Lacking my own car, it was my friend Boyko who did the driving today on a reporting trip up to Vidin, a city on the Danube River in northwest Bulgaria. This experience only reinforced my keen appreciation for the challenges and pleasures of operating a motor vehicle in the Balkans.
For one thing, he drives fast. Everyone does. Only horse carts — of which we saw more than a few — go slowly here. Speed adds a thrill to daily life and also gets you to your destination more quickly.
We passed through towns that feel like they’ve been left behind in Europe’s rush to modernize. Industry that thrived in socialist times has been left to rust, and road improvement projects tend to stop at the city limits, with highway giving way to cobblestones and then back again.
Near Vratsa we picked up a young musician named Vasco. He’d been working odd jobs to get by — making panels in a factory, helping out his brother making cases for guns — but just now was looking for strings for his bass guitar. He hadn’t found any and was headed back to his girlfriend’s hometown.
Montana, too, is filled with signs of past vigor. A school was surrounded by a cast iron fence and, every meter or so, a five-pointed star of the type that used to adorn national flags in this part of the world. Apartment blocks carried large, bold numbers that could be seen from halfway across town: building 25, building 26.
Another building was topped with a sign bearing the sort of Big Brotherly advice that still rings true today.
With that timeless warning, we continued on our journey to Vidin.