Crossing into a new country always brings something new and from Bulgaria onwards each border presents its own interest and challenge. Journeying between the EU countries of Romania and Bulgaria, surprisingly, had its own little story.
The drive to the border had been a good one. When Cai and I bought petrol I even received a complimentary can of beer – non-alcoholic unfortunately! A river separates the countries and with a bridge to cross, each side had manned checkpoints. Upon reaching the Romanian one, the officials requested my vignette. I had no idea what this document was!
Turns out it was documentation for paid road tax duties – I didn’t have one. And so began the discussions starting with a fine of €200. However, they were prepared to accept a financial contribution of €100. Having learned that all bribes are negotiable, I told them I only had a little money and a ‘contribution’ of €40 was settled on. Over the bridge and into Bulgaria: there they tested my car for radioactive material with a Geiger counter!
With my new lesson learnt, a vignette for Bulgaria was swiftly purchased from a money changer and onto Veliko Tărnovo we ventured. This was Cai’s final destination for the day and with great generousity she bought us both tea. The restaurant we ate at was awesome – with a covered balcony it overlooked the horseshoe river that dissects the city. The traditional food served was also delicious and we couldn’t believe our fortune to have stumbled into such a wonderful place where every table but ours was reserved. The restaurant’s called Restaurant Shtastliveca 1 and I’ve since found out there are a couple in Bulgaria so it’s definitely worth visiting one, especially if they are as good as the one we visited.
My delicious main of chicken with vegetables and cheese in a creamy sauce
Cai and I enjoying on dinner in the covered balcony of Restaurant Shtastliveca 1
Post-dinner I headed onto Sofia. The roads were good and the only disappointment was that it got dark quickly. The route took me through the Balkan mountains and I would loved to have seen them by day. The compromise was coming out of the mountains onto the glistening lights of Sofia. It was such a sight to behold after a long day’s driving.
I came to the Bulgarian capital to visit an old university friend, Dani. She was Bulgarian by birth and had been in halls of residence with me in Nottingham. We hadn’t seen each other in many years but when I posted my plans for this trip on Facebook, she got in contact and said that if I came to Sofia I had somewhere to stay. And so it was: I arrived in Sofia and Dani immediately showed me into her flat, introduced her housemates and I slept on a mattress on the floor – perfect!
The morning bought a late rise for Dani – we hadn’t even been drinking! She was definitely going to be late for work but had the kindness to show me where to get the walking tour from in the centre of the city and to teach me some basics in Bulgarian. It’s fair to say my pronunciation wasn’t the best – Благодаря (bla-go-da-reah aka thank you) was my height of achievement! I also hadn’t realised that as a Slavic language Bulgarian uses the Cyrillic alphabet. During my time there I learnt more local words than any country so far due to her and her friends – cheers team!
The walking tour meets outside the Palace of Justice and proudly exclaims to occur twice every day of the year. It’s called the Free Sofia Tour and as ever it’s ‘free’. It was definitely a good way to learn about Sofia and Bulgaria’s history as a whole. It had a particularly excellent, interactive role-play demonstration midway through illustrating the political heads of Bulgaria with some audience participation ;) Without wishing to spoil the experience for any would-be visitors or steal from the tour guides’ tips, some of my favourite nuggets of knowledge gleamed are included below.
Sofia doesn’t have a classic European old town area and I loved this about the city. So often in other places I’ve visited, the old town is historical and perfect but separates the tourists from the actual modern day workings of the city. In Sofia, everything is blended together and layered on top of each other. For example, the city’s old roman ruins sit right next to the main metro terminal having been discovered when the station was constructed.
As one of the oldest capitals cities in Europe, there’s plenty of history here even if there aren’t loads of old buildings. Where the central ruins and metro terminal sit is the Square of Tolerance. It’s so called because you can see a mosque, synagogue and church around its edges. Bulgarian tolerance was demonstrated during WW2 by a last minute refusal from Bulgarian politicians, clergy and intellectuals to deport the Bulgarian Jewish population to Germany. In today’s modern world, this spoke volumes about tolerance of other beliefs – even if they are Trump supporters ;)
The Square of Tolerance complete with a church in the front, Roman ruins in the middle and mosque in the background
While talking to the tour guide as we walked between sights I was advised not to travel the route I had planned through Turkey and the Caucasus’s: to do so was to risk my safety according to him. I’m glad to say I’ve passed through there without trouble and had a wonderful time. However, that’s not to say that I didn’t see some of the tensions in that particular part of the world – they just didn’t affect Pico and me.
A wonderful tradition that the Bulgarian people have is tying red and white Martenitsa bracelets around loved ones wrists on 1st March. They signify friendship and love as spring begins. They can’t be taken off until the wearer sees their first stork, swallow or tree with blossom – at which point the bracelet is removed and tried to the blossoming tree or hidden under a rock to signify spring has come. As it is observed by a huge majority of the population it is a celebration that ties people together – I love the idea.
Lunch bought an extended pit stop at Manastirska Magernitza. This was a recommendation from a friend of Dani’s to showcase classic Bulgarian cuisine. It certainly delivered on that and the food was wonderful. I felt so fortunate to be dining so well over the previous few days. My starter was baked pieces of goat’s cheese accompanied by walnuts – with the herbs it was served with it was a tremendous combination. Fresh bread was also served with a genius spice mix to dip into. Main came in the form of a shank of lamb with accompanying vegetables – it genuinely melted in your mouth. Other things of note were the wonderful location of the restaurant with a gorgeous canopied courtyard and the most interesting menu descriptions I’ve ever seen. Check the photo below – this was just one page of many literary works!
Manastirska Magernitza - such a good restaurant
Some of the best menu descriptions I've ever seen!
The evening bought a piece of normality. It was Friday and Dani’s workplace was having after-work drinks to celebrate a colleague’s tenure coming to a close. I was invited along to the office and we jovially socialised in their courtyard. The girl who was leaving was Mariya and she was about to embark on her own travels so we had lots to talk about! That evening Dani, Mariya and I danced the night away in an excellent venue called Culture Beat – the tunes were right up my street and we were there until the early hours: definitely one to check out if you’re in the city.
The next day bought an excursion to Plovdiv. Dani and Mariya had the pleasure of joining Pico and I as we headed to the ancient city. That weekend was hosting the Kapana Fest street festival and Dani had set us up to have a great day and night’s entertainment. We’d struggled to find accommodation with all the hostels booked out and 2 AirBnb hosts cancelling due to suspiciously convenient ‘water problems’. Fortunately, Dani’s family friend, Nayden was able to put us up and what a blessing that was.
Nayden and Dani in Plovdiv
We arrived in the city and lunched at a traditional restaurant close to the centre of Plovdiv. Turns out, Bulgarian food is excellent – I feasted on duck hearts and oh wow they were incredible. The plate must have had 15 or so – I loved every one. We also consumed our required dose of rakia – Bulgaria’s fruit-based brandy. Nayden assured me the homebrew stuff was better with more flavor and he was undoubtedly correct as I found out later that evening.
Another colleague from Dani and Mariya’s company joined us and it was time to adventure round the city. They took me through the winding streets of the oldest districts, showed me the city’s ancient Roman theatre and we climbed one of the hills in the city to watch the sunset and the lights come on. All the while, they gave me a wonderful running commentary of the city’s history and I learnt something about each of them – such great hosts!
There's some great street art in Plovdiv - respect to the population for mixing modern art into their ancient city
Plovdiv has a nickname of ‘The City of the Seven Hills’ as it was settled amongst 7 hills of syenite igneous rock. One piece of knowledge gleamed from my gracious hosts was that there are now only 6 hills as one was destroyed to build other aspects of the city. The city will be the European Capital of Culture in 2019 and preparations are already well underway. If you’ve not got your 2019 travel plans sorted, I’d definitely be prepping to check it out during the celebrations.
As the sun set over the eternal city we continued through the streets back to the centre and visited Tsar Simeon’s gardens. In the park is a spectacular pond with its piece de resistance, the Singing Fountains. They are lit beautifully and dance all night long. If you wait around until 21:00 on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday there are displays set to music hence the name ;) Unfortunately we were keen to get in the Kapana district and enjoy the festivities so this time I missed out.
The girls in front of the Singing fountains
The evening bought street dance, several stages showcasing electronic, rock and traditional musics as well as a few beverages. To be fair, we may have been a little jaded from our previous evening’s activities so we weren’t out too late. I love a good street party and this was definitely the place to be for that night – thoroughly enjoyed!
And so my time in the EU drew to a close. After a departing party of pizza and Deadpool the next day, I set off for Turkey. What new adventures would I find? You’ll have to read the next post!
Subway street art - the text reads:
Infinity is not in the past not in the future but it is here and now
Plovdiv - ancient and eternal
2012 - infinity
Thursday 13th October – Sofia
Friday 14th October – Sofia
Saturday 15th October – Nayden’s apartment, Plovdiv