We start early on our second day in Bulgaria, aiming for the ferry crossing of the Danube at Vidin. The Internet warns of terrible drivers in Bulgaria, but to me they seem quite sedate, possibly because there is a lot of traffic police posts between Sandanski and Sofia; people drive at or below the speed limits (which, incidentally, seem ridiculously low anyway). It is possible that six weeks in Greece has substantially shifted my benchmark, though. Although Greek drivers (at least outside Athens) are not aggressively pushy on the motorway the way Italians or Austrians tend to be, or impatiently beep one when one gets confused in a middle of a small-town market-day traffic like it happens in France or (again) Italy, Greeks drive in a way that's so haphazard that becomes almost endearing. Speed limits function only as vague guidelines, the solid line in the middle of the road doesn't mean anything as far as overtaking attempts go and parking - parking is taken to a plane completely of its own. I have to confess the Greek parking habits grew on me in a big way and I find myself wishing that when I want to use the cash-point or grab a loaf of bread form the bakery I could just stop in the middle of the village road, triple-parking with my hazards on, the traffic patiently driving around me. Alas, nobody does that kind of thing in the middle/northern Europe, even in the more unruly eastern reaches.
Driving is thus pretty OK and we are free to enjoy a picturesque landscape of wooded hills, rocky gorges and endless sunflower hills. The E-79 on which we stay all the way from Thessaloniki to Vidin leads past the Pirin and Rila mountain ranges to then skirt Sofia, veer east round Vracanska Planina via Vracand Montana to descend to the Danube plain at Vidin.
The road is generally pretty good, with excellent signage in both Cyrillic and Latin alphabets, and as a lot of the route appears very recently resurfaced, the ride is quite smooth, although mostly single-carriageway. Part of the Sofia ring-road is pretty bumpy as are in-town stretches in Vraca and Montana. Overall though the main route is not much worse than Greek non-motorway roads and on par with for example Polish ones (hey, Sofia at least has a ring-road however bumpy it is, unlike the major Polish cities of Warsaw or Lodz through which major European routes pass).
The villages and towns we pass are often run-down, though. The tourist development and the EU road money doesn't seem to have stretched to other areas. The old communist blocks are dilapidated, often seeming close to crumbling, and there isn't much visible new development nor effort to maintain and regenerate existing building fabric.
We reach Vidin in the late afternoon and because of sheer momentum, just drive towards the ferry, somehow encouraged by the Bulgarian driving experience.
Still, Romania is a completely unknown quality. Neither of us has been there before, we don't know many people who have, and we have heard scary stories of potholes the size of elephants, Roma kids pinching all car appendages when you stop and groups of stray dogs roaming the countryside. The most recent Internet reports are, however, encouraging, and we drive on.
The Vidin – Calafat ferry, soon to be replaced by a bridge, takes about half an hour to cross the Danube. The river itself is magnificent and although the ferry is pretty basic, taking only a few lorries and cars, the crossing is interesting enough, especially with the new bridge raising to the right and hailing the end of this somewhat outdated contraption, resembling nothing more than a large, steel motorised raft. At approximately 30 Euro for a car and two adults, this isn't a cheap crossing but still cheaper than paying the 100 Euro for the Green Card for Serbia.