Europe | Romania – Danger Day
Constanta in Romania and Varna in Bulgaria are both on the Black Sea coast. They appear to be at most a 3 hour drive from each other or 1 hour if you have a modern car and drive like a homicidal maniac or a Romanian. The train, however, goes via Bucharest and takes 14 hours. Although we could find no information anywhere in Romania about crossing the border at the coast, or taking a bus, we decided to try anyway. (another note here: at Tulcea bus station they advertised buses to Istanbul but had none to Bulgaria – does the bus sprout wings and fly to Turkey?)
I had not yet given up on the idea about taking a boat as my ancestors might have done. But one last round of the port (and several travel agents) in the morning and I found there was no passenger boat at all. So I had a look at Constanta history museum before waking Sexton up.
It is an impressive building and definitely worth a visit. 40 foot ceilings, halls with murals and chandeliers; faded but not decadent, still in fair condition, though the museum attendants would only turn the lights on in a room if there was someone there. You’d need a good part of a day to see it all properly; I had about an hour and wanted to concentrate on my great grandfather’s era, so whizzed past rooms full of Greek and Roman artefacts (both had been here), and found the 19th century. They had objects people would have carried with them, weapons, jewellery, little icons, all old looking, not polished up as some museum pieces can be. There were maps and pictures of Constanta from 1859. I recognised a tower that’s still there today, and the shape of the old town peninsula. There were old books in Cyrillic and bits of information in French.
The lights went out as I was in a roomful of icons. There was an amazing collection of pipes (as in smoking, not the plumbing ones so loved by my husband), all decorated with heads and battle scenes.
Back at the Shining hotel (as we called it) we found a hearty breakfast included, with eggs and sausages, though coffee was extra and there was no milk. For all the cows we passed in the country there never seemed to be any milk in Romania. In posher places they had tiny plastic coffee creamers with pictures of famous buildings in Paris or New York.
Sexton christened the day “Danger Day” and we set off for the station. We had no idea if we could get to Bulgaria. The taxi driver didn’t put the meter on when we asked him. Our bags were in the boot so we couldn’t just hop out. In the end he overcharged by 50 pence, which we didnt think worth arguing over.
Outside the station reams of buses and minibuses were parked everywhere. There was no order to any of it; a guy said “Mangalia?” to us and as we nodded we were shoved onto a big, old, grinding and creaking, local bus. The seats were collapsing and the windows were filthy. The driver had the usual selection of icons at the front. Once it was packed to the gills, the bus lurched forward. All that was missing were chickens. I was glad Sexton could experience this sort of bus once in his life, even if only for two hours. (bear in mind that my meticulous planning of most of this trip was due to Sexton’s lack of experience and fear of foreign places. These few days in the middle were the only unplanned ones, as there was still a chance that they would not let us cross the border on foot.)
At first we crawled along at donkey’s pace. Walking would have been quicker. Once out of the town we picked up speed though the bus driver seemed to have trouble getting into gear.
We had to get off at Mangalia and get another bus to Varna Veche. Some Germans were going the same way and were just as confused as we were. It was not clear where we were to change. Suddenly we realised it was time to get off; our feet were barely on the ground 20 seconds before we were found ourselves in a crowded minibus. As we left the big bus I glanced back to see my bandanna on the floor. Sexton shook his head. If I went back on that bus it might take off; it had tried to do so once already while we were frantically disembarking.
Our rucksack was at the front of the minibus; somehow we ended up at the back. We had to take a Romanian approach and trust God that our pack would not be stolen as there was nothing we could do otherwise.
Finally, pack intact, we reached Varna Veche, Romania’s southernmost beach resort. It looked like a nice chill out place, all thatched huts and hippy types milling around. There was even an ad for a “blues festival” though we wondered if this just meant more disco. There wasn’t time to find out though.
Even a few hundred metres from the border, Romanians do not know anything about getting to Bulgaria. The beach bar worker did not speak French or English. I said “Bulgaria?” and he pointed in the obvious direction. I made a walking motion. He made a driving motion. I shook my head – no car. He shrugged.
As we began to walk out of town, an old woman stopped us. “blah blah blah Bulgaria blah blah blah.” We guessed she might be saying “do you realise you’re headed for Bulgaria? You don’t want to go THERE.” We had no common language, so I just pointed and nodded my head, showing that I was fully aware of where we were going.
We had half a mind to hitch so kept our eyes peeled for foreign number plates, already sure any Romanian car headed that direction would not be planning to cross any borders. We walked past fields in the sunshine. There were two German cars, a new car with a (grumpy, uptight looking) older couple, and an old car with a young couple. As we waited at the border post we thought about bumming a lift off the younger couple, but then decided we’d best each get through the border first. The girl was driving and the guy had bare feet propped on the window. Laundry hung in the back seat.
All we’d heard of Bulgarian customs officials were horror stories. We were surprised how easy it was. I even got my passport stamped twice by mistake cos I thought we had to go to 2 windows. (We would later learn that this must be the only Romanian-Bulgarian border you can walk across – someone we met had to hire a taxi when he missed a train.) There was a fair bit of waiting around at several points. We were the only ones on foot.
On the Bulgarian side there were two cafes but nowhere to change money. There was no sign of a bus and no one spoke English. We had an early introduction to the Bulgarian custom of shaking one’s head for yes and nodding for no when we asked if a van driver spoke English and he nodded his head vigorously while not understanding a word we said. The older German couple passed and drove away. I kept my thumb inside, waiting for the young couple who we could see at the last stage of the border. We figured we’d see if they were going to Varna.
No such luck. We watched in shock as their car was turned around and pushed the other direction by five customs officials.
It was still only 4 pm, not time to panic yet. I phoned the hotelier where we were to stay in Kavarna. I had arranged the accommodation through a Bulgarian bird watching company and been told that the hotelier would be able to pick us up. Even though we were meant to go to Varna first, it seemed to make more sense now to phone the guy in Kavarna as it was closer.
But Kosta, our Kavarna hotelier, did not speak English, only German. I thought I managed to tell him who and where we were. We figured we’d give it an hour and try again if he didn’t show up.
An hour passed as we played with a local cat and smoked cigarettes. A woman in shorts up her bum crack walked past. Romania and Bulgaria are certainly places to go if you’re an arse man.
Another couple came walking over the border. Luckily they were German and helped us phone Kosta again. Again I was reminded of the weird class on our own Sexton and I were in. we appeared to be hitch hiking but are staying in a hotel that costs $12 a night person, a lot of money to some people. The Germans, from former East Berlin, had been camping of staying in people’s houses for 10 for two. They caught a lift with us to Dulankulak, and translated as Kosta explained the burning fields all around us. They burn the farmland to fertilise it, though the practise is illegal. As we drove on everything seemed to be on fire. When we rolled down the windows we could smell the smoke.
Kosta offered to take the Germans to a shop where they could buy food to cook at the campground. We turned down a side road to a village that was mostly half collapsing stone houses. A boarded up shop with broken windows occupied a lonely deserted car park. It was ghost town. There was and not a soul in sight. Everything seemed to be crumbling, far more so than in Romania. Cheerfully Kosta turned down another road and found something like a shop that had provisions for the Germans, and let them off there.
In Bulgaria they do not drive on the right or the left, but on whichever side of the road has the least number of potholes. This is fine until the rare occasion when two cars are on the same road going opposite directions. Luckily they dont drive quite as fast as Romanians.
We continued to Kavarna, which was also dusty and had roads that barely resembled roads as we know them. It was 5 pm and the bank had closed; no cashpoints here. Kosta loaned us 50 levas. There were quite a few half built already falling apart houses here, all with people living in them. People in the streets looked desperately poor. A donkey cart and an old car with a flat tyre rested at the roadside.
We turned down a dirt track and the hotel appeared. Inside was another world, especially our room, the poshest one yet. Balcony and views of the Black Sea and next doors’ garden, with chickens, tomatoes and a dog that must be on Prazac as it never barked. There were melons and tomatoes in the hotel garden, too, and vines along out balcony. We had a little table and chairs and clothesline. The only thing missing was screens; somehow flies got in and bothered us all night.
As danger day drew to a close, Sexton commented, “it wasn’t that dangerous after all.”