I arrived in Bulgaria, after travelling through the suburbs of Bucharest and the Romanian countryside. This journey featured quite a bit of beautiful countryside, but also its fair share of shacks, dilapidated apartments and stray dogs. The Romanian side of the border was also rather unpleasant. The buildings were collapsing, the concrete was overgrown with weeds and there were stray dogs everywhere. All this, combined with the fact that I was heading to Bulgaria to see my girlfriend's home country, meant that I was always probably going to be more impressed with the Bulgarian side of things than with Romania. However, my pre-conceptions notwithstanding, my initial impressions of Bulgaria were very positive.
Actually, when I discuss my initial impressions, I should probably clarify that I am about to discuss my first afternoon in the country and my journey to my girlfriend's home-town rather than my feelings when I first arrived on Bulgarian soil. This is an important point because the crossing point over the Danube to the city of Russe is not the most glamorous part of the world. The first sight that greets the visitor who passes over the Danube is a large shipping depot that despatches various minerals and rocks onto the river. From there, after passing through the border, it does not get much more glamorous. The town itself seems to be made up entirely of old Communist tower blocks interspersed with modern western European super-markets. There are no great flashes of beauty.
As Russe was not so glamorous, didn't really have any major attractions and was not really on our itinerary, we pushed through at speed before moving out into the Bulgarian countryside. This was where the journey finally began to take shape. Bulgaria is a surprisingly large country that, outside the three or four major cities, is predominantly agricultural - the rise of China has also served to destroy a large chunk of the country's industry. This means that the there is lots of wonderful sweeping countryside. We had only ventured a few meters beyond the outskirts of Russe before the city petered away and we were surrounded by a wondrous expanse of lush greenery.
When describing countryside (countryside anywhere, I am not restricting myself to Bulgaria with this point), it is easy to use terms like 'lush' and 'sweeping'. I have employed them myself on countless occasions. However, in Bulgaria, they seemed to be somewhat lacking. In France or England, if you drive through 'rolling' countryside, it is unlikely that it the greenery will be full and unbroken. There are too many towns and shopping centres to get in the way. In Bulgaria, there were so few cities and buildings it seemed fuller, richer and almost all-encompassing. The road itself felt, at times, like it was a tunnel of green - the trees and hedges at the side of it were unkempt and wild. Beyond these it was green fields and rocky mountains. It was truly beautiful.
Our journey to my girlfriend's home village took about two hours and in that time we passed the cities of Razgrad and Shumen, but aside from that it was pure country. I also noted that it was very different from Romania to the north. Whereas in Romania, even in the countryside, the roads were lined by shacks and small buildings, in Bulgaria the villages were away from the road and immersed in the country. As we drove through Bulgaria I was impressed. I loved the greenery and I loved the space. Whatever I would see in the following days, I was ready for.