A Travellerspoint blog

June 2009



Finally, one Tuesday morning, the intrepid adventurers set forth in the van [which has eventually been named Mr Stubby] from Ebford. The curtains were hung, the cupboards were stocked and everything possible was battened down.
We spent a pleasant couple of hours in Newton Abbot, shopping and watching some Morris dancing in the town square
before continuing on to our selected campsite, Lemonford, in the nearby village of Bickington. It was a lovely spot, in a leafy valley, on the edge of Dartmoor, with good ablution blocks, and a peaceful air with a resident camp-kitty.
What could possibly go wrong? First, the electric hook-up cable that came with the van had the wrong fitting, but the kind owner lent us his. Then the owner decided to cut the grass all of the next day, which was irritating as David had decided to give Sandi's troublesome shoulder and neck a good massage every hour, to try to break the spasm ['twas beneficial, but didn't end up as hourly ministrations!]. The following day it poured, and started leaking copiously through the 2 back windows; all we could do was put down plastic shopping bags and soak the water up with our towels until they were all wet. We realised that we were paying £3/day for electricity, yet we were using our own gas to cook on! How silly is that? So we decided an electric hotplate was on the shopping list, as a matter of priority. The weather then improved and we could relax for the next couple of days.
After buying some silicone, we moved through Dartmoor to our next site near Tavistock, called Langstone Manor. Fortunately, we had really sunny weather so the leaky windows could be fixed, and the awning taken down and re-sealed. David, ever the intrepid handyman, did a stunning job on repairs. Sandi always seems to be packing and repacking.
Several bits and bobs that seem to need doing to the van crop up at regular intervals, allowing David to don his Heath Robinson hat and come up with creative, budget-conscious solutions. These inevitably provide Sandi with mirth-fuel. For example - a GREY shelf that needed reinforcing is now proudly held up by a LAVENDER lady's belt! Said belt was found in a thrift shop, with David insisting it was grey, and would be a good match. At least it only set us back 49 pence, and since it provides daily amusement - cheap at the price!

Don't mess with the cook!
The van trundles along the highways at a top speed of 60-65mph [even up to 70 on a good day!], but being diesel, is very noisy. Conversation above the decibels gets shorter and shorter! The radio works well, as long as the volume is turned up high enough above the noise. We enjoy tuning into the various BBC programmes - some are really funny, while others provide good general listening. Climbing hills can be a problem, proportionate to the gradient of the hill ahead; the steeper the hill, the slower we go [often down to 25mph]. As many of the country roads are narrow, the queues of cars pile up in the rearview mirror. It used to make David agitate, but as time goes on we have learned to laugh about it: C'est la vie! [or "tough"!]. As the van is 8' 6" wide, driving along these beautiful, dappled, leafy lanes is not as relaxing as one might expect. Trying to squeeze between an embankment or hedgerow on the left, and a large van, bus, or tractor careering around a blind corner on the right, is no fun for either of us. Sandi leans away from the hedgerow and shuts her eyes in case we collect a branch or hit the curb, and David leans away from the oncoming traffic, trying not to close his eyes, while still gripping the steering wheel! Somehow we've made it through everytime, but our necks are completely out. When we drive over bumps [of which there are many], invariably one of the large, super heavy, speakers at the back will bounce off its mounting and land on the bed, or one of the cupboards will pop open. If we brake sharply, all the food crates and gas barbeque slide ominously out of their storage tunnel towards us in the front. Try as we might, to batten down all known hatches, we never know what will come flying at us! Just like us, it's a work in progress.
We are realising that being in a campervan can also restrict one's mobility. Many car-parks have a 6' height restriction specifically to keep the likes of us out. As we are longer than most parking bays, we have to be careful where we park so as not to obstruct the traffic, or attract a double parking fee for using 2 bays. Also, if one is settled in a camp-site, one thinks twice before engaging in the "packing up and battening down" routine, so that one can go sightseeing or shopping. We envy those who also have a little Smartcar or scooter with which to runabout. We do intend to acquire a pair of bicycles later.

Our next camp-site, called Mena, is on a hill near Bodmin, in the very centre of Cornwall. During the 4 days camped there, we visited St Austell, and the pretty port of Fowey [pronounced Foy, as in joy, for those illiterati among you!].
We also shopped in Truro, and happened upon the Cathedral during a lunch-time organ recital, which at full blast gave David goosebumps, as an organ played at full blast is wont to do. Further down the peninsula we wandered around the Trellissic Gardens, just before closing time.
Foxgloves [Digitalis] seem to be in bloom everywhere
A fine specimen of an ancient tree in Trellissic gardens

We became comfortable with just "being", while letting go of the pressure to always be "doing" something. There is such a lot to see and do in Cornwall, of which we merely got a taste for now. The pace of life is slowing down, and it has become rather appealing to us. We sleep very comfortably in the 8' wide bed, and are often asleep by the time it gets dark at 10pm. In the mornings, by the time we have read our books, emailed, skyped and breakfasted it is often 11 or 12 noon. Now that we have bought an electric hotplate, we often cook outside under the van awning, or just under the sky. Ablution blocks vary considerably from rudimentary and mouldy, to very nice. Twice we have had to pay an extra 20 or 50p for a shower, but usually they are included in the site fee, which varies from £14-20/night, but can climb to £30/night in high season. Electrical hook up is an extra £3-4/night.

Here is a beautiful peony, of which Sandi is particularly fond, growing in cousin Judy's garden

Observing the behaviour of other campers can be a pastime in itself. Often we catch someone peering out of a caravan window at us, but they quickly pretend they weren't when we see them! We've seen only a few visitors from the EU; most campers seem to be British, either young couples in small tents or retired folk in large caravans or campervans. No-one has yet been seen in as unique a converted campervan as ours! David's favourite spectacle so far is that of an elderly woman with a cig hanging from the corner of her mouth, wearing bright orange bedsocks, ambling across the grass! [Wish we had a photo!]

We visited Lanhydrock near Bodmin, which was a really enjoyable and worthwhile excursion.
It is an enormous, 400 year old manor house, with over 50 rooms beautifully decorated with original period furniture, books and copious Victorian ornaments [including fresh fruit in the dining hall!] The contrast between the "above" and "below" stairs was striking, as was the enormous kitchen with its huge open range and leading into a warren of associated rooms: scullery, bakehouse, dry larder, fish larder, meat larder, dairy scullery, and finally the dairy, where elaborate puddings were chilled by spring water piped along grooves in the marble slabs. The Long Gallery is the great room of the house and is 35m long. The remarkable plaster ceiling, which displays 24 panels of Biblical stories, was created in 1642. The gardens were beautiful with views over the 400-acre estate.
We came across a tree that we thought was covered in thousands of white butterflies, only to find on closer inspection that it was a Cornus kousa tree.
On our return trip to Ebford, we stopped at Looe [pronunced Loo, as in poo] - merely because the name fascinated us. This is another enchanting little seaside village on the Cornish coast.
We bought a few different Cornish bottled beers and flat cider to take home, and some Cornish pasties to eat on the quay-side. Needing to wash the pasties down, we opened the cider, which tasted like a cross between fermented rubbing alcohol and poisonous herbal muti! Probably the first time we've not been able to finish a tipple!! Nearby we found Trago Mills, an enormous warren of old-fashioned-type departments in one store, complete with elderly shop assistants! It reminded us of how shops were in our childhoods, and we stocked up with odds and ends, as the prices were really good!

Posted by davidsandi 11:02 Archived in England Comments (0)


On our last day we set off in search of Rosa Eterna Distillery, which is the only billboard we saw during the whole trip that advertised a distillery. It was not clear where it was located, and after many miles of narrow, bumpy roads [Sandi’s neck took major strain], and asking several peasants for directions, we seemed to happen upon it in the absolute middle of nowhere.
It is a very modern distillery, and the security guard eventually let us in after conferring with the manager. The charming manager, Krasimir, who spoke some English, told us we were lucky, as it was his wedding anniversary! He spent the next 2 hours showing us, and allowing us to photograph, the whole process. The vans arrive with bags of roses, freshly picked. A good picker can pick about 20-30kg between 5am and 12am before the sun gets too hot and vaporizes the oil. S/he gets paid about 80 stotinki/kg [40 eurocents], whereas the farmer would get 2 leva/kg from the distillery. The bags are weighed, then stacked around the large alambics/stills.

When the distillation process is finished, the huge lid is winched up, with fragrant plumes of hot vapour billowing out, and the exhausted rose blossom [spent biomass] is washed out to the sump. We received the best full body steaming ever from our vantage point on a balcony above the steel stills!

The steel alambic is then hosed down
and 25 bags of roses [20kg each] are poured in
with 2500 litres of fresh mountain water from the River Leshnitsa nearby.
The distillery is sited near the water supply, rather than near the rose fields, as this is more economically viable.

This distillery is unique in that it combines 10% Rosa alba [a delicate white rose] with the pink Rosa damascena, to give a different quality and aroma oil and rose water.

The lids are fastened back into place
and the roses are boiled for 2 ½ hours.

The distillate goes through a condenser, as well as a special concentrator. The rose water that is produced is a triple concentrate, unlike most others, which are dilute in comparison. The final precious rose otto oil is collected in a Florentine vessel in a separate, secured room.
The oil is so precious there is even a padlock on the outlet pipe!
We were privileged to be allowed to view the Florentine [by Krasimir],
as it is not normally seen by outsider mortals, just as the fresh rose otto was coming through.
And although it was not possible to purchase any essential oil on-site, we were gifted with some glorious triple-distilled rose water [which Sandi is eking out and sharing with some lucky friends and family].

All in all, a totally thrilling and fulfilling experience!

Each hectare of rose fields can produce 4-5 tonnes of flowers per season, but organically cultivated Rosa damascena production is only about 2.5 tonnes per season. It takes 3.5-3.8 tonnes of rose blossom to produce 1kg of pure oil. Up to 5 tonnes is needed to produce 1 kg of rose otto, if the crop is poor. From the research we could glean it appears that the whole of Bulgaria has about 30-40 distilleries, which collectively produce about 1500kgs of oil per annum. A smaller distillery produces 10-20kg/season, and the larger ones up to 200kg. The wholesale price of the oil is about 6000€/kg, so we guestimate a large distillery can make about 1.2 million euros in a 3-4 week season.

Our next destination was a wine farm in Karlovo, but all we could find was a factory outlet in a metal container, where we bought a couple of bottles of very good wine for very little [about 4 leva each].

Plamen had contracted to take us to the station in Plovdiv, from where we could catch the train back to Sofia. Plovdiv is a large city, situated halfway between Kazanlak and Sofia. Having secured our train tickets, we battled our way back through the heavy traffic to the old part of the city. The star attraction of the old city is the Roman Amphitheatre, which was accidentally revealed after a landslide in the 1970s. It was built in the 2nd century AD by the Roman Emperor Trajan, and could hold 7000 spectators. It is well preserved and still used for performances today.

Wandering around the cobbled streets of the old city, we were struck by the large houses with elaborate architecture and decoration, most of which are now preserved as museums or restaurants.

As we were leaving Plondiv, walking down a steep cobbled lane and treading very carefully, with eyes cast down , I was struck by a heady, floral scent that suddenly filled the hot, still air, accompanied by a resonant and frenzied Bzzzzzzzzzzzzzing serenade. An unmistakable scent and sound combo, which meant there MUST be a Linden Blossom tree nearby. I looked up and there it was - with it's fragrant canopy and mellifluous Apis choir - almost touching my head! Memories of aromatic days spent in Provence, under the Linden trees, with beloved friend Janet, flooded my senses and emotions.

All too soon, it was time to catch our train and bid farewell to our new friends Plamen and Chan Yee. After the 2 ½ hour trip we arrived back in Sofia at 1930, exhausted. A notice board outside the station advertised a HOTEL, up the stairs. Going up we found the sign to read HOsTEL which was a bit of a dive, but clean and functional, besides we were too tired to argue. Sneaky advertising though. The station lights outside our window, shining through the thin curtains, ensured that the room was mega-watt bright all night, and the 4a.m. party that sprung up in the road outside added some mega decibels to our slumbers – interspersed only by Sandi’s hacking cough, which had developed in response to all the 2nd-hand smoke we encountered. After a desultory breakfast of Bulgarian salami, squashed apricots and flat Coke, we caught the shuttle back to the airport and flew home [well not exactly home, but Gatwick!] From there we rented a car for 24 hours to get us back to Exeter, as it proved to be cheaper than bus or train tickets!

Posted by davidsandi 05:28 Archived in Bulgaria Comments (0)


After our beers, we met up with Chan Yee and Plamen and managed to get a table at a local restaurant for lunch. Here at least Plamen could explain the menu to us, in a fashion, but Sandi and Chan Yee still ended up with dishes they did not overly enjoy; baked white cheese with more cheese underneath!

We then set off for the nearby village of Shipka to visit the tomb of one of the great Thracian kings. Bulgaria contains many tombs and relics of the Thracian era, testament to the extensive power of the Thracian kings in the 3rd and 4th centuries BC. These mounds were first used as temples, then ritually closed up after the king was buried inside, together with personal gold ornaments and food and wine for the journey into the after-life. They all have similarities in structure; an entrance, leading into a passage, at the end of which were 2 heavy marble or stone doors, which led into a round chamber with a beehive roof, finally opening into a sarcophagus carved out of a solid piece of rock [often weighing up to 60 tons]. The tomb is solidly built of stone blocks, sometimes joined with iron clamps, and covered with a mound of earth. We noted marked similarities to the mounds of Knowth and Newgrange in Ireland, although those are much older.

This particular one had only been excavated in 2004, and was found to have belonged to King Seuthus lll. His capital city, Seuthopolis, lies several km to the south, submerged under the waters of the Koprinka dam. The ruins of the city were examined before the dam was filled, but there are plans afoot to dry a section of the dam in order to provide tourist access to the ruined city. Unusually, this tomb had been spared plunder by grave-robbers, and a bronze head of Seuthus, which had been ceremonially decapitated, was found in the tomb together with beautiful royal and equine gold ornaments.

The burnished gleam of golden spires halfway up the mountain, was our next destination; known as Shipka Monastery, which is actually a church. It was built by the Russians towards the end of the 19thC to commemorate the joint victory of the Russians and Bulgarians over the Islamic Turks. It is beautifully painted, inside and out, with the many domes and spires covered in real gold leaf, and is still in active use by the Orthodox Church today. At the very top, a gold cross stands above an inverted Muslim moon to symbolize their victory. Sandi lit a candle for all our loved ones, as she does in most of the holy places we visit.

On Monday, another hot day, Plamen took us in search of some top quality rose oil. The oil that is offered on the streets to tourists has either been diluted, or is fake, and most distilleries are not interested in selling anything less than a few kgs. Plamen’s contact at the Scientific Rose Institute said they could supply a small quantity, but we would first have to pay, then they would have to go to the bank to get it out of the vault! After allowing Sandi to assess its quality, they would take another 24 hours to decant and package it, before we could collect it. Sandi was not sold, so the search for the well-hidden, un-signposted distilleries, continued.

We eventually hit Rose Jackpot at a distillery called Damascena, at the foot of the Balkan Mountains.

It is a family-run distillery producing about 200kg of oil per season. Alongside an outdoor museum displaying traditional distillation equipment and some rural antiquities, the owner boasts the most beautiful rose garden imaginable, crammed with voluptuous, hybrid tea roses, but not a Damascena rose bush in sight, or on site! Not unusual, since rose fields can be some distance from the actual distilleries.

We had a "nose” around the distillation shed for a little while before meeting the owner.

After a happy sniff test, he was willing to sell Sandi a modest amount of divine rose otto oil.

As rose oil freezes and crystallizes at 17deg

his son went inside to warm the crystalline oil so that it could be decanted.

The owner kindly brought an electronic scale outside and set it up on the ice-cream countertop and drew up the exact amount under Sandi’s watchful eyes. He allowed us to photograph the event, while decanting it into an aluminium container on the scale, before closing it, winding a three-coloured silky cord around the neck, and finally sealing it with hot sealing wax and his personal ring seal.
Mission accomplished!

Later that day we decided to take in the remaining tourist must-dos in Kazanlak. We visited the Iskra Museum full of famous socialist art by Bulgarian artists, and relics from the tomb of Seuthus lll. Further up the road we found the modest Ethnographic museum, which displayed local living conditions in a bye-gone era. We were intrigued by the low chairs, and even lower table, which ensures that peasants don't need to eat much, because the seating position squashes the stomach, ensuring that one feels fuller than if sitting on chairs that are lower than a table.

We sat up on a balcony overlooking a small garden and wood-fired still pouring out fragrant rose water,
and were given some rose brandy and rose jam to taste.

The Kazanlak Tomb up on the hill, was unearthed by soldiers digging trenches in 1944, and is famous for its detailed frescoes on the walls and ceilings. Unfortunately the original tomb is too fragile to allow visitors, so a replica has been constructed nearby. Sandi found a friendly kitty to cuddle on the steps, which was far more exciting!

Posted by davidsandi 05:27 Archived in Bulgaria Comments (0)


Although ¼ of Bulgaria is covered in forests, the Valley of the Roses is a fertile, cultivated valley between the Balkan mountains and the Sredno Gora mountains. Here the Rosa damascena has been cultivated in the perfect combination of climate and soil for 350 years. Small villages are scattered between random rose, lavender, chamomile, wheat and potato fields. The two rural towns of Kazanlak and Karlovo form the focal points for the Rose Festival, held on the 1st weekend in June [brought forward this year because of elections] to celebrate the start of the rose-picking season – about 20-30 days in total !!!.
Rosa damascena blossoms

Rosa damascena blossoms

Rosa alba

Rosa alba

The contrast between the air of decay in the town of Kazanlak and the beauty of the valley, surrounded by mountains, is stark. Even more of a contrast exists with the energy and essence of the precious Rose Otto oil, which derives from the flowers of the valley.

Something that struck us is how shy and unassuming the Damascena rose blossoms, bushes, and whole plantations appear, relative to the exquisite and precious bounty found within each blossom.
Sandi in ecstacy in the rose fields

Sandi in ecstacy in the rose fields

The few other roses we saw in Bulgaria were much more glamorous and spectacular,

or exquisitely simple,

but none compare in fragrance to their delicate little pink sibling.
Rosa damascena and buds

Rosa damascena and buds

Smelling the first heady molecules of Rose Otto in a field distillery, right in the very place where the alchemy emerges, is like finding the Holy Grail. There are no words to describe adequately the overwhelming olfactory and emotional sensation of this experience.

On the Saturday, we browsed the street stalls, all selling the same garish, mostly synthetic, rose creams, soaps and candles, etc. There were surprisingly few tourists around, possibly because the weather was gloomy, but also likely due to the change in the usual festival date this year. We spent an amusing hour in a theatre watching a children’s singing “contest”.
Talent show children on stage

Talent show children on stage

A string of 3-6 year-olds each belted out traditional songs with gusto. It was delightfully un-sophisticated, and each child was given a packet of crisps, a pencil, and a balloon after singing. Another striking contrast, compared to many other Western “talent” shows and pageants.

As we were now hungry we found a promising looking restaurant with outside tables [far too smoky indoors]. The menu was all in Bulgarian, with no pictures! The waiter could speak no English either except to say “beans”, so we ended up with two bowls of bean soup and a bowl of French fries instead of the delicious looking fried potato dish at the next table. The beers were easy: there were pictures of the brands.
Kamenitza beer

Kamenitza beer

We then wandered up towards the edge of town past dreary buildings and ubiquitous potholes,

but there was one lovely cottage we couldn't resist capturing,

and a charming gypsy pony and cart.

Arriving at the government Rose Institute and Rose Museum we expected something quite grand, but the Institute building is very modest and austere, and the museum interesting, but simple.
Entrance to the Rose Institute

Entrance to the Rose Institute

Rose Institute

Rose Institute

Ancient lab equipment in Rose Museum

Ancient lab equipment in Rose Museum

Photo of 1st Bulgarian chemistry lab for rose oil testing at Rose Museum

Photo of 1st Bulgarian chemistry lab for rose oil testing at Rose Museum

The Rose Institute gardens were rather lovely, filled with fragrant damascena blossoms
Rosa damascena blossom and seed-catching bag

Rosa damascena blossom and seed-catching bag

and herbs for research,


as well as some hybrid tea roses just for eye-candy.
Glamorous rose, but no fragrance

Glamorous rose, but no fragrance

Exquisite simple rose

Exquisite simple rose

David and the "shaggy-dog" tree

David and the "shaggy-dog" tree

We got into a fragrant mood by going into the rose fields and picking a few damascena blossoms, which we stuffed into our pockets and later dried.
Sandi among Rosa Damascena bushes

Sandi among Rosa Damascena bushes

Dave and Rosa alba

Dave and Rosa alba

We found our way back into town via a large flea market, selling anything and everything including varieties of Turkish delight, which of course, we had to buy to taste. One absolutely delightful, but sad, sight was a children's carousel, complete with live ponies rather than the painted Merry-Go-Round variety.
Kazanlak Carousel

Kazanlak Carousel

The town square was set up with a stage, lights and seating stands for a concert that evening. Just as the show started the rain came down, so we took shelter under the open-air awning of a nearby Bistro, from where we could still see the stage, as the show continued. Within minutes, the skies opened and the deluge of rain turned to hail the size of cherries.
Hailstones on table

Hailstones on table

The wind whipped through the square like a tornado, flinging seats, lighting stands, giant umbrellas, and shelters to the ground! The stage décor was shredded. Several others, like us, were trapped under the awning, so we stood on the tables under our destroyed umbrella, to no avail!
No place to hide!

No place to hide!

The storm was so ferocious and unexpected, we couldn’t move anywhere, let alone indoors, to seek shelter from it. Within minutes the gutters [under the awning for some reason], burst their banks and we were totally drenched, standing in ankle-deep water, unable to dodge the deluge of hailstones that struck us from every direction. We could do nothing except laugh…..hysterically!
Sandi after the storm

Sandi after the storm

Within 20 minutes the skies cleared and we surveyed the devastation; flowerbeds were annihilated and torrents of water coursed through the square.
The devastation to the festival venue after the hail storm

The devastation to the festival venue after the hail storm

“What about the roses” we thought, wondering whether any blossoms would survive for the Festival the next day, but they did. Since the concert was clearly abandoned, we called Plamen for a lift home, picked up a take-away donner kebab for supper, and waited for him, like two drowned rats, at the Lion Fountain, a well-loved landmark which promises anyone who drinks from it that they will return to Kazanlak one day.
The Lion drinking fountain in the central square

The Lion drinking fountain in the central square

Back at Villa Breza Sandi had to iron her jeans dry, as we had packed so economically, and we both wore squelchy shoes with double socks that night when we returned to the square, and the next day. The show started up again later, goodness knows how they got the sound equipment and stage functioning again, but we missed the eventual crowning of the Rose Queen [which a fellow guest said was not a big deal event, and we would see her and the princesses the next day anyway].
The Rose Queen and her Princesses

The Rose Queen and her Princesses

We met 2 other special people that evening [also guests at the villa]; Chan Yee, a lovely lady from South Korea, who travels the world sourcing quality essential oils for her company, and Gonsalo from Chile.

Gonsalo could hardly speak 2 words of English, but had come to learn how to grow and distil roses from the Bulgarians [who also don’t speak English!] He is a marine biologist with a keen interest in whales, who has planted 40 hectares of very special, high-yield Damascena roses on his farm in Chile, and now that they were ready for harvesting, he needed to learn from the Bulgarian rose oil experts. We opened some Bulgarian wine and marvelled as Sandi had a fascinating metaphysical discussion with him, into the wee hours, all via Chan Yee who was translating into Spanish.

Sunday was a beautiful, sunny day and Plamen agreed to drop us near the Rose festivities. The centre of town was closed off for the parade later, so we had to make our way through a maze of back streets, skirting enormous potholes and driving over pavements. Rules and regulations don’t seem to exist in Bulgaria! [never mind Health & Safety!].

The festivities took place in a car park next to some rose fields.
The man and woman leading the festivities

The man and woman leading the festivities

There was a crowd of only about 150 people and we had a front line view, until the dignitaries and their guests arrived to stand in front of us [many Asian men, probably on rose oil buying trips]. There were more dignitaries than tourists!! Burly Bulgarian police kept the rabble back, behind flimsy bunting cordons, but they were probably more useful in ensuring that we did not get to throttle the “dignitaries” blocking everyone else’s view of the festivities! The hoi-poloi were each given a rose blossom garland/lei, a ceremonial hunk of bread, and a sip of rose liqueur on arrival.
Offering the celbrities bread and rose liqueur

Offering the celbrities bread and rose liqueur

A group of Bulgarian men in traditional sang beautiful harmonies for us, followed by costumed children dancing traditional routines.
The wonderful baritone male choir

The wonderful baritone male choir

A group of traditional dancers and singers

A group of traditional dancers and singers

Older women, also in traditional garb, with creatively decorated baskets full of roses, handed out rose flowers,
A festive rose-picker

A festive rose-picker

Sandi is so tall next to this delightful, toothless lady

Sandi is so tall next to this delightful, toothless lady

Tired after filling all those baskets!

Tired after filling all those baskets!

and men with canisters on their backs, walked around spraying everyone with rose water.
Spraying cool rose water over everyone

Spraying cool rose water over everyone

A young couple

A young couple

A wagon full of kids

A wagon full of kids

Festival kids

Festival kids

Crowns of roses

Crowns of roses

A chat with a pony

A chat with a pony

Festive pony and cart

Festive pony and cart

Then the barriers were removed, and everyone could join in the circle dancing, and received bread and liqueur.
People were allowed to wander through the fields picking their own roses [and Sandi disappeared for ages, emerging with bulging, blooming pockets.]
Sandi in her element!

Sandi in her element!

Hands full of aroma

Hands full of aroma

As the crowd slowly dispersed, the gypsies, who had just finished the serious rose picking nearby, came gaily forward for the free liqueur.
The real rose pickers have an unglamorous job, away from the festivities

The real rose pickers have an unglamorous job, away from the festivities

The peasant pickers weighing their bags

The peasant pickers weighing their bags

A wagon full of roses

A wagon full of roses

Back in town, the street parade was starting, but here the crowds were so dense it was impossible to see anything. The little bit that David could see was not very interesting, so we settled for some chilled Zornitsa beers, in the shade, instead.

Posted by davidsandi 05:24 Archived in Bulgaria Comments (0)


Let’s start with the alphabet which is Cyrillic, like Russian and Serbian. If you master the alphabet then at least you can read place names and don’t feel quite so lost.

A = а or ъ
B = б or B
C = ц [TS sound]
D = д
E = е
F = ф
G = г
H = х
I = и
J = д ж [DZH sound]
K = к
L & LL = л
M = м
N = н
O = о
P = п
Q = kyuh
R = р
S = с
T = т
U = у or ю
V & W = B
Y = ю
Z = з
Ch = y
Sh = щ
Ya = Я
Zh = ж

Thus Sofia would be CoфиЯ
Hallo is здpaBeи [pronounced Zdravei]
Goodnight is лeka нoщ [sounds like lekker nosh]
Thank you is mepcu [pronounced merci, just like French!]

More than that will take you hours to learn!

Posted by davidsandi 05:22 Archived in Bulgaria Comments (0)


Updated with pictures that got lost in cyberspace

Bulgaria and the long-awaited Rose Festival.

Our Easyjet flight landed at Sofia airport, which is about as big as East London airport.
David suddenly realized that, even though Bulgaria has been a member of the EU since 2007, that euros might not be generally acceptable, so we had to do a quick [unfavourable] Forex transaction at the airport. We found that hotels and big businesses accept euro but everyone else uses BGN leva. 1 leva = R6 = ½ euro. Apparently they will convert to euro “in due course”.

Arrival at the airport was the start of a bit of culture shock, as it became rapidly evident that English was not freely spoken. A shuttle ride to the central bus station, which cost us 6lv, was the next stage of our journey to our final destination.

We were shocked to see miles and miles of derelict and shanty houses along the road into the city [just like Nyanga].

At the bus station we found about 20 stalls representing 20 different bus companies, all selling bus tickets, but nobody could speak English!
At least the word “Kazanlak” was recognizable, so we secured 2 tickets [after we'd been price-scammed a bit, we later discovered] on a bus leaving at 3pm, several hours later than we expected. We managed to get an e-mail sent to the hostel owner, and held thumbs that he would be there to meet us, as offered.
Central Bus Station

Central Bus Station

We sat down with a Karmenitsa beer and 2 disprins [for David’s excruciating post-flight sinus pain], to check out the locals. Had we wandered into a Tart Convention, or is this a parallel universe for shocking style and taste? Jet black or bleach brigade hairstyles, coupled with tacky stilettos, fishnet stockings and jeans so tight that Sandi could barely breathe. Many of the young women have very good figures though. Of course the palls of smoke everywhere, inside and out, did not help make our long wait comfortable. More than 80% of Bulgarian's smoke we were told - and by the end of 5 days we could attest to that! Hardship is etched on many faces, especially the elderly, and there is a palpable air of decay and base energy. We did not take any pictures of people though, as we felt it disrespectful, so pardon the lack of pics here! It cost Sandi ½ lv [R3] to have a piddle, which included no paper, a turnstile to get through, and almost a cavity search, only to end up in a grungy stall!

A couple of hours later we found ourselves squashed onto a very full and airless bus, headed for, we hoped, Kazanlak. A few more houses and then we were in the green countryside, with lots of wooded areas, and very few fences or farmhouses.
After 2 hours the bus stopped at a service station and all the locals got off. What now? It turned out to be a smoke and loo break [another 1/2 lv payment each again, for the pleasure], and still a further 2 hours to our destination.

As nightfall was setting in we finally disembarked at the bus terminus, a dirty, desolate, derelict, depressing dump of a building, which was never grand, even in communist times. The only place to take a leak was in the bushes behind the station, where David scared a local woman looking for the same relief! We sat down, waiting for our host to fetch us, on a grimy slab of terminus step, in front of a window spattered with fresh blood. A brawl or a mugging the night before? A less than auspicious welcome to the village.
Kazanlak bus station

Kazanlak bus station

Since there was no sign of our host and lift, Plamen, we decided to contact him by mobile, and he thankfully arrived about 20 minutes later in his old Vectra, like an angel out of the twilight. He could speak English! The relief was immense, and we suddenly realised how tired we were. We had been up since 02:30 in order to drive two hours to Gatwick [from Somerset], through the fog, to catch our early flight. By now it was after 8pm and getting dark, and we were very relieved to be rescued from the oppressive energy, and curious stares of some locals, at the bus terminus.

The roads everywhere are in a shoddy state with enormous potholes, something to which Sandi can attest, as she felt each one acutely in the back seat of Plamen's car. Many houses have raw brickwork exposed, apparently because there is not enough money to plaster the walls, which may remain so for 20-30 years.
Sadly, dereliction seems to be a theme throughout Bulgarian towns and villages.

A quick stop-off for Plamen to buy some supplies for our dinner, and we were off on the bumpy drive to Srednogorovo, a tiny village, 12km from Kazanlak, up in the Srednogoro hills.
Srednogorovo village

Srednogorovo village

It seems to be a typical example of any Bulgarian village. In its heyday, it thrived with about 1000 villagers, but during the communist era, the socialist policies of land distribution drove many people into the cities. Now there are merely 300 remaining, mostly old people tending their vegetable gardens. Everyone has a veg patch with maybe a few fruit or walnut trees.
Ivanka's veggie garden

Ivanka's veggie garden

Seldom does one see the frivolity of a garden of flowers [except for the occasional rose bush] and this speaks volumes about what is of critical value in a relatively depressed economy. Food is primary, then shelter, and finally beauty - or at least that was our perception. Most of the houses and buildings are derelict and falling to pieces. Even those inhabited are in a state of disrepair.
We're still trying to work out why there was a well, slap bang in the middle of the road near the villa.

Another interesting custom in the village are the posters with photos of men and women, which are stuck up on many houses and walls. David thought they were election manifestos for the upcoming EU or local elections; but they turned out to be remembrances of loved ones who had passed on. Each anniversary, new ones are printed, commemorating the number of years since they died.

Arriving at Villa Breza was a great comfort. It is a neat and spotless guest house, thanks to Plamen’s mother, Ivanka, who greeted us at the door with a shy, but friendly smile, and no English. They are really special people, which was immediately evident by their natural solicitous care.
Ivanka and Plamen - great hosts!

Ivanka and Plamen - great hosts!

They quickly rustled up some dinner for us; Shopska salad consisting of tomatoes, cucumber, spring onions from the garden and sprinkled with soft white Bulgarian cheese [delicious!].
This was followed by some braaied sausage and chopped cabbage washed down with some excellent local red wine. Plamen, a delightful and knowledgeable treasure, regaled us with historical information and Rose Festival schedule, before we collapsed onto our beds, full of anticipation for what the next few days held for us. In spite of the rainy forecast for the next 5 days we were determined to enjoy every minute.

Villa Breza boasts 4 bedrooms; when fully occupied Plamen and Ivanka sleep in the tiny caravan in the garden. The front door leads straight from the street into the dining room; a lovely pine-clad room, full of light with glass walls looking out onto the grapevine, portapool and vegetable garden.

In the middle of the room is a Silver Birch tree [Breza] growing through the roof, around which the room has been built - totally charming. It was planted 17 years ago to commemorate the birth of his daughter.
A simple kitchen forms the other end of the room – where Ivanka reigns supreme - except for the salad making, which is Plamen's domain.
Ivanka the fabulous cook

Ivanka the fabulous cook

Highly glossed and polished tiled floors lead up the stairs to the bedrooms, and the whole feel is light, airy and spotless. In our room there are 3 pine cot beds, neatly covered with thin quilts, but the mattresses [oi vay!] - thin foam attached to the wooden bed bases! There was no way to soften these up, which left us both feeling like the proverbial Princess and the Pea after each night's restless sleep - but we didn't care - we were enjoying every moment of the adventure! The central, elaborate light fitting is so low that David knocked his head every time he crossed the room, day and night, sending Sandi into apoplectic laughter each time! The things that cause amusement! IMG_7637.jpg

An extra fold-up bed and a fridge complete the room. The bathroom is tiled throughout, including the basin. When David asked for a plug so that he could fill the basin for shaving, he received a perplexed look [they never did find one]. The fascinating thing about this bathroom is that the shower has no cubicle. It's just one large space that includes the shower, basin and loo. Fortunately a handy squeegee is provided to mop the floor and toilet seat after showering. We wondered how many fractured hips have resulted from the slippery, wet tiled floor? A rubberized car mat is placed in front of the bathroom door, to keep the bedroom carpets dry, but no mat on the lethal tiles. Slip sliding away .........

Daily breakfast consists of a few slices of salami or pink polony, cucumber, tomatoes, white cheese, yellow cheese, olives, spreads and toast with expresso coffee. On our last morning Ivanka baked banitsa, delicious white cheese rolled up in phyllo pastry.
Last breakfast with banitsa

Last breakfast with banitsa

Evening meals included moussaka made with potato instead of brinjals, and stuffed peppers. We learnt that it is traditional to drink Rakia [homemade spirit like witblitz] with the shopska salad, before embarking on the main course. Each person has their own special recipe, and Plamen shared some of his delicious plum version with us, but we also had a very fragrant one made from roses which we bought at a distillery ...…Mmmm!
Plamen plying the lovely Chan Yee with his fire water

Plamen plying the lovely Chan Yee with his fire water

Each meal was such an unpretentious, delicious treat. We asked Ivanka what the green fruits were growing on her tree outside, but she was unable to explain, so off she nipped to her neighbour and came back with the ripe goods by way of explanation - walnuts from the previous year's crop.
Unripe walnuts on the tree

Unripe walnuts on the tree

So those became the dessert for that meal, together with some cherries and strawberries we had found at a local market that day.

We bade a sad farewell to this "time-in-a-fragrant-bubble" experience, and hope to return again soon, with as many friends as we can persuade to join us. Our last vision of the village was this sign, which for some inexplicable reason, never failed to amuse us.

We would definitely stay at Villa Breza again and highly recommend both the guest house and the wonderful hosts. Plamen’s email is [email protected] Tel 00359-887 486116. He charged us 10 euro each per day for B&B [dinners and transport extra]. Go there, you cannot get better value anywhere. To Plamen and Ivanka we say: Благодаря!

Posted by davidsandi 09:45 Archived in Bulgaria Comments (0)


The drive from Wincanton to Newcastle-on-Tyne was in driving rain the whole way. With many large trucks on the roads, we soon discovered how hazardous it could be overtaking them! The curtain of spray thrown up by their many wheels reduced visibility to zero for a few seconds while on the wrong side of the road!

It was great to spend some time with dear friends, Sue and Kev and their fine lads, Michael and Matthew who were both busy with final exams.
We had fun browsing through charity shops in the city centre, stocked up for the basic kitchen equipment van at Ikea, visited a car boot sale, and a Sunday market on the Newcastle quayside. We had quite a giggle en route to Ikea in Newcastle. To get to the store we keyed the name into Molly, our GPS, and set off in faith that she knew the way. We were soon heading south, which got Dave a bit worried. We checked Molly's destination again and found that she was leading us to Ikea, Holland! Motto of the story: never trust your GPS completely.

Sue is very proud of the magnificent poppies she grows in her front garden!
We spent an afternoon visiting Hadrian's Wall, a colossal feat of engineering, extending 80 miles across North England.
It was built in 122AD by 3 legions of Hadrian's soldiers, in 6 years, to keep the Barbarians out of Roman England. There were 30 forts and a mini fort every mile along the wall, with a great ditch to the north. We visited one of the best preserved forts called Housesteads. It was amazing to see the intricate layout of the facilities, including elevated, ventilated flooring. Standing in the ruins you can see the wall running over the beautiful rural hills to the horizons on either side.
After a week in Newcastle we drove to Livingston [1/2 hour the other side of Edinburgh] to spend a few cozy days with our friends Bernie and Estrelita. Livingston is a very spread out town with wide roads, appearing to have more trees than houses. We spent the next day meandering up and down the old part of Edinburgh City. looking at some touristy things.
This board related the interesting tale of the origin of Jeckyll and Hyde
At the one end of High street is Edinburgh Castle, high on its rock; down the other end is the Palace of Holyroodhouse, which is the Queen's official residence.
St Giles Church in the city centre is a beautiful church with a very ornate ceiling,
but the tiny Thistle Chapel tucked away in the corner is spectacular. Although built only 100 years ago, it is bedecked in the most ornate wood carving in the style of the 15thC. There is a seat for each of the 16 Knights of the Thistle, with a different creature carved onto each of the armrests, and a throne for the Queen when she visits to induct a new knight.
On the Sunday Estrelita drove us up into the Highlands, promising us an excellent cream tea at a place she knew on Loch Tay. After a long, but beautiful drive, we arrived at the isolated Ardeonaig Hotel, in the rain.
To our surprise, the staff were all South African [the hotel is owned by a SA man], and we could place our orders in Afrikaans! We had pots of tea and warm scones with clotted cream, but at a very fancy price: £7 pp! Not only did it bruise my pocket, but I nearly knocked myself out on a low beam as well!

On the way back we stopped to admire banks of bluebells
and a very fine specimen of a hairy Highland cow [pronounced koo]. He was but one of many of these gorgeous, ginger-coloured beasts, with long floppy fringes over their eyes, spotted in the lush fields along the way.
The next day saw us start on the long drive back to London, stopping overnight with Sue and Kev, en route to picking up the campervan. Marty, its previous owner, was nearly 2 hours late, as he could not get away from work, so by the time we had got through a whistle-stop lowdown on how the van works, we hit the peak rush hour of London traffic. It was no fun for each of us now driving unfamiliar vehicles, surrounded by impatient drivers. Again we were glad to put London behind us, as we headed down towards Wincanton in the rapidly fading light.

After a overnight stopover with Ebu and Jeremy in Holton [near Wincanton] we drove the van down to cousin Judy and Rob's where we left it for the 5 days that we spent in Bulgaria.
On our return from Bulgaria we spent the week making new curtains [luvvvverly brown flecked with orange, very 60s, to go with our even more stunning rose-pink velour seating/upholstery], cleaning, sorting and packing the van. 7 of the 9 curtains work perfectly, but unfortunately "someone" was too economical with measurements, so the ones over the back doors cover only half the windows!
Bit of a privacy issue there, considering there's no ablution cubicle on board - so we have to buy more material and redo!

Posted by davidsandi 04:48 Archived in Scotland Comments (0)

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