V8 goes East

V8 goes East - 10
Gordon and Jennifer Hesketh-Jones have been making their way through France and Italy, and have now moved on after attending the MG Italia event in Greece. This report comes from Romania because Gordon was not able to find a computer for an email report whilst in Bulgaria! (19.5.05)

The MG Italia group visited Olympia on the Saturday morning - we stayed for the visits to the museum and the archaelogical site then headed North to continue our tour. I had planned to get as far as Katerini then to peel off the motorway to find a hotel in one of the fishing villages so we pressed on to Thessalonika, a name I remembered from reading Greek mythology (in Latin). Unfortunately this town now looks a bit like Sheffield in the 1950s - dirty and very industrial - so we pressed on. Northern Greece is rather like Wiltshire or Norfolk - a green desert with very few towns and no hotels, despite our searching. The Noble Navigator was becoming rather tense but a petrol station girl told us that there were hotels at Serres, just 25 miles from the border with Bulgaria so on we pressed. By now it was after 9.30pm and frost emanated from the left-hand seat!

It was of course dark and now it was not the time to find that an intermittent fault meant that I only had dipped beam headlights. A somewhat hairy drive brought us to Serres which was incredibly busy at 10.30pm. A young boy on a scooter stopped by and said "Nice Car" so as he had some English, Jennifer asked him for a hotel. He lead us to the Hotel Elida where we were lucky to secure the last room. Why the last room - well on that Saturday night they had motor racing, kart racing and stock cars so the whole county came to town for the fun. The hotel restaurant was closed (and it was only 11.00pm) but there were plenty of other restaurants to choose from and a bottle of good red wine thawed out the Ice Maiden. Later the waiter told me that on race car night they would stay open until 3.30am!

Entering Bulgaria the following morning meant going through seven different stages of officaldom, the first of which was to drive through a trough of disinfectant for which I was charged 3 Euros. Passport and customs were routine, then all of my car documents, and recovery and personal medical insurance certificates were carefully checked and entered onto the computer. The next stage related to the car itself and the Bulgarian computer did not list MG as a manufacturer. After some delay I gritted my teeth and told them that the car was a Rover - just to break the log-jam. At this the car was then photographed by the computer and I could pass to the next stage to buy a vignette (10 Euros) to allow me to drive on Bulgarian roads for 7 days. Finally we were free! The process took some 45 minutes - simply of officaldom. Fortunately we were not queuing behind other cars. We saw however long lines of lorries waiting to pass through in both directions.

Driving into Bulgaria the first thing that struck me was the total absence of fences, hedges or ditches to separate the fields, which could easily be of several square miles in size - so different from the patchwork quilt effect of fields in England. Presumably these huge open fields are a remnant of the Soviet State Farms. Next - a surprising number of horses were being used - to take the workers and tools (eg harrows, scythes and chain saws etc) out to the fields and woods and then in the evening to bring back loads of timber, hay or silage. Very few tractors were in evidence and the ones we saw were all two-wheel drive and smaller than the David Brown 1212 in which I spent many hours on my farm. (In the UK , 95% of tractors now are 4 wheel drive). From all this we could see that Bulgaria was (in agriculture terms) still a peasant economy so this will preent some problems if they join the EU as planned in 2007. Bulgaria is already a full member of NATO and is very proud of its excellent Law & Order reputation!

The road quality was pretty good for our first drive up to Blagoverad (site of an American University) but later we turned off onto minor roads to head for the famous RILA monastery (more comments later). It was at this stage that we found out that (a) the road and village signs away from the main roads were entirely in Cyrrillic (b) where Roman script was used, the spelling was very different from the map and (c) although the map gave road numbers, the signs did not! Jennifer had to do lots of dead-reckoning navigation, but with her experience of 1960s rally navigating coped well.

We had pre-booked our hotels and this Sunday night we were at the Pchelina Inn a few miles from the monastery. So we were approximately 4,000ft above sea level, surrounded by huge snow-capped mountains of up to 8,000ft. We had approached the monastery along a deep river valley and the river was at full spate with the snow melt.

Many years ago I remember hearing on Radio 4 "From our own Correspondent" (also reading first reports by new reporters on their first postings to Moscow etc) how there were never any plugs in the wash basins or baths, but I assumed that since the end of the cold war this would have changed. WRONG. We just had to improvise. The next shock was to find out just how cheap eating in restaurants was. For our evening meal we had cold cuts (a plate of mixed cold meats) to start, then large trout caught less than 100yds away in the river, and a bottle of local "champagne" and coffee. Including VAT at 20%, that came to just under twelve pounds! After the meal I went up to the manager (who spoke some English) to ask if the (local) people on the next table would mind if I smoked a cigar. This

caused a great deal of discussion and I wondered if I was to be defenestrated but being asked this question was simply a new expereience for them. They all stood up and toasted my health, then in the following morning the father went out and picked a bunch of lilac and other flowers for Jennifer.

During the night there was a violent storm so I could wash the Greek dust off the MG; while doing this a farmer walked down the track behind the hotel followed by his cow (rather like a Guernsey but bigger and darker) with its tenor bell ringing; later came 60 to 70 sheep and lambs but at least 10% were badly lame, the older ewes also having bells, and all unattended. Then a full five minutes later came the goats (soprano bells) galloping at full speed and mentally shouting "wait for me". All very amusing and an indication of the old close relationship between a peasant and his flock.

The following day we headed up towards Sofia but bitter experience of its so-called outer ring road means that it is a place to cross off our list for any future visit. There were huge holes in the roads, dust, abandoned LADAs and lorries everywhere, and jam after jam after jam. Never again! There is obviously no MOT system or concept of regular servicing of cars there and we saw countless lorries with blown tyres, and typically 12 - 15 broken-down cars each day

Our hotel for the night had been booked (and paid for) at Veliko Turniko but the town was like a mini-Thessalonika so we decided to laugh and ignore, and pressed on. Two incidents though; trickling through the traffic jams two teenagers rushed through the cars, patted the MG on the bonnet, gave the thumbs up sign, and in good English asked many questions. Later on a man in a brand-new Audi A4 drew alongside and said "you drive all way England in lovely car?" then when I confirmed this point he said "you very brave". I couldn't really work out how to take this.

Another petrol-station girl told us that there was a hotel in Bahja some 40 miles further on. Now if you think of the American Western movies and the phrase "one horse town", then you have Bahja. Actually it has eleven bars, one cafe, one restuarant and one hotel. I tramped into several bars asking for the hotel but received blank looks, however a man came after me to say that he knew of one and would drive me. Jennifer was a bit worried but I accepted the offer and we tore off along bumpy streets in his Transit van. Arriving at the hotel (2 star it said on the sign) I was about to get out when he selected reverse and hurtled back across the deeply-pitted cobbles to the MG. So, not having seen the room I drove the MG very slowly across the deeply-pitted cobbles and went in to the "hotel". English and French brought blank stares but school-boy German worked. The room was up on the 3rd floor (no lift) and was shall we say basic..... Anyway I explained to Jennifer that after 10 days of enjoying 3 or 4 star hotels we should see how the locals lived and to her great credit agreed to the challenge - however it is not an experience to repeat. In their basic houses they do not have sink plugs (of course) but neither do the loos have cisterns - you simply turn a valve in the agricultural plumbing and some water flows.

Later on we went out to THE restaurant, having parked the MG in the square in front of the town hall and police station for security. Seeing the MG parked in a row of boxy LADAs and DACIAs makes the MG look very svelte! When we returned later there was a crowd of over 25 people - teenagers, men, old men, even police - all circling around the car - not touching, just talking and admiring. I politely said "good evening" and they parted and watched as I opened Jennifer's door and were fascinated as I helped her into the full-harness safety belts. I had just fastened my own belts when a thin voice piped up "show engine plis" so I opened the bonnet - there was a collective shout of awe and joy from over 20 throats at the sight of the V8 nestling low in the engine bay. Complicated explanations about engine size, car age, car mileage were made and then this same voice piped up "start engine plis".

Now the engine was still hot and the RV8 exhaust produces a delicious bark at 3000rpm so even more people came running across the square! Eventually I had to go but sadly could not do a rapid get-away as the cobbled surface had huge dips in it, but at least I felt that I done my bit for Anglo-Bulgarian relations.

I don't know if ours was the first MG to visit Bulgaria but that is the overall way we were received - continous enquiries and admiration which in fact were magnified greatly when we were in Romania - but that is another story. It is too soon to draw proper conclusions but the Bulgarian people seemed reserved but fairly friendly.

Reports from Gordon Hesketh-Jones so far
V8 goes East 11
V8 goes East 10
V8 goes East 9
V8 goes East 8
V8 goes East 7
V8 goes East 6
V8 goes East 5
V8 goes East 4
V8 goes East 3
Route card
Preparations for the trip

Reports from Bob Owen on the MG Italia
Additional photos from Bob Owen
Final report from Bob Owen
Second report from Bob Owen
Report from Bob Owen on the MG Italia