We arrived in the Bulgarian town of Veliko Tarnovo on a mission. We needed to find a place to stay, rent a car and buy train tickets for our overnight train to Istanbul in four days time. The last two overnight trains we had to do in seats rather than the luxury of a bed in a sleeper so we were keen to get in quick before they sold out. Unfortunately you can only buy the tickets in Bulgaria in person so this was the first thing we did in the country. So we went to a ticket booking agency and were happy to buy two sleeper tickets to Istanbul. Unfortunately there was some construction work on the tracks so what would have been a simple direct train became a train to the next town then a bus then another train then a final change to the train to Istanbul. I tried to write all this info down and was a bit worried that sometimes we had just 5 minutes to make our connections… oh well, it’s no fun if it’s too easy. Next we went to the very helpful tourist information office who booked us a place to stay and hired a car for us for the next day.
Our plan for Bulgaria was to spend two nights in Tarnovo then a night in the small town of Shipka before returning to Tarnovo to catch our train. Tarnovo is a very old town which for centuries was centred on its large sprawling castle located on a hill with a river running almost completely around it giving it a great defensive position. It was occupied first by the Thracians then the Romans then the Byzantines then Bulgarians then it was taken over by the Ottomans and finally the Russians fought the Turks in 1877 and liberated Veliko Tarnovo and the independent Bulgarian state was born. So the Bulgarians owed a lot to the Russians and were quite happy to be under the wing of the Soviets for many years. We were staying in the oldest part of the city which grew up near to the castle in a street named after the Russian general who liberated the town. The area is built into the steep hillside with very narrow streets criss-crossing in all directions along which charming old and crumbling houses cling precariously to the hill. We checked into our guesthouse, a small place with about 5 rooms and a friendly owner who showed us to our room before giving us two very juicy peaches to eat. It was a room with character, a big bed and interesting antique furniture and was a bargain at 15 pounds a night.
For the last couple of days Jenn had been nursing a bad cold but was determined that with enough honey and lemon tea and echinacea she would beat it. I also discovered a mildly embarrassing medical problem of my own. I had developed athlete’s foot so Jenn insisted we go immediately to a pharmacy to get some treatment. We spent a long time tracking down an illusive pharmacy which was marked on our map. We were given some help by a group of construction workers who should have been laying paving stones but one by one came over to look at our map and give their opinion of where we were and which way we should go. After about 15 minutes of conflicting advice, by which time all of the workers had stopped what they were doing to help us out, there was a general consensus of the rough direction we should go. We thanked them and headed off. We found the pharmacy and I attempted to explain my condition to the women behind the counter who spoke no English. There was a lot of hand gestures and trying to lift up my foot and pointing to my feet, then I took off my shoe to show her. She wanted to find someone to translate so she walked out on the street with me trailing behind trying to put my shoe back on. She was asking any passers-by if they spoke English and I ended up hopping around on one foot showing my poor other foot to random members of the public who might be able to help the pharmacist with translation. One passer-by took interest but her English was not up to medical standards so we persevered until the pharmacist found a very helpful man with good English who came back with us to the shop and was quite prepared to spend 15 minutes as translator talking about my feet with the pharmacist. So, all in all our first encounters with Bulgarians had found them to be friendly and helpful with a spirit of community and helping each other out which was very refreshing. (unlike my feet)
Having got my medication, we had a walk around the old town through an area selling local crafts. As evening fell we had a look at the castle which had been restored by the Russians some years ago to look something like it did 800 years ago. It must have been a very impressive sight back then as it is now striding across the hillside. We ate at what our guide-book rightly called the nicest restaurant in town. We enjoyed great food and drink in a candlelit courtyard for the princely sum of 10 pounds each. We sneaked a look at the nightly sound and light show which illuminates the castle and hillside with coloured lights coordinated to music. On our way back to our room we took what we thought was a shortcut in to the blackness of the dimly lit streets and ended up descending some very scary lanes into the undergrowth where we could hear packs of dogs barking. We made our escape in a slight panick back to our guesthouse.
The next morning we went to pick up our rental car. In the already blistering heat we were shown our car which was black in colour and had no air conditioning. So we got in what seemed to be an oven and put on the blower full blast. With hot air blowing in our face we closed the doors (one of which required a special technique to close it) and headed off. We drove south out of the town and through fields towards the town of Dryanovo. We stopped at the Dryanovo monastery and walked through the peaceful and leafy monastery grounds with old stone and wooden buildings and a stream running nearby. It was the scene of a fierce battle in 1877 where 100 locals fought the Turks, again in the war that granted Bulgaria independence. The tranquility was broken when a monk, who you normally think of as being quiet and reflective people, burst out of the monastery very agitated shouting something in Bulgarian to another monk then jumping in a car and speeding off. At the time Jenn was trying to ask a monk where the toilets were but she had to give up in the unexplained confusion.
We walked up to the nearby Dryanovo cave and got some info from a very friendly man at the ticket booth. We went into the cave which thankfully maintained a cool temperature of 15 celsius. It was fun if dangerously slippey to walk through into several large chambers. One of which echoed nicely. As we left the cave we saw a sign to “The Fort” and knew we had to follow it. Up and up we climbed along steep paths and steps cut into the hillside. Just as we were about to give up we saw another sign to “The Fort” so we had to go on after all we had come this far. We eventually came out on to a beautiful plateau with wildflowers all around. Further through the dry undergrowth we went until we finally laid eyes on the fort which was little more than a mound of old rocks. After about 30 seconds of looking at it we started to make our way back, but with a sense of achievement. After a particularly good meal of bean soup at a cafe near the monastery with a beautiful garden we headed off in our frying pan on wheels.
Jenn drove (she drives when driving on the right and I drive when driving on the left) along winding roads through attractive forest and farmland to the town of Tryavna. We had a GPS navigation unit so had no trouble finding our way around. The town is small with a picturesque centre of cobbled streets and old buildings of wood and plaster. Wood carvers, shoemakers, potters and jewellery makers make and sell their wares in the shops here. The area has recently been renovated with money from the EU which has made the town a major tourist attraction creating a sustainable future for these traditional crafts.
The town is famous (in Bulgaria) for its wood carving and still has a wood carving school. It was very pleasant to walk around and we found a nice courtyard restaurant to eat in. The food in Bulgaria has some mediterranean influences meaning you could get fresh salads and a more varied cuisine than central Europe. As we left the town the clock tower struck the hour and curiously after the bells rang the tower began playing Bulgarian opera very loudly for about 10 minutes. A novelty which could start to get a bit annoying for the locals I thought. We struggled to make our way out of the town in the car as the Bulgarian maps in the GPS unit obviously hadn’t been updated to reflect the newly added one way streets and dead ends. We were driving for about 20 minutes before we got out and made our way through winding roads in the dark back towards our guesthouse.
The following day we checked out of the guesthouse and loaded our bags into the back of the car which also required a special technique to close as when turning the key the whole lock would come loose and turn round. We headed further south towards the small town of Shipka where we had booked a hotel. We headed up into the mountains with Jenn spinning the wheel left then right then left as we went round hairpin bends and switchbacks as if we were in some computer driving simulator but without the three lives. The scenery was spectacular with huge forested mountains all around us. Eventually we began to descend into a large flat valley – The Valley of the Roses. 60% of the world’s rose oil is produced here and although we had missed the flowering season in June we went to the next best thing – The Museum of the Roses. We arrived at an old stone building in the grounds of a rose oil research institute and were directed into the basement where there were displays of the history of the distillation process that turns 5 tonnes of rose petals into 1 litre of rose oil.
We had a good look around the museum which had old distillation machinery and interesting old photos of the processing plants and the people who worked there. There were also photos of the last 15 queens of the annual rose festival. After asking some distillation related questions Jenn bought 1 millilitre of pure rose oil for 20 pounds. Is this the most expensive liquid. Even the ink from my Canon printer is not that expensive!
In the nearby town of Kazonlak we struggled to find any good food options and we ended up in a local fast food joint against Jenn’s better judgement. A very helpful customer who spoke English explained the various meals available. There have been quite a few times in Bulgaria where the locals have gone out of their way to help us. After a pretty good meal we headed over to a local market where Jenn bought flip-flops from a lady who conveniently spoke German. Next we visited the Iskra archeological museum which displays many artifacts found in the region including treasures excavated from the tombs of the Thracians who ruled the area around the 4th century BC. The valley is scattered with mounds built as memorials to the dead Thracian kings.
We left the museum and drove off to Shipka. Our hotel was one of the best we’ve stayed at. A small place with just 7 rooms and a great open terrace on the 2nd floor from where you can see an amazing view across the valley with a horizon of distant mountains. The owners were a husband and wife team. The husband was a jovial guy who spoke very good English and gave us a lift to the town centre as he was going that way to the town shop that he also owns. We had a walk through the small but pleasant town of old brick and plaster buildings and up a peaceful road towards the town’s principle site, the Nativity Memorial Church.
We saw it way before we got there as its five golden domes were glistening in the evening sun. We aimed for the light and climbed the long stone stairway up to the church above.It is a Russian style church built in 1922 and dedicated to the soldiers who died in the 1877 war. It has an intricate design of bright red brick with white patterning and delicate columns, prehaps the prettiest exterior of a church we had seen so far, and we’d seen a few. We headed back to the hotel in time to see the sun setting from the terrace.
In the morning we ate breakfast and gave the hotel owner a lift to his shop on our way out. He suggested and sold us some remedies for Jenn’s cold and pointed us in the direction of a nearby Thracian tomb that he said we should visit. It was a mound of earth with grass on top and an entrance on one side. We only just had enough money to pay the 2 pound entrance fee as we had been trying to run down our Bulgarian currency as we were leaving that day. We would try to do this as we left each country but this time we were a little too efficient in running out of money. The tomb had a narrow corridor which opened out into a small chamber built from blocks of carefully honed stone creating a perfect dome. Because the stone had not been worn by the elements it looked brand new despite being over 2000 years old. This chamber lead into a second room the shape of a sarcophagus where the treasures were placed.
Next, after an anxious few second trying to get the car started, we went to the artisan’s village of Etar which is a small complex of quaint old wooden buildings, each the workshop of potters, weavers, leather workers or blacksmiths. You can watch them make their products in the traditional way often using water power from a stream that is channeled through water wheels to drive machinery.
There were several traditional shops including a herbalist where Jenn got some remedies for her cold: myrtle and propolis tincures to drink, sea-cucumber to drop into the nose (which she was warned was ‘unpleasant’but worked, which was and did) and some aromatherapy oil to massage around the sinuses. Jenn already felt better. We ate a lunch of an incredibly sweet merengue followed by freshly baked rings of bread, a local snack. Stomachs full and slightly aching we drove back through the mountains towards Veliko Tarnovo. By this stage the car had developed further problems. It would rev up high even though the accelerator was not pushed and would stutter and lunge forward at slow speeds. We just hoped we would make it back, but at 8 pounds a day it was cheap.
Back in Tarnovo we headed for the train station. It was actually quite easy to just follow the other passengers from train to bus to train, hoping they were going the same place as us. Passing under high mountain ridges and into a valley we watched the sun set from the train window. Still in Bulgaria, we had to make a connection at Stara Zagora to our Istanbul bound train. It was 9pm and the station was almost empty.
It was a crumbling but obviously once grand building with marble floors and big chandeliers (not working). The once bright clean interior had given way to a dark hall of flaking plaster and broken vending machines with a kiosk selling cold drinks and dubious snacks. We waited, the only people on the platform. Jenn saw a small cat and gave it some water but it wasn’t interested so she went to try to buy it some food but could not find anything despite making meowing noises at the kiosk. It did eat a bit of bread we had. The most shocking part of the station were the toilets. Hunting around I found them by venturing down some stairs to a dark wet underpass and past doorways leading to unknown pits of darkness. Seeing the faded sign for toilets I entered a room lit by a single flickering light and into a scene straight from a horror film. The sound of water dripping could be heard as you walk on through a doorway that looks like it is about to collapse. The floor and once white tiled walls were covered in the thickest of grime and there was ceiling of rusting pipes above which was blackness. I walked past the wash basins, one thick with rust and slime, the other completely missing with the tap above where it once was dripping into a large pool of water on the floor. I finally came to the cubicles with their doors hanging off. I made it as far as the first one which had brown stains around it and a spider hanging on a thread from the pipes above. As I hurried back I peered into a dark room where I could make out the rusting shower heads of an old communal shower room. I quickly made my way out and back to the platform where I mentioned to Jenn about the state of the bathrooms. I don’t think she understood just how bad they were until she had to go and I saw her come back with a look of terror on her face.
An hour and a half late, the train arrived and we were lucky enough to have our own sleeping compartment. We slept soundly untill we were woken at 3am at the Turkish border where we had to all go out of the train to an office on the platform to buy a visa then we queued up at the passport check for them to check the visa we just bought. There were many other backpackers on the platform in pyjamas doing the same. As we left Bulgaria I reflected on a country which until 4 days ago I knew nothing about but had discovered to be a beautiful place with great scenery, interesting towns, good food and warm, friendly people who have a pride in their history and traditions. I recommend it for a holiday. Bring you own toilet paper.