I started my adventure in the comfortable and familiar surroundings of Western Europe, with its pristine buildings, perfect tarmac (believe me it’s as close to perfect as you’re gonna get), idyllic villages and thriving cities. Each city feeling like an extension of home.
The first time I felt a sense of change from west to east was as I crossed between Austria and Slovenia. In the few miles between Graz and Maribor the differences were stark, poorer roads, rundown buildings and just a general impression of a lesser quality of life. As I spoke to locals in Slovenia they talked about how significantly lower their average income was in comparison to Austria, still though the larger towns and cities felt well kept and bustling. As I travelled down the Balkans into Croatia I was once again back in the comforts of Western European practices and environs with cities buoyed by the hoards of tourists visiting the dalmatia coast.
Bulgaria though shone a whole new light on the differences between Eastern and Western Europe. I crossed the border at a town called Bregovo, located in the north west of Bulgaria, where Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania meet, separated by the Danube River. Instantly the country felt different to any of the others I had travelled through so far, I couldn’t say it was one particularly thing that signalled that change, I just know it felt different.
As we cycled on the differences became more apparent. Most noticeable was the condition of the roads, they were a patchwork of different shades of grey tarmac, visually a dream for me but a nightmare for Nancy as she took a regular battering. In many cases riding along these roads was like having a birds eye view over a maze, trying to look ahead to find the route that wouldn’t lead you down a deadend, or a pothole in this case.
The landscape too was really different. At the lower levels by the Danube the vegetation was lush and green. It reminded me of a series of books I read as a kid which was later turned into a kids tv programme called Bangers and Mash. Bangers and Mash were two apes that lived in the treetops of the jungle, often I would ride along the Danube able only to think of this programme. The upper levels of the Bulgarian hillsides were a combination of rusty oranges, burnt yellows and browns, with heathland type vegetation. As we followed the Danube often we would be riding beneath huge overhanging cliff edges and through tunnels which carved enormous holes in the chalky rock.
All along the Danube there we fishermen in their small Japanese looking fishing boats, catching fish with single rods, possibly taking their days catch home for the family to eat or maybe even to sell on to a local restaurant. The catches looked meagre and I wouldn’t imagine this livelihood provided a sufficient income.
The rural villages were where the real differences were noticeable. The buildings of a style that wouldn’t look out of place in a village in the UK, however they are all covered in what seems to be a layer of dust and many appear to be crumbling from the bottom up. The sandy bricks placed precariously on top of each other with gaps between the bricks and mortar, which I’m convinced would let in plenty of cold air and moisture in the cooler months. The houses were charming and characterful but in many of the villages we passed through most appeared to be in need of restoration. So many of the houses had originally been so intricately decorated with bands of mirrored mosaic tiles and ornate cast iron verandas, but now in a state of disrepair, many still occupied, others abandoned.
In contrast, the gardens aside each crumbling building had been tended with the utmost care and attention, everyone seemingly a gardener and farmer. Grapes, tomatoes, peppers, chillis, apples, you name it the Bulgarians are growing it. The gardens are truly fantastic to look at.
From these houses and gardens would emerge their occupants, darker in colour than their Serbian neighbours and with a characteristic to their faces which is distinctly Bulgarian. The style of clothing they wear is very much from a decade or two ago, and many, like the houses, appear to be wearing a layer of dust. An initial stony stare often melts into a friendly and welcoming smile. Kids shouting hello as we rode past, generous women passing us grapes and vegetables as we ride by, the only negative being the occasional dog chase.
Donkeys, horse and carts, lada 4×4’s, the modes of transport were also different here. Cars that I’ve not seen on the roads of the U.K since I was a kid are still functioning in these rural parts of Bulgaria. Some of the vans and buses would be seen in the uk as being highly desirable because of their vintage look, however these locals would have no idea.
The lives of the people in these rural and remote Bulgarian towns reminded me of the way of life I saw in India, I’ve not made it to Asia yet, but this area certainly gave me a taste of things to come. These people do not live in abject poverty, but their lives are certainly basic and simple. Would I say that they were poor? I don’t think so, they may be poor in monetary terms but some of the people here are the kindest and most open I’ve experienced on this trio so far.
Bulgaria, you’ve been great and a lovely little taste of what is yet to come. Stay true to your cultures and ways because they truly are wonderful.