September 2008

Back to main page for Eastern Europe tour 2008

Let me just cut to the chase right now: Bulgaria is FANTASTIC. We loooooooooved Bulgaria, and highly, highly, highly recommend it as a tourist destination. It's beautiful, it's friendly, it has great local beer and wine, there's tons to see, and it's cleaner, cheaper, and has less stray dogs than Romania. Bulgarians actually care about their environment! We loved it from the moment we came over the border: there was instantly less trash, and we saw signs for bird watching, a dive center, a nature center... it was like we were in another country! Oh, wait... We vote YES on Bulgaria, for whatever it is the voting is for!

Bulgaria really had only three downsides: no money exchange at the border with Romania (at least where we crossed, near the Black Sea), few camp sites, and a secondary road that turned out NOT to be the road anyone ever uses, while the parallel tertiary road is what everyone uses (and is, therefore, much better). But more on those minor points later...

Did I mention that we loved Bulgaria?

We saw a camping sign almost immediately when we crossed the border -- the only one we ever saw in the country, it would turn out -- but at the time, I thought maybe, possibly, Lonely Planet Eastern Europe would be mistaken and there would be lots of camp sites. I was wrong. That was the only camping site I ever saw in the country. Please, EU, help Bulgaria develop more camp sites! Pay me to go to Bulgaria and help develop more camp sites!

I hadn't read much about North Eastern Bulgaria, because our original plan was to get through it as quickly as possible on our way to Turkey, to visit Ephesus, a site we've both longed to go to. But early on, Stefan said there was no way we were going to make it. So, we were in Bulgaria, but with really no idea of what there was to see in this part of the country.

It was raining for most of our first day there... in fact, it rained about half the time we were in Bulgaria. So in all the photos, I'm in my rain gear, which makes me look even more HUGE than I am, mostly because I have a XXXL rain jacket, so I can fit in my shoulder pack.

We headed first to what we thought was a scenic sea town, because on Stefan's map, it was marked as a place to see. It turned out to be a large resort. We must have looked reasonably respectable: the guard let us through the gate without much of a glance. The good news was that this resort had a money exchange office, so we got our Romanian money converted. We had lunch in a tin town, at a restaurant that served very tasty black sea herring but to the accompaniment of very bad music (the music Germans love to listen to in Mallorca. Yuck!). They also had a menu in English! We took a "short cut" to get to Cape Kaliakra, and it was the worst road ever, covered in MASSIVE potholes -- it was more holes than road. Stefan likes the challenge of driving on such, which is fine when the bike isn't loaded down with all of our luggage and ME, but had the bike frame broken or a tire blown... well, there wasn't much we could have done, so I did NOT enjoy the ride. As we neared Cape Kaliakra, we passed large wind turbines in the farm fields (clean energy! Hurrah!). Cape Kaliakra is marginally interesting - it was nice to have such a dramatic view of the Black Sea, but the ruins out on the cape aren't that impressive (I'm spoiled). In the parking lot, we met a couple from Westerwald, Stefan's home region in Germany. Germans are everywhere. So are the Dutch.

As we passed through tiny villages (and I marveled at how much less trash and stray dogs there were compared to Romania), I noticed that Bulgarians put people's death notices on small posters on the dearly departed's fence around his or her house, on places of business or on communal bulletin boards. These small posters with a portrait of the person who died were everywhere because, apparently, people rarely take them down -- some people had been dead for a few years. At first I said it looked liked every town we'd been in had been hit by the plague. But later, I decided it was a good custom in this era of massive mobility, where people live in so many different places in a lifetime and, therefore, don't always know the names of people living and working near them. How else do people know that their neighborhood acquaintances die? There are some older people I see regularly here in Sinzig when I walk Albi and I know that, if they were to die, I wouldn't know for days, weeks, maybe even months, because I don't know their names.

We headed to Varna to find an ATM, which we did. But at one point, some young teen boys came up and, though we all stayed friendly, I felt like the situation could turn for the worse at any moment - they had an air of danger about them, like their curiosity could very quickly turn into harassment - so we said goodbye as fast as we could and moved on. In all honesty: I'm scared of teen boys. I really am. I don't care what ethnicity they are - I feel threatened around boys in a group.

We then came to Pobiti Kamani - the Stone Forest of Bulgaria. I didn't know what it was when we first arrived, and when I first saw thee site, I thought it was a site of ancient ruins. But as I looked more closely and started reading information, I realized nothing was man-made. It's 70 km2 of what looks like pillars and other ruins, but it's all pre-historic naturally-formed structures, probably from when the area was under the sea.

When we were done with the visit and were standing by the motorcycle while Stefan smoked, I got upset watching a hooker down the highway abusing a dog. The dog had been in the park earlier and had been sweet and demure. The whore was throwing things at him, largely for her own amusement. I was LIVID. I turned away and counted, hoping we could leave soon. It was making me insane. That is my only sad dog story from Bulgaria.

I didn't read Lonely Planet closely enough and, therefore, we missed Madara. What a shame. I realized the next day, when I started reading to figure out what there was to see where we were, that we had passed one of the most famous sites in Bulgaria AND that there had been camping!!

It was still raining off and on when we hit Shuman (Шyмeн), and we did our usual we're-in-a-city panic. Bulgarian is written in Cyrillic, which is based on Greek lettering, so reading signs is impossible without a lot of study and preparation. We figured out what hotel looked like (Xoтeл), and tried to follow signs that were posted on the road to Xoтeл Mexджapeп (Hotel Mehdjarel). We were doing well, taking the right roads, but then, couldn't find the place on the road where we thought it would be. A cab driver saw us looking lost and said something. Stefan said, "Hotel!" The guy gestured for us to follow him and, ta da, he took us to the exact hotel we were looking for. Hurrah! I went in to find out the price. I asked the first guy I saw if they had a room, and he shook his head "no" and said, "Da." And in an instant it struck me and I blurted out, "Oh, you shake your head 'no' for 'yes' in Bulgaria! I remember!" I think he hit the DORK ALERT button to alert the rest of staff. But it's true: in Bulgaria and Albania, people shake their head side to side for "yes", and shake their head up and down for "no."

Turns out he spoke a bit of English, and we even got a garage parking spot for Stefan. Hotel Mehdjarel is small, but excellent. As always in Eastern Europe, there was satellite TV and, yes, "Law and Order" was on. Because it's ALWAYS ON. And, happily, it was subtitled, rather than dubbed. We unpacked everything and then returned to the front desk to handover our passports; as we had been warned in Lonely Planet Eastern Europe, it's required in Bulgaria that you register with the police in any city where you are going to spend the night. The hotel you stay in will handle this registration for you. So, best not to camp wild your first night in Bulgaria (or Macedonia, where they have the same rule).

We asked the hotel guy to recommend a restaurant (since we obviously can't cook in the room). He highly recommended a place that wasn't too far away. We passed many fat, playful or sleepy street dogs, some marked with a plastic thing in their ears (to show they belong to someone), and walked up the massive hill a bit to a nondescript, very popular restaurant in Shuman. That's where we discovered the fabulous Shuman beer (Шyмeнsko). Hurrah! We tried to use the menu decorder for Bulgaria in our Lonely Planet Eastern Europe Phrasebook, but, as usual, the waiter seemed to have never heard of the items listed there (and, yes, they are listed in Cyrillic). We asked him to bring something with chicken in it, and he brought us an amazing chicken dish that's either called Pileshka Kavarma (Лuлeщкa?). It's one of the most amazing meals I've ever had. We asked him to write it down in our phrasebook to show to future waiters on our journey. He was super friendly, as was everyone in Shuman. It's not aat all a town with much to look at, but the people sure were friendly.

Back in our hotel room, The Fellowship of the Ring was on, and we're always in the mood for that.

The next day, we had a nice little breakfast down in the little bar of the hotel (which was included in our very low room rate, hurrah), and then Stefan did some bike maintenance: he moved the back tire a bit further back so as to tighten the chain. It looked very complicated, but he swears it's simple. As he worked, I took a few pictures and watched parents escorting their kids to their first day of school. All these moms and dads were walking with their kids, usually carrying their brand new book bags and brand new school supplies. Most kids looked excited, though a few looked nervous.

Then we loaded up and headed to the monument that crowns the city, the massive Creators of the Bulgarian State Monument. We lucked out and found the right road to get up to the site right away (at first, it goes in entirely the wrong direction, but don't panic). The monument is awesome, and I'm not using that word lightly. The figures represent different aspects of Bulgarian history. Bulgaria is one of the oldest countries in all of Europe; unlike Germany or even England, it has been a country with roughly the same borders since 781 CE. I think that must be one of the reasons Bulgaria feels so much more stable than so many other countries in the same region; it's been "whole" for a very, very long time.

We should have headed West to the medieval Veliki Tarnovo; it's heavily recommended in Lonely Planet Eastern Europe and, later, we saw pictures of it that made us deeply regret not going there. But I hadn't read LP closely for this part of Bulgaria, for reasons explained earlier and when Stefan decided to take what is listed on his map as a secondary road South, on our way to Plovdiv, I thought, sure! At first, route 7 was fine, lovely, even. I was really loving the scenery, singing in my helmet, la la la. Lovely Bulgaria! The road brought us to a really cute hillside restaurant where we pointed to the chicken dish the waiter in Shumen wrote in our phrasebook the night before and, again, had our favorite Bulgarian chicken dish (slightly different, ofcourse). As we neared the top of the pass, we passed the "Hostelling International" sign, and there was a nice building barely visible through the trees that I guess is the hostel (though I can find no listing for it online). The trees on either side of the road had been freshly cut for several kilometers, and you could smell the freshly cut, very wet wood. Higher we went, into a cloud (no, really, a cloud) and then, at last, we started to descend. And the road got suddenly very, very bad. It was narrow, so narrow that I was praying we wouldn't meet any cars (we met ONE). It continued this way for probably an hour, and I was scared to death. The drive was beautiful, even in a cloud, even in the rain, but if the bike broke down, there was NO ONE around. In restrospect, we can say it was a lot of fun but, at the time, I didn't have fun. When we were out of the mountains at last and heading through tiny villages again, people looked at us as though we were INSANE to be on that road. I would just wave. Hi! Yes, we ARE insane! Later, we discovered that what is listed as the tertiary road, going through Kotel, is actually the main road.

We decided to take a major highway, in order to make Plovdiv that day. That took more of an effort than we thought; there weren't many access roads to the highway, and for a long while, we road parallel to it, even crossed over it once or twice. We passed lots of vineyards along the way. We finally got to the major highway at last and were making good time, but we could see a major storm ahead of us. We should have stopped and put on our rain gear, but impatience pushed us on. We got to Plovdiv just as the rain hit, and I saw two or three young boys standing on the street sniffing glue. My heart sank. This was Plovdiv, that LP raved about? We went into a partial tunnel, and when we came out, I saw Roman ruins near the street, looking freshly uncovered, but I never found them on any map later, and we certainly weren't about to stop at that point. Then darkness fell, suddenly, and it was both dark and pouring rain. No one we asked knew where the supposed camp site just outside of town was. Hotel Leipzig, recommended in LP and with signs all over town, turned out to be closed for renovations. The Queen Mary guest house was full (though the proprietor came out and did his best to help us find alternatives, and was delighted that I liked his German Shephard so much). The Hotel Novus was stupidly overpriced, and offered no secure parking for the bike, nor breakfast. We stopped at a gas station, and people acted half scared of us. Finally, we stopped at Hotel Euro, which is on North side of the river, on Bulgaria Blvd. It had relatively secure parking (you couldn't see the bike from the road, or even from the first gate entrance). It was way more than we wanted to pay, but it wasn't stupid expensive like the previous hotel. And the receptionist was as nice as could be. So, we stayed there, for two nights. It was the right choice, given the circumstances. We sat in the tiny hotel bar later that evening and drank local beer and wine, happily served by the same woman that had checked us in.

The next day, our "included" breakfast turned out to be rather wimpy, but there was still enough for me to have leftovers to feed the stray kittens out back (they were all fat, so I wasn't the only one). We decided to walk to old town in Plovdiv, and it turned out to be much closer than we thought. And we loved Plovdiv! It was one of the best places we visited on the whole trip!

After we crossed the river and turned left, we passed several upscale stores and many people out shopping for the day. There were lots of well-dressed middle-aged women sitting around the plaza having coffee and tea, and well-dressed older men sitting on park benches and talking. There was a feeling of confidence in the air -- I don't know how else to say it. There's a modern mosque right in the center of town, and we went in for a brief look. Right next to it is the opening to the exposed remains of a massive Roman stadium. We realized that the entire "new town" of Plovdiv that's built next to "old town" is built on top of Roman ruins, including this massive stadium! Were Plovdiv to get funding to clean up more of the ruins, they would have a major tourist attraction on their hands. Not that they need more -- all of Old Town is a tourist attraction! The winding, cobbled streets could not be more charming or picturesque, and as we walked to the huge Roman theater at the top of the hill, which is still used for events today, we were serenaded by unseen students practicing piano in the rehearsal rooms of a nearby music school (we felt like applauding when someone finished a piece). Plovdiv is a city of wonderful old houses, old Orthodox Churches, antique stores, Roman and Thracian ruins, street artists and vendors... I was in heaven. We stopped at a couple of antique stores but, ofcourse, couldn't buy anything (no room on the bike!). One place had a whole shelf of antique German microscopes. We went into a textiles store run by two old ladies, and the store cat had just had kittens, which I fooled with while Stefan bought a tiny old-fashioned oil lamp we played with many nights later when we were able to camp again. I'm not sure why he was so drawn to it, but I do really like it. One of my favorite moments while we toured the Old Town was at the fourth century Church of Constantine and Elana, where a woman who knows the groundkeeper got to let her grandson ring the church bell. We had lunch on the vine-covered back patio of a small, elegant hotel, Hotel Hebros, recommended by LP -- I want to have a patio just like that!

As we walked around, we found the Hikers Hostel of Plovdiv, and were so mad: there were two tents out in the courtyard! But I'm sure it was full, just like every other cool cheap place was in Plovdiv, and we never could have found it the night before. If you are going to Plovdiv, try to get reservations before you arrive, and get excellent directions to wherever it is you are going.

It took forever to find Plovdiv's Internet cafe, which turned out to be huge and overlooked the exposed ruins of the Roman stadium -- it's kind of underneath the city as well. Stefan said he only needed 15 minutes on the computer (he took 30), then I used the computer for 90 minutes just to look for critical emails to answer and to delete what I would never read. Other than the photos of topless women all around the walls, it's a terrific Internet cafe. While I "Internetted" (as my Mamaw says), he walked around more of the town, and when he could pull me away from the computer at last, he took me to a massive outdoor photo exhibit he had discovered. The photos were all taken of places in Bulgaria from a paraglider or hang glider. Were I Bulgarian, I would have been very proud to have tourists look at such an exhibit.

It was approaching the evening, and my brain was fried -- I hit a wall, and couldn't handle any more sights. I needed to sit and not look at anything for a while. We stopped to drink a couple of beers on our way out of old town (just at the start of the pedestrian bridge over the river; the bridge is also a mall). Stefan noticed that, yet again, our glasses were manufactured by one of two companies based in his home town; all during the trip, we repeatedly used Sahm or Rastal-made glasses. We also talked about how we felt like we'd finally had that before-it-was-cool experience, by visiting Plovdiv; no doubt this will be a next-huge-thing for large numbers of backpackers and world travelers. For now, at least off-season, it still feels somewhat undiscovered by the masses.

The other side of the footbridge brings you to the chic part of Plovdiv, where people drive sports cars and wear shoes with stupidly-tall spikes and big sun glasses that make them look like bugs. We stopped at a huge place that served pizza, and had one of our only bad dining experiences: the waitress did NOT want to serve us. We were eating outside, along with many other people, despite the threat of rain. The waitress brought our check with our food and said with a sniff that the table was closing for the evening. We left no tip, ofcourse. We walked back to the hotel and were again disappointed when the receptionist -- not our girl from the previous night but a new guy -- refused to serve us in the bar, even though he was sitting there having a drink with his girlfriend. Stefan got beer from a nearby shop and we drank it in the room. It was not a great ending to what had been an incredible day, but I didn't let it spoil it for me.

Sadly, there was no shows in English on TV; everything was dubbed into the local language, unlike our previous experiences. And Bulgaria has a very weird way of dubbing shows; they have just one guy speaking over everyone's dialogue. It's how Russians dub shows as well. Bizarre...

I was missing the tent. I was missing our nightly cooking of canned food. Little did I know how long it would be before we got to camp again...

We left the hotel, and when Stefan got out the second gate, he parked the bike and walked around the block to take a picture of the massive child-sized pothole he had to drive around two days before - sadly, that picture did not survive the trip (we lost a few photos on the digital camera -- they just disappeared). Outside of Plovdiv, we went to Bachkovo Monastery. It's lovely, but there was some kind of event going on, so some buildings were closed. According to LP, you can rent a room there; that would have been cool. It began to sprinkle, so I put on my rain jacket, but not my pants. Big mistake: as we ascended the mountains, it began to pour yet again. We stopped for lunch at a road side cafe and thought we could wait it out, but it was a huge storm. I wish I knew what kind of soup everyone else was having for lunch whenever we would stop somewhere. But none of the places where we stopped for lunch at this point had spoken English or German, so I couldn't ask. And, as I noted, the menu guides in the Lonely Planet Eastern Europe Phrasebook proved largely unhelpful. While I'm talking about restaurants, I should note that Bulgarians like stuffed, dead things hung around their restaurants: birds, fish, deer heads, etc.

We were driving through lovely countryside, but the rain meant we didn't want to stop, and Stefan had to always have his eyes on the road and other drivers; he didn't see much of the countryside at all. We were going through beautiful little villages we would have loved to have seen on a dry day. We probably could have camped on one of the many farms we were passing, but we really didn't want to set up in the rain.

I hadn't expected there to be so many Muslims in Bulgaria. We passed through many villages where, per the mosques, it was obvious that the majority of villagers were Muslim. But they are Muslims like in Albania or Bosnia / Herzegovina: young women and middle-aged women don't wear a headscarf, and the older women who wear a headscarf wear it in the style of our Baptist grandmothers back in the USA. The villages were lovely, regardless of their religious affiliation, and many people returned my waves.

It was getting chilly in the downpour, so we stopped at a cafe at a gas station, to have coffee and warm up. Bulgaria is the land of espresso, apparently; it's what we were always offered, and we didn't know how to order anything else. While we drank, I watched a big black dog standing out on the rain, staring intently inside the door. He was obviously not a stray, and I suspect that, when its dry outside and there's no customers, he just might be allowed inside the cafe.

Bulgaria is also the land of Soviet-era statues. They were everywhere. If you go, be on the lookout.

We had planned to tour a bit of the tiny mountainside village of Shiroka Laka, but the rain and cold ruined those plans. We stopped there for just a few photos, then drove on. I couldn't believe how cold I was getting. The drive was obviously beautiful when things are dry; we knew we were missing something really lovely in this landscape. At one point, we came to a cartoon-sized boulder standing in the road. This thing, I'm not kidding, was as big as a house! If it hadn't been raining, we would have certainly taken a photo (the camera is really hard to get to through the rain suit). It had been there for a few years. Later on the drive, Stefan got to help herd a cow; an old woman was trying to herd her cows, but one had decided to make a run for it -- or, at least, a quick walk. We were headed in the same direction, so Stefan road a bit ahead of the cow, turned, and honked his horn. The cow quickly turned and went back to the herd. The woman was too busy throwing things at the cow to thank us. Down the road further, we came to a part of the road where cliffs were so close to the sides that no trucks could pass on the road at all. Stefan took a picture, but then realized we were going the wrong way; in a few more kilometers, we would have been in Greece! We had to turn around, but that was okay -- the ride was lovely, even in the rain.

We came to the small town of Borino (or is it Hava Dryanova? Not sure), and we stopped at the large three star "Family Hotel" on the main road, towering over everything else. The young woman there did not want to deal with us: she rolled her eyes when I came through the door, then sighed heavily when she realized I didn't speak Bulgarian. She understood I was wanting to know the price, and she quoted me 60 freakin' Euros. When she showed me the price I laughed as I said, "NO WAY" and turned around and walked out. I was ticked off.

We drove a bit further and saw what looked like a restaurant on the left side of the road. We decided to see if it had a hotel. I went in and saw a small sign by the stairs that said, in English: "** Family Hotel." The woman in charge of things was as sweet and helpful as could be. She had her prices posted next to the check-in desk in both Bulgarian currency and Euros (20 Euros, thanks very much!). Our room was on the third floor, true (that's a long way to schlep our stuff), but the room was nicer than any hotel we had stayed in so far! It's called Hotel - Restaurant Havana (Xaвaнa) in Hava Dryanova, in the region of Borino / Rhodopes, and I highly recommend it. The hotel has a brochure that says staff can arrange guided tours of local sites. I'm ready to go there for a long weekend, quite frankly, and get to know the area better. The staff was SUPER nice, the food in the restaurant below was decent (I had two bowls of chicken soup), they had Shumen beer, and our room was oh-so-comfy, with a balcony view of the town's football (soccer) pitch outside (what a shame there wasn't a game). There was a sign outside regarding EU funding, with photos of this and other hotels, and we're pretty sure that Hotel - Restaurant Havana (Xaвaнa) has had some sort of EU-funded hotel management training. It was my favorite hotel experience on the trip, because of the value for the money and because I think these type of small businesses are a great investment by the EU, and I'm happy to support such. It took me a long time to get warm that night; I was chilled to the bone. I put every blanket from the closet on my side of the bed, trying to warm up. I did, eventually, in the middle of the night. We sat reading in our comfy bed whilst our things dried on the heaters, and heard the Call to Prayer nearby (though we never could see where it was coming from). There was no locked or hidden area for the bike, unfortunately, but the staff suggested that Stefan drive his bike up onto the patio and lock it there, so he did. It was quite a sensation, actually, to have such a motorbike in town; it drew a small crowd, and I suspect some people took photos with their phone cameras.

At some point, I realized that I had left my headband in Plovdiv. There's a poem in that somewhere.

The next day, I was thrilled that all of our stuff was dry. We hadn't been able to get a weather report on TV, so I had sent Lis a text message, asking her for a weather report. What we surmised from her message and from the sky: it might rain, it might not. Sigh.

We awoke and I realized we had only 10 days to go. Time was flying! And we would be leaving Bulgaria in the afternoon that day. I didn't want to go! I love Bulgaria! And I didn't at all feel done with the country.

We had a hearty breakfast (not included in the price), and negotiated two glasses of milk (waiters are very confused by our request for glasses of milk with our breakfasts). The milk was warm, but I didn't care. I actually like warm milk sometimes, actually. I got to interact with a little baby that thought the shiny buttons on my motorcycle jacket were the coolest things eva.

The weather, thankfully, was lovely. It was dry and cool, and we finally got to fully enjoy the lovely landscape of Bulgaria, with no fog or rain clouds. We saw that, had it been dry, we could have camped wild, no problem. And that would have been so wonderful to do. But we never could have done it in the pouring down rain. There was only one tiny bad patch of road; the rest was fine. We stopped to admire the incredible vistas, we took pictures of villages that Stefan said looked like places in Greece, we took pictures of people harvesting potatoes by hand, we admired the clean, well-maintained roadside picnic areas (the picnic areas in Romania were awful), and I waved to a lot of villagers, who mostly waved back. We even saw two anti-littering signs! HURRAH BULGARIA!

We stopped at a tiny roadside cafe in a one-horse village. We tried to order using the no-words book, but the waitress seemed confused. She disappeared, and another one appeared, and happily began chatting away in German! Hurrah! I got to, at last, order soup for lunch, just like everyone else! And... I cannot for the life of me remember what kind of soup it was. I remember only that it was good. The waitress was very excited to speak German. I still can't believe how widely spoken German is in the world.

We went to Rozhen Monestery, just past Melnik, amid very funky, sandy, sharp cliffs that won't last long. The monestary is built around a church, which itself is built around an icon of Mary and the Baby Jesus that, supposedly, can swim and walk, according to the posted legend (sure!). It was a very peaceful monestery, though not as beautiful as Bachkovo, and without a monk in sight. I love the layouts of these small Orthodox monasteries; I'd like to have my country summer house in Bulgaria some day built with such a design. Even though we are non-believers, we try to be respectful in such places; we whisper, or even don't talk at all. It's always a shock to me then when the "believers" show up and yell at each other, laugh loudly, stomp around -- despite that there's almost always a sign outside in several languages asking for visitor's silence and respect.

We went back and walked around almost-too-adorable Melnik. It's right off a postcard. It's a village that must be PACKED in summer, but it was off-season, so it felt peaceful and picturesque. There were art students all around the village, sketching or doing water colors of various buildings and street views. I finally bought a small piece of Bulgarian weaving - red - which I'll use as a centerpiece on my dining room table someday, somewhere. It looks like something from Bolivia. And, ofcourse, we bought a three liter plastic bottle of Melnik red wine for € 9! It's not an easy thing to pack, but I still regretted not loading up with wine in Hungary, and wanted a supply for the coming nights. In Melnik, we saw yet another funding-from-the-EU sign; it's nice to see government money spent well.

Stefan said we could stay the night in Melnik, even though it was only the late afternoon, but I knew he was just being nice; we needed to press on if we were going to do anything on the last week of the trip besides drive. My goal was to be deep into Macedonia by nightfall. So, we pressed on to the small border crossing at Nova Selo. It was the most complicated border crossing of the entire trip: first, the Bulgarian border folks took all our documentation, disappeared, then brought it back along with a memory stick, and said Stefan would need it. What we needed it for, we weren't sure. Then we went to the next set of booths, which was still in Bulgaria. They took the memory stick, did whatever, looked at our paperwork again, and then gave the memory stick back to Stefan and told him to drive forward to the next booth, which he did. And at that third booth, they took the memory stick and wished us a good travel. Huh? Then we drove to the next booth, which was Macedonia. They took their sweet time with each person wanting to cross. When it was finally our turn, they asked for proof of my medical insurance. We fished it out (took a while), and they said the proof wasn't good enough, since the letter of acceptance was dated from a few years ago. So, we had to buy medical insurance for me for a week, even though we'd be in Macedonia, at most, for three days. ARGH!

It was not a good start to our first visit to the the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). That's its official name, since most of historical Macedonia is in Greece, and the Greeks get really testy about another country using "its" name.

Pictures of this part of the adventure.

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