promised on the phone for our bikes was in an unsecured patio. Instead of sightseeing the next day, shopping for a new hotel would be the priority.
Our experience with the 2 hotels in Sofia didn't get us off to a good start in with the country. We don't know whether it's a function of the brand of text books from which some Bulgarians learn English or a national attitude, but at both hotels we got a heavy dose of very directive styles from our young hosts. When I reported the problem with our hot water faucet at the first hotel just after checking in, I was greeted with "It must work." When I asked for a new room as the other staff member hopelessly fiddled with the stripped valve less effectively than we had already done, I was told "No, he will fix it."
We were happy to change
hotels but were surprised to be met with the same authoritarian style at the more upscale
business class hotel. Our efforts to move the bikes out of the hotel lobby
before going to bed were met with "Don't worry, we will move them." They
insisted that we unlock them so they could move them. Of course in the morning they had yet to be
moved. And we crossed our fingers when we later left for our Varna side trip with our unlocked bikes and
all of our gear
still sitting in the small lobby too close to the front door. It felt like at both places our efforts to
have a discussion or communicate our needs were received as confrontational and
that there was no room for negotiation.
Our reaction to being in neighboring Serbia was very polarized as we were dazzled by the kindness of the people in face to face interactions and appalled at the disregard for life exhibited by many of the drivers on the roads. We also found our initial experiences in Bulgaria polarizing as we were enjoyed the ambiance on the streets much more than in Croatia or Serbia but simultaneously were feeling battered by our interactions with hotel staff of whom we needed more help than usual.
Our frustrations grew in discovering that Sofia lacked a tourist info office (it turns out that there is one--it's just that no one knows where it is). The outdoor touch screen computer did little to address our long list of questions, especially road information. We were in desperate need of current news because of road and rail closures due to flooding in Bulgaria as well as in Turkey, but there was no one to consult.
Fortunately we stumbled into a local travel agency that was prepared to provide information for a small fee. They were extremely helpful in arranging for our second hotel in Sofia, in lining up our lodging in Varna on what turned out to be on a busy holiday weekend, and pointing us in the direction for rail tickets to Varna and finding an internet shop. Like in Niš earlier in the week, we resigned ourselves to our new "Balkan Mode," which was taking days to gather information and to make arrangements that we are accustomed to doing on the fly. In "Balkan Mode" there was no time slicing, only laboriously grinding through the process. We disciplined ourselves to only focusing on the next 6 hour block of time as the frustration level shot up too high when we hoped to know what the next couple of days would look like.
We kept reminding ourselves to expect less out of each day. When our Sofia hotel clerk suggested we go to the train station an hour and a half before our departure it was tempting to balk. The grim place was only a couple of miles away and hanging out at the hotel would have been far more pleasant, but we conceded to the directive. And we were glad we did as they neglected to return our passports to us necessitating a hurried return trip to the hotel just before our train departed. We would not have been able to check in to our Varna hotel room after the hot and sticky 9 hour train ride without them.
Bulgaria had the worn out, down trodden look of much of Eastern Europe. Each of the former Eastern Block countries we have visited has their own spin on it and Bulgaria was no exception. Windows permanently streaked and stained from leached chemicals; sidewalks so broken and potholed that they looked like construction sites; and the prevalence of abandoned or makeshift buildings were a part of the look. The Cyrillic alphabet with a few additional strange letters that weren't used in Serbian added to the "foreign and distant land" quality. And increasingly we found ourselves being reminded of the more chaotic look of farther south Greece or Turkey.
But despite the troubled look of city we found Sofia to to have a cheery buzz and to be comfortable and welcoming when we looked beyond the rubble. Like Berlin, it felt more like a collection of neighborhoods than an intimidating city. The areas we visited were all very much on a people-scale with no high rises and few massive facades. We quickly felt at home as we made multiple trips to a few places trying to plan our next week. (And everything took multiple trips, even to the ATM's which would only dispense small amounts of cash per transaction.)
We were however disappointed at seeing small packs of stray dogs hanging around the train station, both for the rough lives they were living and for the difficulties we face as cyclists in areas were stray dogs are the norm. These of course were all well socialized to being city dogs but rural and suburban strays weren't likely to be so well behaved. And surprisingly, despite the large number of stray dogs, there was less dog poop on the sidewalks than in cities where most of the dogs have owners.
Our initial visit to Sofia became truncated by solving our hotel problems there and in Varna--sightseeing would have to wait until after our Varna getaway. A little holiday weekend at the Black Sea resort town of Varna to see a museum was our way of creating an opportunity out of our interrupted bike trip and to allow time for my glasses to arrive from Portland. The bikes were left in Sofia for ease of getting around and we accepted that we'd take a different approach in this region that was difficult for riding.
Though we lamented not pedaling, taking the train into Bulgaria and then on to Varna were cultural immersions in their own right. Our crowded train ride to Varna felt like a third-world experience. In western Europe we'd seen similar looking train cars abandoned to rot on sidings but in Bulgaria it was the rolling stock. Like the building windows, the train windows were grungy, permanently stained and in poor repair. The toilets were the sparest of equipment but surprised us with running water in the sink, however the sink looked like it had never been cleaned. The pile of poop on the floor of one WC added to the sorry look of it all. For part of the journey we rattled along with one of the side doors wide open in the back of our car for much needed ventilation in the persistent heat--the pair of police pacing in the corridor didn't seem bothered by it.
When we exited the train at the end of the line in Varna a man with a long handled hammer methodically whacked each steel wheel checking for cracks. Bill reminded me that we'd only seen this technique demonstrated in a museum and that most countries relied on a higher level of technology to monitor the soundness of train wheels. But the worker was thorough and after listening to the wheel tone he touched a hand to the adjacent bearing to ensure it was cool.
A Slice of Ancient History
It's hard to say that the Varna Archeological Museum was worth an 18 hour round trip on a crowded and miserably hot train, but it did open new chapters in our history book and we were delighted to have seen it. The Varna Lakes, which now are a canal to the Black Sea, supported an amazingly advanced culture from 4,600-4,200 bce. Their burial sites yielded the largest and perhaps oldest finds of worked gold in the world--over 12 pounds of it. And the playfully decorative pottery of this early culture would easily find buyers in a gallery today.
As is often the case, the Varna finds are especially rich because of disaster. Their tragedy wasn't an exploding volcano like Pompeii or war devastation like many sites, but a flood--the rising water levels in the Black Sea. Their settlements were submerged in up to 30' of water.
Days later I found the 'rest of the story' in a scholarly book in a Thessaloniki museum store. The author maintained an episode of global warming hit the Balkan Peninsula especially hard, substantially raising the water level there and wiping out the Varna Lakes' settlements. In addition, the climate change caused forest fires, floods, landslides, and soil erosion wiping out the better part of the estimated 700 Copper Age settlements in the region. It triggered what is termed a "Dark Millennium" with the remaining people literally scattering for the hills and the knowledge of copper making being lost in the process. The devastating effects brought to mind the similar events occurring in southern Europe at the moment with the Portugal being consumed by forest fires during the worst drought in recorded history and Romania continuing to be inundated by summer-long floods.
We finally understood that it was probably this relatively rapid flooding that resulted in so many fine copper tools being discovered. Bill kept commenting that he hadn't seen so many large pieces before. Presumably it is because this settlement was destroyed before the transition to bronze when all of the inherently weaker copper tools were usually re-melted with tin to make the much stronger bronze tools.
We are guessing that being a Copper Age culture also explains why their huge gold collection wasn't ornately worked. I expected to see fine details in the soft metal and instead the surfaces were smooth expect for an handful of pieces with a limited amount of simple punch work. We surmised that the more elaborate gold decoration required harder metals like bronze or perhaps iron that came after this culture was wiped out.
Interestingly, the next culture to appear in the area had bronze but left little evidence of it, left no gold work behind and had a much cruder, function-oriented pottery. It wasn't until thousands of years later when the Thracians arrived that high style was in the region again.
The Transitory Nature of Knowledge
Seeing these wonderful 6,000 and 7,000 year old ceramic pieces in Varna reminded me once again of my flawed, lifelong model of how things work. I always assumed that skill and knowledge were on a progression in humans like that from childhood to adulthood--that it all got more sophisticated with time. Our in-the-field introduction to the Romans our first year of travel was our first big wake-up call to the episodic nature of the advancement of culture: many ordinary things in the Roman world like concrete, glass windows, sewage systems and central heating were all but lost in the western world for 1500 years or more. Two years later we were dazzled by the masterful pots and wildly creative decorations of the Cretan Minoans from about 3,500 years ago--artistry that was also lost with the demise of the culture. Then last year we struggled to understand how illusive the use of perspective has been: it was demonstrated in the first big wave of human art in the cave paintings of 25,000-30,000 years ago but then evidence of this technique disappeared for thousands of years.
My new, revised model shouts that our species has always had
the capacity for making fine pottery in boldly creative shapes with elaborate
decoration, just as we have always had the ability to use perspective in art.
These talents have repeatedly been expressed over thousands of years and get
lost and rediscovered. I always assumed the skills and knowledge were passed
down and were in a continuous state of evolution but that is clearly not the
Varna's 'Sea Garden' Park
Like in Sofia we were saddened by the sight of so many stray cats and dogs but were impressed at how highly socialized the Varna dogs were. Unlike most strays, these didn't sulk and slink around like they had been abused. They trotted around with confidence but also with a clear understanding of their boundaries within the community. All the dogs that we saw behaved like well mannered pets that knew just how to handle themselves in crowds of people and in the company of other dogs--it was amazing to watch them. We also noticed that many of them wore ear tags and could only guess what that was about.
The scene at Varna's and the nearby popular beaches was far from enticing to us with endless corridors of cafes and souvenir shops blocking access to the beaches and obscuring the views of the sea. But it was of course exactly what thousands of people were coming for. Teens and families walked from the city park to the beach below on old concrete staircases so broken that they looked like studies in plate tectonics. Vendors with their wares on cardboard or fabric strips sold Ecuadorian bananas, swimsuits, and sunglasses on the stone walls lining the shaded paths to the beach. However it was Varna's extensive park that paralleled the sea without a view of it that captivated us.
This Sea Garden park was a lively and exciting place, especially for the 6-10
year old set. We were mesmerized watching the young kids working their way
around the "Tarazan Extreme Park" set-up
where they had to first walk on individually suspended small logs; then a crude path of chain loops; and
finally a tight rope. Each kid wore a harness and had 2 carabineers
on separate ropes that they repeatedly released and reattached as they worked
their way around the course. At least one was absolutely terrified and all
looked challenged as they developed brand new skills. Though the course wouldn't
have met US safety standards it looked like a wonderful activity and a confidence
builder for the kids.
We were equally fascinated in watching 4 young kids simultaneously bouncing on individual, small trampolines while they also wore harnesses. It looked like someone had finally figured out how to make trampolines safe and the tiniest girl was definitely in her element. The other 3 just bounced up and down while this gal explored doing front and back flips at the peak of her bounces. It was a joy to watch her radiate the delight with her play. We were impressed to see these exciting activities that enhanced kids' development in fun, adventurous ways sprinkled in with the more passive carnival rides for tots.
The broad park plaza in front of our hotel buzzed with the sound of battery powered miniature cars being driven by grinning preschoolers--some so young that they didn't know how to steer. Parents and grandparents were busy rescuing the little drivers stalled out by an unexpected wall or preventing near-misses with other young drivers. The situation was chaotic but fun to watch in part because the kids weren't on a structured course but just a wide space in the promenade with everyone else.
Strolling and people watching in the park could be
accompanied by munching on previously boiled corn on the cob standing in water-filled plexiglass bins, popcorn,
and ice cream cones. Handcrafted table clothes were available for sale on the
sidewalks by day and vendors with glowing toys appeared after dark. Every day there was something different going on.
Dozens of us photographed the small display of garden topiaries and we were left
wondering "who, what and why" at the sight of several plywood panels
standing on end that were in the process of being painted, perhaps by passersby.
In the promenading area of this well-used park, the benches that weren't missing back or seat planks were occupied by grandmothers and young mother's with babies and toddlers in the heat of the afternoon. Varna's city park was a buzz with family-oriented activity and made it a fun place to be day or night for any age.
In walking on Varna's streets radiating away from the Sea Garden, we were surprised by the "bi-bet" street signs. "Bi-bet" was our slang expression that evolved from being in countries using the Cyrillic alphabet and is shorthand for signage containing information in both the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets. "Bi-bet" was especially appreciated on street names as our maps were in Latin and in most other cities the streets were only signed in Cyrillic. We were pretty handy with Cyrillic but it certainly slowed us down and if the script got fancy on us, it was a nightmare. Varna's long history as an international tourist destination also showed in the presence of some ramped curbs on sidewalks making them marginally accessible. The craters in many of the sidewalks had strollers and wheelchairs taking to the streets but at least the city was making an attempt to be accessible.
Our 18 hours of train riding from Sofia to Varna and back to Sofia gave us an even closer look at the Bulgarian people. We were quite surprised that our 5 compartment mates, most of whom were a decade or more our senior, all but ignored us for the long return journey. There was little acknowledgment of our presence, even when we solved a window problem that benefited us all. Had we been in the Czech Republic in the same situation I would have expected a withdrawn, almost fearful posture from them and had we been in Serbia I would have expected warm, welcoming gestures from at least a couple of the people. Our experience on the train matched our 'out and about' sense of the Bulgarians in Sofia, that their generally confident look seemed overlaid on a healthy dose of caution. Their more stoic look could have reflected the greater oppression they experienced in the communist era than that the Serbs dealt with under Tito.
The rumbling train rides into Bulgaria from Serbia and on to the Black Sea coast gave us a quick look at a lot of the Bulgarian landscape, which was a mix of rolling hills; small, dramatic gorges; and broad agricultural plains. Less usual sights were a few storks and their nests along the way, as well as horse drawn carts being used for daily transportation.
Our train ride from Sofia to Varna for our long Black Sea holiday weekend again reminded us that dealing effectively with garbage seems to be a luxury item for evolving countries and Bulgaria, like its neighbors, has yet to clean up its act. The recently flooded river the train tracks followed seemed to have cut into some of the adjacent open garbage dumps and reclaimed piles of muddy garbage were stacked high along side the tracks in one area. When lunch time came, we were the only one's looking for a garbage can as our car-mates matter-of-factly heaved their leavings out the window. Others stood at the window pitching the shells from their hard boiled eggs or paper wrappings from a sandwich out as they nibbled.
When on foot instead of on the trains in Bulgaria, we noticed few cars with foreign license plates. In contrast, foreign plates were a common sight while cruising through Serbia by bike where we saw dozens to hundreds of foreign license plates a day. In Serbia we guessed that the foreign cars belonged to ex-pats visiting relatives on their summer holiday but in Bulgaria we guessed that the foreign tourists were leaving their cars at home because of the high rate of auto theft. What we did see were cars with Bulgarian plates that also had a country sticker, like a "D" for Germany or a "CH" for Switzerland suggesting that these Bulgarian cars had prior owners in those countries.
National History Museum
Continuing our Bulgarian history lesson in the museums was high on our list once back in Sofia but the much touted National History Museum was a disappointment. Housed in an old presidential palace out in the suburbs, it was a challenge to get to. Once there we were charged 12 times the admission fee Bulgarians pay and we declined the $54 fee to take 1 or more photos with our digital camera. There were no post cards or other material to buy with pictures of their prehistoric pieces as substitutes for taking photos. In addition, the displays were poorly illuminated, whole cases of ancient finds were entirely unlabeled, and their signature Thracian finds were not available (with no comment on their website or at the museum as to their whereabouts). One room of prehistoric finds was quite well done and we revisited it to make up for the shortcomings of the rest of the visit.
In contrast, the less publicized Archeology Museum in the heart of the city was much more interesting with its mix of prehistoric finds plus Thracian, Persian, Greek and Roman artifacts covering over 500 years.
We were treated to stunning pottery from as far back as the 6th millennium. Some pieces were wash-basin sized and finely crafted enough to look like they were thrown on a potter's wheel. Other pieces were almost porcelain-thin; many pots were incised and some were decorated with colors.
Like at Varna, we were stunned by the sight of so many copper axes, some as much as a foot and a half long--items that didn't usually survive the Bronze Age re-melting. We also don't usually see much ancient silver in museums as it oxidizes relatively quickly compared to gold and bronze but in Sofia there were extensive silver finds of large serving platters, cups and hefty jewelry, both Thracian and Roman.
After being disappointed with the missing Thracian pieces at
the first Sofia museum, I asked the staff at the Archeology Museum before paying if their prized death mask of Thracian ruler
was on display. Indeed it was and the museum curator even waved their "No Photos"
rule, allowing us to capture this 1.5 lb solid gold piece from about 400 bce.
Their collection also included fine gold cups
and jewelry in great condition from the same era.
Life in the disintegrating Roman Empire wasn't as disastrous in Bulgaria as it was farther west and it showed in the museum pieces. Parts of bronze emperor's statues that were usually melted down and recast when the emperor was out of favor could still be found in Bulgaria and were on display.
And because Bulgaria was closer to the heart of the Byzantine Empire--the eastern branch of the Roman Empire that survived for another 1000 years--we were seeing more pottery and metal artifacts from the 500's to 800's than usual.
Our visit to this museum was satisfying not because it was the greatest museum around but because it was opening the door to finds of more eastern traditions that we usually encounter. The Thracians weren't big players in ancient history and we knew nothing about them, but here we were getting an introduction to them through some stunning gold pieces. And we were seeing very early, very sophisticated ceramics that just weren't around so early in western Europe.
Out and About Town
We don't usually eat in restaurants when traveling, both to increase the healthiness of our diet and to decrease the cost of meals, but food was cheap in Bulgaria. We ate most of our dinners out in both Sofia and Varna, in part to punctuate this interlude as our "Bulgarian Holiday." But about half the entrees at the regular restaurants were barely edible because of excessive amounts of salt and we kept wishing they had a few more flavors, like a little ginger root here or a dash of lemon there, at the vegetarian restaurant. And we were disappointed that fresh produce was harder to come by in Bulgaria. The peaches and watermelons that were for sale on many street corners in Serbia were hard to track down in Bulgaria.
Like in Serbia, the second-hand smoke was so thick and prevalent that it started to feel more like first-hand smoke. But we did enjoy the liveliness of the street scene in Bulgaria and appreciated getting a sampling of the country, if only through experiences in a couple of cities.
Looking Back; Looking Forward
Well, after our admittedly brief visit of about 2 weeks, I'd only recommend Bulgaria if you have a compelling reason to go there, like seeing the ancient historic sites or tracking down your family roots. Many other countries are much easier to drop into for a "look-see" with a bigger odds of delivering a satisfying vacation experience. We did however feel safe and welcome during our time in Bulgaria.
A number of small hassles make Bulgaria harder than many countries to visit. The Cyrillic alphabet complicates the challenges of dealing with a Slavic language. Daily we could be heard spelling out signs letter by letter as we did our best to convert the alphabet. Some semi-universal words like "Archeology Museum," "telephone", "post", and "foto" rewarded us with something recognizable, but they were the exception. There are English speakers around in the cities, but you can't count on one being where you need them. And their tradition of shaking and nodding their heads opposite of our tradition for "Yes" and "No" adds to the challenges of getting by with the difficult language and alphabet. The communist era holdover of dual pricing always gets my gall as we paid over 10 times the rate of others to visit some museums. (We gladly accepted the slightly lower "pensioner" discount offered by one clerk.) You can find more details on traveling there in our Country Details file under "Bulgaria" (Bulgaria Details).
Like our time in Serbia, our Bulgarian visit was overlaid with solving logistical problems. While in Sofia we finally settled on taking a bus to Thessaloniki, Greece from Sofia rather than biking. We were itching to bike but the information was still scarce about the roads and lodging and we just didn't want to risk getting stranded. We've learned that it is a near thing to get our bikes on buses and trains and we knew better than try to get our bikes on a Bulgarian train. With their seat reservation system there would be no way of slipping them into the passenger area like we did in Serbia and we don't like the lack of security of putting them in baggage cars. And buses generally only have room in the baggage compartment for bikes at the beginning of the route, so we couldn't chance getting on a bus part way to Thessaloniki if we encountered problems. Again it felt better to be safe than sorry as we boarded a bus to Greece extending our non-biking stretch of the trip to almost 200 miles. Once in Greece, we'd again evaluate our risk tolerance for continuing on to Turkey.
Greece August 20 -
September 2, 2005
On to Thessaloniki ("thess-ah-low-knee-key")
Two different ticket agents at Sofia's bus station said we could stow the bikes in the baggage compartment, and at no extra charge, but the sour-faced drivers both said "No." We sensed a lack of conviction in their "No" and interpreted the final round of expressions and shrugs as "If you can get them in there, we will take them." It was only because the bus was starting from Sofia that we could fit them in and we were glad we'd taken pedals off. We've never removed the pedals before when loading the bikes onto public transport but it sure eased the process. Normally the spokes on the first bike in snag the pedals of the second bike but without the pedals, they slid into place more easily and we heard no complaints from the drivers after that.
The daytime bus ride from Sofia, Bulgaria to Thessaloniki, Greece let us size up the road we might have ridden. The Bulgarian road was narrow and as we had been told, shoulders on the road appeared at the Greek border. The traffic conditions looked OK, but there were no signs of lodging along the way as we had feared. Especially the Greek segment of the route was too short on services to have made it a good ride for us.
We were surprised to see severe flooding in nearby Romania on the news the night we arrived in Greece. The storms had only delivered nuisance showers in Bulgaria while we were there but caused significant flooding and some loss of life in Romania. The ongoing, regional flooding issues made biking eastwards into Turkey even more questionable. We were also horrified to hear that a half dozen people had been struck by lightning in Romania--something we always worry about. The more we learn about lightning the more it seems like it is a matter of chance whether one is struck and that the things one can do to decrease their risk are of limited value.
More Logistical Problems
We longed for the route planning part of our lives to get easier, but that was not be to. Once in "Thessi" (Thessiloniki is such a mouthful), Bill armed himself with the much needed maps to plan our possible trip into Turkey. The information about the effects of flooding on the Turkish roads was still illusive, but a new problem cropped up. The better map revealed that the road Bill had selected into Turkey from eastern Greece became freeway just a few miles before the border and bikes generally aren't allowed on freeways in Europe. We'd pressed our luck getting into Croatia at a restricted border crossing but this one into Turkey was too isolated to risk getting rejected and having to backtrack.
Map Man was in a tail spin and again it was back to the drawing board. We continued monitoring the British government's travelers advisory webpage for terrorist attacks in Turkey while Bill formulated a new plan. "Plan B" finally emerged, which was taking a ferry from Thessi to the Greek island of Lesvos and a second ferry to a small port in Turkey near Pergamum. Unfortunately the ferry only ran once a week to Lesvos so suddenly our 4 day stay in Thessi was extended to 10 days.
Thessiloniki is a pleasant city but isn't exactly oozing with tourist activities for such a long stay. Biking in and out of Greek cities is never easy, so a biking excursion in the area or a series of day trips wasn't an appealing option. Greek drivers aren't overly friendly to cyclists on their roads, especially in the urban areas. We did slip out early one Sunday morning for a day ride in lighter traffic and I unfortunately got a bee sting just under my eye despite wearing sport glasses. I was able control the pain and swelling by doubling the recommended dosages of antihistamines, but I was too looped from them for riding any time soon.
With riding out, we dug deeper into the museum circuit to
fill our days, though the persistent hot and humid weather had us moving pretty
slowly. Great museums are hard to predict
and this year's surprise winner is the Museum of Ancient Greek & Byzantine
Instruments. Rated by Lonely Planet as a "must see for
musicians," it was delightful for us as non-musicians. And we give it kudos for creating
something out of nothing.
Most museums collect, preserve and display artifacts from the past and we always admire the efforts of museums that create a great experience with relatively little material. The Roman museum in Arles, France wonderfully augments its finds with beautiful scale models and a tiny city museum in Wels, Austria impressed us with their informative prehistoric dioramas. But the Instruments Museum in Thessi takes the prize for creating an engaging experience without displaying anything original.
For the bulk of their beautifully done displays, the Museum presents figures copied from ancient pottery that are scaled-up to life-size. Each selection features a musical instrument--often a lyre from ancient Greece--usually held by a person. On each colorful panel they insert a newly made wooden model of the instrument depicted on the pottery. We were captivated. Not only did this format make the instruments phenomenally more interesting to look at, the selections of life-sized renditions of the painted vases made them more intriguing also. With my attention riveted on these amplified details of pottery pieces, I longed to have a replica of each vase included in the exhibit. And I was amused to see how disappointed I was when looking at the few instruments displayed without being framed their pottery background. The largest number of reproductions were of lyres from 2800 bce (Cycladic) to Roman times, though there were some later pieces and a selection of drums and other instruments. If you happen to be in Thessaloniki, I highly recommend this small, free of charge museum.
Our other 'pick' for the Thessi area was Vergina, which is
about 50 miles out of town. There we saw the tumulus and burial tomb for Philip II
of Macedonia, Alexander the Great's dad. Phil was no slouch, and Big Al had a
royal send off for his assassinated father in 336 bce. Amazingly, the burial
tomb was undisturbed until 1977. The actual tomb and several others are now
enclosed inside a museum and many of the spectacular grave goods are also on
display. No photos were allowed but we could snap a shot of the
exterior of a similar, less
important tomb nearby.
Spending 2 weeks in Greece after entering the country via its Balkan Peninsula neighbors--Croatia, Serbia and Bulgaria--gave us a new insight into the culture. Previously we've always arrived by boat from Italy, which accentuates Greece's differences with western Europe. In contrast, our 'Peninsula Approach' to Greece emphasized its similarities to those more northern Balkan countries. The "out of my way" driving style; the dominance of the Orthodox branch of Christianity; the half-completed homes; the large number of stray cats and dogs; and the closet-sized retailers were all reminiscent of Greece's Balkan neighbors. And though Greece wasn't in the sphere of the Soviet Union in the 20th century, its '2 steps forward, 1 step backwards' approach looks more similar to eastern Europe than the rest of the EU. With our overland route into Greece, we more clearly understood how it has a foot in each world: that of more western Europe and that of the Balkan Peninsula.
Turkey Was On
The terrorist activity that had picked up in Turkey in July and early August was leveling off so we screwed up our courage and headed off for Lesvos on the weekly ferry to enter Turkey through the backdoor, rather than through Istanbul as planned. As had been true in the past, putting bikes on Greek ferries was a breeze--we just wheeled them on with the cars, at no extra charge. We arrived on Lesvos close to sunset one evening, spent a day visiting the modest historical museums, and left just after sunrise the next day for a short ferry ride to Turkey. Finally our biking trip was poised to resume.
Where We Are Now
We are in Bodrum, a major port on Turkey's beautiful coastline. Bodrum is the last stop of our unexpectedly long stay in Turkey. With postponing our trip to Australia/New Zealand, our several week trip to Turkey became 2 months. By lingering here we've unexpectedly evaded the cool, damp fall weather that has settled in over much of Europe--we are thrilled to be enjoying dry, sunny days in the 70's.
As has been the norm for the last 3 months, our plans are still up in the air. The side trip to Cyprus is out because we would have the excess baggage problems associated with flying and we are still checking into off-season services availability on some of the other Greek islands. We do know we'll take the short hop ferry from Bodrum to Kos, which being a Greek island, will give us access to the Greek ferry system. From there we will go directly or circuitously to Athens by ferry. Then we'll likely take a ferry to Italy to stash the bikes and eventually go on to Frankfurt by train or plane for our December 6 flight to Portland.
Our time pressures are minimal, with the biggest concerns being leaving Turkey before the post-Ramadan festivities in early November tie up lodging and delaying our arrival in Germany to avoid the more wintry weather farther north.