Monday, November 22, 2004

Cabin Fever

Spot the differenceWe finally got on our bikes again, got lucky with the weather and hit the roads of Bulgaria. It's a pretty hilly country but our route hugged the lowlands and on the first day of riding we set off from Plovdiv and headed down highway no. 8. It's a fairly busy road but the Saturday traffic gave us plenty of room and we whizzed along at 18 km/h. There weren't too many food opportunities to be had on the way but our excitement was very real when we spotted a sign for a service station with the little knife and fork symbol next to it. And it was just outside the town of Pazardzhik, our destination.

We've lost count of the number of times we've fancied sausage and chips over the last few months but for once our wishes came true. The waitress at the "Road House" seemed a little surprised to see a couple of cyclists turn up, especially when we asked to sit outside. Our linguistic overlap was small but the pictures in the menu meant we could get our hands on exactly the sausages we wanted. Life was good!

We managed to find 3 hotels in Pazardzhik; one expensive and crappy, one full and one expensive but with a bath. We chose option 3 and actually got upgraded to an apartment for no extra cost. It was fantastic to lounge about in our first baths since France and I took advantage to the tune of 3 per day. We spent a couple of extra days in Pazardzhik due to a stomach upset for Vic and some sore legs for both but got moving again on Wednesday.

The no. 8 highway was not as pleasant on a weekday and a noticeable headwind (the only type they have) made everything a bit of a grind. It was hard but enjoyable and the scenery was lovely. Hills loomed on either side and the sunlight lit them up when it broke through the clouds. We rode with our thermals, Buff hats and thick socks & gloves on and were just about warm enough. At about 4 o'clock we reached Belovo and it became obvious that it wasn't a big enough town to have a hotel. As we resigned ourselves to getting the train the 20 kilometers to Kostenets we met an Anglo-Bulgarian couple, who own the town's Aladdin's cave second-hand shop, and they showed us the way to a holiday cottage owned by friends of theirs. It's a nice little place but with not much to do...

On Thursday night I decided to nip to the shop to get supplies and managed to take a tumble down the steps and ended up by going right over on my left ankle. I bravely tried to shrug it off but the slightest amount of pressure on it caused me agony. I dragged myself up the steps and back into the room to make a pasty-faced report to Victoria. She said I didn't look good. The swelling started immediately but our proddings indicated nothing was broken. (Photos to follow gore fans!) That was Thursday night and today, Monday, on the advice of the handy doctor next door, I went to the hospital. The doctor prodded me, sent me for an x-ray and then proscribed some ibuprofen gel and tablets and told me not to do much walking. There goes tomorrow's Belovo marathon...

So for the last 3 days we have sat around the house, listening to the World Service, reading and getting frostbite every time we leave the one heated room. We really need to get out of the village of Belovo so tomorrow, against doctor's orders, we plan to get the train to Sofia.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Back in Europe

To be completely honest, we don't really know anything about Bulgaria except that they nod their heads when they mean no and shake them when they mean yes - no confusion there then.

We had elected to get the sleeper overnight from Istanbul to Plovdiv, Bulgaria's second city. We had had a quick scan through our slowly disintegrating Rough Guide and thought it looked like an interesting first stop.

The train journey was broken up with the two border controls - leaving Turkey and arriving in Bulgaria. Every other time we have crossed a border on a train, the officials get on and walk through the compartment checking your passport there, but Turkey was different. The train stopped at what looked like an abandoned cargo station at 3 in the morning. We then were herded into a railway underpass where we waited. Did I mention it was raining? After 20 minutes, we were then directed to a passport office where we were duly stamped out of Turkey. Back to the train and we waited there whilst an immigration officer went through the train and double-checked that our papers were in order. We didn't want to take our shoes off and get back into our bunks in case it was the same story again on the Bulgarian side. Fortunately our conductor came and put us out of our misery and assured us that the Bulgarian Immigration officer would stamp us in on the train. They were true to his word and we were able to enter Bulgaria by just sleepily smiling at the officer from the comfort of our bunk beds.

We then slept comfortably until we were on the outskirts of Plovdiv. On arrival, the bikes and us were unloaded swiftly and the train continued on to Sophia. Our first stop was the local cafe for some breakfast. Not just any breakfast, as we were looking forward to our first sausages since August. Unfortunately, they were out but we made do with the next best thing in pork rissoles. We passed the meal in the hope that the cyrillic alphabet will become easier to decipher as we go along. Some serious study is required.

After breakfast I guarded the bikes while Banz went searching for some accommodation. During his fruitless trawl along Plovdiv's main drag, I was asked the time by Diane, a student. We got chatting and she asked me with a look of concern, "Why do you come to Bulgaria?" and when I answered for tourism, she guffawed and said, "this is my home, I was born here, but I do not love it here, my dream is to go to America". I questioned her further on this and she explained that she is going to Ohio, but has no friends or family or a job there. I told her that I had been to Cleveland seven years ago and she was very interested and was asking me all sorts of questions about what it was like, was it better than here? For the first question, I didn't want to tell her that I only went for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (which was undeniably the highlight of all the museums I went to in the States), so I just hedged my bets and said it seemed nice and that the people were friendly. For the second, I didn't feel that I was in a position to answer the question since I'd only been in Plovdiv for all of 45 minutes and had been mainly based in and around the train station for the majority of that. I was rescued by the arrival of her friends from Uni and we said our goodbyes.

Banz returned and since he'd done the talking in the cafe, it was my turn to ring a number in our Rough Guide which was an agency for rooms. Armed with our Eastern European Phrasebook I hunted down a phone and made a call. My attempt in Bulgarian was cut short with a "Je parle francais" which I countered with a "Do you speak English?" which again was returned with a "Je parle francais". I did my best "mon mari parles francais" and hung up for Banz to attempt to rescue the point. He returned as the conquering lingua franca hero - complete with prices and directions to the agency. I guess we need to get to South America or Japan before my limited language skills can be of use again whereas Banz's french has come in handy in Italy and now Bulgaria as well as the villages of France. Within 20 minutes, we were ensconced in our bedroom (with spare room on the side for the bikes) with the telly on (with lots of english channels). Today we were pleasantly surprised to see Boro's game from Sunday being replayed on Bulgarian tv at 3 in the afternoon. Well, it was pleasant until we saw Bolton's blatant time-wasting methods firsthand. Ahh, the joys of foreign tv.

Despite the skepticism of the youth of Plovdiv (our waiter from our first evening also looked incredulous when we told him we'd come to Bulgaria for tourism in winter), we like what we've seen of Bulgaria so far. The people are friendly (and really well-dressed - they would look at home in London) and the food is cheap.

All looks good for country number 9 of The Big Trip.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

You can always start!

Yesterday we were having a wander around a smaller bazaar near our hotel. In the bazaar is a fantastic pipe shop with pipes of all shapes and sizes (our particular favourite being a pipe with Sherlock Holmes smoking a pipe on the bowl).

As we walked past we had the following exchange with the salesman -

Pipe Salesman - Do you want a pipe?
Banz and Vic - No thanks, we don't smoke.
Pipe Salesman - Well, you can always start!

Saturday, November 06, 2004

Jumpers and Shoes

On Monday night we packed our bags into an Amman mini-bus, said a tearful farewell to the Chili House and headed off to the airport. Our flight was at 4:30am but the couple of hours or so before we checked in passed quickly enough. We both managed to sleep for the entire 2 hours we were in the air which had the happy consequence of us missing whatever meal gets served at 5am.

When we reclaimed our bags we noticed that something had been taken - the toolkit which is normally attached to my bike but which we'd moved to the tent bag for safety. It's a pain and we have notified the airline and await their next move...

Istanbul has caused us to shift the stuff around our bags so that suncream and shorts are down the bottom and weird things like jumpers, shoes and socks are dragged out of semi-retirement. It's a nice change to wander about wrapped up in what for us is chilly weather.

On Wednesday we visited the amazingly ornate Blue Mosque which is very active but peaceful at the same time. Yesterday we had a Turkish bath which is a real not-to-be-missed experience. You start by relaxing on heated marble slabs before the bath masters arrive to whisk you to an ajoining room. The first stage is a good soaking with warm water and then an all over scrub with a rough cotton mitten. Dead skin and black muck of some nature is stripped away from what you assume is a reasonably clean body. It's a bit like putting the Dyson round for the first time. After the scrub comes a lathering up with what seems to be a pillow case full of shaving foam. You lie down for this part which leaves you so relaxed you can't defend yourself against the massage which is a combination of pinching, kneading and squishing followed by the sort of treatment normally administered in a pub carpark. I now know what Metallica's drumkit feels like. Saying that, it does feel good when it's over!

The afternoon was spent bargain hunting in the Grand Bazaar. I bought a couple of shirts and, faced with a rainbow of colours, chose red yet again. I don't know if the end of the trip will see me swear off red shirts for life or cling on to them like a sartorial security blanket. As we walked along one shopkeeper shouted across that he recognised me from last year when I was in Istanbul, but that last time I was here with my Russian girlfriend. I think he was mistaking me for Sean Connery in From Russia With Love but I'll forgive him for such an easy mistake.