Down the years I had already done a fair few of these ‘group activity’ trips with the adventure holiday company Exodus Travels, taking me to far flung corners of the world including such mesmerising destinations as Peru, Madagascar and Iran. So I had known from the moment that I booked it that this trip would be a bit different as the far-flung corner of the moment was going to be Bulgaria, the country in which I just happened to be living.
It had been a long time since I had last been excited about going away on holiday in my ‘home’ country. A month in mesmerising Ramsgate with my parents, younger sister and dog in 1971 was probably the previous such occasion. It had been a great adventure though, travelling down from Yorkshire to London and beyond. I had wondered if, because of their proximity to France, the people of East Kent would speak a strange language and have strange customs. My moments of wonder manifested themselves as we met people who spoke like the cast from the classic television drama On the Buses (EastEnders hadn’t been invented back then) and supported Arsenal. I had never known the like so this, my first taste of culture shock, left me dumbstruck. Later in life I looked back and recognised that it had prepared me well for other similar adventures in the likes of Peru, Madagascar and Iran.
Although I was very excited about this latest trip, its proximity to my home generated strange emotions in my constantly swirling mind. It was a bit like living in Leeds and going on an international overland trekking adventure in Scarborough. I was leaving the comfort of my house to explore a wild and mysterious region where few people ever dared to venture but I was doing a large chunk of the journey in my own car. I had even considered going there on the bus.
The plan was to commence a walking holiday in Bulgaria’s remote and beautiful Rodopi Mountains by meeting my new travelling companions and the Exodus local guide in the arrivals hall at Sofia Airport’s Terminal Two; a place I had been many times before to meet family and friends coming out from Western Europe to visit me, or to wave them off as they flew home again and I had even flown in and out of the place myself on several occasions. I drove there and deposited my car at a nearby ‘secure’ off-site airport car park. I can never understand why they are advertised as being secure. It’s as if some people might prefer an insecure car park in which to leave their vehicle for a week or two. Not that it needed to be all that secure anyway, as I don’t recall ever hearing of a theft of a fifteen-year-old Daihatsu Sirion and if mine was to go adrift in my absence then surely it would be a first, I would have made history and I would be famous.
Such is my fear of being late for the start of a trip (or anything else that I’m ever invited to attend) and my nervousness about how long the three-hour journey through the dramatic Balkan Range of mountains from my dwelling place to Sofia might take, I set off far too early and arrived ridiculously far too early. I’m pretty sure that I had sat myself down in the airport café with a strong local coffee and hot banitsa long before the wheels of Bulgaria Air flight FB852 carrying my soon-to-be new friends had even parted with the English runway. ‘Better far too early than never’ has always been my philosophy, though from this it’s clear to see why I never got a job as an airline pilot. Had I been the third Wright Brother, the flying machine would have been up and running before anyone had even had time to invent wheels to put on it.
As far as I was aware, I was the only member of our holiday group who wasn’t flying in to Sofia from London so I was already the strange one before I even met the rest of them, but I took comfort from the knowledge that I was sitting there alone for hours because everyone else was on the flight and not just because I was a bit strange. The Bulgarian word for strange is ‘Странно’ (pronounced ‘strannoh’) and I’m pleased to say that I’ve never heard anybody use it whilst talking to or about me. Though I suspect it often comes up in the minutes of the meetings of the Secret We Hate Terry Club, held in church halls on the evening of the third Tuesday of every month.
So I sat alone for a couple of hours in the airport terminal building with my camera hung round my neck and my travel bag by my side. I even had my passport in my trusty and well-worn document wallet clutched in my hand. I must have looked every bit the seasoned jet-setter but one thing was missing, that being an airline ticket. Oh I felt so cheap as I looked around at the other ‘real’ travellers and wondered if the words ‘poser, fraud and cheapskate’ might have been going through their minds as they looked back at me.
On the plus side of being in an airport but not actually flying anywhere, I didn’t suffer the inconvenience of having to empty my pockets, take off my boots and some of my clothes, be frisked by a man wearing latex gloves or dispose of my fluids, as I had often had to do at this stage of previous adventures.
Being eternally imaginative, I found a number of things to do to pass the time.
I walked from one end of the arrivals hall to the other end of the departures hall and back again six or eight times. This was my training for the seven consecutive days of gruelling mountain trekking that lay ahead of me. You can’t say I don’t prepare for these trips.
I chatted to a Bulgarian taxi driver who was wearing a full Manchester City replica kit. The taxi man’s contribution to the conversation was partly based on Rahim Sterling’s fitness level but mostly on whether or not I needed a ride into the city centre and the ‘special price’ he was offering me. I told him tales of the great names that had lined up for Leeds United in my time as a football fan and that I wanted to go to the village of Yagodina in the Rodopi Mountains with a crowd of people I had never met before. He was utterly delighted to have gained such knowledge of legends such as Billy Bremner, Johnny Giles and Pontus Jansson, and pleased with the new English phrase ‘I don’t take Millwall fans’ that I had taught him, but disappointed that his Opel Astra wouldn’t be big enough to accommodate an Exodus Travels party of walkers. However, he said he would have been able to provide a crowd of people I had never met before, offering me this at a special price.
The crowd of people I had never met before.
I went to the toilet. Then a bit later I went to the toilet again even though I didn’t need to but I remembered the words I used to say to my kids when they were little about preparing for a long bus ride, and I wanted to neither appear hypocritical in my own mind nor get caught short on the motorway. On my second visit to the Terminal Two loo the place was full of armed officers of the Border Police. Terrified of the consequences of splashing their shiny black stormtrooper boots I just stood there motionless and pretended until they’d all gone off for a nice cuppa or to shoot a terrorist. By the time they had disappeared I really did need to use the toilet.
It was a little disappointing that our escapade should be kicking off from Terminal Two rather than the more ‘traditional’ Terminal One building which was built in the 1930s and upgraded a bit in the 1960s in a combination of Communist concrete and art sort of style. To me it is more representative of the country with its great marble clad walls and huge tiled mosaic maps of Bulgaria and Europe bearing city names still as they were during the Socialist era, its slightly shabby back room bits and its recent attempts at modernisation. It is the only airport building I have ever seen in the world to have a dedicated post office within it (I go there every Tuesday to collect my pension) and it is also the only one in which I have seen stray dogs asleep in the arrivals hall. But at least it has character, unlike Terminal Two which could be any medium sized international airport in Europe. But for the absence of a branch of Gregg’s it would be easy to fool yourself into thinking you had just landed in Bristol. Not many flights go to the original terminal these days and I suspect that eventually it will close, which I think would be a great shame.
As the time of the group rendezvous approached I found myself staring at other people’s luggage tags to see if any of them belonged to fellow Exodus travellers who had arrived early like me. None fitted the criteria but every luggage tag tells a story and every story, I’m sure, must contain the thoughts, ‘Is that adequate and will I ever see my bag again?’ as the pre-flight labelling procedure got underway. This was another thing that I had no need to worry about as my bag didn’t have to be checked in or picked up from a baggage carousel an anxious half hour after the belt had started to move.
The only time I have ever in all my life seen my bag emerge first in the baggage collection area was when I went on a short, self-organised trip to Marrakech. I packed all my stuff in an Exodus kitbag that I had acquired on a previous Exodus trip and as it had the company logo all over it in big bold lettering it was easy to spot. As I picked it up and started to walk away with it in my hand and a delighted grin on my face I was apprehended by a lady who accused me of stealing her bag. How was I to know that a real Exodus group had flown out from Gatwick for a real holiday on the same plane that I had been on? Being labelled a thief in any foreign airport is something that is best avoided so I quickly let go and she wandered off with it, grumbling as she went. The appearance of several more identical bags convinced me that I had made a terrible mistake and eventually my own bag appeared from the bowels of the terminal building long after everyone had gone home, just as I should have expected it to do.
Meanwhile, back in Sofia on this trip, my wait at last came to an end as a very nice holiday guide lady holding an Exodus Travels clipboard appeared and a crowd of people wearing walking boots and bearing apprehensive smiles gathered around her. We all introduced ourselves, knowing full well that we would have forgotten all those new names within ten minutes, and then we were on a minibus heading for the mountains, the adventure of a lifetime and a week of aching joints and various other sore bits.
I will tell you more about the trip in the not too distant future but currently I have a journalistic embargo hovering over me while the people at Hello magazine decide what they are going to do with my story and / or me. So don’t go away because I’ll be back with tales of remote mountain folklore, superstition, incredible scenery, friendly local people, fine traditional cuisine, the aforementioned sore bits and cross-dressing.