Sunday 21 August 2016

My Grand Tour: Into the Eastern Bloc

Shopping for Freedom
Just a Brit, a Greek and a French car heading north. We hadn't booked anything, the route was advisory and we had only owned the car for a week. Oh, and I'd forgotten what 3000km really means. The missus and I had reached middle-age but were more than willing to put that all behind us. Something told me we were being pretty reckless and it was about bloody time.

We were sans enfants for the first time since, well since I lied about being happy with just a cuddle on the sofa. The kids had been packaged off to Britain with Grandma. Just a couple of teenagers with wrinkles instead of acne bowling off to the Bulgarian border and way beyond our comfort zone.

This wasn't my first venture into the ex-eastern bloc Balkans. Back in the early nineties me and a bunch of assorted Europeans ran the gauntlet of Yugoslavia just before the bombs started to fall. Banknotes were exchanged and the guy at the window scrubbed out the last three zeroes with a marker to show their new value. We only stopped for a cup of warm mud on the road while half of us guarded the cars. Some years later me and the missus took a trip up the Adriatic to Venice, a firework display of rockets from the coast added ambience to our romantic weekend; the Kosovan war was in full swing and the Slavs were bombing the hell out of each other. I recently went to the Serbian town of Leskovac to speak about innovation in education at a public school. The town was still pock-marked with bullet holes and its razed industrial zone was acres of bombed-out twisted scrap metal. I spoke to a teacher there about what they'd been through, Tito's communism, Slobodan Milošević, civil war, ethnic cleansing and now the euro-zone economic crisis. His reply will remain with me forever, "Things now, David are shit... which is a major improvement." There was no hyperbole, no drama, it was simple fact.

A Truss in Sofia
Bulgaria is now a member of the EU but a long way off joining the single currency (maybe a blessing). In 2013, I went to Sofia where I met David Rothschild and other business innovators at DIGITALK. I visited a start-up incubator that was far advanced of anything in Greece. Bulgaria had only ever been a suburb of the Soviet Union but it was obvious to me that it was keen to join the west and put its days in the shadow of the iron curtain in the past.

Sveta Nedelya Cathedral
My wife is very fastidious about paperwork and she had the car's history, insurance and green card ready for inspection. The border guard simply asked for our passports and waved us into no man's land, the 500 metre gap between the Greek and Bulgarian check points. A few months before, according to the press, the Bulgarians had threatened to fence the border to keep out refugees but all we saw was a deeply rutted road and a shiny little Duty Free shop. We took a selfie and wee break and ploughed on.

Bulgaria welcomed us with a single lane country road peppered with 50kmh (31mph) speed limits and the threat of radar traps. I kept a light foot on the peddle and a vigilant eye on every corner, I had heard too many tales of police shake-downs and even fake police blocks to relax.

We stopped for breakfast in Sandanski, a pleasant little shopping town popular with Greeks for its fake designer wear and cheap cigarettes.

A few km before Sofia the road opened to a wide modern highway with 120kmh limits. The road network seems to be building out, slowly, from Sofia and it was good to put my foot down and cut the breeze, I was finally starting to relax.

Sofia is surrounded by grim blocks of soviet era housing but as you enter the centre the Former Communist Party building looms and the cars rumble on cobbled streets, Sofia is unexpectedly impressive. We parked up next to a British-plated Jaguar opposite the Bulgarian assembly and headed through the park for wifi to book our first night's stay.

Hotel Bon Bon was the type of place you check the rooms before committing to anything and €32 a night was no quality seal but it was great. A big attic room with two big double beds and a balcony. I paid an extra €5 for guarded parking, which was a fenced-off corner of scrub land with a couple of guys armed with 2-litre beer bottles and began to explore.

The 2-litre beer bottle appeared to be the accessory de rigueur. Just imagine those huge Coke bottles... with beer! I later found out that they also came in  2.5 litre and cost between €2-3 depending on quality. I never had the gaul to buy one, I have a list of things that shouldn't be TOO CHEAP and on that (short) list is booze and ladies. I chose instead to take in the ambience at a pavement bar with reasonably priced draught beer and my most exorbitant wife.

Eventually, hunger set in and we began a very fruitless quest for locale fayre, pizza, spaghetti, burgers and Greek food was abundant but nothing that looked local so we headed back to a place we had spied earlier. The proprietor of the empty Chinese restaurant almost fell off his chair when we sat down and summoned a menu, This would not be our last Balkan Chinese meal as we made a pact not to eat pizza anywhere but Italy, a pact that was broken twice and very pleasantly. We avoided seafood dishes and were not disappointed, the next morning would be the acid test.

Next morning, our stomachs were unaffected, result! and I booked our next stop in Budapest through, €23 (I later revised my list of things that shouldn't be too cheap to include hotels!). We took breakfast in the Hotel's Hawaiian beach-scape themed basement. The car awaited unmolested and protected by the same two men re-armed with more beer and we hit the road.

Sofia's highway network soon gave out to a single lane speed trap. We had over 800km to Budapest and 50-90kmh was not going to cut it. I pushed as hard as I dare but less than 100km from the Hungarian border I spotted a couple of uniforms and they were not waving.

Next: The Police play an unexpected role and a Grand 'Tache tour

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