I was a bit sad to be leaving Romania behind. Aside of perhaps having rabies, I did have a good time during my Romanian stint. Yet all good things must inevitably come to an end, so I found myself in a train bound for Ruse, Bulgaria.
The funny thing about Bulgaria is that I had absolutely no expectations about it. I had been meaning to travel to Romania since 2004, when I visited Eastern Europe for the very first time. Couldn't fit it in my itinerary, so it got postponed. Tried again last year when I visited the Balkans for the first time, but again I was forced to scrap it from my plans. So when the Tokyo earthquake fucked up my plans to fly to Indonesia earlier this spring, I knew that a return to Eastern Europe was in order. Romania was the first country to make the list, but I had 4 weeks to fill up. At the beginning, I was considering going to Moldova and the Ukraine. But I would have been forced to backtrack because of flight problems. Hence, Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Belgrade, Serbia, were added to the mix. I dearly wanted to visit Albania, but trips are like that. There are choices to make and you must live with them. So Albania will have to wait. . .
So when I boarded that train bound for Ruse, I had no idea what Bulgaria would be like. I feared the Cyrillic alphabet, for my encounter with it in Belgrade last summer had left me more than a little bewildered. They say that all you need is an hour and a beer to figure it out. Well, I beg to differ! I've had plenty of beer, yet I'm no closer to deciphering the stupid thing! The good thing about it is that, in most places, at least for major streets and sights, indications are often found written with both alphabets. Pat was a very happy camper when he found out about this!
Vesi, the manager of The English Guest House, picked me up at the train station, insuring that everything would get off to a great start in Bulgaria. Located near Svoboda square, the guesthouse is great and offers very good value. Vesi and her sons are helpful and friendly, and they're always there for you. Soon I was on my way to the bank to exchange money and then it was time to do a little sightseeing.
As I made my way along the pedestrian street Aleksandrovska, two things became obvious right away. First and foremost, Bulgarian women are among the most beautiful in the world. Nearly got a crick in my neck just from staring this way and that! :P Secondly, about 80% of the men carry purses!!!! WTF!?! Purses!!! Don't they know that rule from the male code? If it doesn't fit in your wallet, you don't need it! Funny thing is that a good portion of Bulgarian men are big fellows. Tall as the Dutch, but much more corpulent. And yet, walking around with a purse takes some of the manliness away, I suppose. Didn't find it in my heart to raise the issue, however. It's quite enough that I must visit hospitals to get those rabies shots, I had no desire to lose a few teeth in the process of trying to understand this issue. . . ;-)
Ruse might not be the Bulgarian city which has the more to offer. But if you are traveling South from Romania, Ruse just might be the best Bulgarian primer you can find. Since they don't get that many tourists, the people are much more friendly than they are in Varna. Ruse was also the place where I discovered that Bulgaria doesn't attract many Canadian tourists. The shock and disbelief every time they asked me where I was from was incredibly funny. "Canada!?! Wow, that's very far! But why come here???"
Eager to try Bulgarian food, I headed out to a restaurant called Mehana Chiflika for dinner. That's where I fell in love with shopska salad, the traditional Bulgarian salad. I've been eating this salad once or twice a day (they have it in Macedonia too!) and it's delicious. It's made of tasty tomatoes, cucumbers, green peppers, onions, parsley, and cheese. My mouth is watering as I'm typing these words! But Bulgarians are a devious bunch, believe you me. Locals will tell you that this is a salad made for drinking. Everywhere, people eating it as they're downing half-liters of beer. You see, the salad prevents the alcohol from dehydrating your body, hence allowing you to drink more and not suffer from a bad hangover. How brilliant is that!?!
My second stop was in Varna, on the much-pimped Black Sea coast. I won't go on and on about this city, but I pretty much hated everything about Varna. Some say that it's supposed to be the Miami Beach of the Balkans. That's bullshit. It's got more to do with New Jersey's nickel-and-dime beaches than anything you'll find in Florida. I wasn't expecting anything like Thailand or Hawaii, but I was expecting more than this, for sure.
I stayed at the Flag Varna hostel. It was all right, but nothing to write home about. I was rooming with two Belgian men who turned out to be the two dumbest fucks I have ever met. I mean, I've stayed at more than 100 hostels in 44 countries. I've had weird and/or stupid roommates before. But these two take the cake. Didn't realize it at first, so I asked one of them if he was in the mood for a drink that first night.
"Would you like to go out for a beer, or something?" I asked one of them, since there was no one else at the hostel.
"Yes, sure," he replied. "But there's supposed to be prostitutes near the cathedral," he was quick to add. "Maybe we could each get one."
I laughed, thinking it was a joke.
He made a face when he realized I wasn't taking him seriously.
After an awkward silence, it dawned upon me that I wasn't exactly rooming with Captain Cool. . .
The only positive things I took back from Varna was a Refan eau de toilette and a taste for Bulgarian gelato that never quite left me!
Took a train to Veliko Tarnovo after two nights in Varna and that place blew me away. The old town is beautiful and the fortress makes for an awesome visit! I stayed at the Veliko Tarnovo Hostel Mostel, one of the best hostels I have ever visited. If ever you are in VT, there is no other place where you should book a bed. The hostel was built in an old Turkish house, giving the place a lot of character. Although it's supposed to be almost impossible to get a table on the outside terrace, I did manage to score one two days in a row at Shtaslivetsa, what is likely the best restaurant in Veliko Tarnovo. I can tell you that this is where they make the best shopska salad in the country!
If you want to visit the nativity church in Arbanasi, hiking up the trail through the hills might not be a good idea at the moment. At least not until they sort of clear the way. To my dismay, the trail sort of disappeared 300m from the summit. Which means that I had no choice but to go through brambles to reach the top, emerging from the vegetation leaking blood from several cuts on my legs. I stained my beloved O'neill shorts and tore my Carey Price Habs shirt in the process. Not a good way to end an afternoon, let me tell you!
After beautiful Veliko Tarnovo, Plovdiv was kind of lackluster. Sadly, there was no way the city could measure up. The old town and the Roman theater are kind of nice, sure. But a single day is more than enough to see it all. The Plovdiv Hostel Mostel is kind of a work in progress as we speak, so it's nowhere near as nice and comfortable as the ones in Veliko Tarnovo and Sofia.
Basically everywhere I went in Bulgaria, there were signs or people in hostels warning travelers not to go to Sofia. It is the ugliest and most polluted city in Bulgaria and no one should waste a second of their lives there, or so they say. Again, I beg to differ. True, Sofia may not pack a powerful punch the way Prague, Paris, or Berlin do, but it is nevertheless a nice place to visit. As far as its ugliness and pollution are concerned, I found it more beautiful and less polluted than Bucharest, so that's that. Okay, so there is not enough here to capture your attention for a week, but two or three nights will allow you to make the most of your experience there. It will also give you the opportunity to visit the gorgeous Rila Monastery.
Kudos to the guys and girls running the Sofia Hostel Mostel! Brilliant bunch, they should give seminars to hostel staffs around the globe! So nice and friendly and helpful, always there to answer all your questions and make suggestions. They helped me locate the right hospital where I could get my fourth rabies injection. The Canadian embassy had given me a long list of hospitals and clinics, but it turned out that only a single hospital in Sofia offered the treatment I needed. Thanks to them, I got there in no time and got through everything in less than 5 minutes! And it was free, to boot!
My Couchsurfing experiences sort of went down the crapper after a great start in Bucharest. I was supposed to meet locals for drinks in Brasov, Sibiu, Varna, Veliko Tarnovo, and Plovdiv, but somehow we never managed to make our respective schedules work. For, though I am on vacation, they have life and reality to deal with. I was hoping that things would take a turn for the better in Sofia. Didn't quite work out that first night, as I was supposed to meet a Bulgarian fan of the Hotlist named Joro. Emailed him again the second day, to see if we could make it happen. Didn't hear back from him before going out to dinner, but the lovely Maya did email me, saying that tonight was her only free night and I should meet her in front of the Sheraton hotel at 8:30pm if I wanted to have a few drinks. It looked that my run of bad luck with Couchsurfing was about to come to an end!
Maya was beautiful, funny, and great company. An architect, a free spirit, and almost as well-traveled as I am, we had a great time at Toba & Co! The beer and mohitos helped, of course, but it was cool to get the lowdown on Sofia and Bulgaria from someone who had seen the world and could appreciate them on another level.
After an excursion to the Rila Monastery, I met up with another lovely Bulgarian girl named Aniela and her friend Desi. Yes, two Couchsurfing hook-ups in a row! Probably won't happen again. So Aniela was planning on taking me to a super 3D show in the City Garden, in front of the National Theater. Got some beer and set out to wait. Aniela told me that there would also be a meeting of Sofia's Couchsurfers, so we got together with them before the show began. To my surprise, though our attempts to meet had gone down the crapper twice, I stumbled upon Joro among that CS group! I guess fate decided that we would meet, after all! So it was cool hanging out with the girls and meeting all those people, but we did end up waiting about three hours for that 3D show to finally begin. After several delays (another fifteen minutes, the announcer claimed), the show did begin. Only two end abruptly about two minutes later when the computer fucked up, leaving us with the frozen image of a giant swimming turtle upon the façade of the National Theater. Bummer, as I would have liked to see the whole thing...
Anyway, Bulgaria turned out to be loads of fun for me. I had no expectations, yes, but the country somehow managed to "wow" on basically every level. Beautiful women everywhere, great food, good and affordable beer, nice sights and attractions; Bulgaria has a whole lot to offer. Give it a shot and you won't be disappointed!
There is an inescapable vibe emanating from the younger generation. I alluded to that in my posts about the Baltic states, Poland, and the rest of the Balkans last year. After all the shit their countries have gone through, you can perceive that they have drive, that they want to make a better world for themselves. Give these people the means, and they could shake the world. . . Unfortunately, it doesn't look as though their governments plan to do just that. . . But when you consider that nearly 60% of France's youth dreams of becoming functionaries (Are you fucking kidding me), you just know why things have been slowly going down the shitter there over the last couple of years. There is a lot of pessimism in North America. People are disillusioned, they no longer believe in anything, and yet they have it better than in most countries around the world. And then, you visit countries such as Latvia, Poland, Romania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, and Bulgaria, countries that have been through wars, that are riddled with corruption, that have gone through crisis after crisis, that don't necessarily offer their younger generation the best of prospects. And still, these people are aware that the worst appears to be behind them, that they have bigger and better things they can aspire to, that the sky's the limit. And if they can only catch a break, they would change their world for the better.
God knows Canada could use a few people like that. So would the USA, France, the UK, etc. Heck the entire Western World could learn a lesson from these people. . .
It's kind of rewarding and uplifting to encounter people with such a mindset when you travel around. Trips are meant to be fun, but a vibe like that certainly adds another dimension to the whole experience. Trips often make you appreciate home in various ways, making you realize how much better we have it compared to so many other people. But there are always two sides to any coin. And when you least expect it, trips can make you realize that finacially we might be in better positions than most, but we could sure use some of the positive energy which seems to permeate most emerging countries. . .
Okay, so I ramble. . . Two words for you: Visit Bulgaria!!! =)