In my last post – Good times in Georgia, we’d just crossed the Black Sea by cargo ferry and arrived in the Bulgarian port of Burgas. The sea wasn’t black at all in Bulgaria but a beautiful sparkling aqua blue. The coast of this inland sea could easily be mistaken for the ocean with sandy beaches, gentle lapping waves, holiday hotels and seaside cafes. I don’t know what I expected but I never imagined that.
In fact, the Bulgarian Black Sea coast around Burgas seems to be one big holiday resort. We booked an apartment at Sarafovo Beach with a balcony, a sea view and a swimming pool. The weather was perfect and the food in restaurants overlooking the sea was delicious. Yay salads! Yay avocado! It was all cocktails with swizzle sticks and beach umbrellas. I guess I can see the appeal of these holiday places (and they’re exactly the same all over the world) if you just want to swim, eat and drink. Well, no actually I can’t. We were bored pretty quickly.
JH had run out of asthma medication and it was getting harder for him to breathe. We thought we could get some in Bulgaria. Google said we could but it seemed it was not the case. Not wanting to bury JH en route, we decided we’d better go directly to the UK by the fastest overland route possible (Do not pass GO!). The first transport we could get out of Burgas was a bus to Veliko Tărnovo in northern Bulgaria.
What a wondrous surprise Veliko Tărnovo turned out to be. Known as the ‘City of the Tsars’ and one of the oldest towns in Bulgaria (5000 years!) it just oozes history. With only 70,000 people it’s quite small but due to its periodic importance throughout the ages, it has a disproportionate number of statues, monuments, churches and whatnot. It’s built on three steep hills around the Yantra River and although currently a bit poor and rundown, it has a real old-world charm. In some places, the buildings seem to have been built higgledy-piggledy on top of each other.
Everyone in Veliko Tărnovo kept saying ‘you have to go and see the fort’. ‘Yeah yeah’ I thought, I know it’s supposed to be an amazing medieval (12th century) fortress but I’ve seen lots of forts lately and we’re kind of in a hurry. Anyway, we had an afternoon spare so off we went to see it, the Tsaravets Fortress. I had no idea. We came around the corner and there it was. We’re like ‘what the!’? It’s huge! Like a complete medieval fairytale city for giants. The scale is impossible to catch on a normal camera. It goes both directions as far as you can see. It’s truly a sight to behold.
From Veliko Tărnovo we caught a bus over the border to Bucharest. Our bus was three hours late. I’ll say it one more time – buses are rubbish. We travelled through the rolling green farmland with fields of corn and sunflowers in northern Bulgaria, then crossed the ‘beautiful blue’ River Danube into Romania. The Danube is the second-longest river in Europe, after the Volga. It starts in Germany’s Black Forest and drains into the Black Sea.
Bus stations are often in the worst part of town, so when we got off the bus in the outskirts of Bucharest it was grey, raining and covered in a layer of grime. It got pretty impressive once we got into the city though. Bucharest (Bucaresti) was the residence of Vlad Dracula (Vlad the Impaler) in the 1400s and is now Romania’s capital. Various fires, plagues and wars have progressively destroyed many of the older buildings. The dictator Ceaușescu (1965-89) razed many more and replaced them with ‘socialist realism’ style buildings, otherwise known as big communist boxes. The buildings are MASSIVE and kind of intimidating. Much of the grand and beautiful surviving architecture is from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Maybe it’s just my imagination but with the huge scale, the air of decay and the ghostly fountains, Bucharest still feels deliciously creepy and the possible haunt of evil counts.
We caught the day and overnight train from Bucharest to Budapest on a stately old European train with sleeping cabins. Luxury! I sang ‘Budapest’ (Stolen Sweets) in my head (and sometimes out loud) all the way. Even though modern fast trains are fabulous, I much prefer the lumbering old slow trains.
That afternoon, we chugged leisurely through Transylvania and the dark Romanian forests. Out the window, everything was pointy – the hills and the trees, little pointy gingerbread cottages, thatched witch’s houses with pointy turrets and pointy haystacks like the ones in fairytales. In between staring out the window and singing to myself, I read a vampire novel in deference to Dracula.
As we moved towards Hungary the scenery became softer and rounder. We saw little villages and hamlets, each with their own church spire poking up through the trees. Europe feels so medieval to me with its overt signs of christian history. You can almost hear the chanting, praying, yodelling and burning of witches. I tried to stay awake but the gentle swaying motion of the train lulled me to sleep and I dreamt of castles, wood nymphs and trapped princesses.
We arrived in Budapest at dawn. The stunning old Keleti train station is so steampunk beautiful and so impractical. We needed coffee, food and train tickets. Preferably in that order. The shops only take local cash. The bank machine only issues big notes in Hungarian florints. The shops won’t take big notes. The moneychangers won’t change them. The international railway counter folk are the rudest people I’ve ever encountered at dawn. I was not happy. Sadly, that’s all we got to see of Budapest.
Finally, we were on the fast train to Salzburg. It seemed like no time at all and we were there. The last time I came to Salzburg was in 1982, as a 19-year-old backpacker. So much fun! It was party time in Salzburg. This time, in some kind of weird karmic throwback, the room I’d booked in a hurry turned out to be in a huge youth hostel – the school camp bossy kind. Something about all those hostel rules brings out the worst in both JH and I. We regress into rebellious 13-year-olds.
From Salzburg, it should have been a straightforward train trip to Brussels, with just one change in Frankfurt, but that day was the hottest temperature ever recorded in Germany. The German railway system went into meltdown. Modern trains are sealed systems so you can’t open the windows or doors. The air conditioning stopped functioning and it was unbearable. Frankfurt station was in absolute chaos. We had no idea what was going on because, of course, all signs and announcements were in German. Huge crowds were pushing and shoving and loads of trains were cancelled, including our train to Brussels. We spent the day on a wild goose chase being sent on trains to meet other trains supposedly going to Brussels. Everywhere we went, the next train was cancelled. We zigzagged all over Germany. It felt like a taste of the future with climate change. Eventually, the railways organised taxis to take people to their destinations. We got a taxi for the last few hundred km to Brussels, arriving around 1.30 am, seven hours late. The taxi driver took us to the wrong station and demanded we pay him 20 euros to take us to the right one. He had no idea how close he came to being head-butted. We finally collapsed into our hotel bed, with no time for dinner, breakfast or Brussels.
We were up early the next morning and on the Eurostar across the English channel. I’ve never been through the tunnel before but it was just like being in an airport and then a plane. It didn’t feel at all like we were travelling under the sea in a concrete tube. Impressed. A couple of hours later and we were in the familiarity of a rainy, grey London. The first thing we did was order an English breakfast – veggie sausages, tomatoes and hash browns yum yum. Then, just one final train to our destination in Powys, mid-Wales.
It was a soft landing in Wales. We collapsed in a heap of weary travel fatigue in the gorgeous 400-year-old cottage of our friends-like-family. My clothes and boots were falling to bits and my only souvenirs from Cambodia to Wales was a tambourine and a bottle of grape vodka (ChaCha). Writing and motion seem to go hand in hand for me, so as soon as I stopped moving, I stopped writing. Hence the lack of blog posts for a while.
We spent the last months of summer in the pretty Welsh countryside. Eating good food, picking blackberries and walking in the woods with dogs. We set about sticking JH back together with vinegar and brown paper and some help from the National Health Service (NHS) – one of the very best public health systems in the world. Soon he was as good as new, or actually, better than he’s been for years. The NHS has good drugs – and in Wales, they’re all free!
We haven’t been far afield since arriving in the UK. A few fabulous day trips in Wales and nearby, a week in the Forest of Dean, a night out in London and three times to Scotland. With all of this foolish Brexit malarkey, we’re hoping Scotland might gain independence and adopt us.
As summer turned to autumn, our thoughts turned to our next steps. We decided to rent a little house in Bignall End – JH’s hometown. We’re on the north end of Stoke-on Trent near the Staffordshire/Cheshire border. I think middle England must be the friendliest place on earth. Acquaintances and total strangers shout hello (or ‘aye up duck’) from across the other side of the street and chat to you in shops, or anywhere and everywhere really. We’ll stay put for a little while and work to get our finances in order and take the time to gradually catch up properly with all the people we want to see.
As I sat here in my cosy little home in England, Australia caught on fire. I felt so far away and I cried more than I’ve cried in a very long time. I cried in grief that we might lose our home created with love and for a lifetime of collected treasures and memories that we might never see again. I cried for the losses of others, the kindness, the heroics and the community spirit. Mostly though, I cried for the animals and the trees, then the forests, the rivers and the oceans. I cried in despair for my country caught up in corruption, lies, hate and stupidity. I cried in fear that too many people will never wake up and they’ll go on arrogantly killing, destroying and poisoning for money until our beautiful blue planet is no more. In the end, we were lucky this time and we didn’t lose anything except our complacency. Now it’s a time for recalibration and of reassessing priorities.
For now, we’re here in Bignall End. JH is so happy to be home and catching up with his family and old friends. England feels like home to me too. I love this mad little island. Being here is like curling up on a well-worn couch in your favourite baggy trackies and woolly socks. At first, I had big plans to go charity shopping to find lots of groovy items to make our little house feel like a home but the longer I spend in this impersonal bubble the more I kind of like it. It’s like a little private hotel-house. Making it too cosy could be a trap. To decorate or not to decorate? That is the question.