We drive out of Greece on a spur of a moment decision: not really that wise considering our initial worries about safety and roads in Bulgaria and Romania. One minute we seem to be still considering a ferry to Italy, the next I find myself at the last petrol station in Greece before Bulgarian border, peering into my netbook in the sun and researching hotels en route.
It's well into the afternoon, so we don't drive very far, only across the border and the twenty-odd kilometres to Sandanski. It's a surprisingly eerie experience for me as I actually recognise the crossing at Kulata, the same one through which I staggered on foot twenty-two years earlier, after a 24 hour combined train-plane-train madcap journey from Gdynia, heading for Corinth where my dad and his boat were waiting. I even remember what I ate at the small café at the deserted Kulata station (meatballs and rice). Back then, you had to have a special permit to stay on the train beyond Sandanski and I (and a couple other travellers also wanting to cross the border on foot) had to "negotiate" with the train guard. The Iron Curtain had just risen a bit but the Wall was still standing, and a notion of Poland, never mind Bulgaria, joining united Europe would have seemed very remote.
Now Bulgaria is in the EU although not part of the Schengen area and thus our passports are briefly looked as we cross. The Bulgarian side looks – or is it just my imagination – distinctly shabbier – and as we proceed to buy the Bulgarian vignette (5 Euro for 7 days) and exchange some Euros for Leva, somebody washes our windscreen unasked and then complains of a 50 cent tip.
It's possible that a level of capitalist advancement of a country can be gauged by a number of dodgy looking guys and shoddy booth-based businesses just past the country's order. It's a somewhat bell-shaped curve (roughly, of course, with no implication of any normalcy of distribution). It starts at zero in totalitarian economies, raises to the maximum when the country is still poor but a ramshackle, entrepreneurial, Mafia-tinged businesses flourish, drops again as things become more civilised (the dodgy guys disappear, the booths become bigger, shinier and more solid) to peter out as the private initiative gives way to big corporate brand names.
On this scale, Bulgaria appears to be where Poland was perhaps 15 years ago: this initial impression is something that will get reinforced, obviously allowing for differences, over the next couple of days.
We stay in a nice hotel on the edge of Sandanski, a certain Adjev Han, nominally a three star with large, air conditioned rooms, comfortable, enormous beds and fast wi-fi. There is also a restaurant with folksy décor, folksily dressed waiters and a sound system that soon replaces its Euro-pop with fabulous folky Bulgarian sounds. The food is very good: we have to have the Bulgaria's best known dish, Szopska Salata as well as a pile of other Balkan food with nice rakija to follow. The change from Greece is very perceptible; not just a language one, obviously, where suddenly I am the one talking again – and understanding – due to my Slavic background (Bulgarian seems more similar to Russian than I realised). There are other differences too, from food to music to agricultural crops. The notion of "Balkaniya" - the Balkans – is quite persuasive and we have already encountered it in northern Greece and previously in Croatia, although it's not easy to define what characteristics define the Balkans or what countries, or even parts of them, constitute them.