6th – 15th July
Entering Bulgaria we immediately leave Turkish modernisation and sophistication behind – the three lane motorway disintegrates into a single lane, bumpy country road. Gleaming new Turkish towns are replaced by crumbling red brick villages interspersed with lush, rolling countryside.
There’s little traffic heading north but it’s impossible not to notice the exodus of European cars all heading south – from Germany, France, Belgium and Holland – it’s summer holiday time and this is evidently the European equivalent of the M5 to Cornwall.
We stop for lunch in sleepy Haskovo, a mid-sized Bulgarian town, before turning onto a country lane towards Nikolovo, a tiny Bulgarian village that’s apparently home to an English run guesthouse and campsite.
When we arrive in Nikolovo half an hour later it’s hard to believe there’s any accommodation here, at all. The village is impossibly picturesque, a muddle of quietly decomposing red brick cottages each surrounded by ancient dry stone walls enclosing abundantly stocked vegetable gardens and vineyards.
We explore every track in the village without success, before some friendly locals agree to take us to the home of an English couple living in the village – surely there can’t be more than one English couple here?
Heather and Hat
Actually there are three. Pulling up outside one recently renovated cottage, our cheerful local guides drive off amidst a cacophony of horn beeping and hoots. The garden gate opens and Heather and Hat, a retired couple from Ipswich, peer out to see what all the noise is about.
We look rather sheepish but introduce ourselves and before we know it we’re sat in their well tended garden, enjoying a late afternoon beer and chatting about Bulgarian village life. They don’t own the guesthouse, but they’re an incredibly hospitable, salt of the earth couple. We ask how much wine they’re producing from the vines in their garden.
“’Bout hundred an’ seventy litres last year” Hat replies proudly, taking another swig from his tumbler of red. It’s a hell of a lot from your own garden, we remark. Do they sell any? “I get through ten litres a week of this stuff” Hat replies equally proudly, his husky voice coarsened by years on rollies. Luckily the local produce is so cheap, though, that they can top up their supplies and maintain a year-round Bacchanalian haze without breaking the bank. It’s an enviable lifestyle…
Leaving their humour and hospitality, we try to find Garry, owner of Tree Pigs Farm & Guesthouse, who lives at the other end of the village. His equally charming cottage and even more abundant veg garden appears deserted. But soon he appears, a stocky, cheerful fellow, dozens of tattoos escaping from his rock’n’roll vest.
Some British habits don’t change, wherever you are. Once again within five minutes we’re sat in the garden, beer in hand, discussing Garry’s own veg patch and his wine production – he managed 200 litres of home-made wine last year, plus 50 litres of highly potent rakia (made from the leftovers from the wine production).
Evidently, ex-pat living in this part of the world requires a tremendously strong liver. Garry certainly looks well on it.
After a jaunt to the local bar for a few rounds of Bulgarian lager, we head home and cook supper in Garry’s vine-shaded courtyard. He joins us and gives us an interesting and educated insight into life in Bulgaria – with a very low cost of living, beautiful scenery, mild climate and friendly locals, it appears to be a good spot to retire too. Plus, Garry mentions (as did Heather and Hat) – Brits abroad are still a rarity here…
The following morning, heads sore after sampling Garry’s wine and rakia, we head north, with armfuls of fresh vegetables from the garden plus a few jars of Garry’s excellent home-made pickles – they are kind hosts in these parts.
Stuck in Sofia
Unfortunately only 40 kilometres up the road our gearbox begins to play up again and once again we’re without 4th gear. We plod slowly into Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second city, and find a decent garage (we’re in need of an oil change anyway) – but they can’t find anything substantially wrong with the transmission.
We don’t have much option but to continue, but the problem gets worse on the hilly roads outside Sofia – we stop at a service station for a think and meet a local lad with a low-loader. Sofia’s only 40km away but it’s a sensible precaution to put the car on the truck and get it to the capital, where we know there’s a Toyota garage.
€96 later and we’re deposited unceremoniously outside Sofia’s gleaming Toyota centre. Thankfully, one of the managers, Viktor, speaks English; we’re fed up with having to discuss our automotive issues in Russian.
We end up leaving the car with them for two days whilst they test everything. We still have enough time to get home by the 15th as planned and it’s more important the car gets fixed here, if it can be, than having it break completely so frustratingly close to home.
Sofia is actually a lovely city in which to spend a few unplanned nights. We take a taxi to the centre and find a rather bohemian, inexpensive hotel nestled on the fourth floor of a period townhouse in the centre. It’s perfect, except for the manageress – a 40 year old waif with a shock of black and grey hair – who’s as mad as a brush and determined to talk at us on subjects of utter inanity at all times of day and night.
After half an hour of puerile conversation, we manage to disgorge ourselves on the pretext of needing an early supper, rather guiltily leaving a softly spoken lad from Bradford to bear the brunt of her idiotic ramblings.
The city centre comprises about a dozen streets, lined with pretty, pastel tinted townhouses and wide pavements upon which dozens of relaxed and appealing restaurants and cafes have sprung up in the years since the fall of the Iron Curtain. It’s not hard to find a good place to eat; nor is it expensive.
There’s no news from Toyota the following morning so we set out for some sightseeing. There isn’t a plethora of sights – the bulbous, grey mass of the Alexander Nevsky Catherdral holds pride of place in the city – but the streets, parks and cafes are enough to keep us happily engaged whilst we wait for news on the car.
Whilst frustrating, we both agree it’s infinitely preferable to Phonsavanh in Laos, which was the last place we got stuck at the mercy of the local mechanics.
Slowly to Serbia
Finally, at lunchtime the following day, Viktor has good news. They’ve tested seemingly everything and there are no major problems – they’ve cleaned a few valves and tightened a few bolts round the turbo and the car is now running fine. He’s helpful, knowledgeable and pragmatic – more than can be said for numerous other Toyota representatives we’ve dealt with – and insists we’re good to go. Either way, we don’t have much choice. There’s nothing else they’re prepared to do and even if there was a major fault, all their parts take two weeks to arrive from Greece anyway…
So we hit the road north, towards the Serbian border, aiming to cover 400 kilometres and reach Belgrade before nightfall and make up some lost time.
All goes well for 80 kilometres before the same problem re-asserts itself – but there’s nothing we can do apart from drive the car in 3rd gear at 80km/h and continue. We work out we’ve got another 30 hours’ driving to get home if we have to continue at this speed…
The border crossing is swift but unpleasant. A smug, seedy little Serb in the drive-through immigration kiosk insists our Georgian issued Green Card is not valid in Serbia, ostensibly because we have a British car. We’d be fine, it seems, if we were French, or German, or even Italian…
So we have to cough up €100 for a month’s worth of Serbian motor insurance, despite the fact we’ll be out the other side within 24 hours. That done, a vastly grotesque and aggressive customs official barks at us to open the car up for a search, although pleasingly he soon gets bored and finds someone else to delay.
Bypassing Belgrade, crossing Croatia
We reach Belgrade’s only campsite at dusk, serenely positioned on the Danube in the outskirts of the city. The location, though, means only one thing for us when we arrive: mosquitoes. As soon as we park up we’re surrounded by a plague of them, making us wonder how all the other guests at the campsite seem to be enjoying their evening meals and refreshments so calmly. With five mosquito coils lit and a head-to-toe lathering in repellent, they begin to leave us alone and we can get on with having a beer, cooking supper and wondering how far we’ll get before our gearbox implodes.
Feeling much better for a decent night’s sleep, in the morning we swiftly reach the Croatian border and pass through without any fuss. Serbia will have to wait for another trip. What we saw of it was pleasant enough but not breathtaking – endless rolling agricultural scenery dotted with pastoral villages and dainty, turreted churches.
Inland Croatia is similar although the hills are larger, the countryside less arid and the villages more picturesque. We stop for late lunch in the capital, Zagreb, after long, slow drive through the bulk of the country. Prosperous, laid back and packed with grand squares and colourful avenues, we could easily spend far more time here, but we still need to catch up some ground before we can start to relax again.
Slovenia to Salzburg
After lunch we push on to Slovenia and can finally stop thinking about exchange rates – at long last we’ve hit the Eurozone. Sadly, it’s another country we don’t give a fair chance to. It’s incredibly beautiful, tucked in the southernmost reaches of the Alps and dotted with well kept villages and beautiful churches.
We stop for the night in a campsite outside Ljubljana, the capital (at €27 our most expensive ever), visit the crystal clear and idyllically situated Lake Bled in the morning, and cross to Austria, vowing to return.
Austria passes us by in a blur of summer Alpine scenery although we do stop for lunch and a leg stretch in Salzburg – a thoroughly agreeable city of colourful baroque architecture and innumerable commemorative statues and squares devoted to its most famous son, Mozart.
Salzburg, evidently, has managed to find its way on to the US tour group circuit - meaning there are now a few more Americans, though still unable to point to Austria on a map of course, who at least now know that some ‘stiff old composer’ was born here.
In the sweltering afternoon sun we drive north through the undulating Bavarain countryside towards Munich and stop at a campsite some 30km south of the city, on the shores of Lake Starnberger, a favourite weekend retreat for the city’s residents. It is the weekend and they are here in force, proudly displaying sagging, sunburnt beer bellies to all and sundry. We delicately step over a few bodies on the way to the ‘beach’ and enjoy a refreshing and much needed swim after the days’ exertions. The car is feeling worse again this afternoon, but at least we’re now in the centre of the European car industry…
We spend the morning in Munich, deserted but for a handful of tourists and locals who’ve chosen not to head south. As we’re admiring the splendid baroque buildings we’re approached by a friendly local who gives us some tips on what we should see. We end up spending 10 minutes or so walking and chatting together.
Whilst we’re certainly used to being approached by friendly locals, this is unusual – back in Europe, this kind of thing doesn’t tend to happen. Our chaperone is neither mad, lonely or after money – just a friendly fellow. It’s refreshing, though we can’t help thinking what a rarity it is back in Western Europe.
We spend the afternoon driving sedately towards Stuttgart. The gearbox won’t play again so we stop at a motorway services and decide to change the gearbox oil and start afresh with new stuff – something that should really have been done by the Toyota mechanics in Sofia. It’s a messy, awkward job, especially when by the roadside and having to collect the six or so litres of fluid in old water bottles. It comes out murky, brown and burnt – definitely a good job done.
Unfortunately it doesn’t solve the problem so we limp quietly on to Stuttgart and find a peaceful campsite in a wooded valley outside the city. The proud owner feeds us on strong local lager and a typically German ham salad (all ham, no salad); soon we collapse, contentedly, to bed in the back of the car.
Stuttgart is arguably one of the world’s great automotive centres. Home to Porsche and Mercedes (and these days no fewer than three Toyota garages), we figure this must be the place to resolve our problem once and for all. But a visit to the largest and most central garage proves futile. The helpful mechanics, immaculate in their pristine, freshly pressed white shirts, tell us that they’re not authorised gearbox specialists so they’re not even allowed to clean the inside of our gearbox (a simple job) – and even if they could, they couldn’t fit us in ‘till next week.
It’s ironic to think that, for all Europe’s wealth, sophistication and free enterprise, for us it’s actually been easier to get stuff done with the car in Asia, especially the remote places. No paperwork, no company protocols, no job-sheets or waiting lists. For now it seems, we’re as good as on our own.
So we drive on, slowly, towards Luxembourg, enjoying the mountainous scenery and charming villages of the northern German Alsace region. We make it to our final new country of the trip by 5.30pm, in time for our last taste of hospitality before we reach home.
We’re staying with Michelle Decker, Catherine’s mother, with whom we made friends and spend three days with in Ulaan Baatar. Catherine’s still there, working for the UN, but has kindly arranged for us to stay at her family home in Luxembourg. It’s a hugely appreciated act of kindness, as Luxembourg is as expensive as it is beautiful.
After a wonderfully warm welcome and a much needed decent shower Michelle drives us the five minutes into the old city, where we meet Max, Catherine’s partner who is shortly to join her in UB. High spirited and laid back, Max gives us a brief ‘city tour’ before we settle down for pre-dinner drinks, waiting for the rest of the Decker family to join us for supper.
He’s Luxembougish but has spent most of his older years living abroad, for despite Luxembourg’s indisputable beauty, wealth and high living standards, he still prefers for the grit and excitement of living in some of the world’s less developed countries. He’s already spent six weeks in Mongolia with Catherine. We all agree he’ll find more day-to-day drama there…
After a fantastic supper with Max and the rest of the Decker family we sleep soundly in the most comfortable surroundings we’ve enjoyed for some time. After a relaxed morning’s sightseeing with Michelle, we leave for France, somewhat reluctantly but in high spirits.
We spend our penultimate night away in Epernay, parked up in the municipal campsite surrounded by dozens of Dutch and British camper vans. Trying to avoid the interminable “so where’ve you been this holiday then?” small-talk with our neighbours, we leave early the following morning for a brief tour of the Champagne region, beautifully lush at this time of year.
We track down the Maison de Ariston et Fils in Brouillet and introduce ourselves to M Ariston. Our French friends from Turkey introduced us to his excellent Brut Tradition and we’ve been determined to visit this particular champagne house on our way home to purchase some more. Mission accomplished, we leave with large smiles and two cases and drive north towards Normandy.
And so, to home…
As it always does in Normandy, it starts to rain, heavily. So heavily, in fact, that the idea of camping for our last night goes out the window. By chance, today is also Bastille Day so every single restaurant, B&B and gîte is either full, or closed. We end up in a roadside guesthouse some 10km from St Omer, just 40km from Calais. The restaurant is shut for the night, but our host kindly prepares a plateau repas for us before she too goes out for the celebrations.
Having cooled a bottle of Ariston Fils in the freezer, we find a couple of chairs and sit in the deserted hotel car park, overlooking a damp, flat vista of cornfields, and celebrate the last night of our trip. It’s not quite the last night we imagined, but unexpected and a little random, so perhaps it’s quite appropriate.
We’re nervous about crossing the Channel tomorrow, about the prospect of stepping back into a world more real and less varied than the one we’ve lived in for the past thirteen months. But we’re also hugely excited by the prospect of seeing our friends and families, and tellingly, we don’t have that end-of-holiday depression that so often accompanies the end of a trip abroad.
Well perhaps - after a year, a month and a day on the road - it’s finally time to go home.