the skinflint philosopher

Attempting to thrift our way to a better life, with a toddler in tow!


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Sandstone, Churchill and a climbing wall: Bulgaria road trip (the return journey)

Waving farewell to the place we have called home all winter, we set off on the bumpy road to the capital city of Bulgaria, Sofia.

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(Leo parked in the snow just eight days before we set off, thankfully Spring burst into action for our departure!)

Digger and I both observe that Leo the campervan, in an unspecific way we can’t put our finger on, definitely sounds different than before. We hope it is making some genuine top notch improved clicks, whines and general shuddering rather than ‘help me help me’ morse code on the potholed main arterial route from east to west across the country. The trouble is that neither of us has an ear for engines. Digger goes back to his old approach of wind the window down and switch the tunes up (in this case a medley of Tiddler’s including the Wombles, Poddington Peas, and Filbert the Frog) which is enough to drown out and disguise any slightly unnerving thrumming from beneath our feet.
We also operate the ‘top drawer’ scale of road quality. How quickly the bumps, twists and half finished road works shoot out the drawer from its moorings in the back of the van determine the state of the roads, and by default the economy. I could snooze my way across Europe missing all the road signs, and would only have to look at the specific precarious balancing angle of that drawer to make an educated guess as to how far west or east we were. Suffice to say in Bulgaria I had to wedge that drawer shut with a stick I got so fed up getting out the van to shut it tight again.

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We hit rush hour in Sofia, which amounts to any time in and around the radial roads. Despite the rest of the country losing its population and with a negative growth rate, Sofia continues to boom and expand. It is a central amoeba, sucking in its countrymen (and plenty of foreign industries) through a centripetal force. However, the centre remains oddly low rise and provincial, with the multi gold-domed St. Alexander Nevski cathedral sitting comfortably squat across the plaza of yellow ceramic cobbles (ordered specially from Budapest) along from the parliament buildings, across from the street artists with religious curios and the vintage Russian army kit sellers.

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We spend a few days in the suburban apartment of Tiddler’s great aunt and uncle, who as is typical feed us extremely well and eventually send us on our way a few pounds heavier. Tiddler is in seventh heaven as the twelve year old son of Digger’s cousin has come to stay from England for the Easter holidays. A three year old girl might not be the normal playmate of choice, but M took it all in his stride and the pair of them were soon tearing round the rooms with a mix of Bulgarian and English cries of glee and roaring of dinosaur teeth and waving of tiny little dinosaur hands. To save Aunty from an early grave we spent a day at the incredibly well presented children’s interactive museum Museko, which didn’t stop the mayhem but meant everyone got a rest from T-Rex impressions.

 

 

From here we hit the road, making a last stopover before Greece in the border village of Melnik. This aspirational little place wasn’t content with its amazing sandstone cliffs and pinnacles as a draw for tourists and amateur painters alike, but thought it had better invest in some high quality wine production too. We try samples in an underground wine cellar, where Digger’s palate coincides with that of Winston Churchill, who ordered a particular product of the region by the barrel load. I suggest to Digger this may be a symptom of an addled, rather than a refined taste for wine. Back out in the bright sunshine, I’m more interested in the wide flood management channel that divides the two sides of the main street, not from a geographical view an more but rather after all those snifters in the wine cellars I’m concerned I might fall in.

 

 

 

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In the late evening sun we also visited the humble medieval Rozhen monastery a few kilometres uphill from Melnik. The sparseness of the decor (aside from the church itself) was a welcome and peaceful change after the more showy and famous Rila monastery. Tiddler drank water from a copper cup on a chain at a fountain, and tied a final martenitsa on a blossoming tree.
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We ate the last of our ridiculously cheap Bulgarian restaurant meals, including a mountain of thick buffalo yogurt topped with a blueberry compote, and then headed southwards to Greece.

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A knees-up with Granny March

As if the heavy snow didn’t give everyone an excuse for some time off work anyway, (and the schools have been closed for days and when then happens in a country that is used to winter snow that says something about the conditions outside) then today is also a Bulgarian national holiday. Happy March 1st!

 

For the non-Bulgarians out there, see if you can spot someone around the world today wearing a red and white buttonhole or wristband. If you do, go up and say to them Zdravei! Happy Baba Marta!, as I guarantee they will be Bulgarian (or from the Balkans) and will smile back at you with pleasure. This is a custom that is more welcome than Christmas.

 


Way back in the annals of time, in the 7th century the first Bulgarian king Khan Asparuh was busy pitting his armies against the Byzantine empire, and following a fearsome victory he sent eagles with white threads tied around their talons as a message to announce his success to the main camp. The trailing threads picked up bloodstains from the battlefield, and the red and white martenitsa was invented.
An alternative story is that Huba, the sister of Khan Asparuh escaped captivity and in fleeing home to her brother and the new territory he had claimed that would become modern Bulgaria, she could not cross the mighty Danube river to reach safety. She tied a white thread on to the leg of a falcon, and sent him across the river to find a safe passage, while she followed the thread trail below. One of her kidnappers in pursuit shot the falcon with an arrow and his blood mixed with the white thread even as he led Huba to safety across the river.

 


The modern martenitsa token given as a gift to your nearest and dearest on March 1st has now a slightly less gory legend, and where white thread or yarn symbolises purity and beauty, and the red is vitality, love, courage and life. Put the two together and you have the perfect token of friendship, love, good luck and health.  Red and white can also symbol life and death, or the sun and melting snow. Traditionally some martenitsa take the form of two yarn dolls, the white male Pizho and the red female known as Penda. Nowadays though other symbolism has crept in, and Tiddler was quite happy with her ladybird and panda martenitsa that Digger gave her this morning over breakfast.

 

March 1st itself (the start of the traditional Bulgarian New Year) celebrates grumpy old Baba Marta (Granny March) who is the personification of early spring, indicating the coming of future fertility and prosperity, while still being a little bit erratic and unpredictable! Wearing a martenitsa will pacify Baba Marta and bring spring along a little quicker and with slightly less extreme and changeable weather. Bulgarians will wear the martenitsa either until March 22nd, the coming of real spring according to the calendar, or until they see the first stork of the year, or the first blossoming tree, when the martenitsa are then tied on to the branches like a huge shower of red and white confetti.

As I am sitting here writing this, I am thinking of friends and loved ones who I will not see for many months, and I am wishing you all a Happy Baba Marta, and a means to find a way to pacify the angry or awkward Baba Marta’s that may cross your path.

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