Tuesday, February 9, 2010

A Weekend in Sandanski

Rila Monastery under Snow

One of the many murals, and me

On the drive

The indoor pool at Spa Medite (photo carefully angled to avoid swimmers)

When I told my seniors I spent the weekend in Sandanski, many faces lit up and they shouted "Intriga!" To my amusement, one immediately handed me a business card for an exclusive night club in that town, for the next time I return. Silly me, spending all my time at a spa when I could have been dancing the nights away at Intriga. Ah well, maybe next time.

Brett and I took off on a bitterly cold day in Sofia after getting a jump start from a team of friendly ACS maintenance and security guys. We drove around the crowded ring road, across the cobblestone way that leads to the main thoroughfare to Greece, through an intensely foggy mountain pass, and out into the sunshine of Southern Bulgaria, snowy mountains cresting the Horizon. We pulled off the main way for a quick trip to Rila monastery, excited to see it in its winter garments.

The drive up the mountain was gorgeous in that full sunshine just after a snowstorm kind of way. Every branch and curve of the river was wearing melting tufts and peaks of snow, and giant icicles hung from rocky patches on the sides of the road. Snowy pine forests ranged across the shadowed hill to our right as the sun beamed onto the cliffs on our left. We swerved often to avoid patches of rocks on the road but since we were virtually the only travelers headed toward Rila, it didn't much matter.

We joined five other visitors, one gigantic dog and one wandering monk in the courtyard to enjoy the splendid colors of the monastery framed in white mountains. Then we took off for Sandanski.

We arrived into the outskirts after an hour and were pleased to see large signs pointing us ever upward to Spa Medite, which turned out to be in "Sandanski Heights." We added our car to the three or so others in the spa lot, and went in, taking note of a grassish looking tennis court and NO SNOW.

Checked in, and having checked out the fluffy bathrobes in our closet and made massage appointments for later, we headed out for some tennis, stunned to be playing outside after waking up in weather so cold as to kill our trusty 1994 Volkswagen Golf.

For the next twenty four hours we enjoyed the comforts of Spa Medite - a giant jacuzzi in a private deck, a heated pool in the middle of a solarium, a gym, massage, pedicure, and a lovely restaurant that produced Brett's "2nd favorite ever meal" and the best creme brule we've ever tried.

Throughout it all, I found myself wondering, why do we seem to be the only ones here? At dinner, we joined one other couple in a restaurant that could seat at least 40. The bar was empty save for the barman. My name seemed to be the only one on the spa schedule for Saturday, and the jacuzzi was available the moment I asked for it. What was going on?

It was my pedicurist, Sonia, who tipped me off. "The border is closed," she said. "Most of our customers come from Greece." It turns out that protesting farmers have parked trailors and tractors across every border crossing between Bulgaria and Greece, and trucks are back-parked for miles. No Greek tourists can come and enjoy the chocolate croissants, Turkish lights massages and outdoor tennis of Spa Medite until the farmers get what they want. It struck me as amazing that the border had really been closed for a whole month.

Photo from The Sofia Echo

Here's an excerpt from an article about the blockade:

The farmers drove tractors and heavy machinery to the borders with Albania, Turkey and Macedonia to block border traffic there as well.

Earlier this week, the Bulgarian government appealed to the European Union to take "immediate" action to end the blockades.

Greece's socialist government, which is struggling to cope with an unprecedented economic crisis and pressure from the European Union to curb the highest budget deficit in the 27-nation bloc, promised to provide state aid by mid-March and urged farmers to dismantle the roadblocks.

However, the government rejected the farmers' demands of new subsidies worth about 1 billion euros (1.4 billion dollars). Agriculture Minister Katerina Batzeli said in a televised discussion that the country's precarious fiscal situation made subsidies impossible.

The country's farmers estimated their income has declined by 25 per cent in the past 10 years. The farming sector is composed mainly of small-scale farmers who rely on handouts from the government to survive.

Last year, a monthlong protest in which farmers blocked roads also triggered major problems for commercial truck drivers and travellers. (Read more: here)

We enjoyed our weekend at Spa Medite, but felt bad for it too. It is providing a wonderful bit of tourism inside Bulgaria, a country that deserves and badly needs effective tourism, and now it is undoubtedly draining money every day. On the other hand, what are the Greek farmers to do?


Anonymous said...

I appreciate your acknowledgement of the farmer's plight, in particular.
It sounds like their strategy isn't working -- do they have the sympathy of the average citizens (if not the wealthier tourists)?

Anonymous said...

I notice you guys travel out of Bulgaria a lot.

How easy/cheap is it to fly in and out of Sofia?

I am thinking about spending a few month in Bulgaria, but would want to travel to Greece and Turkey during my visits.

Brett said...

To answer your question, it depends on how you travel. There are regular buses to both Greece and Turkey, though not that comfortable, and roads in Bulgaria are slow. There are trains, which are also slow. For example, the overnight train to Istanbul takes about 14 hours (I think -- look it up), while driving takes about 6. Driving is probably the easiest, and renting a car for a weekend is relatively cheap. Bring your home state driver's license. You can also fly. The price of flights varies widely. The discount airlines don't have a lot of flights to those countries but regular airlines do. Hope this helps.

Brett said...

p.s. Flights usually cost between $200 and $300 to Athens and Istanbul, and leave at least once a day. If you want a less popular destination, including the Greek islands, or somewhere further southeast in Turkey, it will be more.

Tiina said...

Sandanski Heights and Medite are two entirely different complexes!