Bulgaria

Written by on August 22, 2012 in Europe, General with 0 Comments

I don’t generally get excited on travel days.  I just want to get where I’m going, with luggage in tact and get checked in upon arrival.  Today was a bit different.  After three blissful and completely stress-free days together in Corfu, Shane and I were headed to Bulgaria…a country neither of us knew anything about nor had done any research or planning for.  Bulgaria was the next logical country to visit after Macedonia, had I gone there instead of Greece, and I’d timed my visit to coincide with my Bulgarian friend Mariya’s homecoming, as she and her boyfriend Mats were moving from SF to Argentina after a one month stopover in Burgas.  She had told me about the Spirit of Burgas music festival a couple months ago, and we’d agreed to meet up then, which is why I had to get there by that weekend as tickets had already been purchased.

Shane had been hitting several festivals in Europe this summer…San Fermin in Pamplona to run with the bulls (for his second time!), to the Exit Festival I’d just missed in Serbia , and then he was headed to the Sziget Festival in Budapest after Bulgaria.  He has a lot of energy and a similar appreciation for live music, which I loved.  I have a hard time meeting people who can keep up with me, so it was refreshing to know there’s someone out there who can.  Shane is 32 and has been to roughly 80 countries, which made him all the more attractive to me.  Bulgaria makes 69 for me.  I think I’ll be at around 90 by the end of this trip.  There are not many people in the world up for the type of travel I love, or at least who have actually gone out there and done it, and here I was travelling with one of them.  It was really nice.

Our flights went smoothly and with a little negotiation with a few taxi drivers at the airport in Sofia, we were on our way to the Gulliver Hostel.  Quite a change from our lux accommodation in Corfu!  We had decided on the plane to head to a city called Plovdiv the following day to break up the 8 hour journey to Burgas, so we only had the one night in Sofia and I wanted to get out to explore the city while there was still good light for pictures.  We knew that we were staying close to the Alexander Nevsky cathedral, so decided to head there first and see where the night took us.

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The Orthodox cathedrals in the Balkans all have sort of an Ottoman look to them, even though they are definitely not mosques.

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It seemed like Sofia, and the rest of Bulgaria, had many architectural and cultural influences, mainly Russian (Communist) or Turkish.

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We did not have a guidebook, but we did have a map showing us where all the tourist sites were, so we just followed that and then tried to make up something about what we were seeing.  Definitely not recommended for a full trip, but for one night, we had a lot of fun.  I’m horrible at the game as I have zero creativity, but Shane was really good at it.  We walked past another cool looking church, which reminded me of some I’d seen in St. Petersburg a couple summers ago.

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We couldn’t believe how empty the city was.  Mariya later told me that everyone from Sofia was at the beach for August.  Must be, because the city seemed like a ghost town.  We didn’t find the traditional pedestrian street I’d been seeing throughout the Balkans, so we wandered for awhile looking for a place to eat.  We meandered through a park/plaza and had to laugh when we saw the size of the beers everyone had bought and brought to the park…I think they were 2.5 liters!  That’s a HUGE beer!  How do you keep a 2.5 liter beer cold enough to finish???  Mariya told me that people buy beers that large as they’d typically share them, but we didn’t see anyone sharing.  We did see some fire/poi dancers, which drew a small crowd, as well as some older men playing chess on the benches.  We finally found a place to eat, then retraced our steps back to the hostel, re-taking all the same pictures as the city looked awesome by night.  It was a full moon, and Shane commented about all the people in Thailand that are probably winding down from the full moon party about now. Hmmm…might need to go back for my second time when I head to Thailand in February.  We’ll see.

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The next day we took a bus to Plovdiv, which is one of the world’s oldest cities, with traces of a Neolithic settlement dating back to 4000 BC.   We found our hotel which was THE best value either of us had found our entire trip.  I think it was 11E each for a double room with breakfast in a 3* hotel with a/c and wifi.  Big score.  We went to Plovdiv as they were supposed to have a few fantastic 2nd century Roman ruins.  There was a free walking tour at 6p that we had planned to take, but we stopped for lunch and started watching the Federer vs Del Potro semi-final Olympic match and totally missed it.  What an amazing match though!

Without a tour guide or guidebook, we set out to at least find the Roman ruins.  We quickly came across the Ancient Theater, which was hard to miss as that night they had some special folk dance festival taking place.  The theater was large and so well-preserved that it’s used for large events like tonight’s.  We watched one of the dances, which was basically showing a sword-fight scene, but choreographed to music.  The period costumes were great.  Stephanie, my mascot from Nottingham, watched too 🙂

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Then we set out to find the Roman Forum, which took forever, was closed, and quite a disappointment as it was really small, and then the Ancient Stadium, which was quite cool as it was only recently found and excavated underneath the main pedestrian street.   We also found the popcorn guy, so I was happy 🙂

After that we kind of got lost in the cobblestoned back streets of Plovdiv and eventually made it back to the hotel, grabbed a quick dinner at a restaurant chain called “Happy” that we ended up seeing all through Bulgaria, and crashed pretty early as we had an early train ride the next morning.

The train ride to Burgas was 4.5 hours and not very scenic.  We passed several small towns made up of row after row of concrete block housing that almost looked abandoned.   The train itself was comfortable enough, but without air conditioning and outside temps in the 90s, it was a very long morning.  We arrived in Burgas and jumped on a bus headed towards Sunny Beach as there were literally no hotel rooms in Burgas, probably due to the festival.  I had heard that Sunny Beach was nicer, anyway, and we found a 4* hotel with a/c, wifi and a pool and a block from the Black Sea for only 50E/night.   We checked in and relaxed a few hours before heading back on the bus for the 45 minute ride to Burgas for our first night at the festival.

Burgas is an interesting coastal town, with a “sea garden” that stretches for several kilometers, which is basically a pedestrian park separating the city streets from the Black Sea.  The waterfront is lined with bars, restaurants and beach clubs.  It’s really nice!  We walked around looking for a quick snack and had a few beers before going in as we had no idea how inflated priced would be once we got inside.  Found more popcorn – a huge bag for about 15 cents!  Again, sometimes it’s the little things that make me happy…popcorn generally does the trick.

We headed inside just in time to catch the start of Sum 41 on the main stage , followed by The Prodigy, who played all my old faves including “Firestarter”, during which they lit some sort of flare which really made the crowd go crazy.  The Spirit of Burgas festival was celebrating it’s 5th year anniversary and I believe they were expecting about 15-20,000 people.

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It was actually a perfect size and in a gorgeous setting right on the beach so we were dancing with sand beneath our feet.  There were a couple interesting art installations set up, and several stages, although the main stage and the “Solar Arena”, the electronic dance music tent, were the only ones playing music I wanted to hear.  In between acts we caught a salsa band and joined in for a line dance where we made complete fools of ourselves.

We headed over to the Solar Arena around 130, where Mark Knight was the DJ.  I had heard of him, but had never seen him.  He was pretty commercial, but still fun.  We went and sat down in the back and Shane passed out for awhile as I don’t think electronic music is his thing.  Fedde le Grand took his sweet time coming on…he was scheduled for 130 but didn’t make it out til 345am.  He was fun, and Mark Knight came out to spin with him and was really playful with the crowd.

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We finally stumbled out of there around 530a as we wanted to catch the first bus back to Burgas at 6am.  We crashed hard and finally got up to grab a bite around 4 before having to get ready to head back to Burgas for night #2.

We packed a bag this time as we were going to meet up with Mariya and Mats for dinner, and were staying with their friend Radina, who was kind and sweet enough to put us up for the night.  It was so nice to see Mariya and Mats, friends of mine from San Francisco, especially in Mariya’s home town.  We grabbed some drinks and then headed into the festival just in time to catch Korn on the main stage.  Not really my type of music, but they put on a great show, especially when they did a cover of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”, which was amazing.  I had a video, but somehow managed to delete it.  Bummer.  I am psyched at how well my new camera captured concert shots.  Even fully zoomed in, they aren’t too blurry.

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Afterwards, we headed to the dance arena to catch Dubfire and Ritchie Hawtin.  Noone was really digging the music except me, although they were troopers and hung in there for awhile.  We finally called it a night around 345a, which was good as we needed some sleep!

Radina, a flight attendant for Qatar Airways, is a total sweetheart and a childhood friend of Mariya’s who came home to Burgas for a few weeks to hang with Mariya.  Mariya and Radina had planned a few full days for us to show us some cool local spots on the Black Sea Coast.  This morning they took us to a chilled out beach club called the Green Life on Smokinya Beach near Sozopol.  A gorgeous stretch of sand and a beautiful beach club, we grabbed a table and settled in for the afternoon.

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It was nice to be at such a gorgeous establishment and not be forced to rush or spend a lot of money.  The waitress was quite content letting us take over an entire area for the afternoon even though our total tab for the five of us was probably less than 50E.  How refreshing that places like this still exist!

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It was blazing hot, so we took our first of many dips in the Black Sea which was the exact perfect temperature and felt amazing as it wasn’t as salty as the Mediterranean or Adriatic.  What a beautiful day!  We hung out there til about 5 and they dropped us off at the bus stop as we wanted to go back to Sunny Beach to check it out before we had to check out the next day.  Unfortunately we hopped on a local bus which seemed to take FOREVER, making stops on seemingly every corner possible.  Over an hour later and still not there yet, I was at a 9 on the 1-10 “have to pee” scale so we hopped off the bus at the town of Nessebar, a UNESCO heritage site that luckily had a WC right next to the bus stop. Phew!

The day at the beach and the never-ending un-air-conditioned bus ride had drained both of us, but the curious travelers in both of us led to us rallying to go check out the town.  I think it was about 830p, so most people were dressed for dinner and we were straight off the beach.  Anyway, Nessebar is extremely touristy with endless trinket stores, but with good reason.  It was super-cute, surrounded by water, and had several impressive ruins within its walls.

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After about an hour of roaming, our stomachs were growling and we found a cute place with a table on the water that looked across the bay to what we thought was Sunny Beach.  I had 3 little red Black Sea fish and Shane had 2 gigantic chicken skewers, chased down by a couple local Zakorka beers.  We decided this was our best meal so far, and our energy level finally went back up and we decided to catch the bus back to Sunny Beach.

We did not come all this way to not explore what the fuss about Sunny Beach is.  Well…Shane had never even heard of it, but I’ve been hearing about Sunny Beach as a big party place for a decade from Bulgarian friends I’d met over the years.  So we made a quick turn and headed out around 1230a to check out Cacao Beach Club, a few blocks away.  We quickly learned that (a) we were out way too early, and (b) Monday night is not the night to go out.  The club, and the few that flanked it on the beach, was beautiful…a typical Nikki-beach type beach club with a lot of white furniture and sleek lines and a lot of bass.  Too bad there were no people.  On the other hand, it was a good thing, because it forced us to hop in a taxi to go the center of Sunny Beach, which we would’ve missed otherwise.

We were both a little shocked to find a super-busy boardwalk and several blocks of bars in every direction with thousands of young drunk people spilling out into the streets.  Most of the bars and clubs looked cheesy, but fun, and none were at capacity, but I could only imagine how crazy this place would get on a weekend night.  It was like a playground for adults.  They had carnival rides, including a sling shot, and another one that was like the Zipper on steroids.  Shane and I went on that one and giggled the entire time.  It was awesome and so fun!  After a few beers, we decided to call it a night around 3a as we were getting picked up early the next morning to head up the coast to Varna.

Mariya, Mats and Radina picked us up around 10 and we headed North through some pretty scenery, including miles and miles of dead but still beautiful sunflower fields.

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Around 1p, we reached our first destination…a mussel farm on the Black Sea coast about an hour NE of Varna.  For 15 leva, or about $10 each, we had one of the best mussel dishes I’ve ever had.

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Definitely the best value meal of the entire trip.  We sat outside, so it was a bit toasty…the kind of toasty that it’s actually so hot you don’t even sweat…kind of like you’re in an oven…or Arizona in June. It was gorgeous, though, which made it well worth it.

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It only got hotter as we continued up the coast to Cape Kaliakros, one of the Eastern most points of Bulgaria.  They had some ruins there, but it was hard to concentrate on much at all as I was melting and could hardly think straight.

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Our original plan was to head to a botanical garden afterwards, but all I could think about was drinking a lot of cold water and staying inside any place with strong air conditioning!   I guess we were all feeling the same way, so we skipped the gardens and headed straight to Varna to clean up before meeting up with more of Mariya and Radina’s friends for dinner.

I’m generally a pretty good sport in uncomfortable situations…at least when I’m travelling and can’t do anything about it.  Unfortunately today I was also worried/upset about having to say goodbye to Shane, who was flying to Budapest the next morning, but tried to hide it as best I could.  I kept going over it and over it in my head and trying to figure out a way to extend our time together.  Why did he have to be at the end of his trip…and going in the complete opposite direction…and ending up in Perth…practically halfway around the world from SF?!?  He works in the mines in NW Australia…2 weeks away from home and his friends and family, and then he has 1 week off in Perth…and then back to the mines for 2 weeks…and so on.  His world could not be farther from mine.  It’s amazing how that could be the case, yet we managed to find each other and have such an intense 10 or 11 days together.  I so wanted to figure out a way to make this amazing experience last longer.  But at what cost?  In the end, we decided that the longer we hung out together, the harder it would be to eventually say goodbye.

I’m sure I got very quiet that night, as I was already trying to prepare myself for what was to come tomorrow when we dropped him off at the airport and I kissed him goodbye, knowing deep down the harsh realization that I’d probably never see him again.  At least we had the next morning together at the beach club in Varna before our goodbye.  I’d love to say that we’ll reconnect when I head to Australia in January, or somewhere in Asia if he can get a break from work sometime next winter or spring, but then what?  I wish I knew.

The 2 days after we dropped Shane off went by in a blur.  We drove back to Burgas, stopping off at a nice beach for lunch on the way.  Mariya had arranged for me to have a mani/pedi that afternoon, which was honestly one of the best ones I’ve ever had.  It took 2+ hours, cost 40 leva, and was worth every penny (or whatever you call leva cents).  I hadn’t done laundry in a couple weeks and was way overdue, so was able to get that done before dinner, after which we watched the Bulgarian volleyball team win their quarter-final match in the Olympics.   We also played some tennis…me and Mats vs Mariya and her friend Jeni.  It was a tight match, and I was happy to get out on the court and get some exercise as it seems I’ve been drinking way too much beer and eating way too much popcorn and bread over the last few weeks and have put back on every pound I lost in Ibiza and probably more.

Anyway, Radina, Mariya and Mats were fantastic hosts and they made my trip to Bulgaria so special – thank you so much!

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They even came into the airport with me to give me a hug and send me off.  I can’t remember the last time anyone did that for me…it was really sweet. That night I flew to Sofia and went back to the Gulliver hostel, this time staying in a single and very lonely room. After a long and restless night, I headed to the airport to catch my flight to Nice via Vienna.

C’est la vie.

Au revoir Bulgaria.  Bon jour, Cote d’Azur!

 

 

 

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