International hospitality from Iceland to Bosnia
‘You’re taking her to the Black Sea? It’s been 17 years! And now she’s going to be happy again!’ This proud father, a Bulgarian in his 80s, isn’t talking about his daughter, but something equally as dear: his squat 1972 Moskvitch-408 car, with a sky-blue shell and a ruby-red vinyl interior. Made in the same Russian factory as AK-47s before production stopped in 1976, the Moskvitch is truly the people’s car. And it’s now mine for 1,100 Bulgarian leva (about £475).
With the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the USSR falling in the year ahead, the Moskvitch seems like the best Cold War transport for a trip along what was once known as the Red Riviera, Bulgaria's famed 240-mile Black Sea coast. Top Gear's James May might have declared the Moskvitch-408 the worst car in the world, but he missed out on the unique quirk of this old jalopy: it's the best possible ice-breaker when it comes to meeting Bulgarians along the way. In the 1960s and '70s, the coast became the playground of choice not only for locals, but comrades from the USSR and Czechoslovakia. The state-run tour operator Balkantourist set up resorts at Albena, Golden Sands and Sunny Beach. By the '80s, many Western Europeans came in too, some succumbing to the charms of 'sex 007s' - spies of both sexes who used seduction to wheedle out 'secrets' from unsuspecting tourists. Things have changed. Sunny Beach has grown from 3,000 beds in 1989 to 300,000 today. Other rising attractions are historic villages such as Nesebâr and Sozopol, with their cobblestone charm and vendors selling Russian fur hats, sea shells and naughty postcards. I set out to see how the rest of the Bulgarian coast has fared since the days of the Red Riviera. Going much of the way with me is Assen, a friend from the capital Sofia. Assen is young enough to fully embrace Bulgaria's EU entrepreneurial era but old enough to remember how meaningful a Snickers bar once was. When a friend visiting the West brought one back with him in 1979, Assen cut it into 30 pieces - to savour one morsel a day for a month.
The heavy-metal mayor
Eastern Europe is filled with dying towns that haven't rolled with the changes since state subsidies ceased after communism. At first glance, Kavarna, a seaside town about 35 miles shy of Romania, looks like one of them. A stream of grey housing blocks greets our arrival, decorated with fading murals championing people's heroes. But these heroes hoist guitars, not sickles. Instead of Lenin or Marx, the paintings are a tribute to Motörhead and Uriah Heep. Kavarna is a real-life city built on rock'n'roll.
Since 2006, Kavarna has slyly dubbed itself 'capital of rock', largely due to its annual Rock Fest. The July event has attracted tens of thousands of head-bangers and bands such as the Scorpions. Eventually, word about the town spread to foreign businesses - less for barre chords than for its natural resources and undeveloped coastline.
The mad genius behind Kavarna's mini-boom is Tsonko Tsonev, mayor since 2003. At a central office, his buttoned-up assistant Maria (a fan of 'melodic death metal') leads us to him. Seated at a desk with a statue of Ronnie James Dio (the late metal singer who popularised the 'devil' hand salute) on the corner, Tsonev wears a black T-shirt reading 'k'metal', playing off the Bulgarian word for mayor - kmet. 'I didn't run for office on a heavy metal platform,' he says. 'It just happened that way, step by step.' Soon the opening riff of AC/DC's Hells Bells kicks in, and Tsonev reaches for his mobile. He quickly dismisses official business to take us on a personalised metal tour, which includes his sedan dashboard thickly scrawled with the autographs of visiting metal bands, the site of a planned Alley of Rock statue park, and a grain elevator refashioned as a medieval castle ('My idea,' he cheerfully claims).
At a housing block with Dio painted on the side, six elderly women sit chatting on park benches. When I ask the group what they think of the new Kavarna, a lady with dyed-cranberry hair eagerly volunteers, 'Whenever someone asks where we're from, we say the capital of rock.'
Sunflowers and nudity