A Travellerspoint blog

Bulgaria

Veliko Tûrnovo

snow -1 °C

Unlike Plovdiv, I wish I was still in Veliko Tûrnovo. It drew the short straw in terms of where I spent my time, so I only had one night there, at the Hostel Mostel (which has one of the most helpful reception staff I have ever come across). She was a complete contrast to the woman I bought my train ticket from, back at Plovdiv. I had a wee bit of trouble getting my tongue around Veliko Tûrnovo, so she had some difficulty in working out where I wanted to go. Her response? To close her shutter, light a cigarette and glare at me, mouthing “informazion”. At about this time, I was wishing I knew what “ugly cow” was in Bulgarian, because the informazion counter had sent me to her. Luckily, a local came along to resolve my dilemma – she found out what I wanted and made the request.


Veliko Tûrnovo is the old capital of Bulgaria, it is where they got together (in 1879) and formed the country once the Ottoman left, and had been the capital in medieval times, before being possessed by the Turks, so it has huge significance to Bulgaria. It is also very beautiful, located on the banks of a river (the Yantra) which does a sharp turn half way through town.
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Sitting up above the town is the Tsarevets fortress,
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which is where the government had been back in the days of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom (until 1393). Only the church is still standing,
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but the place was HUGE, much bigger than the Acropolis.
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One thing I learnt is that when there is a steep hill covered in snow i.e. as in the above picture, scrambling up is SO not the best way to go, particularly if there is a set of steps around the corner.

The hills are pretty steep and the river provides a premium vista (maybe not so much in winter) so they get built like this:
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Wandering through the streets was a joy:
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When I come back, I think I’ll stay here:
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– nothing against where I stayed, it is just that this place is facing the river.

My first port of call was to a rather nice coffee bar in a hotel, on the main street (with a terrace overlooking the river). The very attractive staff spent their time between answering to the beck and call of customers by dancing to the background music or telling each other long and involved tales. Since dinner was provided by the hostel, I only snacked. Since dinner provided by the hostel was terrible, I had to come back later in the evening and found a very cheerful late night eatery and had a proper dinner, envious of the fellow beside me who had a skewer full of meat (and a few veges) at least two foot long).

In the morning, we discovered that my train was running very late, so that gave me a chance to dash back into town for another go at the coffee shop, and to have some food (well, a sort of croissant covered in sugar and, for a little suprise, full of jam) from a real hole in the wall place:
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and say goodbye to another friend I’d made:
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House prices here are quite reasonable – under 50,000 for an apartment, and if you’re willing to go half an hour out into the country, you can get a 2 bedroom house with large garden and shed for pocket money; this place DSC_0380.jpg is a mere 4,500 Euro (that’s not much more than $10,000!!). All in all, it was hard to get on
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Posted by NZBarry 12:33 Archived in Bulgaria Comments (0)

Plovdiv

snow -3 °C
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People in the know about Bulgaria had said skip Sofia, go straight to Plovdiv (Bulgaria’s second city). It is an ancient city (it claims to be older than Athens), with some traces of Roman occupation still visible then an overlay of Ottoman rule and, most recently, buildings constructed as part of the national revival effort. Much to the horror of Nini (one of the staff at my hostel in Sofia) I had decided to go by train. She told me they were cold, dirty, uncomfortable and slow. I’ll give her the slow – we started in such a gentle manner that I didn’t even notice and the pace could only be described as sedate (mind you, it had to contend with snow as we went through the foothills of a mountain range) but it was warm (to the point people were opening windows), comfortable and very sociable, to those who speak Bulgarian. A couple of family groups were sharing my compartment; by the time they separated, it looked like they’d made lifetime friends. One sight in particular stood out - it was quite simple, a netting fence, but in each of the diagonals of the wire, some snow had collected and crystaliised - quite beautiful.

I felt that my journey had finally begun. Sure, I’ve had three plane trips but you hardly get any sensation of travelling with them; you get on at one end, they stuff you full of food and entertainment, and you get off at the other. With a train, I always feel more connected with the travel, as I can see what I am travelling through. The bonus is that they tend to make a bit of a production out of train travel (unlike bus travel); grand stations, lots of staff bustling about doing random things like tapping the wheels to see if they’re still there and there’s the train itself – which you can see snaking its way in front of or behind you.


I arrived in time for a late lunch (of extremely unmemorable food involving a dry sausage) and a bit of a wander. Because it gets dark and cold (I believe the temperature went from somewhere around zero to about 10 below) early, I decided to spend time back at the hostel until dinner time. When I emerged, at about 8:00, the place was completely transformed. Unlike New Zealand, where Christmas Eve is a chance for a bit of a drink, Plovdiv was completely deserted, with nothing open – even McDonalds was closed. I suppose I could have had a slice of greasy pizza from the non-stop but it was not what I wanted for my Christmas Eve dinner. Luckily I spotted a major hotel in the distance;
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they provided me with some sort of tasty beef casserole.

Christmas Day, I was surprised there were a lot of people about and that the shops were open.
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There was a band playing
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(weirdly enough, it was playing American Jazz classics and Frank Sinatra hits – exactly what I’d expect a Bulgarian band to entertain a Bulgarian crowd with for Christmas); kids had their entertainment;
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others didn’t seem too fussed
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and a few even braved the freezing park.
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Not wanting to be caught out, I decided to get in a good Christmas lunch in a fairly large, packed and very cheerful restaurant called Happy
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before going for a walk to see what the fuss is about with Plovdiv. I found a few interesting streets:
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made a friend:
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found the ruins of the Roman stadium semi-buried under the town centre:
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and thought it curiously appropriate that where the stage once was is now an internet café:
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There is actually another Roman stadium, one which is still used for shows.
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By the time I’d done these sights, I was pretty much over Plovdiv and still had the whole night stretching in front of me. Luckily my room mate Eduardo got back at about the same time as I did and was up for a drink and a meal. He’s done what I sometimes wish I had done; gave up studying law in favour of more transportable skills in hotel management and has been travelling for years. Again, a lot of places were closed, so we took the first place we found and had a tragic Christmas dinner (his turned up in a tinfoil cooking tray). But we made up for it; we got some cheap beer ($3 for 2 litres) and went back to the hostel and had a bit of a party with a young Greek couple who were staying. By the end of the evening, they wanted me to come with them, but they were headed back they way I had come, otherwise I might have – they were good people, studying computer informatics and automation respectively.

Posted by NZBarry 01:33 Archived in Bulgaria Comments (0)

Sofia

snow 0 °C
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With the trains to Thessalonika all jammed up and no information as to whether I could get one on from there, a bus seemed my only option until I started to wonder how much it would be to fly. $250, it turned out. Sure, it was on Air Bulgaria (not bad actually and they gave me a nice breakfast) and we had to take a bus out to the far reaches of Athens airport to find the plane (and in from the far reaches of Sofia airport) but I did in under two hours what was going to take at least 17 hours (not that getting places fast is the point of the trip).

Getting into town was no problem (although buying a bus ticket for my luggage was a first); then, if course, I got lost finding my hostel. What should have been a simple twenty minute walk was more like two hours of frustration. I had a little more to come: I had the idea of checking out the Odeon Cinema which has a programme of arthouse films and is the centre of the Bulgarian film archive. I had a map and directions, but never found it - instead I walked out through a very cold looking forest to the edge of town, the very end of a tram line. No matter - there was a wee supermarket there which sold me an amazing piece of freshly cooked meat I could gnaw on while I waited for the tram, then took a ride back through the forest - kind of spooky in the dark frozen forest.

Sofia has a bit of a reputation as a place not worth bothering with. My guidebook says "with its drab suburbs and crumbling old buildings Sofia can appear an uninspiring place to first time visitors". Sure, you can find drab bits quite easily, just look at this:
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but that photo was taken from the same spot as this one:
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a very nice mall where I find lots of posh clothes (and people). Then there is this:
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which was the former one stop Department Store
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run by the former communist government where you could buy bugger all and had to queue for hours to do so. Now it has everything you could want, and there's another similar place across the road which has a great cafe, right in the centre where you can have a beer and people-watch for hours.

Speaking of the Communist Party, here is its headquarters:
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now used as government offices. Directly opposite (and forming a quadrant with the Sheraton) is the Presidency. I managed to wander past just as the guard was changing:
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I was amused - they did a very formal hand over and frog marched around the square a couple of times but then when they were done, instead of marching into the building, they basically broke formation and ambled in. I half expected them to stop for a smoke!

Inside the Quadrant formed by the Presidency and Sheraton is a very old church, it is the St Georgi Rotunda Church, dating right back to 4th century Roman Emperor, Constantine and is claimed to be the oldest building in Sofia:
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I thought the inner city has much to offer; I only had a couple of days to wander it but came away thinking there was much more to do. Of course, it was nice to be away from the heat of Singapore - it was more like zero degrees and one of the first things I did was find shops that would sell me a nice coat (with a ridiculous fake fur fringe) a hat and gloves. But I found that just by moving about, I'd stay warm enough and then I coud go inside for a coffee and let the warmth gradually seep in - its a delicious feeling.

A couple of standout locations were the People's Park and National Art Gallery:
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(to the right in the above picture is a great old cafe - leather armchairs, wooden bar, a few people having in depth conversations, an interesting looking back room with a heavily decorated ceiling, one of a number of cafes I'd happily spend time in again (but the production line cafeteria in which I had lunch? Not so much.)
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and the Alexander Nevsky Bulgarian Orthodox Cathedral
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It looks and feels really old, so it came as a surprise that it was built in the first decade of the twentieth century, to celebrate the release from the Ottoman rule (and commemorate those who died in the conflict). Going inside was a revelation - it seemed so much bigger than it looked! Nearby is the Russian Church, built at the same time:
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to thank the Russians for their effort in freeing Bulgaria.

I spent a fair while in the Art Gallery. It had a floor virtually devoted to a single 19th century Bulgarian painter (whose name escapes me and whose work was largely forgettable). Upstairs was better - basically a history of Bulgarian art under the label "national revival" i.e. post Ottoman rule. Not allowed to take photos in the Art Gallery, and they were very attentive in making sure we didn't. I became convinced that one of the attendants was a witch - she was dressed entirely in black and very thin and seemed afraid of the light: she spent all the time I was in her galleries staring into the corner of the room, but then whenever I moved, she'd scuttle off and be there in front of me. Up on the top floor was a whole bunch of sculptures, mainly busts of people who meant nothing to me, but I did kind of like this piece (only one attendant for the whole floor, so I got away with it):
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Back on the ground floor was the work of Angela Mtukova which I also found fascinating - largely based on mirrors, she had a few pieces involving plaster casts of men either leaping into or out of a mirror.

The first night there, I didn't even go out: I was staying in what has been voted the best hostel in the world and enjoying the experience. The staff made a real effort to include people in the life of the hostel, cooked us all dinner and gave us a beer each as part of the package. So a very social space. The next night, however, I needed to try some Bulgarian food so dined on "chicken and mushroom in sour sauce" at a nearby restaurant. As I was returning to the hostel it began to snow lightly, suggesting I might get to have a white Christmas after all.

Posted by NZBarry 12:20 Archived in Bulgaria Comments (0)

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