30 Aug

Travels with a Trabant

Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007 but in places it still feels like the 1950s. So what better way to explore it than in a classic car from that era – the trusty Trabant. With a top speed of around 50mph, you won’t be going very fast but, says David McConnell – that’s not really the point

It’s early afternoon and the sun is high, sending temperatures into the 80s and Guildford-born Neil Penn and I are embarking on a week long, 750-mile drive across the interior of Bulgaria.

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Buzludzha – the now abandoned conference centre of Bulgaria’s Communist past

Outside, a vast mountain range dominates the sun-kissed skyline. Below it, lies a vast, gently undulating blanket of happy sunflowers. It feels like we are the only tourists here. And there’s barely a car on the road. Except for us and the affectionately-known, ‘Little Miss Sunshine’, our trusty Trabant that will be our transport for the next seven days.

Neil, who had lived in and around Surrey all his life, fell in love with Bulgaria twelve years ago when he decided to buy and re-build a couple of ramshackle barns and disused houses in the remote village of Gostilitsa.

He now lives there permanently and determined to show-off of this lesser known corner of Europe, decided to set up a classic car holiday business. Classic car enthusiasts can now explore the beauty of the Balkans in one of Neil’s fleet of Trabants or ‘Trabbie’ as they are also known, taking in beautiful UNESCO heritage sites, vineyards and dramatic mountain passes along the way.

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Views across to Veliko Tarnovo the ancient capital of Bulgaria

The Communist-era Trabant first hit the streets in 1957. With a reputation for being slow, basic and noisy, it would not be everyone’s first choice for a classic car. But being the Eastern European people’s car, it really wouldn’t make sense to tour this former Communist country in anything else. “It’s a an incredibly robust vehicle,” says Neil. “And there’s a real connection with the people it was designed to serve. Plus the pace of life is much slower here. What’s the rush? Just sit back and enjoy the scenery.”

With a gear stick protruding from the steering column, no power steering and brakes that seem to take an age to respond, mastering the Trabant is a little like learning to drive all over again. And yes, it is slow (top speed is about 50 mph).

Having mastered our ‘Trabbie’, we quickly (well fairly quickly) set off. Our journey begins in the capital, Sofia, close to Bulgaria’s Western border with Macedonia and Serbia. A typically bustling, historic European city with a pedestrianised boulevard at its heart, it offers plentiful outdoor eating and drinking. I’d recommend taking a free walking tour to get a sense of the city’s intriguing Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman and more recent Communist history.

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Shipka church

Heading east out of Sofia, within half an hour the countryside begins to reveal itself. With few cars on the road I quickly relax and settle into the drive. And what jewels there are to discover. Veliko Tarnovo, the ancient capital of Bulgaria, is a particular gem. Clinging to the mountain-side, laced with narrow, pretty cobblestone streets and quaint shops, it’s ideal for wandering and taking in the views.

From our drive takes us up the vertiginous Shipka Pass, a climbing, winding road that tested my mastery of the Trabbie. Cheered on by a group of workmen repairing the road, we took the Trabant up nearly 4,000 ft. to reach the Shipka Monument, the site of Bulgaria’s most famous battle, from where you can take stock and survey the panoramic mountain views.

Plovdiv, the country’s second city and Europe’s official Capital of Culture in 2019, is another must-see. Head to the old town to see the Roman amphitheatre, still used for concerts and plays, and peruse the bric-a-brac and antique shops lining the Roman-cobbled streets. Walk around any corner and you’re likely to stumble across a pile of Roman ruins, almost casually littered throughout the town.

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Buzludzha – graffiti

Striking and fascinating items of Communist history crop up everywhere. Small villages often have a large missile or old fighter jet taking centre stage in the village square but nothing quite compares to the massive UFO-shaped conference centre, Buzludzha. This extraordinary, outrageous piece of brutalist architecture perched on top of a hill was the meeting place for Bulgarian Communist bosses. Now abandoned and covered in graffiti, getting there requires a 20km drive up a winding, pot-holed road but is well worth the effort. Climb the steps and peek inside to get a sense of the arrogance of Communist power.

Our drive also took in Madara Rider, home to a rare 8th century mountainside carving, one of many UNESCO heritage sites. The steep climb to the top was tough but the views match anywhere in Europe. Bulgaria’s interior has yet to gear up for tourism and driving through its heartland is a voyage of discovery, especially in a Trabant. It’s essentially a wilderness, offering superb vistas and mountain walks accompanied by birds of prey, snakes and even wild bears. In the small towns and villages horses, donkeys and cows amble freely with the cats and dogs.

As for the Bulgarian people, we were welcomed everywhere. Perhaps they liked the fact that two rather odd Englishmen were driving a Trabant, which always elicits a smile and a wave, but I prefer to think Bulgarians are like that with everyone.

If you’re tempted by a motoring adventure and exploring Bulgaria, check tour dates at classiccarholidays.co.uk. Tours of Romania and Macedonia are also available. Four star hotels along the route are included and booked for you, and your Trabbie comes with fuel, satellite navigation and a mobile phone should you need to contact Neil and his technical support team, Macho and Toncho. All you need to do is book your flights and bring your driving licence. Prices start from: £745 for one week.

Special offer to Surrey Occasions readers: 20% discount on bookings made between 1 September and 31 October (£595). Enter the promo code ‘Trabant’ when booking.

If you aren’t tempted by a Trabbie and want to try a different location for a motoring holiday. Here’s a selection both here and abroad:

South West France in a Citroen 2CV, with Tour de Canard. Car only, book your own accommodation, from 499 Euros for one week. tourdecanard.com

Southern India in a Hindustan Ambassador, Vietnam in a Jeep, or Peru in a Toyota with Classic Car Journeys. Car and accommodation included, from £2,500 for two weeks.
classiccarjourneys.co.uk

The UK in an Austin Healey, Jaguar E-type, MG, Rolls-Royce or Ferrari with Webbs of Weybridge. Car only, book your own accommodation, prices vary. webbsofweybridge.co.uk