Never, but never, has a journey of less than 200 miles offered such a transformation. I’m talking about a drive from Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia, to Thessaloniki in northern Greece. It’s not a long way. Having lived in Portugal, it’s like going from Albufeira in the Algarve to Coimbra, a little north of Lisbon. Or, to put it simpler, it’s not as far as London to Liverpool.
There are the obvious differences: the whiff of balmier air, the welcome appearance of palms and cacti, the thermometer five Celsius higher, the bearded young Greek men – all looking like budding Aristotles. Yet I’m talking more about infrastructure and general allure. For all the talk of crisis, Thessaloniki looked undaunted and confident. The promenade cafés and bars were teeming with youngsters, albeit making a beer or espresso last a couple of hours.
Bulgaria’s southern neighbour may be in the grip of a lefty delusion, having elected Syriza and the tieless Trot Tsipras. It may owe enough euro to fill the Thermaic Gulf. Bulgaria, on the other hand, is not indebted. It is just poor. Dirt poor. And most of Bulgaria is still dilapidated, decrepit and decaying compared to its southern neighbour.
Cross the Greek border and immediately you notice freshly painted buildings, superior irrigation, smoother pavements and roads. In Thessaloniki, the buses just look old in that endearingly quaint southern Mediterranean way, not in the sense of scraps of metal, seemingly glued together haphazardly, with sharp edges that could amputate your hand, as they do in Sofia.
Many Greek women were elegantly dressed, nobody looked hungry and people seemed content. Service everywhere was exemplary, without the (all too often) lazy, contemptuous attitude of Bulgarians in the hospitality sector. The prices, although steep for Bulgarians, are cheap for Brits enjoying the strength of sterling. Twenty five pounds affords you a delicious meal for two with fresh fish and salad and house wine plus complimentary bottled water, fresh bread and dessert – all delivered with a smile. Greeks have not tried to compensate for the crisis by trying to fleece tourists. Greek banks may – or may not – be about to run dry but nobody looked concerned. Average salaries still dwarf Bulgaria’s even with the higher prices down south factored in. Yes, Greece has been living beyond its means but its second city still looks affluent compared to Sofia. And this is not even a like-for-like comparison; Sofia is a capital, Thessaloniki is not.
The blaze of Mediterranean colour was intoxicating. Sofia, by contrast, has suburbs resembling a vast Alcatraz-like security prison. This is where most people, bar rich gangsters, live. Apart from the historic centre, the city is a concrete ghetto, streets without names, distinguished only by block numbers. Even newly paved concrete slabs quickly give way, splattering you with mud and dirty water.
My mother-in-law has never been to Greece even though the border is a mere three-hour drive away. Under Communism, they would shoot you if you tried to leave. Nowadays, poverty, both in the material and aspirational sense, prevents her and other pensioners making the journey. Neither has she been to Istanbul – admittedly a longer trip – or, indeed, set foot in any of Bulgaria’s five neighbours with which it has a border. That’s the legacy of 45 years of Bulgarian Communism. Not only did it crush free enterprise, it also destroyed any realistic hope of satisfying a natural wanderlust. Yet my