We entered Bulgaria through Sofia, a decent enough city but not the best impression we could have of the country. Often called a “communist” city, you can feel how recently “the party” was here. Bulgaria was a communist nation until 1990 when the party stepped down and a moderate communist leader was democratically voted in. The buildings are mostly utilitarian, the local markets selling what is useful; the feel is somewhat stark.
There are interested architectural remnants with a red past, some fun bars and quirky treats, but the community feels hollow — even recent historical monuments are blackened by pollution and disservice. Sofia’s real gift to tourism is a thriving sex shop/strip club industry and a big Los Angeles style nightclub scene: expensive covers and overpriced drinks.
Since Sofia wasn’t quite our scene we ran for Plovdiv, a strangely run down Athens. Sinking below the central town square is an ancient Roman ampitheatre which shares it’s stage space with a video game arcade. Another “Antiquity” (so the sign says) nearby is still in use by theatrical events, but is crowded upon by nearby street traffic.
The town itself is known for its 7 hills, the largest of which has a quaint but mostly abandoned medieval town built upon it — with possibly the hardest to walk on cobblestone streets we have ever found. Charming and walking with a backpack on don’t always mix.
Plovdiv has a few bars up on the hills that can be fun, a lot of antique stores, and we enjoyed Dayana, a family style restaurant packed with neon kitsch. The restaurant is butted up against one of the hills and even has its bathrooms in what appear to be bomb shelters cut from the stone. Overall, the city feels like a pale shadow of other European cities’ attempts at preservation of history and forward development. A huge shopping complex makes up the downtown but that’s not what we are traveling for.
So we tried again and ran for Veliko Turnovo; finally finding something we enjoyed. This little town is nestled into the twists of the Yantra river which you follow on the train in. The rolling green hills translate into winding streets in a village both modern and old. Our hostel, Nomads (8 Euro) was run by a group of young men who had built the solid bunk beds with their own hands and were overjoyed to talk to you about the town, culture and food. One of the owners even left for a trip with some reporters on a wildlife conservation effort he was a part of. We drank home made Rakia because that is how they complete your hostel booking.
The best part of the town was the castle overlooking the city. But its not the inside of the castle that we loved: it was the nightly light, laser and music show played out across the castle grounds. Watch it for free from the church on the city side and you can still hear interpretative music representing the history of Bulgaria including many bloody wars with the Turks.
The town is tiny and ancient, and the surrounding area full of short but scenic walking trails. The city center has plenty of it’s own curious sightseeing as well.
Overall, Bulgaria was not one of our top countries to visit. We often felt the country and culture has given over whole heartedly to consumerism and processed food. There is a contingent of people who are trying to preserve the culture, nature, art and history but most of the populace feels they’re most interested in the cheapest means of survival, understandably with the high levels of inflation and unemployment. Eva has seen her home, Poland, go through many of the same motions… hopefully, it’s a passing phase.
The tourists aren’t helping the scene along by being interested in a cheap, bright neon place to party. We have since read that there are 9 UNESCO sites in the country and that much of the tourism focuses on the coastal regions and winter resorts. If we were to try Bulgaria again, we may try more of the national parks and outdoors which appear to be one of their strengths. Or course not seeing the Rila Monastery this time around was also a huge regret.
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