We had left the Trigord Gorge early the previous day in the hope of getting some photography at the new destination in the evening sun. No chance ! ViaMichelin had projected about 4 hours to cover the 133 miles but of course they knew the way.We didn't !
Whereas the out of date SatNav had served us well elsewhere, in Sofia all has changed. We failed to get on to the ring road as the SatNav sent us bang through the middle of Sofia.... in the rush hour too ! We got to see the Parliament Buildings I think, certainly an area of high security and armed police and soldiers. Well, added to the interest I guess.
Whereas elsewhere driving is a little unpredictable in Sofia it was VERY predictable . Just watch out as everyone tries to squeeze in front, cut you up, out accelerate you at the lights. It's quite a game. The idea is you take up the outside lane of two or three lane roads as there is less traffic in it. Why ? Because some folk want to turn left and will block the road at lights, you gamble that none wants to but you are often wrong. You need to cut in to the traffic on your inside before you reach the point you have to stop. You have the idea I'm sure.
Bulgarian drivers, well most anyway, are totally self centred, inconsiderate, mad, you name it they are just that. If you can't beat them join them.
I really enjoyed the experience of driving with reckless abandon through a major European capital city and fair do's to Mike, he didn't complain once !
Eventually we found our way out of town and to the suburb we thought we needed to be in. That's what the SatNav told us anyway. We decided to ring our pre-booked hotel to ask for directions. Pavel had arranged it and said the guy who runs it speaks perfect English. Not so it seemed on the phone and we gave up. Instead we found a garage and bought a street map. Believe it or not we were in the suburbs of Sofia, we needed to get to the top of a mountain that towers over the city which was in plain view but could we find the road ? Could we heck. It took three hours! By the time we actually arrived in the hotel it was getting near to dusk.
We had been warned that the hotel wasn't the best and as we arrived some other potential guests were leaving having decided the rooms weren't suitable.
We were shown ours and asked if they were OK.
"Fine" was my reply.
"Are you sure?' was Ivan the caretakers taken aback reply !
We were too knackered to consider moving.
I'm sure that once upon a time this hotel was considered desirable but certainly no longer.
We were not surprisingly the only guests!
Ah well, we were only there for one night and we were in the right location for an early start.
Out at first light and off up the road a few hundred metres to the area around the ski lifts where we were told to look for the Nutcracker. Ominously there were a few cars and people setting up tables and banners etc. There was an event of some kind going to happen.
We wandered around together for a while and found a Ring Ouzel, a bit different than the ones we are lucky to see here in the UK.
After splitting up to cover greater ground we later came together right by the picnic tables next to the lifts. Mike had found a Nutcracker and got a shot in decent light but I think it was a bit distant. Suddenly I spotted movement under a table and sure enough, it was our target.
They are obviously used to people and very approachable. I tried to get ahead of it and hid behind a tree. The light was poor but it was very close by.
Hand holding my lens but lent against a tree to try and get some stability for a low shutter speed shot I had only just managed to get the whole bird in the frame. The answer was to go back to the car and get the tripods out.
Back at the car park things were getting busy. Music was now blaring out of loudspeakers, announcements being made that could probably be heard miles away.
Damn it ! It was Saturday and there was a mountain running race taking place. Soon the car park was full and overflowing. There were cars and people everywhere in next to no time.
It was looking disastrous ! Once again we split up and went in different directions and away from the crowds and noise. Mike headed off in the direction of the Cuckoos we had seen earlier, me to explore some new territory. It was depressingly short of bird life. I decided to go and look for Mike and see how he was getting on. Heading back past the crowds and beyond, I spotted a Crossbill high in the trees. A new one for the trip but too far for a photo but then I saw it.
It was hunting around in a hillside area where the trees had been chopped down. It too was very approachable and allowed me to follow at a reasonably close distance although the going was tough as I stumbled amongst rocks, tree stumps and other wooden debris.
We had been told they were hard to find purely because they are usually on the ground and silent. Correct on point one only !
This one was a regular caller !
Unfortunately the light had got worse as the day progressed and now it was quite miserable. A slower shutter speed was required but as I was in permanent recovery mode breathing deeply from my up hill struggle, hand holding my camera wasn't always easy!
Nevertheless I was pleased with the results
The Nutcracker isn't the easiest of birds to find and I believe they do tend to be shy too. Mount Vitosha is one of the best places to find them and as they are used to people, one of the best to photograph them too.
This one, amongst the first taken, is my favourite !
Eventually the bird flew off. I carefully retreated back down the hill and on to the recognised path.
Finding Mike he had had no luck finding one, the light was getting darker and the cloud was moving in. We were at 1800m above sea level!
We called it a day and went back to our hotel. The best thing about it was we could keep our rooms for as long as we wanted so it was an opportunity to get showered and changed ready for the journey home. Problem was it was only lunchtime and our flight wasn't until 10.00pm .
We paid the bill, unbelievably the most expensive night of the whole trip, and walked out to the car park to head down to Sofia. Overhead a Lesser Spotted Eagle. OK only a record shot but my first !
The weather down in Sofia was much brighter but we had the occasional shower in between some sunnier periods. We took up residence on a rough track next to a small industrial estate near the airport and to our amazement found Hare, Grey Partridge and a family of Kestrels amongst others.
Hunting Kestrel returning with their prey kept us amused for a while but it was not ideal.
We decided to return the car earlier than planned at 5.00pm. A good decision as they refused to take it back unless we cleaned it first. An unspecified amount would be deducted from my credit card and there was also a 10 euro admin charge. We decided to take it to the local car wash which fortunately was only a few yards away and for only £5 their man spent the best part of an hour returning the car from being pretty filthy inside and out to pristine and like new again.
So that was it then, the trip was over for another year. Overall, a great success, possibly the best Mike and I have undertaken together. Certainly the least expensive.
We managed to see 129 species, got some shots of birds we hadn't previously managed and added a few lifers to our lists.
All for around £850 all in for 10 days.
I'd recommend Bulgaria to anyone.