Europe trip – Bulgaria – Full-on Eastern Europe


We entered Bulgaria through the southwest and after being scammed a double fee for the road toll vignette, we arrived in Melnik, one of the country’s most distinctive villages due to its traditional architecture, local wine and location tucked beneath imposing sandstone cliffs. The change with Greece couldn’t have been bigger as we went from warm temperatures to rain and cold, and the people went from friendly and open to closed, grumpy and unable to speak English.

We then headed further north towards Sophia on the ‘National Road’,(a two lane bumpy road where horse and cart, old Lada / Wartburg / Trabant cars, big trucks and busses all traveled on. We visited the amazing Rila Monastery, located in the Rila mountains. At 1200 meter altitude, it was cold (5 degrees) and the snow was just a little bit higher up the mountains. The monastery however, including the main church and four levels of colorful balconies, is worth seeing as the frescoes and interior of the Church of Rozhdestvo Bogorodichno were truly unique.

After more adventures on seriously potholed roads making travel sometimes frustratingly slow, we passed the second town of Bulgaria, Plovdiv, to arrive in Kazanlak. For the first time using a campsite, it felt like we were catapulted back fifty years: old electricity connections, gazebos and playgrounds from the sixties,… On the other hand, we received a private bathroom and toilet cabin and the campground only cost 8 euro.  We ate out in the adjacent restaurant, filled with locals having a great party at long tables filled with bottles of beer and wine and live folkloristic music and dancers. It was a great way to get to know the Bulgarian music (very similar to Greek at times) and the circular communal dances the whole restaurant participated in.

We then traveled through the Valley of the Roses where 60% of the world’s supply of fragrant rose oil is produced, to the beautiful Shipka monastery. It’s splendid, onion-shaped golden domes are visible from afar and they are beautifully framed against the green lush mountains in the background.

Following a 13 km long winding road, we crossed the Shipka Pass, where the Freedom Monument stands atop Mount Stoletov. At the other side of the pass is the little village of Etar, where the Etnographic Village Museum contained dozens of genuine authentic houses and dwellings from all over the country. Plenty of workshops were to be found there so souvenir shopping was a must.

The evocative capital of the medieval Bulgarian tsars, Veliko Tavorno is dramatically set amidst forested hills and the gorge created by the Yantra river. We first spent a night overlooking the town in the historic mountain village of Arbanasi, and explored the inescapable symbol of the town the day after: Tsarevets Fortress, one of Bulgaria’s most beloved monuments featuring  the remains of more than 400 houses, 18 churches and numerous monasteries, dwellings, gates and towers. We clambered almost the entire day on the site, Kyle got stung 5 times by a mad and solitary wasp and only cried briefly, and then saw the rest of the town with an amazing little shopping street filled with cheap quality souvenirs and great local eateries, serving all kinds of Bulgarian salads dishes.

To end our short (just under a week) visit through this strange but very interesting and adventurous country, we stopped in Rusenski Lom National Park, where the Unesco listed Ivanovo Rock Monastery (together with more than 40 other rock churches) was built in a cave 38 meter high. The well preserved frescoes dating from the 13th and 14th century, were something to behold.

Nothing could have prepared us for the shock of seeing a country still stuck in the Communist Era, with remnants of that age still visible and present everywhere. The country itself is slowly developing and as soon as a number of highways will be finished, economic activity will start to increase and the general standard of living will rise. It sure was a very interesting place to visit, very much off the beaten track.

Now up north to Romania!


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May 2014
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