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Bulgaria and northern Greece; a little travel crime novel
Tensely we rolled towards the Bulgarian border fence. The tension on our part was enormous and a possible refusal of entry due to the Corona virus would have led to a huge fiasco for us. The first border tree opened and already we were standing in front of a box-like passage. From a small house a man in protective suit waved to us. We handed him our passports, but he only wanted 3 Euro for the passage through the disinfection plant, which reminded more of a ridiculous and self-made plant than an effective disinfection plant; maybe a remnant from the communist era?
After the vehicle disinfection we stood in front of another border tree and from far away we were asked to get out and wait. After a long time a man, completely in a protective suit and mask, appeared, hesitantly stepping towards us and alternately holding a thermal pistol to our heads. Thank God our body temperatures were within the tolerance range and we were asked to drive to the next border tree. As a result of the current situation, the further entry control passed very quickly and a vehicle inspection was omitted completely. The last border tree was opened and nothing more stood in the way of our trip back to Europe.
Totally relaxed we drove through extensive forest landscapes towards the Black Sea with warming sunrays and we did not suspect at that moment how serious the situation really was. Too beautiful were the landscape and the wonderful villages, which gave us a picture of familiarity again. In Zarewo, a small harbour town on the Black Sea, the first disillusionment occurred; almost deserted streets and the few people we met wore face masks and gloves. What happened here?
We spent the following night in an adjacent forest and discussed our further actions at the camp fire. With many open questions we soon withdrew under the protective blanket, searched the internet for more information and also asked ourselves what we missed in Turkey during the last two months; the whole Corona story was there, except for the last few days, as if from another planet.
After a frosty night, the coffee soon bubbled up in the espresso pot and breathed the necessary vitality back into us. The discussion about how to proceed was relatively short and the agreement could not have come faster: To Greece as soon as possible, before it’s too late. Probably the perseverance and waiting will be a bit more pleasant there than here in Bulgaria or another Eastern European country, where there was still snow in some places and winter temperatures were still prevailing. From the scarce information, which was partly contradictory, we could see, among other things, that the countries around Switzerland were already affected by total travel bans. Also with this information we found many contradictions and misinformation. In part it was written that one could still travel through to the home country, but on the other hand no transit corridor was shown.
We turned west again, drove through wonderful landscapes and small towns on one of the southernmost roads, enjoyed the sunshine and the spring-like warmth. In a small town we bought the necessary food, so that we could enjoy our autonomy again for a few days and wouldn’t have to worry about too much shopping stress. But also here was remarkable: Everywhere security people with protective equipment and also for the customers appropriate aids were made available. The entrances to the shops were controlled and we were surprised how calmly and disciplined people dealt with this situation.
Actually we wanted to spend another night here in Bulgaria and were already looking for a suitable place where we could spend the night. But something didn’t leave me alone and the urge to cross the Greek border today became stronger and stronger. Chantal was soon convinced of my intention to drive a few more kilometres and we were already heading for the Greek border post in the middle of the mountains.
Several times the customs officer asked us if we really wanted to enter Greece, as the border was closed for foreigners from midnight on, which also meant that we could not leave the country by land. He also drew our attention to the fact that we might have to stay longer in Greece because the corona virus could also be very dynamic in political decisions. At that moment we didn’t have much of a choice; to the south for warmth or to head towards Central Europe, where nobody could say whether it was still possible to get through Switzerland. And to be stuck somewhere in snow and cold?
We decided for Greece!
Very relaxed we headed from the mountains down towards the Mediterranean. At that moment we were overjoyed and glad that we made it this far. Here in Greece we hoped that for the time being there wouldn’t be too many restrictions and that we could find a place in the south with more warmth.
A gas station attendant in Komotini told us that in Alexandroupoli a person with the corona virus was in hospital and that the schools, restaurants and other non-essential facilities throughout Greece were closed. But to put our minds at rest, she told us, quite dryly, that the petrol stations were still open. Chantal and I looked deep into each other’s eyes: did we take the wrong direction after all?
What struck us were the calm conditions in the villages and small towns. Only now we noticed that the otherwise very sociable Greeks avoided each other, places and parks were nearly all orphaned. The closed restaurants and cafés did not even notice us at first, as at the south coast of Macedonia, the season has not yet started.
We followed the south coast of Macedonia, repeatedely chose some small side roads through the villages, drove again a side road up into the mountains and looked from far above into the canyon of the Nestos stream. Parallel to the coastal plain we followed the hinterland further through the mountains and crossed lonely passages high above the lower lying coastal towns. For us the world up here was ok and all problems were still far away.
Before we turned off to the Chalkidiki peninsula, which is like a hand with three fingers from above, we stocked up on the most necessary things. But, also in Greece some things had changed and many shops were no longer open. For food it was still no problem, but our empty gas bottle should also get a filling and here the shop doors were already closed. In order to save gas, we continued to cook on an open fire and enjoyed again and again the camp romance.
The eastern finger with the monk’s republic of Áthos, where apparently no female beings, also animal ones, are supposed to exist, was already behind us when we heard Sunday evening that from next morning a house quarantine was ordered countrywide and car journeys were allowed only with permission.
So we booked a holiday flat over the internet and drove from our forest camp to the next village without the necessary permit (we couldn’t download it in our mobile phone). The gas station attendant was extremely courteous and called the landlady for us to see if our booking was really okay. Everything would be fine and she would wait for us. He gave us some more tips for the further way, so that we could also survive our house insulation well.
Of course we still had to stock up our supplies for this time and went to the only open shop in the same place. We could only guess who finally called the police and ratted us “strangers”, but we were faster and our purchase was already done. The policeman in plain clothes was not at all pleased by our presence and urged us to leave the village as soon as possible and go home to Switzerland. When asked how we could still do this in this situation, he got into his car, threatened us with a 5’000 Euro bus and disappeared as fast as he had come.
Until we reached the next village, where we had reserved our accommodation for two weeks, we chose the most direct route so that we too could get off the road as quickly as possible and enter the two-week house of exile. But before the accommodation everything was locked with chains and heavy locks. A new call was not answered, but the booking platform informed us that the reservation was cancelled by the landlord! It was like a slap in the face; everything is closed, driving around was officially strict and forbidden under high punishment and now we have to stop – officially so ordered – on the street.
Besides the planned accommodation I asked another local owner if he had any advice for us or even knew of any place to stay for the next two weeks. In our estimation he would have had some advice, but a short argument with a man who had joined us made our hopes vanish. The pressure from Athens must probably be extremely strong and the sanctions on their part must be drastic if they are not followed. They directed us to Poligiros, the provincial capital, where there is said to be an open hotel. They did not or could not do more for us. At the same time they wished that we should come back in summer; they probably already suspected that this year would be a financial disaster and that every tourist must be warmly welcomed.
The way to the provincial capital would have been more than 80 kilometres and certainly not without police control. And we; on the road without a driving permit, which can only be downloaded with a Greek telephone subscription and the internet site was not available at that moment. And, why should we retire to a city and to a hotel with many other people in a small space? One also cannot cook by oneself and is dependent on others; but restaurants are closed and most of the times, hotel rooms do not have any cooking facilities.
We left the main road, which follows the western “finger edge” and chose the narrow access roads that connect one bay with the next. To our surprise; almost in every bay there were some foreign vehicles, campers or converted vans with travellers. We are probably not the only ones stranded here at the Kassandras Sea. Our decision to stay at such a bay and not in a small hotel room was quickly made. Maybe we risk a bus or a dismissal, but the hope that nothing will happen was bigger than the fear of any reprisals.
By chance we found a bay where two German vehicles were already parked, a well was available near the nearby chapel and so we could stay longer.
We set up for the first night on the sand dune, put up our tent, which we had brought along especially for longer stays, and thus spent the first stormy night in self-isolation.
In two weeks everything should be over; so our information. Hopefully!
>Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator