Friday, 10 June 2016

Fri 10 Jun 2016. Sofia to Plovdiv (Bulgaria), to Komotini and Fanari (Greece)

Fri 10 Jun 2016. Sofia to Plovdiv (Bulgaria), to Komotini and Fanari (Greece)
Washing not dry due to heavy morning dew. Drove back into Sofia to see the magnificent neo-Byzantine Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, named after a Russian prince, and built to honour the Russian soldiers who died to liberate Bulgaria from Ottoman rule. Its the largest Orthodox Church in the world, fits 10,000 people (no chairs inside cavernous interior so obviously everyone stands!). The cathedral differed from many Orthodox churches we’d seen to date in its dark interior. Lit by multiple candle sconces, the frescoes did not appear to have been restored. The basilica houses a considerable collection of Byzantine relics and the Royal Thrones. The central dome has the Lord’s Prayer inscribed around it in thin gold letters. Gilt abounds, outside has mosaic murals of saints. 

Royal Thrones

In the same square we walked past imposing church rectory on way to very old St Sofia Church, built in 4th century on Roman ruins. The striated brick interior was striking, some walls under restoration; we were so fortunate to see a confirmation in progress for just one boy and one girl (in the prettiest pink net dress), and an awesome choir up the steep winding staircase. Bought a pretty blue glass cross with inset flowers for Xmas tree decoration, signified a somewhat "happier" religious history and forward-looking city. Didn't have enough lere left to get into the church's underground museum, but we could peer down steps into exposed crypts.

Getting used to facilities, cleanliness and all-stop-shop of OMV for fuel, this one had full driveway service, but our poor attendant had to hold an ever-so-slow-filling nozzle as it had the new "obstructive" handle. Then he climbed up on the bull-bar to clean the windscreen (which GirlRob had already done!) We had to supplement with euros the little lere we had left for a tip. 

Flea market specialising in icons

Country seemed drier south of city, light-coloured livestock guardian dogs (Maremma? Anatolian Shepherd?) running around flocks of sheep, each with its own shepherd. Vast expanses of grassland on low hills, no discernible fencing into paddocks. Saw two lots of training underway for border force teams. Land browner, drier, flatter past Plovdiv, some wheat already harvested. First sunflower faces in crops. Irrigation channels. Single lane "highway" paralleling a mountain range. Drivers in Bulgaria drive fast and take huge risks overtaking, particularly drivers of expensive brand cars. "B… Bulgarians" is becoming Wanderoos epithet of the day. People lining townships with buckets of tomatoes and melons for sale. Villages starting to resemble rural Spain, mud adobe brick and hacienda style fencing around the holding. Alcohol and coffee sold side by side at all hours of day in every cafe. Haha -saw a "holy stork", nesting on top of a gold church dome!! Stork babies here are huge already, flapping their wings and almost falling out of the nest.

Came to decision time for border crossing, wanted to go into Greece via mountain pass, but  (1) Garmin did not recognise turn off at Haskovo as option to shortcut to Komotini in Greece via border crossing at Makaza (the Europe sim we bought in 2014 hasn't been updated) and (2) Pocket Earth showed the Makaza crossing, but the Wikipedia note said it only accepted trucks to 3.5t when it opened in 2013. We fuelled up in Haskovo and attendant said OK for us to use, then decided to double check at police station as it would be 200+ extra kms if we were turned back - guy there said OK for our truck, so decided to go the short way through the mountains. Half way along there was a huge sign saying no trucks over 3.5t, and 6' long (we are about 5.5t and 6'3"). Had second thoughts and checked at servo next to the sign - they put their thumbs up. On we went again as the road climbed and steadily improved. The views through the Rhodope Mountains were really pretty passing through pine forests and alongside a wide bubbly shallow river. The road was almost brand new and a pleasure after the bumpy roads in Bulgaria to date. As it was after 5pm we started scouting for free camp sites in case we were turned back. Came across a manned police post and asked again. He looked doubtful at both our size and length, but in end said OK, and waved us on. Off we went again and came across border post suddenly around a corner, so joined all the cars and vans in the queue. We stood out like a sore thumb. One by one officers came out if their dongas to check us out. We smiled and nodded to them all, handed over our papers and had to wait whilst different people walked all round, looked at number plate, but there were no questions at all, and we were waved to window next to first one, where our papers were returned - turns out the Greek guys were sitting next to the Bulgarians!! Sign said "Welcome to Greece" so we finally let go our long suspended breaths!! 

What a relief to drive down the mountain into a valley cooled by the air from the Mediterranean. Suddenly all the houses were painted white, with olive trees in fruit along footpaths. We couldn't believe we were not only in Greece but back on track with the itinerary. Fresh water leaching out of hills channeled into taps where locals fill large bottles daily. Drove down into narrow streets of Komotini to get to coast road, drove down to check out the campgrounds in Fanari on the ocean. The first one was a very posh private caravan park who's gatekeeper looked down his nose at us, the second nearby had seen better days but it was almost 8pm by then and we were well overdue to pull up for the night. Chose an empty spot away from annual holidaymakers and sat outside in the balmy evening with wine, cheese and crackers for dinner. Friendly family invited us to sit and chat, but way too tired. Watched sun go down and fell exhausted into bed. 

Drying the smalls...

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