DAY 36 and DAY 37 and DAY 38

Skopje –> Sofia –> Plovdiv

13th -15th October

Skopje done, we headed out of the city but not before visting the only Roman aqueduct in Macedonia. If we hadn’t Googled “top 10 things to do in Skopje” we would never have known it existed – even when we were 20m away there were no sign posts to this national treasure. We went past some tiny, very run down looking houses and at the end of a gravel track we spotted the lonesome, ancient structure. As we approached there were 4 men standing next to a 4×4 Toyota. Bharat instantly became suspicious and started murmuring KGB, SAS and other three lettered acronyms – FML, OMG, SOS. James later discovered they were just Polish tourists, but not before Bharat panicked that he had seen men behind the bushes to our left and that we needed to get out of there before we were all assassinated. James has spent too long with Bharat to keep a straight face in scenarios like this and absolutely lost it, and it’s probably the closest Bharat had come to losing it with James.

Roman aqueduct outside Skopje, Macedonia

Off we set to the Bulgarian border along “Friendship Highway” and, aside from Macedonia becoming drier, there was nothing to report. Through the border we went and over the Bulgarian hills in the direction of Sofia. Rachel decided she was too hungry to wait to reach the capital and pulled into what looked like a café, but actually transpired to be nothing more than a Post Office that sold bread. Rachel had been drawn in by the large 15 strong party of men drinking vodka and eating fresh breads, cheeses and hams, but alas it must have been a BYOA (Bring Your Own Anything) affair because none of those were on offer to us. Instead we settled for a lunch date with some wasps over microwaved bread and some blue cheese crisps, which were gut wrenchingly smelly.

The landscape gets drier and drier

All disappointed with our lunch, we continued our drive to Sofia. ‘Gritty’ and ‘urban’ is how we would describe the drive from the border to Sofia – lots of Soviet-era tower blocks and abandoned warehouses and power stations with the occasional pocket of modernity. At times the towns were very bleak, but in Sofia things started to become a lot smarter, including the apartment we stayed in which, despite being in a brutalist block with a dead pigeon on the doorstep, was impeccably decorated and spacious. We unpacked our bags from the support car, had a quick wash and then went off to meet Eileen and Geoff Riddell who had come all the way from Hong Kong (via Moscow!) to see us!

Geoff found a very traditional restaurant with the most hysterical menu translations. Being a big group trying to tackle a vast Bulgarian menu, the decision was taken that we would ask the waiter to decide what we should have to share. In hindsight, what we should have asked the waiter to do, is read the menu to us like a night-time story, because after 30 painstaking minutes of dismissing every single one of his suggestions due to allergies, personal preferences and overcomplicated questions about ingredients and cooking methods, we essentially ended up choosing the only things on the menu he didn’t recommend!

Tuk Tuk and cathedral by night

Stuffed full of Bulgarian meat we walked with Eileen and Geoff back to the Alexandra Nevsky Cathedral for a photo with the tuk tuk by night. We agreed to meet for coffee at 9.30am the next morning. At 9.20am we walked out of our apartment to find the Sofia Marathon in full flow around us. In isolation, a brilliant event with 4,000 people pushing their limits for good causes, but a complete nightmare for us and our tuk tuk who were required for a TV interview in the city centre at 10.30am. With barriers at both ends of the road we were parked on we were stuck until the marathon ended at 4pm. After seeing many altercations between the local residents (who were as surprised as us to be barricaded in)  and the police we realised no amount of asking would get us out onto the road and out of our predicament. However, Bharat struck gold with his international sign language by managing to bamboozle the policeman enough that he let us push Sumo along the pavement until we reached an open road.

Negotiating the city with half the roads closed resulted in 3 angry back-seat drivers and Sumo screeched into the square of the Cathedral just in the nick of time for our interview with Nova TV. Bharat failed us again under the pressure of the bright lights by talking about everything he shouldn’t, but much to our relief 90% of what he said was cut in the final edit. You can watch our interview here (we’ve all been dubbed in Bulgarian!):

After finishing the interview Eileen and Geoff took us for a tour of Sofia. Both were excellent tour guides and we learnt a lot about Bulgarian history and also that of the capital. Our favourite story was that during the Ottoman rule over Bulgaria it was mandatory that churches were built lower than mosques, so the Christians decided to build the doors to the churches even lower so that the Turks would have to bow to the altar if they ever entered the building.

Geoff & Eileen fly out to meet us on route and show support

Rotunda of the church of St. George and Roman ruins

Inside the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

Dinner was at another good find from Geoff, although Geoff couldn’t actually find the restaurant until he and Eileen had done 4 laps of the neighbourhood. The same dinner routine ensued and after a large sigh from the waiter, Eileen rightly pulled the plug on our particularities and we ate what we got (which was, luckily, delicious!). Rachel taxied the Riddells to their hotel in the tuk tuk before collecting the remaining tuk tuk team. Anyone would have thought this blog’s routine berating of Rachel’s driving might have encouraged her to take more caution, but alas, on the drive home we still found ourselves careering towards the tramlines with a tram heading straight for us. Screaming and swearing eventually gave Rachel cause to slam on the brakes, but that still didn’t stop her from skipping a red light and catching the curb all in the space of a 5-minute drive. Perhaps she’s smarter than we all think and this is her ploy to avoid being designated driver in the future.

Too vain to miss our 5 minute feature on the National Bulgarian Breakfast News programme we left Sofia quite late, which, as you can all imagine by now, caused Bharat a great deal of anxiety. No breakfast was allowed and our first stop was another roadside wonder chosen by Rachel where coffee was served in plastic water glasses (and featuring more microwaved bread). The drive to Plovdiv was very different to the day before. We were driving through the Bulgarian savannah – no soviet style blocks of flats, lots more pretty houses, plenty of horses and carts moving people and crops from arid field to arid field. Off the main roads and onto the less well beaten tracks and it was clearly not a wealthy part of the country – it felt like how we had all imagined Albania to be like.

We had a LOT of people waving and honking at us following our TV interview and even had some people that waved us into a layby just so they could have a photo of Sumo. We had so many fans that when a man honking loudly at Bharat (in the Fiat) started doing the “unscrewing the lightbulb” dance move (something only white people (and Amy) do when Punjabi MC comes on), Bharat started to “dance” back. It was only when the ‘lightbulb’ turned into the middle finger did Bharat realise this was not a fan, but someone very annoyed from having to drive so slowly behind us!

Flagged down by people who had see us on the National news in Bulgaria

Plovdiv is awesome – very old, very well maintained and has recently won the accolade of the European Capital of Culture for 2019. It’s got history, its romantic, there’s delicious food – come here for a weekend and make sure you stay at the Guest House Old Plovdiv – it is SO cute , not just because they write you a welcome message on arrival!

Our hostel bedroom in Plovdiv

Highlight/Funniest Moment of the Day:

  • Day 36 – Bharat had been trying his best Bulgarian with the cashier of our Post Office lunchtime shop and had said “yes” to everything the cashier had said. A strategy that worked until Bharat unwittingly agreed to having the bread microwaved, which led to a tug of war over the loaf in his hand…In short, nobody had any clue what was going on.
  • Day 37 – The waitress in our lunch restaurant who told Geoff not to order the main he’d chosen because it was “not nice”. Absolutely love the honesty!
  • Day 38 –Knowing that someone in Bulgaria with epilepsy will have seen what we’re doing and why and that we will therefore have helped people not only at home in the UK but elsewhere too. So much of this is about raising awareness of epilepsy and Sudden Unexpected Death in EPilespy (SUDEP) so to help raise the profile of both at a national and international level is fantastic!                    Also, our lovely landlord in Sofia is donating half of the money we paid to stay in his lovely apartment to SUDEP Action after seeing us on TV!

Dunce of the Day

  • Day 36 – Bharat– who, having told everyone we were not allowed on main roads, took us uniquely on motorways from Skopje to Sofia.
  • Day 37 – Bharat – who, on multiple occasions, forgets to undo the tuk tuk steering wheel lock before setting off in a tight circle and nearly wiping out innocent pedestrians! This coupled with the fact that he also left his phone in the tuk tuk twice meant that he took the award away from Rachel’s (predictably) terrible night driving.
  • Day 38 – Rachel –who managed to film eight 17 minute GoPro videos of the glove compartment! This also explains why the GoPro wasn’t charging properly. We only wish we had the patience to go through them and listen to what was being said in the car!

Overheard in the Tuk Tuk:

  • Bharat– “I’ve never been to Nepal, but this place reminds me of it”
  • Bharat – shouting at Amy not to sit on the top of the tuk tuk because Sumo is “a delicate animal”.
  • Bharat – asking Amy if she had played tricks with a photograph because her legs looked thin.
  • Bharat – “Enough – all sunsets are the same”

Sunset over Plovdiv

Unsung hero: Michele Burlington-Green who worked hard behind the scenes to get us onto Macedonian and Bulgarian TV. We’re so grateful to Michelle and we hope that her hard work will have helped us spread awareness across the Balkans!

Sponsor of Bulgaria: Portobello Tents

Portobello Tents is a luxury British clamping company that provides stylish bespoke canvas accomodation at festivals, weddings and events across the UK and beyond. Portobello Tents was founded from a love of the English countryside, a good party, and the desire to sleep in luxury once those dancing shoes come off! If you have a wedding to plan or an event coming up then take a look at their website and you will not be disappointed. Their tents are just beautiful!

Amy rocking the Portobello Tents merchandise

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Sofia, Bulgaria

Tuk Tuk to Turkey Team with the crew from Nova TV

Rotunda of the church of St George, the oldest functioning building in Sofia 

Sentry guard

The TTTT team with super fans Eileen and Geoff and the Nova TV crew

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Sofia

Old Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Team Tuk Tuk on the streets of Plovdiv

St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church in Sofia, Bulgaria

Blog writing and video editing in our Plovdiv hostel. Terrible quality photo but too cute to exclude!