Today I thought I would have a bit of a reflection on a country I wrote on a couple of weeks back and was in my thoughts.
Bulgaria was my first step into Europe proper back many years ago now in my journey across Asia to Europe. I was not sure what to expect, but I found a great little country which doesn’t see a lot of tourists (I sure didn’t see that many), attractive European cities with a lot of greenery, stunning mountains and a mix of religions that at least on the surface seem to get along together well.
My itinerary was simple enough – just the three main stops along the way. Plovdiv, Sofia the capital and Veliko Tarnovo. I could have headed to the Black Sea coast as well, to Varna or Burgas, but as usual I was taking things far too quickly and was through the country in twelve short days. And to be honest, it was a country to pass through rather than one high on my list of countries I wanted to visit.
I came in from Turkey on an overnight train from Istanbul. It was headed for Sofia but I alighted at the university town of Plovdiv. It’s a really beautiful town with a wonderful mix of old buildings, parks, a vibrant city centre, and laced with a bit of history with an amphitheatre incredibly perched over a highway!
I visited three historical houses set up for the tourists as they would have been maybe a century or more ago. Beautiful houses. I climbed up a hill to get a look at the town – two in fact. One had a monument to the Russian soldiers who freed Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire. There’s a young vibe to the place – it’s a university city.
I stayed in a pretty unique hostel – a temporary one. Run by three students who had a flat for the summer – not sure if it was rented or what – and put in a bunch of beds. It could house about 7 – 8 people, and it was all very temporary and was gone within half a year or less I think, but the guys were really friendly and I went and saw a movie at the open air theatre in the park there which was also a bit of a highlight.
Bulgaria’s capital of Sofia is larger, with a bit to see and some lovely churches such as the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, which is filled with ambience (and candles!) and also has a quite unique museum of icons housed in the crypt underneath. The opera is cheap and a great way to spend a night, trams get you around the place, and it has a real eastern European feel.
It’s also close enough to the magnificent Rila Monastery for it to be an easy day trip. Set in the beautiful mountains, it’s possible to stay a night (or more) at the monastery too if you’d like. For more on Sofia, you can read my post – Sunday Spotlight – Sofia.
Veliko Tarnovo is a smaller town, a bit further north with good train connections to both Sofia and to Bucharest in Romania where I was headed next. It’s got a wonderful atmosphere and plenty of nice places to eat and sleep. I found a small unit by visiting the tourist information centre there, but there are a number of ladies who approach the bus stop to offer beds for really cheap prices, often with meals including with board which gives an authentic experience if nothing else.
The main feature of the town is the citadel at the top of the hill. It’s built in a sort of valley so you are always walking up or down, but the streets are so charming it’s really a wonderful place to walk. Unfortunately for me, it was raining a fair amount of the time I was there. I was soon on the train to Bucharest.
So, that was my 12 days in Bulgaria, a country that surprised in good ways. What else can I say about the place? Well, the vegetation seemed quite overgrown at times. Grass up to your arm pits. Back in 2004 it showed a lot of remnants of the past, of many things that were in dire need of repair. The local train between Plovdiv and Sofia for example – bits falling off the insides, broken doors, a scary toilet. And then a group of teachers going to a conference in my compartment who were great to talk with.
Yes, the people, that other ingredient, very friendly and warm. The lads in the Plovdiv hostel, teachers on the train, the owners of the hostel in Sofia were extremely friendly, helpful and wanting to share their country with their guests. And in Veliko Tarnovo I met an older lady who cooked a home cooked meal for me and showed me the light show at the citadel – a highlight of the town.
Bulgaria is still not the first, second or third country people would think of when it comes to places to visit in Europe. But that’s not a bad thing, because it leaves it to the pleasure of those who want to go somewhere a little different. May the Journey Never End!