Photo taken this afternoon at a French market in the local village. The food was about 4x more expensive than in Paris. Food, however is 1000000x better quality here (and I am being very conservative with my number) than in Bulgaria and, yes, *far cheaper*. Buying food in Bulgaria at a grocery store is (mostly) like buying food from a garbage can (old, moldy, smelly, basic, expired…dirty…yes, dirty.). Bulgaria has the lowest quality, the bottom of the barrell ‘floor sweepings’ food in Europe (please visit my local supermarket and you won’t believe such places exist in 2019…in the EU). Disgusting is really a pretty accurate word……and nobody in BG seems to give a shit. As long as they have a loaf of cheap white bread (that is completely stripped of any nutrients) a tube of questionable paste and 4 packs of cigarettes most of the population is happy as fuck.
However, there is some good news on the horizon coming from Sofia and we might actually be able to buy real human food imported from other countries then shipped to us on the coast….fingers crossed. I am talking about supermarket food here, not restaurants…..some really great new places to eat in Sofia and Plovdiv as of late.
We really do get to have a lot of fun almost every day, but nothing even comes close to what I easily consider one of the most amazing experiences of my life. When Amalia and I traveled across Europe in a camper (we lived in it for almost a year) we always thought how cool it would be to someday experience the same but on a big, fully equipped barge. Just out of the blue, early last year, I mentioned to Kelly that along with our yearly CotswoldsWalk® we should do something extra special and book a UK canal tour. A week later Kelly had the dates set and boat rented. Decided to go large and literally booked the biggest, baddest and newest boat available. A 12 person monster with a big kitchen, 2 fully equipped bathrooms, 2 bedrooms and a lot of extra room for Larkin (Kelly’s dog that we obviously brought along) to roam joyfully and freely. The boat rental was done online and Kelly chose “Kate Boats” in Warwick, a short 45 minute drive from his place in Longborough. The cost for a 3 night rental which includes insurance, all the diesel you can use, propane (+ all the little bits you would get in an apartment rental – toiletries, dishes, etc.) cost about 1000£ total (About $1700CAD). Without any additional planning we departed for the nearest grocery store (there is a massive and very impressive Tesco next to the canal with everything you need) filled up countless bags full of amazing food, snacks, beers and wines. The boat has a full kitchen, fridge and obviously a sink with hot and cold water, amenities not much different than your average “western style” apartment. The 4 burner gas stove was perfect and we even had a microwave (I haven’t used a microwave in years, it was so weird to use one).
We arrived at the “boat area” around noon, parked the Volvo in the company’s parking lot (you have to leave the keys with Kate Boats because the parking lot is small and sometimes they need to shuffle the cars around) and were greeted by the owners who had us sign some basic paperwork and showed us a map with recommendations on where to go and what to explore (basically a map of the local pubs). After organizing all of our clothes (plenty of closets on the boat), putting all the food away and a 20 minute orientation period with one of their employees, we were on our way. Something to consider is that these boats just putter along the canals at a literal walking speed (we were passed countless times by people just walking their dog along the shore). You’re not supposed to leave a wake, you’re not overtaking anyone, this is not a race to get anywhere, you’re just chillin’ and staring at the scenery.
The beauty along the canals is not something that can be described with words so I won’t bother, it’s something that needs to be experienced first hand (and I am not saying this lightly). You’re cruising past farms, centuries old villages, under brick bridges, countless of other boaters (everyone waves/cheers their beer and wine glasses as they pass). Just spectacular. On our first day we cruised for about 6 hours while listening to 80s music (we recommend Abba and Pet Shop Buys), eating Amalia’s constant barrage of meals, drinking beers and wine and bantering non-freakkin-stop…have I mentioned our sailor hats? You are free to dock practically anywhere, there are mooring points along the way or you can place your own spikes in the ground (spikes and a huge Thor hammer are included with the boat). Navigating the barge can be tricky and even though we didn’t have too much trouble I feel that truly mastering the art of controlling such a massive vessel would probably take a number of such trips. As dusk fell we decided to call it quits and docked, strapping to boat to shore is relatively easy especially when you have a helping hand, easy does it. The boat has 3 deep cycle marine batteries (and one main battery to start the diesel engine/generator) and since we need lights, our countless devices to be charging and hot water for the evening you need to leave the diesel engine/generator running the whole time to keep the batteries topped off. The engine is in the back and you can barely hear it humming along, it’s a diesel, they are happier running than not. The boat has 2 types of central heating, it works beautifully and you can be as cozy as you want (sorry, no air-conditioning, I would strongly suggest against embarking on such a trip during hot summer months). Beds could be more comfortable, but we’re all used to our plush mattresses and duck feather filled pillows and duvets back in our homes. The 2 bathrooms are perfect, showers hot and toilets no different than the one you have at home (don’t forget the rules about flushing foreign stuff as campervan and boat toilets play by a different set of rules).
You are also required to perform very rudimentary maintenance on the boat every morning. Check your water level (we never had to add water but aqua-stations are plenty and filling is super easy), check the engine oil with a regular dipstick, check engine coolant and the one slightly different thing is the grease for the propeller shaft, you have to twist a copper T-Screw in order to ‘push’ fresh grease into the system (super easy).
The locks may seem daunting at first, navigating into one with centimeters on each side (especially when you are inside with another boat) and operating the actual system takes a little bit of time to get right but once you get going it becomes second nature (we went through about 25 of them). You really get a great workout running around and moving the heavy ‘doors’ and turning the water flow with the included wrench. I was in charge of driving the boat into the chambers while Amalia, Kelly and Larkin dealt with locking and unlocking the locks. It’s fun, we loved it, we really loved it. Another thing to remember are the ‘turn around points’. These boats are longer than the width of the canal and you must plan your return trip a little bit in advance and where you will actually spin the boat around for the return trip. The U-Turn can be tricky but, in our case, Kelly handled it with grace and smoothness (even while holding a glass of wine in one hand).
Plenty of little towns to explore along the way and most importantly don’t forget to enjoy the ultimate experience of docking your boat in front of a pub and ordering drinks and food (if you’re one of those vegetarian goofies or are on some dumb diet, stay home, this isn’t for you). Essential are citrus fruits, even a teaspoon of lime juice each morning should fight off scurvy with ease.
Our last night we docked by Royal Leamington Spa, a
city with a huge Butchart Gardens-eque park (Jephson Gardens) and strong Polish
roots since 1948 (read
here). For our last supper we
stocked up at the Polish Delicatessen
shop; kielbasa, extra sour pickles, cabbage filled pierogis, kabanosy and knedliki. Don’t forget a few extra strong Polish
lagers, they taste great, especially from huge glass bottles.
Returning the boat was a breeze, we cleaned up, dumped
all our garbage (you never really realize how much fucking garbage 3 people can
generate in only 3 days. Really eye
opening) and handed the keys.