Europe | Bulgaria – Blood on the wheels
Kosta picked us up from Varna at 7 am. He brought along a Russian woman, a guest at his hotel. She spoke fluent English and was already bored with Kavarna. She did not share our obsession with farmyard geese. Her ancestors moved to Russia from France, to start a business, before the Russian revolution but after my great grandfather’s time. She was surprised I managed to arrange a trip to the Austrian military archive. She said in Russian people could never gain such access.
Part of the reason for being personally chauffeured about 200 km was that Srebana nature reserve was on the way; it was meant to be a pelican haven. We did see a flock overhead as we drove on the road, but all had gone off to lunch when we got to the reserve. A large, concrete, communist building housed a few bits of pottery and some dusty taxidermy. We were the only visitors. Sexton had the shits while Kosta and I stood at the giant plate glass window overlooking the reserve, trying in vain to spot some big beaked birds.
Our Russian friend came shrieking into the building. She had been scratched by a stray dog outside. It was a tiny cut but she had the sort of delicate white hands that always look immaculately clean. Kosta and I scrambled for our first aid kits.
In the Silistra region donkey carts had old wooden wheels rather than rubber. We drove along a road with rusty barbed wire topped fence; Romania was on the other side.
Silistra town used to be a Roman fortress. It looked more like a Soviet fortress now. Concrete. Characterless.
In Srebana village people waited at bus stops that looked like no bus has come in 50 years. Street lights were burnt out and smashed, with wires hanging out. Trees were painted white to catch headlights.
From Silistra to Ruse the road followed the Danube. We passed a guy with a dead chicken on a bicycle. There was blood on our tyres. There was more road kill here than in Romania, though in Romania there were more stray dogs and worse drivers.
Dozing in the car, I was thinking about my great grandfather, Jules. If he were a fugitive, would he have taken a normal route? He could have got off the boat at Varna, hopped on a horse cart or stagecoach. There’s no way we will ever know where he travelled by road.
The first train in Bulgaria was the Varna- Ruse line, 1868. No wonder the station had such faded grandeur; it must have been quite the hub in its day. Now marble was cracked, and paint peeled off the ridiculously high, ornate ceiling.
We were an hour early for a train that was to be 4 hours late. In case you ever get stuck in Ruse, there’s a net café across from the station – 40 US cents an hour. But we didn’t want to miss the train if it ever did show up, so I only got an hour in.
A few more random tips: most useful items of the trip – spare rechargeable batteries for digital camera, bruise cream (Arnica), US dollars (but we could have more dollars, to save us taking out Bulgarian money that we couldn’t change back).
Crossing at Ruse the Danube was very wide and dark in the late dusk. The surface looked solid where no light hit the water, like some kind of strange rock substance that doesn’t exist on this planet. Glassy at the edges, and only like water where distant lights showed ripples. Most banks were dark, shrouded in trees. Black.
The train creaked to a halt. Guards took our passports. I looked very tan in the compartment mirror. We had a compartment to ourselves though we could get a roommate at any moment – three was one spare bed. But we were lucky – it was only 3 berths, not 6, and we got it all to ourselves all night. All back across Transylvania, rattling on the track. The train shook so much I wondered how it did not crash. Trains in Britain crash all the time.
We arrived in Budapest around mid day. Hungary has been ruined. They have Big Brother here. Homogenised Europe. I bought some Russian dolls, had a beer and we were headed to Vienna.
A Lolitagirl on the train could be 15 or 18, she seems to have her 12 year old brother with her. But then they start cuddling and flirting. It’s bizarre. When we get to Austria, the customs guy on the train looks around the compartment and asks if we have cigarettes. ‘we don’t smoke,’ say two Canadian girls. ‘do you have any E then?’ says the guy. The girls look confused. ‘Ecstasy?’ says the official. We are meant to laugh. Lolitagirl and her friend have huge bags but they are not searched.
Vienna was the only stop on the trip where our finances only allowed us shared dormitory accommodation. Dorm life was hard for Sexton. He had to contain his farts all night then go into the toilet in the morning and let out minor explosions. Otherwise, Wombats Hostels was clean comfortable and friendly, though we did feel old most of the time we were there.