Transylvania is sweltering! Indian summers are all well and good when Jim Morrison is elegising, but in reality they wear a girl down. It’s borderline 40 degrees and not a drop of rain in sight. I was hoping the ‘murky forests’ you spoke of would be fruiting with wild mushrooms, but it’s not so. Perhaps in a few weeks or a month? Rain is predicted for tomorrow but I remain skeptical. I’m hoping for a cracking Queensland-fashion thunder storm to break the heat and rip its belly out. The leaves on the trees are talking about autumn, but nobody’s listening.
A solid 3 months since rain. The corn crop has withered in the fields and farmers have harvested hay only once, not twice, as they normally do. The hayricks are still standing. They lend the countryside a rustic sculptural elegance. Did you ever read The Worm Forgives the Plough? Don’t suppose there’s much cause for building hayricks in your line of work? But if there were, this would be the first place to look for advice. The apples here are small and tangy, there’s more than you can eat, but where’s the cider?
We passed the Carpathians on the train on wednesday. Splendid.
Bulgaria was a blessing. A real unprepossessing gem of a place. High heels and handbags seem to have made inroads in the cities. The people were really kind and kinda daggy, which I like. I felt at home. The bus ride from Istanbul took ages at the border. I was anxious they might not let me in – I outstayed my European visa by 5 weeks in Greece. Thankfully it was a piece of cake. By 7am the following morning we were eating greasy cheese triangles at Yug bus station in Plovdiv, perking up over Lavazza espresso.
In spite of our weariness we made straight for the centre of the country, the Valley of the Thracian Kings, where a couch surf host was waiting for us. He put us to work on his worm farm and brought us daily treats from his Baba’s kitchen: cabbage rolls, bean soup and baclava. Baba Gunka’s ox-heart tomatoes were the sweetest I’ve ever eaten: breakfast, lunch and dinner. Her peaches were pretty special too.
We spent 6 days in the countryside around Kazanlak before returning to Plovdiv for a handful of hot lazy days. The restaurant at which we chose to eat was a Turkish affair: ayran in hourglass copper tankards, shopska salad with loads of parsley, oily moussaka, bean stew and rice pilou. It took two attempts to decipher the encrypted flavour in the baked rice pudding – mastic a la Grecian style! Luxury rice pudding at its best, requiring firm coaxing to pull away from the sides of the ramekin, golden-burnt chewy layer on top and a bottom pooling with velvety custard and chewy grains of rice.
On an outing in the old city I spent a rapt hour in the Ethnography Museum – a massive 19th century timber mansion which has enjoyed several incarnations, including a girls’ boarding school and a tobacco and flour warehouse. Implements for harvesting tobacco, honey, grapes and hemp were among my favourite objects; clever well-turned tools, the elegance of which belie the toil that goes into growing and harvesting. I got fanciful looking at the traditional folk costumes and wondered what it might feel like to to wear an apron, cap, waistcoat and gold-coin necklace. The wooly socks were nice too! Hard to believe the archival photographs were taken as recently as 1929. Modernity sure swoops along!
Sunset beer on Nebet Tepe was another highlight of Plovdiv, views of the resplendent Three Hills. Too hot to be moving around until after night fall.
Upon arriving at the train station in Plovdiv we were met by a Baba who had every intention of taking us home with her. We were glad to yield to her invitation. I wish we’d been picked up by more elderly ladies during our travels. We were taken by Baba into a soviet-era concrete apartment building on Ivan Vazov, up four flights of stairs and into a room with 3 creaking single beds, dated furnishings and a huge potted palm. Baba lived in the room next door. She entreated us in broken English to entice all of our friends to come stay with her in her humble abode, which we will endeavour to do – don’t suppose you have any intention of returning?
The number of Soviet-era (and post-soviet) sculptures, busts and public artworks took us by surprise. Bulgaria loves public art! Even the mountain passes around Shipka are home to giant proletariat monuments. Tsar Simeon Garden was our favourite spot in Plovdiv for people watching, stiletto-oggling, and sculpture-gazing. Late at night and at various times during the day the oversized fountain came to life, spewing music and plumes of fluorescent light and water into the air. Think Bon Jovi, 90s pop and loitering teens. It was no Ballet Russes, but it was spectacular nonetheless.
Our visit to Plovdiv coincided with the saint day of Mary – every devout Maria in town (there were many) made their way to the church at the foot of the old town to partake in the celebrations. Cakes and loaves of bread were blessed, frescoed feet kissed and chests (sunken as well as voluptuous) crossed and crossed again. The flower and basil vendors, the dove procurers and the solemn black-shrouded priests lining the street were a sight to remember. Maria will henceforth smell of holy basil and everlasting daisies to me.
After a befuddled sit in the interior of the Church of Sveti Konstantin and Elena, observing the rituals of devotion, I strolled into the old town, skidding on cobblestones as I clicked with the camera. “There’s time enough in Plovdiv,” a dreadlocked giant of a boy told us in the courtyard of the old town youth hostel, “to sit about and think how blue the sky is.” It’s a good thing, and rare enough too in a city. I couldn’t help feeling that there was something innocent about Plovdiv – something that is missing in ‘knowing’ capitals like Rome, Athens and Barcelona. It’s a charming experience to mingle with citizens who are not yet disillusioned with buying, and who can still appreciate sound and light shows, sliced pizza and cans of beer in the park. McDonalds is making inroads, its true.
I celebrated my 30th birthday in Plovdiv – with the runs. Funny how these things go… I hope you, another 1982 baby, fare better on your birthday. I couldn’t have asked for a more interesting birthday really: it commenced in the wee hours with electronic ethno-dub at Beglika festival in the Rodopi Mountians; began in earnest with a solo sun-up dip in the lake; a long walk and a hitch-hike; and a delicious meal in the old city.
Your travel advice has been invaluable. Thank you. Bulgaria is beautiful. Plovdiv is great. And so far, Romania is shaping up pretty good too.
Good luck with your paper in L’Aquila. I want to hear all about it. Eat a gelato on Ponte alla Carraia for me.
Congratulations on (nearly) reaching 30 – you’ll be a Doctor of Philosophy in no time!