The overnight bus left Istanbul around 7:30 pm. We expected to arrive in the Bulgarian seaside city of Varna about ten hours later. We selected Varna, Bulgaria's third largest city, as our next target because it's said to be the capital of the northern Black Sea coast and a popular tourist destination.
It seemed logical to add the Black Sea to our itinerary in order to round out the "Circuit of Seas" - having already touched or swam in the Mediterranean Sea, Aegean Sea, Adriatic Sea, Dead Sea, Red Sea, Arabic Sea, Japan Sea, South China Sea, Visayan Sea (Philippines) and the Caribbean Sea.
A frequently asked question that we get in virtually every conversation we have is "Where do you go next?"
"Eastern Europe" is our most recent response.
"Why would you want to go to Eastern Europe at this time of year?"
Well, that's a good question. It's cold and grey in Eastern Europe in November. On the surface it's not the most ideal time of year to visit Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary, but that's just the way our world tour timeline has played out. That said, we were thrilled to be in a part of the world that was experiencing autumn and the changing of colorful leafs.
Our bus arrived at the remote Turkey-Bulgaria border crossing around 1:00am. We handed the young Customs and Immigration agent our passports and got an unusual response. He was so excited to see Canadian passports. His broken English said something like "please come to Turkey soon!"
It was hilarious watching him try to describe what Canada looks like to his uninterested colleague. He rambled on enthusiastically with an occasional English word slipped into the discussion. I guess we seemed like exotic tourists from a faraway land. They don't appear to get too many Canadians at that secluded border crossing.
The bus actually arrived ahead of schedule and dropped us on the side of a quiet, dark city street at roughly 4:30am. Luckily there were a few taxi's waiting near the bus stop. We didn't feel like negotiating with a taxi driver at such an unpleasant hour, so we asked if the taxi had a meter. It did, and the man seemed genuine.
Still half asleep, we jumped into the metered taxi and had him take us to a nearby ATM, we assumed he wanted to be paid and had no Bulgarian currency. He drove about 500 meters and pointed to a sketchy outdoor ATM. We noticed a massive illuminated cathedral across the street, a clear landmark for the area.
We grabbed some cash and quickly got back into the vehicle. The area had a creepy vibe to it at such a ghastly hour.
The taxi drove for about another 3-4 km's up and down residential streets and finally dropped us in front of the Yo-Ho Hostel. Cameron went upstairs to check it out. It met our standard criteria of clean, cheap and centrally located so we agreed to stay. As we unloaded the car we looked across the street and saw a familiar sight. The large illuminated cathedral! It was unmistakable.
The taxi had taken us for a good ride. Drowsy and in desperate need of a bed, we decided to just let it go and pay him the 13 Bulgarian Leva that he was looking for (approx CDN $10). After all, what could we really do?
The next morning we found out that the average taxi fare to go anywhere in the city is between 3-4 leva. DOH! On the positive, at least taxi drivers are consistent all over the world.
We got a late start to the day. Varna is not a big city and there's not a whole lot to do in November other than visit the Black Sea. So that was our game plan for the day.
We passed through the large Primorski Park and walked on the crunchy yellow leaves that were scattered across the pathways. It was a crisp afternoon that reminded us of October in Vancouver. When we reached the beach we were surprised to see that many of the shops and restaurants were closed and boarded up. There we a few patios filled with older men playing cards and drinking beer.
It wasn't the vibrant beach town that we were expecting but it was still quite charming and full of character.
After sticking our hand in the cold, clear water, solidifying our arrival, we walked along the beach and noticed about a dozen large jellyfish floating along the shore. We assume that most were already dead because they really didn't move, they just floated with the waves. One had washed up on the shore so we decided to take some pictures. Our curiousity was joined by a younger Bulgarian man who also took some photos.
We got to talking with him, once again failing to remember his name, and before we knew it he was tagging along. We explored the pier together and bounced off as many questions about Bulgaria as we could.
He's a student attending the nearby university and was looking to kill some time between classes. Having only traveled as far as Istanbul, the 23-year old travel and tourism student was very interested and intrigued by our global adventure. It was great talking to him and learning about life in Bulgaria through the eyes of the 'next' generation.
We asked him, "Where are all the people? I thought Varna was a buzzing beach town?"
He informed us that during the summer months the beaches and park are jam-packed with wall-to-wall people. The waterfront strip is filled with sports cars, restaurants blasting Bob Marley and skimpy bikinis. Although it sounded like a great time to visit Varna (and a swim would have been nice), we were quite content with the peaceful nature and uninterrupted beach views. Autumn is the perfect time to see the coastal town the way the locals see it, without the bloated tourism.
After our quiet afternoon at the Black Sea and Primorski Park we were looking for something fun to do. As we strolled down the wide outdoor pedestrian mall in the city centre we noticed a bowling alley. Bowling in Bulgaria? Sure…why not?
The rest of the story is pretty self explanatory - we went bowling and drank beer. We couldn't remember the last time we went bowling together. It was an amusing and entertaining way to burn an afternoon/evening. The night wrapped up sitting on the sandy shores of the Black Sea drinking 1.5 litre bottles of Bulgarian beer.
It was one of those moments where we asked ourselves, "where the heck are we?"
The following day our plans were altered once again. We needed to sort out transportation from Varna to Bucharest, Romania. There was no direct bus so we'd need to transfer near the Romanian border, a city named Ruse.
We got to talking with the hostel owner who mentioned a popular tourist town in central Bulgaria - Veliko Tarnovo. Apparently it's a very scenic place with a picturesque fortress that overlooks leafy valleys of red-roofed houses. He described it as a "can't miss" destination when visiting Bulgaria. Sold!
There wasn't much more to do in Varna and the sunny weather was starting to change for the worse, so we packed up again and caught an afternoon bus to the scenic town of Veliko Tarnovo.
November 15th, 2009