Wednesday, April 30, 2003

Baffled in Bulgaria

I finished my first Eastern Europe trip with a visit to a country named after a wise old Womble, Bulgaria.

Bulgaria was the perfect ending to end my trip. Monasteries in the mountains, skiing till the end of April only 30 minutes travel from the center of the capital city, Roman ruins, European architecture heavily influenced by 500 years of Turkish rule, and best of all, locals who are both friendly AND not out to get tourist's money.

However not all was good. Before I tell you more, let me get some things of my chest. Amongst the bad and the ugly is an overt presence of so-called "Mafia", that is, organised criminals who feed off corruption and control a lot of the nightlife. The average income in Bulgaria is USD$400 per month, so when you see a sleek black Mercedes driven by a young guy, chances are his wealth is based on violence and crime. You don't get in the way of these guys. I met fellow travellers who had innocently found themselves in the path of such a person, and suddenly they were lifted up and thrust aside by thugs wearing dark suits. Thugs wearing dark suits...where I come from they are called consultants :-)

Also among the bad in Bulgaria...heard of the Cyrillic alphabet? As far as I can tell it is a means to leave the foreigner always lost and confounded. As used in Russia, it has backwards R´s and N´s, H´s pronounced as N´s, B´s pronounced as V´s, and strange letters I had never seen before. It makes finding streets and hotels a game of chance. In a perfect world every country would have English as its national language, use the Latin alphabet, and sell my favourite chocolate biscuits from home in every cornerstore.

My first stop in Bulgaria was a city called Veliko Turnovo. I decided to stop here simply to break up a long train journey from Romania. I'm glad I did. It was once the capital of Bulgaria, before the Turks invaded in the 15th century. For a short time after arriving it seemed to be just an annoying city with hills everywhere, leaving me exhausted as I tried to find accommodation. I turned a corner, a gap between the houses revealed a view of a deep green valley, a river looping around a giant monument to Bulgarian independence that gets lit up at night, and castles and churches on the mountain tops. In another direction is a view of a great canyon.

Next stop was Plovdiv, an ancient Roman city built on three hills, and hence in Latin called "Three Hills". Quite a brilliant piece of naming, that. Plovdiv has a 2000 year old Roman theatre used for performances throughout the summer. Surprisingly nobody knew of its existence in the middle of town until a freak landslide in the 1970's revealed it. Plovdiv is one of those European towns where the old centre is a maze of twisty passages, all alike. Getting lost is easy; finding a specific museum or attraction is difficult. So one has no choice but to stop for delicious Bulgarian coffee every hour or so. No choice at all...

In Plovdiv I met Ivan. Ivan surpised me, because normally when a local acts overly friendly to me when travelling, I immediately suspect ulterior motives - like robbery. To get out of the rain I ventured into a pub and ordered a drink. Ivan is the pub owner and was sitting nearby. He speaks English, so when he realised I was an English speaker he introduced himself. He said only about once a year does a native English speaker come into his pub. Before I knew it he was paying for my drinks, and he took me out to dinner in an old Russian reading room, now a restaurant. He invited me to join him and his wife the next day, to see the land around Plovdiv.

In Sofia, the capital city, I again found such friendliness. I met with three Kiwi girls for dinner on April 26th, celebrating Anzac Day a little late. In the restaurant the young Bulgarians at the next table began talking to us, then invited us first to an Easter midnight celebration that night, and then to a party. A young couple at the party appointed themselves as my guides for the rest of my stay in Bulgaria. They drove me to see the Rila Monastery, an ancient monastery in the mountains that helped kept Bulgarian language, culture, customs, and religion alive throughout 500 years of Turkish rule. They took me to museums and translated the cryptic Cyrillic alphabet for me. They took me to scenic chairlifts, and even escorted me to the train station when it was time to leave. As far as I could tell, their motivation for this remarkable friendliness was sheer pride in their country, and the chance to share it with a visitor.

Something unique to Bulgaria when compared to other Eastern European lands is that the Bulgarians are still warm towards Russia. Where other countries have removed all Soviet-era memorials, Bulgaria shows them with pride. Streets and suburbs are named after celebrated Russians. In the 1870's Russia fought to free Bulgaria from the Turks. Russia lost 200,000 soldiers, which I suspect equated to about 1 Russian death for every 5-10 Bulgarian citizens at the time. It was an enormous toll, and the Bulgarians are still grateful.

Having completed my Eastern European trip, I think the region is a hidden gem. Like France, Italy, or Spain, there are ancient ruins, castles and cathedrals, breathtaking landscapes, skiing, mediterranean beaches, and more. Unlike France, Italy, or Spain, the cities and beaches are not overrun with tourists, and the costs of travel are half or less.

Footnote: What´s a Womble? A British children´s TV show that was popular in New Zealand when I was very young. See here for more details:

Thursday, April 10, 2003

Romania: Rebuffed at the Border

I am surprised at how much the culture and personality of European nations change as you cross borders. Hungarians tend to be very reserved, unlikely to talk conversationally with a stranger, although they are exceedingly polite and helpful. Their neighbours in Croatia, however, tend to be gregarious. I discovered this myself when travelling from Hungary to Croatia. Despite spending two weeks in Hungary I only once engaged a Hungarian in general conversation. At the Hungarian-Croatian border I got off the Hungarian train, and got on the Croatian train. Before I even sat down, a Croatian guy in his early 20's started talking to me. We spent the train journey comparing Australian life to Croatian life, and discussing the 1990's warring between the Balkan states. He pointed out sites where battles had taken place and where villages had been destroyed, then walked me around the city of Osijek showing me how every street still had at least one building with pock marks from gunfire and grenades. Finally he helped me find a place to stay and we went to a pub for some pizza.

I am currently in Romania, the land of Dracula and Transylvania, and of horse-drawn carts that share the highways with communist-era cars and modern Mercedes. Getting here proved to be difficult, as I will explain.

I caught a train from Budapest to Romania, under the impression that with my New Zealand passport I could buy a visa at the border. What gave me that impression? My Lonely Planet travel guide, the official Romanian tourism web site, and an independent web site that specialises in visa information. However the law was changed last July, so that now Kiwis and Australians need visas purchased in advance from an embassy or consulate. The Romanians neglected to tell the New Zealand and Australian governments about this rather important change of law.

After travelling for four and a half hours I reached the border, only to be escorted off the train by gun-toting border guards. At the border I had to wait on the side of the train tracks until a train passed that could return me to Budapest, on another four and a half hour journey. Strangely enough I didn't mind too much. You see, I was sharing my train compartment with two travellers, an American man and his Ukrainian wife, who I was about ready to throw out the train window. They talked non-stop; when I tried to read, they still talked to me, about the weather, Hungarians, the Iraq war, American politics, and how beautiful East Slovakia is (they repeated this about 738 times on the train journey). They also insisted on talking to Hungarians who didn't understand English, in very loud pidgin English. So it was sweet relief to have to leave the train. Otherwise I would have had no choice but to do very bad things to them.

The border guards were not hostile - in fact, like most Romanians, they were quite friendly. As I am travelling on my New Zealand passport, one of the guards started asking me about Jonah Lomu, the star NZ rugby player. Another noted my surname is the same as the main character from the Highlander movies, and started miming sword fights, resulting in the pretend sword being driven into my stomach. Strangely this Highlander connection happens to me often in Europe. I introduce myself as Steve McLeod and get the immediate response, "of the clan McLeod", especially from border guards.

I had a frustrating few days back in Budapest trying to obtain a Romanian visa. At the Romanian consulate in Budapest bureaucracy is very much alive. I needed all sorts of documents, some of which involved painful international phone calls, and wandering all over Budapest. I will spare you the details, but frustratingly, when I went to the consulate to pick up my visa, I handed over all the required documents, to find that the consulate official didn't even glance at the documents - he simply put the visa in my passport based on me claiming they were the right documents. Fortunately I met some laid-back Americans and an English girl who helped me pass the time while going through this charade.

I almost gave up on Romania with the visa troubles, but I am glad I didn't. It has already become a highlight of the trip, as I describe elsewhere.

Finally a quick run down on where I have been lately:
  • Croatia, where I visited Osijek and Zagreb, and went hiking in the mountains where the last of the winter snow is melting away. In Zagred I was told that having an Australian passport meant I could charge a willing Croatian girl US$10,000 for a marriage of convenience.
  • Slovenia, where rollerblading is the national religion. In Ljubljana, the capital city, most streets have a lane reserved for cyclists and rollerbladers. I also travelled through kilometres of underground caves here.
  • Czech Republic, where I visited Prague, Kutna Hora, Cesky Krumlov, and Brno. Through a chance encounter on a bus I found myself invited to stay at the home of Czechs in Brno. I also explored old silver mines underneath Kutna Hora.
  • Slovakia, where I climbed a wind-swept hill where a ruined castle looks across the Danube to Austria. This castle stood for hundreds of years and helped repel the Turks in medieval times as they fought for central Europe. Finally Napolean came along and blew it up because it was a symbol of Slovakian nationalism.