I got the Seven Year Itch recently. That’s how long I’ve been in Bulgaria. We’ve just had a nightmarish seaside holiday in Primorsko, just south of Burgas. Black Sea ushered in Black Mood.
One evening last week, shortly after our return, I cracked and ran screaming towards my British passport rather like a baby grabbing his bottle. I even took it to bed with me and slept with it under my pillow. Suddenly I longed for the best of British. I fantasised about everything from the joys of a London double decker bus, through to those lovely redbrick buildings in Chelsea, then on to Sunday lunch in a countryside pub somewhere in the Chilterns, through to burying my nose in a jar of Branston pickle.
It was a trip on the 76 bus in Sofia that finished me. In Sofia the 76 bus looks like it was requisitioned secondhand circa 1980. And that’s no surprise because it was. (You can still read the old French signs). It’s stinking, dusty, with a creaking mid-section that looks set to break off at any moment. All buses seem like Lego jobs in Bulgaria, stitched together in a children’s workshop. The doors clank shut, kind of thrusting into the interior – complete with sharp metallic edges – so that if you are unfortunate enough to have an arm or a leg in the vicinity you can end up in Sofia’s Pirogov Hospital, which is – surprise – another particularly unsightly place. At night in a Bulgarian hospital you will count cockroaches, not sheep, and the stench of urine will forbid sleep … Anyway, back to the 76 bus. A ride costs one lev (50 pence) but I think they should pay US to ride on it. You have to punch your ticket in another metal contraption, again replete with with sharp edges, before it is valid. You may sever your fingers in the process. Several times I have been so distracted by the bus driver smoking and sundry smelly passengers – and so keen on escaping aforementioned deathtrap doors – that I have forgotten to punch. In which case a fat, ugly inspector has always caught me and fined me 20 leva. Each time I’d like to punch him/her.
These are routine, expected unpleasantnesses in Sofia. Back to the “holiday”. Nothing is more disappointing than a damnably disappointing holiday. Not that the hotel was BAD as such. Chef even managed to rustle up avocados to make an unusual salad. The girls at reception were pretty and polite. The fact that the daily breakfast felt like some kind of chicken run was not the hotel’s fault, I suppose. Or that all the guests were determined to pile their plate up to the ceiling with pancakes, watermelons, scrambled egg, muffins and French toast. So much so that by the time we arrived, little was left.
I’ve always enjoyed summer holidays. Yet, for the first time, the whole thing started to bore, not just the pestilential mosquitoes that bit my testicles through my shorts (do they like me that much?) but the whole “deal” – sweaty, sunburnt beer-bellied bodies, overcrowded beach littered with seaweed, airless nights, the nasty ear infection I suspect I picked up from the pool. Is there – I wonder – a point whereby the classic summer holiday loses its appeal? I’m 47. I think I’m becoming a “mountain person” and I used to think they were old fogeys.
The real disappointment was Primorsko. The hotel was supposedly 4-star but a gravelly dirt track containing the odd rattlesnake separated it from the beach. All the pavements were ankle-deep in crushed plums. The town had a pseudo Middle Eastern feel to it with its constant hawkers and peddlars thrusting tacky souvenirs in your face. We always had dinner outside the hotel. To pick some highlights. Or should that be “lowlights”? The grilled salmon was hopelessly over-cooked. The tuna salad was 99 percent lettuce with a tiny brown attachment at the top, like a cherry on a cake. The “Exotic Banana Surprise” turned out to be one banana sliced down the middle with a spoon of cream. (Generally, the posher the name, the worse the offering.) We were never given an ice bucket for the wine. We only had one good meal. And that was on the final night. I asked the girl at reception for the name of the best restaurant in Primorsko. “You want the name of the second best restaurant in town?” she said. (That prompted my first laugh during the holiday. Bulgarians have a good sense of humour).
Bulgaria has still not really recovered from communism and its standards of service reflect that. All this culminated in my sudden affection for my British passport. I’m still stroking it tenderly. But I had second thoughts when I opened the Daily Mail and saw a piece about Daniella Westbrook.