Mark Newport, the Kalimanci One Loft Race winner 2015
I am a pigeon fancier that doesn’t like flying. It is fine for my pigeons to fly but not me, there is no way I am getting on an aircraft if I don’t have to. I have flown to South Africa, Sri Lanka and Cuba, but always under the influence of Valium and copious amount of alcohol. Every time I went abroad I loved seeing different countries, different people and experiencing everything new, but everything in my soul told me that would be the last time I got on an aircraft. So when in March this year my husband and I were waiting for Stefan Radev to come and pick up the south of England birds for the Kalimanci One Loft Race in Bulgaria from us we didn’t think much about it. We first met Stefan about four years ago when we started helping him get birds into his one loft race and at that time he didn’t speak much English and we certainly didn’t speak any Bulgarian. Luckily for us both, Dimitar Palazo was able to translate for us and we soon became firm friends with the two of them. Fortunately for us all, in 2015 Stefan’s English had improved a lot, so much so that he invited George and me out to visit him in Kalimanci for the 2015 race on August the first. Being a flight-aphobic I said no way would I go, but Stefan insisted and George decided to book us onto a Wizz Air Flight to Varna. I agreed to this only because I have a theory about distant elephants. When you see elephants from a long way away they look very small obviously, the problem is that when they get nearer they are bleeding huge! As the months went by the elephants got nearer and I was convinced I couldn’t go.
A month before we were due to leave for Varna I got a message from my friend Nick Orchard who told me to look out for a certain Mark Newport who had been a fancier as a young person in Stroud and was now living out in Bulgaria and keeping pigeons once again. Apparently he had a few pigeons left in the one loft race in Kalimanci. Of course that attracted my interest, so I had a look at the website and saw that Chris Gordon, Duncan Kittow, Caroline and Jurgen Josch, Brian Holland, Camrose Lofts, Alistair Hogg and Marek Marynowski amongst other UK entrants were still in with a chance of winning. So I found myself travelling up to Luton on the Tuesday before the race. We took the country route rather than the motorway and being a good fancier I took a stray with me and released it in Aylesbury Tesco’s car park, I hope Peno Palombo got that hen back! We checked in to the Ibis for the night before our flight and were up at five ready for the full Bulgarian experience. The flight out with Wizz Air was so good that I looked out of the window for a while, the only slight panic was when the child sitting in front of me complained about how the wing was swaying on the way in to land!
On arrival at Varna airport we went to pick up the hire car and the chap behind the desk asked me where I was staying, when I said Kalimanski Han he became very animated, Stefan, he said, was a legend in Bulgaria, everyone knew him and his ethno complex. More than that, he had been a professional footballer in Bulgaria before a knee injury forced him to retire. Stranger still was the fact that the guy picking up his car at the next desk then turned round and told me he knew Stefan as well, an Englishman on his way out to visit and buy a house, his father was the UK fancier John Willis who now lived and raced pigeons in Bulgaria. His name was Danny and he said he’d see us at Stefan’s on the day of the race.
Our home at Kalimnci Han
When we got to Kalimanski Han it was a bit daunting as we didn’t speak Bulgarian and the staff didn’t speak much English, coupled with that Stefan wasn’t around. However, a quick 'phone call to him found us shown to the most fantastic room with a traditional Bulgarian décor and a terrace out front for us to sit on. Shortly after we had arrived Stefan turned up to give us big bear hugs and thank us so much for coming, as if we had done him a favour rather than the other way around. Stefan also introduced me to Dara, his young jack russell pup, a nippy, but very friendly little bitch that was around four months old. Relaxing after our travels, about six that evening we wandered down to the restaurant area and I attempted to ask the waitress what time they served food until. Of course she didn’t understand me but another English voice piped up and said that food and drink were available until midnight. I made an educated guess and so it was that I met Mark and Mary Newport on our first night of our holiday. Once we had got our connections sorted, Mark and Mary rang John and Steph Willis and they came down with Danny to have a few drinks with us. It was quite an emotional evening as Steph had lost her dad just two weeks earlier. Ernie Deacon was a renowned fancier in the UK having won the Pau national and his birthday was the Friday before the Kalimanci one loft race was due to take place. By the end of the evening we were all firm friends.
Balchik Botanical Gardens
For the next couple of days we visited Varna seafront and beach and also went to Balchik where we discovered the botanical gardens arranged around the palace of Queen Marie, a relative of Queen Victoria who was born into the house of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha by birth and then married to a Romanian King of the house of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringham. The gardens were fantastic with various levels, roses, lavender, numerous water gardens and other shady areas to enjoy. Once we got down to the bottom there was a gate leading direct to the seafront which was full of people swimming and sunning themselves. On George’s instruction we decided to walk the long way round up to the top by the road and after a couple of kilometres I saw a set of steps leading up a cliff. Reasoning that nobody builds steps that go nowhere, I decided that was the way to go. Unfortunately for me, when we got to the top of two hundred or so steps we found a locked gate and had to retrace our steps back down again. George was obviously really happy about that, especially as we then had to walk back up through the botanical gardens! Who says holidays are relaxing, especially when the temperature was in the mid-thirties celsius? At least when we got back to the top there was a fantastic restaurant where we could relax and have lunch. That evening I did Bulgarian dancing and enjoyed a few more beers, well at 70p a pint it would have been crazy not too! Overnight there was an amazing electrical storm that cleared the air and thankfully for the birds due to race the next day, cooled the temperature down nicely.
Waiting for the birds
Saturday was, of course, the day of the race and Kalimanski Han was full of fanciers from all over the world. Germans, Belgians and Dutch fanciers mingled with the many Bulgarian and Romanian fanciers who had come to see the race unfold. We were caught up with all the excitement to come and a couple of hours before the birds were due Steph, John and Danny Willis, Mark and Mary Newport and Wendy Doyle and Billy O’Sullivan arrived to keep us company. Stefan insisted that we had lunch from the barbecue on which there were steaks, sausages and chickens on a spit that was powered by a water wheel. He also insisted we have a few beers. It would have been rude not to! He then joked with me that there would be a helicopter coming over the site shortly. Yeah right! Half an hour later a helicopter came over the complex and swooping really low, dropped a load of flyers with Kalimanci one loft race good luck messages on them. It really was something else and the kids in the complex rushed round to gather them up.
Helicopter over Kalimnci
Mark and Mary Newport
When the birds were thought to be about to arrive, George, John, Mark and I walked up to the loft and stood in a shady area under some vines. John’s opinion was that they would be half an hour away and we joked about who would win. About twenty minutes later a batch of twenty or so arrived and circled the loft. With so many people around and with quite a strong wind due to the storm the previous night they took a while to trap. When they came down two were the first to trap and Stefan rushed into the loft to check the ETS. When he came out he shouted out in our direction, Mark Newport, you are first! None of us could believe it, so we shouted back to ask if he was having us on, but no, Mark Newport had won the race and €3,500! When we got back to the table I asked if I could take Mark’s photo but my hands were shaking so much, George had to do it for me. Of course, I then rang Nick Orchard but he didn’t pick up his ‘phone for ages. It took five calls from me before he rang me back and I could tell him what had happened. There were many beers consumed after that obviously! Steph, John, Mark and Mary were all convinced that with his birthday being the day before, Ernie had been looking over them from on high and I couldn’t argue with that. With so many coincidences happening to us over the previous few days it seemed entirely natural that Ernie would have been looking over everyone’s shoulder that day.
Stefan and Mark at the presentation of the trophies and cheques
It was a few hours before the presentations were made as Stefan believes in treating all the birds the same, whenever they arrive back at the loft, which makes good sense. A long list of prize winners came up to collect their trophies, prize cards and cheques. Last to be called was of course Mark and I am not ashamed to say I had tears in my eyes when he collected his trophy. The final event of the evening was the auction of the winning birds which was held just outside the complex. From my perspective it looked like chaos, but the auctioneer seemed to know what he was doing, the prices the birds made were good and at the end of the night everyone went away with a happy smile on their faces. When we went to bed we both agreed we had had a fantastic day.
As we still had a few days to stay in Bulgaria, a couple of days on the beach seemed in order. We visited St Constantin Elena beach and then the Albena resort which was built after communism ended and was designed to attract tourists and money to what was then a very poor country. Bulgaria is still a poor country money-wise but it is rich in that the quality of life is slower, the climate is temperate for the majority of the year, although the winters can be very cold and snow is inevitable. The cost of living is low compared with the UK and we had plenty of good nights out with beer, wine, excellent meals and still had change from twenty pounds when we went to bed. I am seriously thinking of emigrating when retirement looms as unlike Spain, the British that live over there integrate themselves into the Bulgarian community, rather than living in suburbs on their own.
The final coincidence that happened to us when we were leaving Bulgaria was when we reluctantly went back to Varna airport to give the hire car back and make our way home. When George handing the keys in at the desk, the Bulgarian chap asked whether George lived in the UK and whether he worked for Asda. It turned out that our friend on the car hire desk works in the Asda distribution centre at Avonmouth every winter whilst returning to Bulgaria for the summer season. It truly is a small world.
So, to finish I would like to appeal to every fancier in Europe to consider entering the Kalimanci one loft race. It is cheap compared to one loft races in the UK and I have to say that it is an excellent set-up. The final race money is not the same as in the UK, but when it is so little to enter that makes a big difference. My final observations of Bulgaria is that it is a beautiful country, the people are truly welcoming to everyone who visits so long as you make the effort to speak a little of their language.
Here are a few words to remember;
Благодаря – Blagodarya - Thank you Моля – Mola - Please Да – da – Yes Не – ne – No
Искам да си купя къща в България - I’ll leave you to figure that one out for yourself!
Many thanks to Stefan Radev for his hospitality and to all the other Bulgarian, Romanian, Belgian, Dutch and German, Polish and also English fanciers who joined us and made our holiday very special indeed.
Love to my Bulgarian friends xxx