On our left flank we pass two dusty hotels: the Atlantic and the Atlantic Hotel, both incongruously named with their vista across the Black Sea. Perhaps absurdity is the essence of the Bulgarian soul.
Bourgas unprepossessing, dusty and crumbling, two dark men in bare feet working on the sidewalk, the removed paving stranding parked cars. The desolation of Bourgas buildings alleviated by huge billboards advertising time share apartments.
Decaying apartment blocks, devoid of gardens or other ornamentation, between them weed encrusted vacant lots serving as parking lots for soviet era cars and modern Audis.
Lowlands, reeds, a patchwork of shallow lakes. Scattered flocks of water birds, a solitary swan.
The bus rolls through a heavily wooded forest. The monotony of the dusty foliage is broken for a split second by the sight of an elk placidly grazing – we look at each other in disbelief.
The only decoration in our local shop is a large Marlboro advertisement. Asking for a pack is fruitless – no cigarettes sold here.
The vast coastal plains shimmer in the midday heat. July and August are the domain of nordic tourist, profusely sweating and invariably sunburnt. Under a distant, dusty copse of trees a shepherd dozes, his flock scattered lethargically in the shade.
Bulgarians still seem bemused by their transition to a market economy. Many shops are suspicious of the euro, and those few who do accept them laboriously calculate the conversion on scraps of greasy carboard. A battered sign in front of a stall proclaims: 1 for 1 lev, 3 for 3 levs and 10 for 10 levs. Bartering in Bulgaria is proving to be particularly lacking.
Bulgarians are not loudly gregarious, quietly absorbing tourists into their daily lives in a refreshingly natural way. A trip to a crowded beach is a dignified affair, families lie contentedly under beach umbrellas, restaurants typically play local music, and a trip to the market is relaxingly bereft of the traditional harassment prevalent in the mediterranean region.
Bulgarian architecture lacks the austere simplicity of Greece. Lawns and flower beds are singularly lacking, every private patch of earth is turned into verdant vegetable gardens; trellises groaning under the weight of huge tomatoes, beneath them local peppers grow in wild profusion. Most houses have a veranda covered by luxuriant vines, grapes seemingly about to burst… beneath them deep shade invites guests to linger.
A battered freezer competes with weeds on a decaying sidewalk, from it a vendor sells ice cream, barely looking up from a generator powered portable television while serving. Bulgarian ice cream is among the worlds finest, and the different flavours are often artistically displayed, with fresh fruit toppings indicating the respective flavour.
Bulgarians are partial to small cups of particularly strong coffee. Portion sizes are similar to espresso, although the coffee is less aromatic. The preferred utensil appears to be a small plastic cup, and early morning street life is dominated by coffee-drinking streetsweepers, bleary-eyed stallholders and lounging bus drivers. Small boys dart across the waking traffic, precariously balancing their consignments on faded plastic trays.
Our coffee is vended by an ancient, groaning machine which dominates one end of the bar, and is presided over by the bar captain, a huge, swarthy man with particularly fine moustaches. I take one of the omnipresent plastic cups, and nod to the captain, who beams pontifically at me. Two spoons of sugar elicit a further polite smile, gold teeth flashing in the subdued light of the bar. I smile, nod again, insert my cup into the machine and press Button No.1 (coffee short) – only to discover that the machine is switched off. For a brief moment our eyes meet. His face is blank, I hold the stare fractionally longer than is comfortable. Never mess with me about coffee…