Bulgaria has a proud history of fighting off invaders from outside. The country is awash with monuments to this hero or that alliance, all of whom helped to repel foreign attackers in the past.
Perhaps this combative approach to outsiders persists nationally in folk memory, at a reduced level. For instance, we called in at a campsite deep in the rural wilds of the country to find that it was run by an expat Brit who’d lived there for the past seven years. He showed us around, told us what attractions were nearby and also what activities we could enjoy within the campsite. Among these, he told us, there was once a donkey and cart that was very popular with campers’ children. But one season the donkey wandered off. He never saw it again. It turned out that the nearby villagers had taken it and – regardless of the fact that it was owned by the expat Brit (or perhaps because of it?) had killed, cooked and eaten the donkey. Everyone in the village had some, it seemed, and pronounced it delicious. We found this sad, but not surprising.
Earlier on we had parked up in a secure, fenced-in and guarded parking area on the edge of the old town in Ruse, in the very north of Bulgaria. The night guard came over and introduced himself and then just would not cease his babbling in a mixture of English, German and Russian. He left us baffled and we were glad of the break in his attentions when he left. Before going he had pointed out a couple of restaurants that he recommended to us. “Are you going out for dinner later?”, he asked. We assured him that we’d be off once we’d walked the dog; but later, having seen the restaurants and their surroundings, we decided that we’d be far better off cooking for ourselves in the van. We also judged that we’d avoid any potential trouble on the streets, which were already filling with dodgy looking characters who eyed us and the dog silently as we paraded down the centre of the street. Back in the vehicle we started cooking some scoff. Half way through supper someone opened the van door from outside. The dog barked wildly, Kate whooped in surprise and I raced outside to see what was what. Just outside the van was the night guard, who rapidly explained that he had just been “testing” the door – it was important, he added, to keep all the doors locked because ‘foreign people’ could get over the fence and start burgling insecure cars and vans. This was either an admission of his own uselessness, or flimsy cover for his own attempted burglary. Either way, we took his advice and locked ourselves in for the night.
Even the wildlife could be dangerous. Later that week we’d been walking in the hills to visit some hilltop churches, which were remote and beautiful.
Coming back down the quiet track in the late morning sunshine Kate and the dog had ranged some way ahead of me. I paused to enjoy the utter solitude and caught sight of a tiny movement in the dust near my feet. It was an adder. Silently and with no fuss or bother it slithered away into the bush, leaving me to wonder why it hadn’t done its bit for Bulgaria and sunk its fangs into me.
Driving in the mountains generally posed a relentless hazard to life, but by this stage we’d learned to trundle along at a slow but steady pace while the rest of the road users, from motorcyclists to articulated lorry drivers did their Gadarene best to hurl themselves over into the abysses that waited at each hairpin bend. The marvel of it all is that we didn’t see a single crash in all our travels through Bulgaria. But all the same, we both felt mightily relieved to cross the border into Greece, where we now are. We shall stay for some weeks.