Winter Has Come

It was a surprise to find that Thermopylae, as well as having a giant statue of a Spartan warrior to mark the battle where 300 Spartans fought to the last man against 1.7 million Persians (or so the plaque nearby claimed), also had some very fine hot springs. We smelled them as soon as we set foot on the ground.

Another surprise came as we scanned the map of the battle and it became clear that the pass wasn’t some mountain fastness at all – instead it would have been remarkably similar to the one shown in the film ‘300’ – a narrow road running parallel to the coast with the sea below a high drop on one side and a nearly vertical rock face on the inland side. It made you think, it really did, particularly when another information board on the Kolonos hill, where the Spartans made their final stand, told us that thousands of ancient Persian arrowheads had been recovered from the sides and top of the small hill. Poor old Spartans.

Once we’d done the battlefield tour we wandered off in search of the sulphurous waters, and found the usual sprinkling of naked Germans bobbing around in the deeper parts of the stream. The dog seemed startled and a bit wary of the stream, not because it stunk to high heaven (she’s more than familiar with that sort of thing unfortunately) but because it was hot. She sensed trouble and backed away, probably because she feared Kate or I might have brought a bottle of dog shampoo, which she loathes.

Moving on, we came across another of the very few Greek campsites open at this time of year so stayed for a couple of nights, parked up on a little promontory with views of the sea on three sides. The only other occupants were another couple of Brits who were on their way to spend the winter in Crete. At this point we started to feel that the weather was finally starting to catch up with us after several months of fleeing just ahead of its clutches. The rain and chill persuaded us that a couple of days of motoring north would be better than staying put and doing nothing, so off we trundled, bidding a fond farewell to Greece as we crossed the border into Bulgaria. The Rila Monastery came up as a hit on the Atlas Obscura (yes, we were back into weird stuff territory again)

and its car park was nice and level so we stayed the night there. At this point things started to go wrong…

On the dog walk the next morning we headed for a wooded slope and the hound, full of energy and excitement after being penned up for the night, raced up it pausing briefly to vault on top of what turned out to be a very narrow concrete wall and then slide off it at high speed.

She vanished and we heard an enormous ‘splash’. Our hearts in our mouths, we ran to the scene of the disappearance and saw the dog swimming towards a mud island in the middle of a large and wide water sluice channel some nine or ten feet down a steep concrete embankment.

Searching around for a way down, or at least something to try and rescue the dog with, Kate noticed an individual (whom we later en-nobled with the title of the Sluice Meister) beavering away in a pile of clutter and buildings a short way off. With no Bulgarian language skills she skilfully deployed the art of mime to let the bloke know that our dog had fallen in the water and could he please come and help to rescue it. How he kept a straight face I’ll never know, but sure enough he produced a mighty and very home-made ladder from his clutter pile and marched back with Kate to where I was busy ordering the hound to stay where it was. Down went the ladder and then I set about trying to revoke my last set of orders to the dog. Confused about what we wanted her to do, she tried hurling herself up the embankment – but it was too steep and she slid down again each time. Eventually we managed to get her to at least try the ladder; she attempted the first couple of rungs and then tried to get off, but at the critical moment the Sluice Meister grabbed a bit of her, I seized another and we dragged her back up to safety. At this point the Sluice Meister could contain himself no longer and started roaring with success and laughter, pointing at the dog and shouting “Рыба, Рыба!” which of course means “Fish, fish!” The dog capered about, shaking herself furiously and seemed utterly unrepentant so we gave her a bit of a dressing down for being a half-wit while the Sluice Meister was awarded 20 Leva for his part in events. Back to the van we went, to dry the beast off and resume our extraction from Bulgaria.

This was made harder because we had to negotiate a pleasingly large and threatening landslide that had blocked off half of the road back down the mountain, triggered no doubt by the night’s rain.

That provided a few minutes of mildly tense interest, rounding off our pre-breakfast series of events nicely. In view of the opportunities for disaster offered by the Bulgarian countryside we decided to head for Sofia and some city living. A couple of hours of traffic jams later we hauled up at the Monument to the Soviet Soldiers, frequently painted by anti-Soviet protesters and just as frequently restored to its normal bronze finish by the authorities. We turned up during the normal period but thanks again to Atlas Obscura we were able to see how it looked during what was arguably its most resplendent painted phase. Both were impressive in their own respective ways.

Another couple of nights in Bulgaria culminated in a ferocious rainstorm late one evening, when we were parked up on a deserted runway on top of a hill very near the border with Romania, and this brought out another feature of living in a tin box. The rattle of the raindrops on the roof (see that crafty bit of alliteration?) was amplified by the space inside the vehicle, making it hard to get to sleep. “We’ll probably hit the snow next week,” I noted, “which at least means that we won’t be kept awake by the stuff falling on the roof.” Not long afterwards the rain stopped and the snoring started…

Funny old thing – the next morning we found ourselves under four inches of freshly but quietly fallen snow.

Luckily for us, we had remembered to pack some warm clothing…

Now the thing about deserted runways that are newly-covered in snow is that you have no idea where the hard surface ends and the soft, muddy bit begins. This makes it potentially difficult to drive around without getting bogged in. There was only one thing for it – Kate marched off, Captain Oates-like, into the snow to find out where the road went, while the hound and I turned up the heaters and slowly chugged along behind. Kate did a storming job and in a few minutes we recovered her on board, found the main road and chugged off at a marginally faster pace through the still falling snow towards Romania.

This, we supposed, was the price you pay for surfing the breaking autumn weather as it rolls southwards before petering out on the shores of the Mediterranean. Sooner or later you have to go north again, and when you do you hit winter all at once with barely a minute for autumn. Never mind, at least it kept us on our toes.

The cross-border transit was enlivened by a first-hand glimpse of a truck driver ahead of us handing a large pile of used notes to a uniformed official. This apparently ensured that only the most cursory of searches – really just a quick look into the back of his lorry, no more – was conducted before letting him roar away in a cloud of black diesel smoke and criminal intentions. The other truck drivers seemed to prefer a lengthy but bribe-free wait to pass through the other channels. Lacking both the bribe money and the contraband, we let the customs man have a look in the van, admire the dog and question our reasons for leaving Bulgaria. “We don’t like the weather there”, we told him with a straight face, ignoring the snow storms that raged on either side of the border. He must have heard that one before, since he merely grunted and waved us on our way into Romania. Bye-bye Bulgaria…