After traveling for two weeks through Romania we crossed the border for the second country of our 7,5 month round-the-world trip: Bulgaria. To get from Romania’s capital Bucharest to our first Bulgarian destination Veliko Tarnovo was a bit of a puzzle. We couldn’t find any dependable information about bus transport and the train proved to be disproportionately pricey.
In the end we booked a private transfer to the Bulgarian border town Ruse for the same price as a train ticket. The only downside: we had to leave at 5 AM in the morning. The upside: we’d be in Veliko Tarnovo already around noon, leaving us extra time for sightseeing. At Ruse bus station we had some trouble to decipher the Bulgarian Cyrillic alphabet, but after a two hour wait we finally could catch a bus to Veliko Tarnovo.
Step 1: Veliko Tarnovo
This former capital of the Bulgarian tsars turned out to be a very nice little city, with houses scenically built against the steep rocky banks of the Yantra river that winds its way through Veliko Tarnovo. The big attraction in town is the partly reconstructed medieval Tsarevets fortress. Strategically located on Tsarevets Hill, with some nice views of the city, the fortress features the remains of walls, gates, towers, houses and churches. In the summer months a 40 minute sound and light show lights up the fort at night when enough tickets are sold, but apparently this was not the case when we visited.
We also made a side trip to nearby Arbanasi, a 4 kilometer taxi or minibus ride from Veliko Tarnovo (if you are up for it, it’s also possible to hike up to the village). The small, sleepy hamlet has some amazing historic churches, monasteries and houses, some of which can be visited. The best in our opinion were the intimate Nativity Church, with beautiful wall-to-wall frescoes inside, and the Konstantsalieva House, built in National Revival style and with period furniture inside.
Step 2: Sofia
From Veliko Tarnovo we traveled by bus to Sofia (3,5 hours). Arriving around noon we had 1,5 day to explore the city, which for us was more than enough time to see the most important sights, like the wonderful Alexander Nevski Memorial Church, and have ample time to enjoy sitting on one of the many park benches or on one of terraces in the city center. Read more in a separate post on Sofia here.
Step 3: Rila 7 Lakes
Getting to Rila 7 Lakes was a bit of a hassle involving three bus changes, the first two to get to the village of Sapareva Banya, the northern gateway to the Rila Mountains. The town is known for its hot mineral water, but our goal was get to the scenic Rila 7 Lakes. Unfortunately the weather didn’t cooperate much.
After 2,5 weeks with temperatures between 25o-30o Celsius Eugénie had laughed at me for packing fleece jackets and hats in our day backpack, but already during the 20 minute ski lift ride up the mountain she was grateful I’d done that. Heavy cloud cover and a temperature of 9oC once we arrived at the Seven Lakes chalet made for chilly conditions in our shorts. Hiking for a few hours to some of the seven lakes at an altitude between 2.100-2.400 meters warmed us up again (a little bit). No grand views however, but still pretty nice, with snow on some places in the middle of July!
Getting back down again to Sapareva Banya was a bit of a problem. A minibus had taken us up, but the only sign of any form of transportation back was a note pinned to a tree with a telephone number. Since we didn’t have one with us, hitchhiking was the only alternative. After several cars had passed us by a dodgy, mafia-looking type in a beat up Opel Astra stopped. Eugénie was hesitant, but as it was getting late and I just suspected an illegal taxi, we decided to get in. In anticipation of the language barrier I offered him twice the rate we had paid for the minibus going up when we arrived in Sapareva Banya, and got half our money back…. Appearances can be deceptive.
Step 4: Rila Monastery
To get to the highlight of Bulgaria, Rila Monastery, we had to change buses in Dupnitsa, where we entered a bus full of non-Bulgarians for the first and only time. It was a testament to the attraction this incredibly beautiful Eastern Orthodox monastery holds for visitors. Because pictures can tell more about the beauty of this place we made a separate picture blog about Rila monastery.
Step 5: Bansko
After spending the night near Rila monastery we traveled on to Bansko, again with the need to change buses, this time in Blagoevgrad. Bansko is Bulgaria’s busiest ski resort in winter, but appeared a little bit like a ghost town in July. As we’d arrived too late to get up to Mount Vihren for some hiking and panoramic mountain views (we had a bad connection in Blagoevgrad and problems with finding our hotel), we settled for some down time in Bansko and having a look at some of the historic structures, which we found of average interest.
Our main reason for going to Bansko, however, was to ride the last narrow-gauge railway in Bulgaria (rail is our favorite mode of transport). Three daily trains make the five hour ride from Bansko to Septemvri, where we changed trains to Plovdiv. Passing forests, streams, green hills, narrow tunnels and the highest train station in the Balkans at Avramovo (1.267 meters) the ride was less spectacular than we’d anticipated, but still very enjoyable all the same.
Step 6: Plovdiv
Next to Sofia Plovdiv, the second largest city, is probably the nicest city in Bulgaria, with narrow cobbled streets, colorful 19th century houses, many art galleries and cafes, some nice parks and a young population (thanks to the city’s university). Civilizations like the Thracians, Romans and Ottomans left their mark here and remnants of this can be found all over the city, sometimes even integrated into modern-day structures like the Roman Stadium that’s hidden away under a pedestrian mall.
One of the most distinct sights in Plovdiv is also Roman, the 2nd-century-AD, 6.000 seat Roman Amphitheatre, built by Emperor Trajan. It was uncovered after a landslide in 1972 and now majestically overlooks the city. Most of the other interesting historical structures, however, date from the second half of the 19th century, known as the National Revival period, when Bulgaria finally regained independence after many centuries of Ottoman rule.
Several of the red, blue, green and yellow colored homes from this period can be visited. Our favorites were the opulent Hindlian House, with wall paintings of scenes from Constantinople (Istanbul), Venice and Alexandria, and the house of the Historical Museum (the museum itself is of less interest if you’re not into Bulgarian history). Regretfully the Ethnographical Museum was closed during our stay in Plovdiv.
Step 7: Sozopol
Because we would be on the road for almost a month at the end of our stay in Bulgaria we decided on three beach days in the small Black Sea town of Sozopol. We had specifically chosen Sozopol over the well-known beach resort of Sunny Beach, which is crowded with foreign sun worshippers (and all the ‘entertainment’ associated with it) like at the Spanish costas in summer – not really our thing.
According to the descriptions we’d read Sozopol was a picturesque village with two small but beautiful beaches, so it came as a bit of a disappointment to discover that the historic stone-and-timber houses in the old town were mostly hidden from view by souvenir stalls and parked cars and both beaches had almost completely disappeared under rows of beach umbrellas and bodies (mostly Bulgarian and Russian) basking in the sun.
Nevertheless we enjoyed ourselves and had to tear ourselves from the beach to make a short visit to the port city of Burgas 40 minutes away by bus, where we’d be able to buy bus tickets for our next stop, Istanbul. We decided to have a quick look around Burgas as well, but were not impressed. Besides: the beach was calling for us to take some more rest.
We visited Bulgaria in July 2013
Travel tips Bulgaria
Stay – We had made reservations for accommodation in Bulgaria because we thought all decent budget options would be full in the last two weeks of July because as a result of summer holidays, but save for Sozopol most of the places we’d booked were not full. At most places we stayed no English was spoken.
In Veliko Tarnovo we stayed 2 nights at Hotel Friends. Located near the old city center but hard to find because the hotel sign near the door mentioned Guest House Priyateli instead of Hotel Friends. We had a twin room with air-conditioning and small fridge. Hearty breakfast was served in a nice shady courtyard.
In Sapareva Banya we spent one night in the family run Guest House Lazov at the edge of town. It was a bit of an old-fashioned place, with rooms overlooking the garden, but room and attached bathroom were clean and beds were comfy. A shared kitchen is available for guests.
We’ve never had so much trouble finding a place as happened with Guestrooms Kambana in Bansko. The address was confusing and the entrance to the accommodation had no sign. The room was tiny but had a private bathroom. A very greasy but filling breakfast was included in the 12 euro room price (cheapest stay we had in Bulgaria). OK for one night.
The Hotel Allur in Plovdiv advertises itself as a classy place. We wouldn’t call in classy, but it was a very decent budget place to stay for 2 nights, in walking distance of the main sights in the city center and the train and bus stations. Room was ok, clean but dark, with private bathroom and air-conditioning.
In Sozopol we had a small en suite twin room with a balcony at the family run Family Hotel Sofi for 4 nights. Cheap for beach resort standards. The room had a small fridge and air-conditioning. There was also a small pool that we only used once, spending most of our time at the beach, which was only 10 minutes walking distance away. Owners were very helpful and spoke English. Highly recommended budget option.
Eat – Bulgaria’s kitchen is, let’s say, quite rich. Greasy food seems to be the standard if you want to eat on a budget. The few times a breakfast was included at our accommodation we were presented some artery clogging dishes as well, like banitsa, a filo pastry filled with goat cheese. Goat cheese is a recurring ingredient in almost all dishes, like we discovered when we ordered the intriguing ‘Potatoes with cheese’, which turned out to be fries covered with grated goat cheese. As it was surprisingly tasty, we ordered it more often as a side dish. A strange food habit that we didn’t copy – and which we had witnessed in Romania as well – is the liberal use of mayonnaise on pizzas.
You won’t hear us complain about the size of the meals, though, because meals are huge. In the beginning we were often overwhelmed by the amount of food 10 euro bought us, so we decided to share one appetizer, one main dish and a salad between the two of us to limit the intake of calories a bit. Bulgarian waiters and waitresses didn’t always comprehend…. In Plovdiv and Sozopol we reverted to eating delicious kebab sandwiches a lot (we were getting close to Turkey), cheap and filling and the best kebab we ever had.
Transport – Getting around Bulgaria using public transportation wasn’t always easy. This was partly due to the itinerary we were following, but at the same time we experienced that good and dependable public transport information is hard to hard to find in Bulgaria. Not more than once the travel sources we consulted – web, tourist office, time tables at stations – gave different times for when trains or buses would be leaving, the reality sometimes being yet another departure time. So be prepared to be flexible and patient; a lot of time is lost in transportation. We therefore think that renting a car is probably a better option to explore Bulgaria. We had the feeling that we were missing out on a lot now.
More posts about Bulgaria: