Bulgaria was quite different from any other country that we had traveled to, except maybe Croatia. We were only a bus ride away from Turkey but felt like we had entered another world. We must confess that is was nice to finally blend in the crowd.
It was great to be back in a country where locals spoke to us in their native language. Though English is rarely spoken, and we couldn't understand a word that was said to us, at least the people didn't assume we we're tourists and give us unwanted attention.
Bulgaria is currently a fully democratic state and a member of the European Union but it still shows signs of its communist past as a member of the former Eastern Bloc. Due to its strategic location in the mountains, Veliko Tarnovo was a powerful fortified city in the Middle Ages and became the capital of Bulgaria during the Second Empire.
The bus trip from Varna to Veliko Tarnovo was fairly uneventful, at least until we arrived at the bus terminal. In order to arrive within walking distance to the highly recommended Nomad's Hostel, we were advised to get off at the first station in Veliko Tarnovo, which we obediently did.
We showed the bus driver our map and pointed, "Are we here?" He nodded and got back to his busy cigarette smoking.
It had started to rain and we were feeling cloudy from the previous night's festivities, so we cautiously decided to take a taxi. We showed the taxi driver our map and he appeared to know where to go. At least he grunted and opened the trunk.
Taxi drivers in Bulgaria look like ex-KGB agents. They're quite intimidating and twice the size of the Vietnamese or Indian drivers that we were used to haggling with. We brought our sharp Asian and Middle Eastern negotiating skills to the table in hopes of not repeating our previous Bulgarian taxi experience.
We pointed to the map and asked, "How much to go here?"
He stared blankly and looked angry.
We tried another approach, "Do you have a meter?"
He stared confused and looked angry.
He raised his hand and showed all five fingers. We took that as meaning five Bulgarian leva for the short trip. We countered with our clever bargaining skills, "How about two leva?"
He stared impatiently and looked angry.
Obviously we were starting to get on his nerves, but after being taken for a ride in Varna we were adamant on not letting it happen again. He slammed the trunk shut and cursed in Bulgarian. The rain kept coming down and he drew the number five on the rear window. The map showed about a one or two kilometer hike from the bus station to the hostel. Five leva seemed rather steep but we gave in knowing that it would save us the headache of trying to find the place (it was only CDN $4).
We said okay and he shook his head no. Huh? What do you mean no? We later learned that Bulgarians shake their heads 'yes' and nod their heads 'no'. It was a little confusing at first but we couldn't understand much of what he said anyways. We ignored his head shake and got into the back seat of the small and beat-up, post-communist car.
It didn't take long for us to realize that we were on the opposite side of town. The bus had not stopped at the location it was supposed to - or maybe it did, but it was not the convenient location we were told it would be. It took a good 15 minutes to get to the hostel, which justified the five leva that the driver was insistent on.
The large, bully-looking driver blasted Euro-trance electronic music from the car stereo and lit up another cigarette. Feeling nauseous from the bus trip, we asked him to "please turn down the music". He stared at us through the oversized rearview mirror and looked angry. We showed him the universal sign language for "turn it down" and he got the hint.
He turned the music down momentarily and said "Joo leck Englisch muzack?" We shook our heads no and he smiled. He quickly changed the radio station to English hip-hop and cranked it back up to full blast.
Our heads pounded. Now what the hell did he do that for?
Ahhh, yes. Of course. Shaking our head 'no' actually meant 'yes'!
After a few attempts, and more cursing by our unhappy taxi driver, we finally found the right hostel. We were exhausted. Traveling through Bulgaria wasn't easy and required a higher level of patience. After a decent but painfully long meal at the empty restaurant next door we called it a night. We hoped for better weather the next day.
The following morning we were greeted with bright sunshine and a spectacular view of Asenid Monument from our hostel balcony. Because we had arrived late we had no idea what the surrounding area looked like. We were impressed and quickly understood why Veliko Tarnovo received the praise that it did. It was incredible!
The owner of Nomad's Hostel is an advocate for healthy eating and green living, something we had yet to experience from a hostel. Breakfast was included in our nightly rate and consisted of organic fruits and homemade jams, yoghurt, honey, museli, white cheese and eggs. The hostel felt more like a home than a cheap place to rest your head. The owner noticed that we loved the fresh honey and scooped us a jar for the road, with strict instructions that we share it with other hungry travelers.
We spend the day exploring the medieval town and its attractions. Tall, narrow houses stick to the cliffs that rise above the Yantra River. The imposing hilltop fortress of Tsarevets dominates the city with its 12th century Royal Palace and 13th century Church of the Patriarchate.
As we strolled through the ancient fortress we approached a rocky cliff that jutted out high above the river below. This was fittingly named the 'Rock of Execution' because it was the place where traitors and criminals were pushed over the side to their death. They did things a little differently back then!
The rugged mountains and steep river valleys add to the city's medieval charisma. We were glad that we were visiting Bulgaria in autumn. The leaves were bright orange and yellow. The air was crisp and cool. The tourists were multiplying in other warmer countries, and we were virtually alone at the attractions and hostel.
We sat on the old rock walls in the towering fortress and looked down on the enchanting Asenova Quarter. The sun was setting. Smoke puffed out of the red roofed, stone houses. The setting was perfect. It was exactly what we had hoped for when we envisioned the Eastern European countryside. Add the sandy Black Sea beaches and we could see how Bulgaria is getting the reputation for being one of Europe's fast growing tourist destinations.
Before we had left for the day the hostel owner informed us that he would be doing a traditional vegetarian dinner that evening. We were invited to join as long as we pitched in a few Bulgarian leva and brought our own booze. It sounded fantastic. We had yet to try traditional Bulgarian food. In fact, we had no idea what Bulgarian food was?
He informed us that when Bulgarians dine together it takes a long time. "We don't shovel food into our moves and then leave the table. We take our time. We eat mezzes first (appetizers), then we drink and relax before dinner", he explained.
The main dish was a potato, vegetable and cheese stew that was baked in the oven, it was very tasty. Our gracious host filled our glasses with a homemade alcohol that his father brewed at his farm. The potent liquid instantly warmed up the chest and brought tears to our eyes. We're told that the booze is like Bulgaria's version of raki or ouzo. Let's just say that Bulgarians love to 'cheers' often, emptying our glasses and the bottle rather quickly.
Our group became very merry that evening. The food and drink was fantastic. It was a great to spend an evening with locals rather than just foreigners.
The hostel was basically empty so it was easy to feel right at home. We were joined by a Parisian woman that was temporarily working at the hostel, a couple of the hostel owner's friends that were visiting and a fellow backpacker from England named David. One of the guys has a tandem flying machine that looks like a dune-buggy with a parachute. The engine looked like a lawn mower with a large fan on the back. We're told it's really safe but elected to skip his offer to go flying the following day - something about a flying go-cart didn't sit right with us.
After another healthy breakfast we jumped in a taxi and made our way to the derelict bus terminal on the other side of town. This was our first taste of 'the other side of Bulgaria'. The remnants of the communist era were quite obvious. It was interesting to envision what the region looked like 20 years ago. It's hard to image.
Our mission for the day was to bus to the city named Ruse where we would attempt to transfer into Romania. Time seems to keep moving at an accelerated rate. We were already finished with Bulgaria and on our way to Bucharest, the former 'Paris of the East'.
November 17th, 2009