Greece, Bulgaria, Romania

The short version is, we are all well, having fun and are buying some land in Romania. I haven’t had time to do any writing for a while so I’m afraid this update is bit long.

Here’s the longer version.
We went to the Sithonian peninsular near Thessaloniki to have a bit of a holiday… whilst on our holiday. It rained, it was expensive, the food was proceeded, I had to persuade Penny to lye under the bus to stop the petrol gushing out using a pair of pliers whilst I changed the fuel filters, every one looked like Pluto out of Pop Eye, someone left two tampon’s in the men’s shower, one used and one (sorry pete I know, over sharing of information) …we left.
We entered Bulgaria thinking it would not be that interesting. As we are on our quest to find the perfect winter destination, we headed to the boomtown Ski resort of Bansko, a couple of hours drive south of Sofia the capital. It was much nicer than we thought. The town has been tarted up over the last few years in a very traditional way due to grants gained from the ‘national heritage fund’ for doing up old Bulgarian style houses, aided by, you guessed it, the EU. They need to preserve their old style houses as 90% of the country has gray, pebble dashed council house type looking houses that are… well, very dull.
A really nice meal out in one of these old buildings with rivers running through the restaurant etc costs around £10 -15 depending on how much beer and wine we consumed. Not bad for a ski resort that has just spent 30 million euros on a new ski lift. We were quite taken in by it and spent a good few days looking for a somewhere different destination. It was a bit of a culture shock here to go into an estate agent and have some dizzy bird sit there and not listen to a word you are saying and then show you the ‘executive apartments’ next to the ski lift. We’re more used to doing what we call ‘land fishing’ where you find the piece of land you are interested in and if you wait long enough, someone will come along and tell you who owns it and then hurry of to go and find them to let them know that their prayers have been answered and some foreigners (or strangers as we are known) have appeared out of no where and want to buy their land!
We realised that Bansko was a really nice place but the Brits will be coming there in their thousands. If you want a cheap Skiing holiday or a sound property investment that will go up 30% a year for the next five years… its perfect, but it is not somewhere different.
As we had spent most of our time in Bulgaria in a tourist bubble we’d not really got a feel for the country so we decided a couple of nights spent sleeping in a monastery would soon sort this out. We chose to go to the biggest and best first to get a feel for how it all works. The Rila Monastery is in the middle of no where in this beautiful gorge where I went into one pretending I was a monk way back in the middle ages arriving here on my donkey for the first time and being blown away by the sheer size and beauty of it.
We arrived around 6.00pm and trying to find the right monk that dealt with the rooms proved to hard… “ he went that way” (all in body language and not English) “ he’s up at the top” then someone did a charade of someone who has gone fishing and we kind of got the idea. We thought we would blow our sleeping budget on a nice meal instead. We went to the nearest restaurant and ordered. We didn’t realise that the menu was a “what its says on the tin” Sasha ordered ‘chicken leg’ and that’s what she got, no sauce, chips, garnish, anything, we were all glad we did not order the ‘pig head in a metal pot’ and did not feel guilty when Angus managed to spill the entire contents of his Fanta bottle into the ash tray… without spilling it on the table, something I have never seen done before. The waiter was confused…Angus was in stitches… we left.
We slept in the car park and went back in the morning. The place is amazing, we saw a pot that we where told was big enough to put a whole cow in. We got the feeling the menu hasn’t change much in 500 years.‘ Chicken leg‘, ‘Boiled cow in a pot’.
The Fresco’s (painted walls and ceilings) were pretty cool. Claudia found the one that is on the front cover of the Lonely Planets. At the time we thought we might still get a small piece of land at a quieter ski resort a few miles from Bansko and… well… they were replacing the old wooden floors with new ones… and throwing away the old beautifully worn out bits of wood… honest. We thought having one of the floorboards from the Rila monistry in the house we would build would be pretty cool. “Dad… why is mummy putting that big piece of wood in your bag?” …we left.
Having failed on sleeping at the largest monastery in the country we thought we would try one of the smallest. The Lonely Planets mentioned one on our route up to Romania stating “ at the time of writing there are plans to have 20 rooms available by the end of 2003”. We thought, new rooms all clean and tidy, nice… we arrived again at around 6.00pm and could not find any one for some time. It is one of the most beautiful, yet spookiest places I have been to and we were really keen to stay the night. Finally we found someone in a little house away from the rest of the buildings and a serious monk type looking bloke appeared and started to talk to us in Bulgarian. We tried to explain that we wanted to stay the night and would we need to give him our passports. He took our passports and started to write down what seemed a rather lot of information about us.
Our suspicions where beginning to get the better of us. A woman monk finally appeared who looked like Laura Crofts mother… she seemed to be a bit more in control, though after about 5 minutes of trying to explain to her that we wanted to stay in the new rooms and her not understating us, she went away and then came back… suddenly talking to us in perfect English and gave us a tour of the church and the whole history of the place. She said that we could not stay at the monastery as there where no rooms available and that the monks were not really geared up for guests. Being off your face, singing and yelling, I would agree is not the sort of state to welcome someone into a holy place of worship. The final touch was when she mentioned that it probably was not a good idea to stay in the monastery as the guy who had by now written three pages of information on us was only let out of a mental institution a few weeks ago… and was probably going to go back… she did however insist that we could park just outside the monastery grounds. We took our que… and we left.
We were so scrambled by meeting the Adams family brotherhood that we did not stop at the spot where she showed us but kept going for further 30 miles until we found a nice big truck stop on the main road out of there.
If ever there was a need for updating a listing in the guidebook, this was it. Nutters!
There are always two sides to the coin though, they could look at us and think we were just as mad, after hassling them for 40 minutes to give us permission to stay in their monastery, when they finally gave in and said OK, we ran away!
We traveled north through Bulgaria in the lashing rain to get to the border crossing at Vindu. Due to the bridges from Belgrade getting blown up in the war this was the lonely way to get across the Danube for hundreds of miles and it was very busy. For me this was probably the most romantic border crossing we have crossed, you had to go though all the checks etc but then we had to get on a little ferry crammed full of trucks and Romanians wearing bin liners over themselves and their cartons of cigarettes. This was not like crossing the channel or getting the ferry to Vis.
We chugged up the river to the landing on the other side. You really felt like you where leaving one country and entering another. The Bulgarians and Romanians have the same relationship I have witnessed with Americans and Mexicans and Egyptians and Israeli’s, each country thinks you must be off your trolley to want to go to the other. The minute we landed on the other side, everything was different. The road signs were back to the roman alphabet, the grey boxes were replaced by ornate houses that looked Draculas’s cousins house with load of little turrets covered in wooden tiles. There were smiles, horses and carts, people, and activity everywhere. Romania feels more like a Banana Republic than an ex communist country. As a foreigner you are treated with total respect and any thing you want can be achieved or bought in a matter of hours.
We thought as the kids knew what a disliked dictator was all about (old Saddam) we decided to do some homework on Chichessque and compare. In the late eighties the man they called the real Dracula decided to make 5000 villages move into council blocks and basically steal their land to help finance his ego and the building of the second largest building in the word in Bucharest. (the biggest ego… sorry building is the Pentagon). You could see he managed to do this as we drove for miles with nothing, literally nothing but fields of crops and then suddenly you would see 30 tower blocks, five factories and then back to fields. Luckily his big plans went down like a cup of cold sick with the Romanians and he was over throne and executed on Christmas day in 1989 so only 300 villages were actually culled in this way leaving most of the country to look like it has done for hundreds of years. We went to investigate his home town which was on our way, it turned out it was the first town he leveled and rebuilt, saving only his own house and few of his cronies’s houses from the bulldozer… nice bloke. We tried knocking on the door of his old house and tried next door as apparently his sister lived there and might let us in, after several conversations we discovered that she died a few years ago and the house was now locked up.
On the subject of the children education, Angus has learnt the meaning of two old sayings whilst in Romania “ Running around like a headless chicken” and “ Don’t drop the ball”. The first was graphically played out to us in great detail whilst eating breakfast one morning on the side of the road. The nice old lady sitting outside the house in front of us just got up, pinned the chicken down and the old boy came out and… .The girls covered their eyes (Penny not batting an eyelid being a farmer and all that) and Angus was determined not to miss a single tiny gory bit of detail.
The second saying Angus leant after playing football at the top of a very step hill near Dracula’s castle. The ball went past him and kept on going down a long way. Angus rolly poyled off after the ball and after around 20 minutes he was nearly back to the top when… you guessed it, and he had to go all the way back down again. He has also read The enchanted wood, Five go off in a Caravan, Frankenstein, Macbeth, Dracula, My friend Harry, Hound of the Baskervilles, My big book of facts, My book of Geography in the last few weeks, has done a project on the Rila Monastery and in the process of putting one together on Dracula and “ Grass hoppers from around the world”. Penny is reading ‘Adventure Capitalism’ … who’d have guessed it?
There are two ‘real’ Dracula castles in Romania, the famous one that everyone visits and a not so well known one that only real Dracula buffs tend to visit. We thought we would get a flavor for vampires etc and stay in the unknown one first. On entering the village we saw an old woman with her mouth covered in blood and well I know we don’t believe in vampires… and stuff but … we left.
Transylvania is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. It looks like… the Transylvania in the Dracula movies, horses and carts and a way of life that has not changed in hundreds of years. You really go back in time here and the views are stunning.
We have fallen in love with the place and are in the process of buying 26,000 sq meters of ‘pasture’ land in a village just above Dracula’s castle. It backs on to a national park that has some of the most beautiful mountain scenery I have ever seen. We went for a quick walk the other day and ended up walking for 7 hours through mountain valleys and an amazing gorge which is 870m deep and just out the back of where we will build our somewhere different destination no. 4.
We have become friends with some of the locals near to the land we are buying. Mr Foley runs a Pension and is letting us use his place as our ‘Romanian Headquarters’ (I won’t bore you with the legal proceedings here). We stayed at his place and met some Romanians from Bucharest that where staying there as well. Mike who was 16 and acting as our interpreter kindly ordered us a beer and a glass of wine. He said that Mr Foley has some local ‘home made’ raki and would we like to try it? I thought “oh no, my stomach can’t cope with this” and Penny just smiled. Mike went down and brought up a tray with two glasses of the local moonshine. Everyone wanted to try a bit, Angus and Sasha had a little taste and after they stopped pulling faces said “ Uugh it taste like vinegar!”. Penny not being put off, took a big lug of the stuff and normally would smile and say “ wow that’s good” actually pulled a bit of a face as well. Penny not coping with the local moonshine? I was amazed, it must be bad. Finally it was my turn… you can’t not have at least a taste of the local stuff can you? I was still looking for an excuse to not have a gulp when Mrs. Foley cam running up the stairs saying in body language “ what ever you do don’t drink the moonshine, its not right” She had a quick chat with Mike who by now really did think we were a bit strange and said in perfect English “ Mrs. Foley say’s you should not drink the raki as Mr. Foley got it mixed up and gave you the stuff he puts in with the pickles for the winter instead… excellent I thought, I’ve got out of this one, it doesn’t taste of vinegar… it is vinegar.
We have been here now for over two weeks and will probably be staying for another week or two to sort out all the legals. This is one place we definitely do not want to leave!
Next stop Turkey and then Egypt.

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