So here they are, winner of this year's Ben Cream Prize for Peace, Gareth Jones and Christmas Crackers.
Thank you and goodnight!
We went through the tiniest of villages and out of the blue, Santa hopped out of Christmas crackers and started dishing out pressies to the local kids.
Amazing smiles from the local kids, in fact one burst into tears when she didn't get one, do Santa had to go back and say she had been nice, not naughty. Excellent work.
Bucharest is fine fine party town and our hotel was probably dumball's best. Efficient, friendly reception, excellent (ish) restaurant, dressing gowns and slippers and if they said they would put an extra bed in your room and pick someone up from the airport at 5am, they did.
As we could have probably expected, the club which wasn't built when we booked it wasn't finished when we arrived, but there are plenty of others to choose from and we had a grand time at the 'vintage bar'.
Some squads had had a bit of a 'mare trying to find the monument and fixing cars and didn't arrive until 1 am, others didn't find climbing the tower such a great feat- they had to wait 3 hours at the bottom when those who did vanished inside it.
On that note- car update. Adventure headgear had a show blow out, but changed it in record time. Channel 4 news team blew a spark, resident grease monkeys el presidente couldn't fix it and last I heard they had stopped over somewhere on the muddler of nowhere determined to get it fixed and catch up. There may be others...
Now skirting the Moldovan border, along the flat low lands of the Prut, to our right, Moldova. 100km to the north, the border we are heading for. Let's hope it doesn't close at 8pm...
The yellow squad took things to another level at the BULGARIAN (it's on our Romainian destination day, but it was definately before the border) monument. Litterally.
In the main lobby, under one of sets of stairs, was a little door. Behind this door, was a dark, dank passage way, blocked at the end by a steel door. Crawl under this and you'll find another dark passage, and another steel door. At this point, you'll find that if you turn off the tiny little torch on your phone, it is completely black and their is no possible way back without it, the floor is more corrupted than an Albanian roundabout, there is sharp rusted iron everywhere and nobody outside has a clue where you are.
So at this point I turned back. I regret it now, but it was definately the right thing to do at the time, and I'm sure my next of kin will thank me. I turned back, we took some more photo's and we pressed on the Romainian border (surprisingly very little to it- now in the EU, the bulgarian/romainian border is little more than a toll bridge and vignette purchasing affair.
Meanwhile, the brave yellows pressed on and found the ladder to the top of tower. 40 minutes of clinging to the ladder later, in flipflops no less, they emerged vicorious at the top, behind the glass star, and on top of the world.
Just 8 years later, the iron curtain fell and the communists' tight grip on eastern Europe began to fall. Presumably at some point in the next 23 years, the Bulgarian government abandoned it and looters moved in to steal the copper roof and trash the mosaics which lined the interior.
And that's how it sit's now, devastated, dilapidated, the unrecognisable shell of it's former self. The concrete rots and rusts, plaster crumbles and the outlines of mosaics are visible where the coloured stones, glass and precious metal have been removed.
So we ignored the various road closed signs and scary notices which may have said 'radioactivity' or 'live firing range' for all we knew and ploughed on up the winding mountain pass to the top of the Central Stara Planina mountain range.
You could see it from 20 miles away, poking through the clouds, so we knew it was real and we were going the right direction from early on. It must have been raining shortly before we got there, because the whole place was ominously dripping wet, inside and out, but the sun was shining brightly.
It's a pretty unique place, and could be turned into an incredible Bulgaria superclub with a few million pounds of investment and a massive international marketing campaign. But I think that would ruin it's charm somewhat...
Forget your past: All empires will fall.
I'm sure people got some better pics than my phone but here's some of my best- I've got hundreds and plenty of video. Pay close attention to the ice cream monument for some pigeon action!
1. Exit the current country. Provided you have the appropriate documents (passports, car registration documents, valid insurance, valid vignette, proof of sanity [this one is rarely checked actually]), this is generally a formality.
2. Arrive at new country, present passports, explain why you are driving a car which looks like the flintstonesmobile.
3. Go to little hut round the corner to buy insurance valid in the country you are entering. This step it is not immediately obvious, and border guards do little to explain what is required of you.
4. Return to the frontier, present new documents, wish guard a fine dash and ask them what the current local time is.
Step 3 was at issue today- one of the 2 insurance sellers just outright lied "the other insurance is not valid"! They normally try a little banter to get you into their booth rather than their competitors, but when you're selling the same certificate, at the same price, nothing works better that a little bit of scare tactics. Apparently.
And so onto Skopje. The standard of hotels of going up now. We had a large meal booked for some traditional Macedonian food and music. It turns out Mondays in Macedonia are not a big, are we struggled to find a large enough club which was open beyond 2nd, so it was all back to the hotel bar.
Gareth did us proud, and cracked out the grand piano for a massive sing agog to all the classics: No monkey no cry, I'm loving monkeys instead, and hey monkey.
Finally a 'short' 4 hour drive ahead, so I set off with orange squad at a leisurely pace and stopped repeatedly to admire the stunning country side of MKD.
A some indeterminate point we crossed the border into Bulgaria and were welcomed back into the cradling arms of the European Union. We picked up an impromptu police escort at one point- but it seemed they just wanted us out of their town.
And it appears Bulgarian roads actually work quite well! The only problem is the large amount of local traffic which makes keeping a squadron in one piece a bit if a challenge, but also gives us plenty of people to entertain.
In Sofia, it rains. It was raining here 6 years ago, and was raining when we arrived last night, do we can only assume that it rains continuously here. Another fine night if traditional food (meat) and traditional music (bonkers), followed by a failed attempt to get 3 men in drag into a night club. Homophobia is still rife round here, and they really don't like anything which might threaten their masculinity. Shame. Their loss, they missed out on a good night!
And dangerously, the hotel had it's own casino. The faces of dumballers told a story this morning: some had won hundreds of Euros, other had spent all their holiday money.
And everyone was knackered.
But today we have something to perk everyone up, we're heading to the awesome abandoned Bulgarian monument to socialism at Buzludzha. With Bulgaria now fully converted to capitalism, the abandonment seems highly appropriate. It's 12km up a 4X4 recommended road, so we'll see how many make it up there...
So here we, Albania! This is where the fun really begins. The mad dash for the ferry was a bit unnecessary after all- about 2 hours after we had arrived, they were still processing our passports, and we had to step in to assist with collating, sticking and stapling 130 tickets to 40 car passes.
Meanwhile, dumball did what it does best: a massive car park party. It's the only time we all get to hang out and explore thecars while bemusing the locals. This is where the hours installing PA systems, laser displays and water cannons comes into it's own.
So spirits were high when finally boarded the boat about midnight, drivers headed to bed, gamblers headed for the casino (read: 3 fruit machines in a darkened room) and everyone else headed to the bar.
And now we're 'cruising' through the Albanian mountain roads - the quality of which far exceeds their inner city efforts. As we have seen before, the Albanian love a) hanging around, just passing the time near a road b) when said pastime affords them a prime position to watch the dumball. Playing 'get a wave' is far to easy here.
And now it's tine for hours if paper shuffling: we're at the Macedonian border!
...and I'm obviously getting a bit behind here. But there's no data connection in Albania and Macedonia, and the wifi at the hotel is rubbish. Sorry!