VII - The Drive through Serbia and Bulgaria.
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VI - The road journey into Croatia, through Bosnia and Herzegovina, then back into Croatia.
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VIII - Eventually we reach Turkey.
Log Entry Friday 25th May - We awake in the little paradise in Harmanli, we stumbled on last night.
We awake to a lovely morning, our current campsite was part of a park targeted at the more effluent of the residents of Harmanli, when we arrived last night, the two pools were full of kids with their parents supervising from the sides and the associated restaurants and bars. This was far from the people of the towns and villages we had passed through recently. The owner had told us his security was good, I guess by that he meant the great dog he kept chained up, saying that it accepted us without an introduction? We and the owner and his wife living in a camper van were the only residents, just how we like it, not too many people to get in your way? The park was perfect in many ways, the garden was structured and kept as an "English Garden", the attention to detail very impressive, it was a good place for us to break up our trip, we decided to stay a second night as we had spend many hours on the roads over the last two days with very limited mileage covered. We ate in the restaurant last night and paid local prices, not worth the effort of preparing the food oneself?
The externals of the park was very well kept, not so the showers as such but ok, the main focused seemed to be on preoccupying the kids, which I guess meant the parents would bring them back?
The town of Harmanli is relatively small, a single main street with a few blocks of housing front and rear, we take a walk down through the town, it was interesting, a busy centres, cars and people every where.
We found a local market and purchase fruit and salad, an ancient stone bridge, now unused span the flood defences passing by the market square.
It had also a small bus station, not too busy mostly smaller buses moving people around.
Along side the park/campsite was a public park, very impressive for the size of the town, and it displayed a proud plaque explaining where the funding had come from? From our short period in Bulgaria, perhaps we could have suggested numerous other things the cash could have gone on?
We were leaving in the morning, Turkey was less than 50 miles away - Sailaway, here we come. Only a couple of more stops for us as we cross over the centre of Turkey and make for the south coast, a mere 1000 miles or so left to cover?.
Log Entry Thursday 24th May - We leave Nis for the Serbian/Bulgarian boarder and make our way across Bulgaria.
With the car packed we leave the riverside area, and move directly into nice suburban region, far more attractive to the eye.
Our guest is that it must be a far more select region as the housing and obviously life style changes dramatically?
It then changed again, not for the better this time, this type of housing we had seen a lot of in Serbia, typical of the 60's development in many cities in the UK, eventually the next section was industrial. We stopped at a small roadside market, obviously no English was spoken but we stocked up on fruit, bread and liquids for the drive, all at local prices which was truly amazing, still the pricing is clearly reflective of the economy here. It does question how one can buy a litre of "Pepsi Max" for a fifth of the cost of the cheapest supermarket in the UK? Still, enough of that we had a few hundred miles to cover today to get us towards Bulgaria, all at an average of about 40 mph, depending on road conditions not being too bad?
After we left the market and exchanged a little humour with the owner, we then turned south east, after waiting almost ten minutes for a huge freight train making its way east we joined the main road south east. Due to it's magnitude, or lack of, we double checked the satnav against an road atlas, which confirmed we were on the right road?
Our attractive drive went on for hours as one can imaging, the horse drawn vehicles as one rounded the corners, or even pedestrians, miles from any town that could be seen, were the most interesting?
It was a truly beautiful drive, I saw most of the beauty from the photographs Ann took en route, my eyes were better kept on the road for two reasons, firstly to ensure we stayed on it, then, secondly to ensure we broke nothing on the potholes! Our route was confirmed as periodically we would come across "new road/dual carriage way construction", mostly idle, incomplete sections, but some "work in progress"? A further confusing point was the large signs along side some of the sections "constructed from gifts form the EU" could be made out. This was a little confusing as Serbia is not of "EU status", and clearly they were not given enough to complete the project, or the funding went some where else - how cynical am I?"
As we dropped down from the mountains the land became very clearly "worked" farming was now clearly the greatest activity or income. As we passed through numerous villages, every house had a vegetable garden, small stalls selling grown produce were now every where. It was also clear the carriageway "work in progress" was becoming more intense, we still had 100 miles to the Bulgarian boarder so we stopped to fill with fuel. That in it 'self was another disappointing experience, we were confronted for money for some thing, the whole thing was somewhat confusing? I could only define it as "aggressive begging" - unfortunately the only option one has is to be aggressive back and leave, unless you want to give cash? One can feel sorry for people in such a position but with some it appears to be almost defined as "you are european so you must have too much money, give some to me!" This by the way was from the gent that had just filled our car with fuel, no self service here. We had previously passed over monies in the form of tips as they tend to clean the bugs from your windscreen etc, in this case I had passed over what was thought to be reasonable, knowing how much basic things cost? This guy was insisting on "euros" - so he ended up with nothing and we left!
The road as anticipated improved and we made our way then quickly towards the boarder, we were passed on the carriage way by two large black "S-Class, black Mercedes, with blue lights flashing on two separate occasions - clearly some form of police? The crossing of the Serb/Bulgarian boarder was much easier than I had anticipated, one look at our tightly packed car, and a few works and we were waved on. We had a short stretch of dual carriage way on the Bulgarian side, than back to poor single lane roads, with potholes obviously. We were unsure of what lay ahead but we had confirm that there was a campsite to the southeast of Harmanli, that was our destination, only 50 miles from the Turkish boarder. At this point we could see no reason to spend any further time in Bulgaria, Sailaway was calling? Apart from that "searches" had uncovered nothing but churches and the odd museum?
As we turned towards Harmanli, the roads worsened further and so did the living conditions in the villages we passed through. Housing was in a very poor state, many with windows boarded up, fully or partial, but clearly still lived in. As we had seen before each property had a vegetable garden, many trying to sell their produce to passers by? We came across one small town, there was evidence of work being carried out on the road we were using, just not at the moment? Then, as we turned a corner the road was partially blocked by a mound of rubble, we pulled over. A car over took us and drove around the mound we followed onto what could be described as a "high street". The car turned off and we carried on, rounding a second corner the road was now completely blocked with rubble, we saw the car that had turned off come down on the other side of the rubble in front of us? A large bus followed, there was clearly an "unsigned detour", we just needed to find it? We turned around and was able to see another car turn off at what we thought was the same point as before, we followed. What followed was unbelievable, we were on a dirt track, the depth of the hole meant that one had to pick a path through them using the whole width of road, we now had a large black Mercedes 4x4 behind us, looking very out of character to the rest of the traffic. They were very patient with our routing, we grounded a couple of times, negotiating a large coach on the lane was challenge? We eventually made it to the other side of the blocked road, this was clearly normal to these people, but crazy to us and many others I am sure?
We made our way through numerous small villages all of similar standing, now we could see the odd stalk nest, usually on top of manmade structures as we had seen in other counties? We made our way through suburbs of Harmanli, towards our site, still some 8 miles's ahead of us. We then came across a sign "camping", worth a look we though just incase the other site was not there as we had previously experienced? We pulled in and could not believe what was in front of our eyes, literally "a little paradise" in comparison to what we had seen as we had driven here. We some discussions and confirmation on costs we decided to stay, we had just driven about 290 miles in just over 8 hours, not a good average? We were not to be disappointed!
Log Entry Wednesday 23rd May - We cross into Serbia and make for Belgrade.
We had done the normal thing, that is search for what to see in Belgrade etc, it seemed worth a night's stay? We had however crossed over into a very different culture to our previous experiences. The boarder control had been great, but stopping to pick up fuel, refreshments, even local currency had not been without issue? It was not a welcoming place at all in our opinion. Stopping for a coffee as we drove to Belgrade had not been comfortable, even with my many years of traveling professionally, I had not experienced any thing like this - you were made to feel "un-welcome" is the best way to describe it?
Comforted by the fact that we had to drive this way to get to Turkey we made our way to Belgrade, the city is in a very bad state of repair, very dated. As in many countries the style of driving was different, that one adjusts too, but the general looks our registration appeared to be receiving wanted you to ensure the doors were kept locked. We were so unsettled that even after finding our proposed nights lodgings we decided to drive on, in fact just drive out of Serbia? One must remember that this is only our view, but we do have experience of many cultures, cities and experiences, the decision was not made lightly, but fairly quickly.
Our drive up till now had been off motorway, we eventually picked up the motorway heading south east, it was a toll rode so we picked up a ticket.
The toll road was disgraceful, one had to maintain total concentration to miss as many of the potholes as possible, some, in the inside lane 4 - 6 inches deep. It was a difficult drive, then to make things worse it began to rain heavy, now it was difficult to make the potholes out, in a short time the road seemed to become very quiet, other than the bangs as we hit the submerged holes? It was crazy to try and get further in this weather, we were near to "Nis" a large city about twenty miles from the Bulgarian boarder. We decided to enter the city and seek accommodation, we had passed by the odd motel but decided, due to appearance to stay? We searched on the satnav and found there was a "Best Western", we though that our best option and felt confident there would be secure parking to secure our gear in the car?
We found it relatively easily, down town on the river front opposite the "Nis Fortress" - a proclaimed tourist attraction. It had no secure parking, from a quick look at the surroundings we thought it best to empty the car, the "local art work" etc was some what a concern?. The hotel was reasonable, very well priced, the staff as professionals were very friendly and helpful too. We ate in the next door "Rivia", service good, price excellant against expectations, as much as we could eat and a bottle of wine - £24 (the wine was £12).
In the morning Ann took some local pictures, as I loaded the car with the help of the hotel staff. We had decided against visiting the Fortress as it was now a public park with nicely described cafes, restaurants etc - we have done enough of those. Once packed up, we hit the road, we will leave Serbia today, another search of "things to see here" only really highlights the fortress and a museums - off to Bulgaria to day!