Friday, 2 March 2018

Winter Update

Here we are again, as promised albeit a little later than hoped, the next thrilling episode, all about the Bulgarian way of life and how we are adapting to it.  I must admit the pace is somewhat slower than I have grown up with but somehow the days get filled with all sorts of little gems that I would have never encountered being stuck behind a computer as I was for a lot of the time in the UK.

Nowadays, we are more likely to be stuck behind one of these..

In September, we were lucky enough to go on what may well be our last holiday until those lovely people in the Contributions Agency decide to give us our pensions.  
We headed off in Kevin the Camper for a trip through Bulgaria to Macedonia and Algeria with a brief stop into Greece en route.  Nothing surprises me anymore with these Balkan people and their charm.  One of the first towns we went through heading west we came across this sight..

A nice wave and a smile (priceless) while he walks his only cow over to a bit of green ground for grazing.  The cows here are kept for calving, milking and eating so they always look well fed and looked after, unlike milkers back in the UK which to be honest, can be fairly scrawny.

So on we plodded in Kevin to our first stop which was in the Balkan hills of Bansko at a site called Camping Predel.  The campsite was basically in a field with a sort of reception and a bar which I'm sure would have been busy in the summer but as we were the only people on site, we were offered a Rakia on arrival.  Graham reciprocated with a sample of his homemade Rakia (which I must admit was much nicer).  All around the site were little shacks, barely big enough to swing a cat (sorry Squeaky!) and badly in need of some TLC...

There was even a lovely pony that kept kicking his water bucket over and so kept me busy refilling it.

 We were parked up next to a little children's play area but as there was nobody on site, we knew it would be quite.  The apparatus in the play area would have a H&S officer into a spin.  Don't think I would have let my children play there.

The following day we moved on and were getting increasingly hotter.  Bracken was finding it a bit too warm so we had to pour water onto a towel to soak it and cover him over with it.
We could see the hills in the distance and knew that behind them was Greece.  We decided to cross the Border into Greece before motoring on to Macedonia.  A little hiccup here crossing the border as we needed 6 Euro's to enter Greece onto the Toll road (forgot to bring our Euro's).  GJ managed to exchange 20 Lev for 10 Euro's with a very kind Bulgarian who was in another queue. As we got closer to the mountains...
 You can be sure of Shell!
We stopped in a shaded lay-by in Greece for lunch and attempted to cool Bracken down but we needed to get some cash, so after consulting the oracle that is the Sat Nav, we found a bank on our route and while I was waiting in a precarious parking area for Graham to come back with some readies, I met some of the locals...
 ...they seemed friendly enough but they were getting themselves all hot and bothered, whilst I was still trying to get Bracken cooled down.
In Greece, the farming appears to be all set out in sections.  I think maybe, as sometimes they do in Bulgaria, the farmers form a co-operative and one field is owned by several people and each plant their preferred crop in their section.  Perhaps we could learn by them and relieve the waiting lists for allotments in the UK.
After clearing the Borders both out of Bulgaria, into Greece, out of Greece and into Macedonia - with no mans land in between each country, we reached our second destination, Rock Land Camp.  Eventually we met the owner in the local village and she asked a little boy on a moped to direct us to the campsite.  Again because of the time of year, there was only one other couple in a tent who had come for the rock climbing - suprisingly!  The little shack on the right of the picture was a sort of communal dining area, there was also a shower block and kitchen for cooking, all in a field and that was it.  The field was at the back of some houses and there was a gentleman who grazed his goat in the field and he came over to us with a large bunch of grapes from his garden.  The other side of the field was another house where the occupant sat in the shade all day roasting her peppers.
In the early evening, she came over to have a word, with a large plate of peppers and what I thought was some sort of quince.  Wasn't sure what to do with that so I kept it for the chickens on my return.  I know it looks like an apple but it definitely wasn't.
Incidentally, the chickens and Squeak were being looked after by our neighbours Warren and Sylvi.  I left the chickens several treats (cucumbers, sweetcorn, cabbage) as well as regular bird feed.

Whilst in Macedonia, we decided that we didn't particularly want to cross the border into Albania because neither Albania or Macedonia recognise the EU dog passport scheme.  As it was we had smuggled (or not declared) Bracken into Macedonia and we felt confident that if found out, they would let him back into Bulgaria because Bulgaria does recognise the scheme.  When I say smuggled, I got out of the camper and went to the window of the customs man, gave him all the documents he needed but still held onto Bracken's passport.  GJ remained in the cab trying to keep Bracken quiet whilst he tried to growl and bark at anyone who came near Kevin.  We made it but we did feel a little like smugglers.

On the road again and after missing out the Albanian stop off, we had a fair bit of motoring to get to Lake Ohrid, which incidentally, has it's bottom half in Albania and the top in Macedonia, so because we had to miss out on Albania meant we had a longer journey to get to Camping Rino where we decided to stay for 3 nights instead of the original 2.  See the yellow marker, top left and the yellow border line through the lake.

A selection of pictures on our journey west to Ohrid

The grape harvest

This was the slowest part of our journey, even slower than the horse and cart.  A learner driver heading towards the town of Ohrid.  We even pulled over for the traffic because we were getting tooted at, they couldn't see the little car beyond the Camper.
The story here is that this part of the world has a large Muslim community and as we have never lived near a Muslim area before, we didn't know that the call to prayer happens so many times a day.  I had pointed out to GJ that the mosques had loud speakers on their spires but wasn't sure why.  5 am the next morning, we found out.
Camping Rino entrance, right on the edge of the lake. you can see from where we parked Kevin up.

The on-site restaurant
View from Kevin's lounge at dusk...
...and the view from the restaurant at dusk
Bracken thoroughly enjoyed swimming in the lake and was very welcome in the heat.
After 3 days of recharging our batteries, which is necessary after driving a camper van through windy roads, over mountain passes, through busy towns and villages, we headed east again.  This picture is just to prove that I did some of the driving. We were heading to another Lake called Batak back in Bulgaria.  We had been here in the spring for a couple of days but unfortunately it rained all the time we were there so we hoped we were more fortunate this time.  Some random pictures from Ohrid to Batak...

Finally we reached Batak

The weather was beautiful this time and Bracken got to get some swimming in.  The lake itself is quite desolate when you compare it to Windermere, where this journey started, but for all that, it has a sense of serenity.
The restaurant a little way along the beach was actually the best food we had had which was fitting, as it was our last night.  GJ scrutinising the vast menu.  As the restaurant was so quiet, we were even able to choose our own music from Youtube.  So GJ put on Bat out of Hell by Meatloaf.  The waiter was most amused.
The last leg of our journey back to Hotnitsa from Batak.
Some street traders selling mostly honey.


On 1st of October, it was a nice still day so we decided to take the bikes out.  We had been loaned these bikes from our friends Stewart and Barbara but we had invested in new saddles because we needed a bit more comfort.  We set off for Resen with a view to calling at a local bar for lunch.  Problem we had when we were 3/4 of the way there (after about 7 km) my saddle decided to slip and every time we stopped to put it right, a few 100 yards and it slipped again.  We limped into Resen and the first thing we had to do was buy a spanner (not that GJ hasn't got a garage full of them)...

Spanner purchased, and repair done.  It was great fun though!
The rest of October was taken up with tidying up the garden and grounds and the building of the carport ready for winter

Start of the framework

Putting the tiles on top
The only picture we have taken of it finished was recently in the snow.  Primarily it is to keep the car in the shade over the summer because the sun is so intense, that it may deteriorate the car more and she is an old girl now and she also likes to keep dry.

As we had a lot of branches that had been cut down and were unsuitable for indoor fire making and we had a lot of burnable rubbish too, we decided to have a bonfire party but without fireworks.  A friend,  Shirl, made us a Guy Fawkes in the shape of Donald Trump....
Bracken was not amused!

Donald was erected and the bonfire built by some of the lads.  In this picture Warren is just tucking one of Donald's hands into his flies!  A nod to what most people call him - that's Donald not Warren.
Let the party begin.  I made a great big pot of Kavama and over 35 jacket potatoes and I still got a complaint that some people didn't get a potato.  I must have miss-calculated but my friend Barbara made a vegetarian chili for the Veggie people, some puds were also made and donated and I think we managed to feed and entertain everyone.  Only one casualty, Mary Lou broker her ankle but she didn't know it at the time - she should take more water with it!

We decided to do some more decorating now that the weather had changed.  We finally got the sitting area off the kitchen decorated in a nice pastel green and I made some curtains for the french window.

With half a tin left GJ thought we could take the green into the utility room as its only a small area.  It didn't quite reach so we needed to get some more.  The original is a Dulux mix that we got from Practika which has now closed down for refurbishment so we trundled off to the Dulux shop in VT who could only sell us 2.5 litres at a time.  We only wanted 1 litre so asked about some other paint he had on his shelf. "Oh no" he said "that paint is too old so I cannot sell you that".  - Only in Bulgaria!

Christmas decoration time!
Our newly painted room just off the kitchen, duly decorated
We had a day trip out with Stewart and Barbara, to Russe which is a large town that has the border crossing from Romania to Bulgaria.  On the outskirts of the town there is a large warehouse store that sells all sorts including a Santa's grotto of decorations.  If nothing else, its a day out just to see those and of course to have lunch somewhere.  When we drew up at the car park and Stewart opened his car door, there was a tannoy expelling Christmas songs over the car park.  His face was a picture and in the words of Victor Meldrew he said "For Goodness Sake".  His enthusiasm for the trip was a little strained to say the least but Barbara was looking forward to it so he went along with it.  I think secretly he enjoyed it more than he thought. We managed to get some lunch in a "Scottish" bar in Russe which had a piece of tartan hanging from a door but nothing else Scottish.  Food was good though.
This is one of Elenor's turkeys trying to escape it's fate!
"The girls" and I visited the Christmas market at VT.  Not quite to the standard of the German Christmas Markets but nice all the same.
...and of course we had lunch at the Mall - Don't think either Max or Barbara will like that picture but I didn't take many more.  Tanya on the left and opposite me was Shirl.
Sometimes, well mostly, when you order something say, chicken bites as pictured here,  they come on their own with no vegetables, so I ordered a vegetable dish as well.  Big mistake, lovely but the volume was almost as much as you would find on an American plate.  Very nice though.

...And now to the Christmas Party in the village:

Not many pictures because my camera stayed misty after the walk into the village, it was a bit chilly but I have put a couple of videos on, especially of this lady.  During the raffle there are prizes of knickers, which has become a big feature of the Christmas Party.  I will attempt to put on the video of her sporting her wear!

Our Christmas dinner, Roast Pork with all the trimmings, and steaming hot!

New years day started with an impromptu gathering of quite a lot of the Hotnitsa Ex-pats at the top bar in the village.  It was a stunning day weather wise and we sat out most of the afternoon.  We had intended not to drink very much but you know how it is!

We seemed to be head of the table for some reason!

January the 6th is Epiphany and the Bulgarian Orthodox religion celebrates when Jesus was baptised in the river Jordan.  The Bulgarians celebrate this with the Priest telling the story and once blessed, a cross is hurled into the Hotnitsa fountains and the young men of the village are supposed to race to get the cross.  The first one back gets a cash prize.  This year, only one boy stepped up and to make it fair, the Mayor (in the blue puffer jacket) told his son to make it a competition and enter himself.  He is on the left of this picture.
Record numbers of people attended to see a race that was over in seconds and the 200 lv was split between the boys.  Well done guys!

When the days have been cold this winter, we have been perfecting a style of curry cooking that gets us pretty close to the "British Indian Restaurant" style.  We have followed a guy on Youtube called Al and we have produced what we think are some brilliant dishes.  From bottom left, Chicken Jalfrezi, Tarka Dhal, Flat breads, Chicken Pathia and Bombay potatoes. Centre is Pilau Rice. 
Later on in the story, we tried these out on some friends and the evening was a success. Well we think so, we haven't seen Chris and Karen sinse then!

On January 21st it is what's know as Baba Danka Day.  This is where the villagers enact a story of two young lovers getting married and having a baby, the Baba's are the village midwives who then move through the village to collect money for the couple to wish then happy ever after. The priest is on hand to bless the child.  AKA. Our Ivan having a sly smoke - he just borrowed the costume!
The Babas and the wedding couple ( in our village usually played by ex-pats, this year Steve and Sarah) leave the town hall with their banner with some cash already pinned to it.
A fella plays the squeezbox!
...and off they go to parade around the village.  By the way the fella clutching a "Baba" to his chest is Chris. We don't know why he is doing that but at least he is taking part!

The Babas now come out of the Mayor's office where Steve had his baby, clutching said baby and an offering from the Mayor of roast chicken
Congratulations to the bride and groom!  Did I mention they had all had Rakia by this time.
Onwards to the bottom bar (as we call it)
Our neighbour Radko with the bride and groom
Onwards to the top bar - more Rakia!
Following a walk back down to the centre, and some dancing in the square, the Baba's move on to the road and will stop any driver passing and extort money from them or they have to shame themselves and get out of the car and pull their trousers down.  Don't think that is actually tradition but it must make some money.

Some of the ladies of Hotnista have formed a group called Sedjanka Priyatelstvo or in English, Circle of Friends.  Primarily it is so we can share common interests, crafts, traditions etc.  We had our first meeting a couple of weeks ago and intend to meet at least twice a month.  I took cake and flapjacks for us all to enjoy over coffee and as well as talk about the group and make plans, we tried making Martinetsas'.  As in previous blogs, these are red and white bands given to friends on the 1st of March and they should be worn until you see the first Storks returning to the villages.  Then they should be hung on a fruit tree to symbolise a good harvest.  Just a few of our members.

Some random pictures now.
Our curry party with Chris, Karen, Sarah and Steve

Feeding time in the snow
Where has Mum gone?
More snow!

He found his ball!

Forgot to mention that Squeak had her operation so no kittens, thank you! Before and after her hair grows back  

Guy up a tree - our neighbour Radko has had his great big fir trees cut down.  Good for us, more sunshine!
Spring/Summer on the way, stay warm and well everyone
Helen, GJ, Bracken and Squeak.