27.07.2009 - 27.07.2009 28 °C
The usual early start had us on the road to Ruse, just over the Bulgarian border which is actually the Danube River.These ex-communist countries seem to be littered with abandoned buildings and factories; apparently after privatisation many of these state-run enterprises were just too inefficient and did not survive. As usual, Howard gave a very interesting and comprehensive history of the area which is far too involved to explain here, but has greatly increased my desire to research it when I get home.
We ran into a few hassles today. We had the usual hold-up at the border as they took all the passports away to check and stamp, as Bulgaria is not party to the Chengin Agreement. Now in Bulgaria, drivers have to pay a road tax, which one does by buying a vignette at the first service station over the border. Both Howard and Mario the driver missed the station, and drove for several kilometres before deciding to turn back, as driving without paying the tax meant that you risked being fined. So we turned back and eventually foung the service station. We had to wait there for 45 mins because the driver has strict rules about driving time and breaks. We took off again, but within minutes were pulled over by the Bulgarian police, who tried to extort 300 Euros from us, claiming that the log records for a particular day were missing. In fact they were missing because the bus wasn't taken out that day; we used another bus to give Mario our driver, his compulsory time off. Howard handled it very well; he refused to pay saying that he knew the law and his rights; that no matter how long we were detained we would not pay, and then he pretended to ring someone to verify that the driver did not drive on that particular day. After much arm-waving and raised voices, the police let us go. Howard said that corrupt police officers often obtain money illegally like this, and the money goes straight into their pockets.
Anyway, after that bit of entertainment we continued on our way,over the Danubian Plain and through the Valley of the Thracean Kings, which is an area where the burial mounds of the ancient Thrace culture have been found. Not much is known of them as they have left no writings. We drove up and over a mountain range, the name of which escapes me, and descended into Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. After a brief stop at the Hilton, we were taken on a tour of the city, both by bus and walking.It was quite hot, and a member of our party fainted, but we were able to visit a couple of churches and ancient Roman excavations. Now here I should mention that we have a rotating seat arrangement on the bus; each day you move 2 seats clockwise around the bus, to make it fair and ensure that everyone has an opportunity to sit in the "good" seats. Today I was close to the front, and was able to observe our Italian driver Mario. Now you have to be very skilled to drive this large bus around the European cities, and Mario had got us out of some very tight scrapes. The driving style is quite aggressive over here, and to be a timid driver in a big bus would mean that you would hardly move, as people rarely make concession for your size. So it was quite interesting to watch Mario's Italian driving manners, and the reaction of other drivers as Mario sought to insert his bus in a gap half its size. He seemed to be oblivious to the fist-shaking and horn-blowing as he left this trail of destruction in his wake, but he always seemed to get us there on time.
We finished the day with a meal at the Hilton dining room, before retiring to bed