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Crossing over to Bulgaria from Serbia was great scenery-wise as we drove through the Balkan Mountain range. The road winded right through them, passing rocky cliffs, rolling hills and tiny villages so we just had to stop the bus in order for us to get out and take some photos…

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We were heading towards Sofia as our first stop in Bulgaria – this is the country’s capital with a population of around 1.25 million. It’s home to around 16 universities so a large percentage of the population are students (around 300,000 I think).

As we got closer to the city we left the beautiful countryside behind and began to see the outskirts of what looked like quite a poor city. The bus passed several donkey and carts as well as a big gypsy conurbation on the outskirts. We got the feeling that this would be another country of ‘contrasts’ where a big divide between its university-educated population and its poorer gypsy-descendent population would be quite evident. Again, with many of the countries we have visited so far, we really hadn’t got a clue what to expect and had heard all of the horror stories about back alleys and street scams. This made us a bit apprehensive about wandering too far but us being us, we had to chance it!

The hostel we were staying in turned out to be an ex-soviet hotel. It was a bit of a skyscraper and we had a room on the 16th floor – that lift seemed to go up for ages! The room was fine – very hot though!! As in Very hot! Even with the window open! We had the most awesome view of Sofia. The hotel was split in half with one side of the hotel all nicely carpeted with nice wooden doors and the other side just left like it was 20 years ago! Needless to say we were on that side!

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We decided to go down to Studentski Grad which is the main student area for a lot of the Uni campuses in Sofia. We were told that it was a taxi ride away, but we have vowed not to cop out and get taxi’s anywhere so we started off walking in the general direction of Studentski Grad (or what we guessed was the general direction). After about 45 minutes it dawned on us that perhaps it was actually a taxi ride away! However, not to be defeated, we asked a couple of people where it was and they both told us that we needed to get bus number 280.

So we went across the road to the bus stop – couldn’t understand any of the street names written on the timetable however and the only other person at the bus stop was an old woman. Oh great, we thought, she’s never going to speak English is she! But no, we were proved wrong yet again and not only did she speak perfect English but told us to get on the same bus as her as she was going that way and would show us where to get off. So we hopped on and tried to hand over 20 Bulgarian Leva to the driver forgetting that it would probably only cost about 1Leva. Of course we didn’t have any change as we had just got the money out of the bank but the driver just handed us two half used tickets and said “this is a gift for you”! Wow, so we haven’t been mugged yet (as highly anticipated) and have met two really friendly people already!

When we got to Studentski Grad the woman from the bus walked us round to the middle of where all the bars etc were then left us to it. We wandered around for a bit and weren’t really sure where to go to get something to eat so approached a guy who looked like he knew where he was walking to. Again, he said, “just follow me and I show you the best place”. He took us down a slightly dodgy looking road and we kind of looked at each other thinking ‘uh oh, are we about to find out what everybody means about Bulgaria’?

But no, he just took us up to the door of a nearby restaurant and
we had a bit of a chat about what he thought of his country. We said that we had driven through it and it was beautiful, but he wasn’t having any of it! He told us quite bluntly “my country is f***ing s**t – you have drink and nothing more, no opportunity for development, it’s not good”. Such a shame that he had that view as despite only being there for a short period of time, we can see real potential in Bulgaria – I think it would benefit from a tourist boost as there doesn’t seem to be much national pride at the moment.

This sentiment was echoed in our next stopover, Plovdiv (still in Bulgaria) – where many locals that we met had spent time in England in a bid to make some more money. For example, one of the shop owners was a strawberry picker in Canterbury for three years and said he loved England, but wasn’t too keen on Bulgaria. He was so lovely, we went into his shop in search of water and snacks for the bus journey to Istanbul the next day (a long one!) and needed to spend the rest of our local currency. Bit by bit we bought stuff so we could keep track of what we had left. Down to our last 0.72BGN we wanted to buy a packet of biscuits which was 0.80BGN – but he gave it to us anyway and then gave us some traditional Bulgarian chocolate (which tasted just like a wagon wheel) and some Bulgarian yoghurt – all as a gift!

Plovdiv was a direct contrast to Sofia – the part we stayed in anyway – this was the Old Town, and it was gorgeous. Cobbled streets packed full of quaint historical buildings. It is set on three hills so was a bit of a mission wandering around! We only saw one beggar here too!

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The best ‘sights’ here were an old Thracian settlement on the top of one of the hills which gave us an awesome view of the rest of the city and an old Roman Amphitheatre…

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We also stumbled across a really cool bar/restaurant, hidden amongst trees and the remains of the old fort, where it looked like they were setting up for a concert. We decided to have our dinner there and ordered some wine (bad idea, it wasn’t their best offering!) and a couple of traditional dishes. I ordered pork and Richard ordered some sort of vegetable rissole. These were intended to be eaten together (as you would expect!) but they served them to us one at a time! So we sort of just shared them.

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Were really nice actually and I’m glad that we tried something new again! Finished off the meal with a local beer (again, not the best, definitely prefer the Soproni from Hungary!) and the most awesome desert – ice cream cake and chocolate pancake! Yum!

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After dinner we went for another walk about and went back to the bar/ restaurant later to check out the classical concert that was happening. As we still had our bottle of wine from Hungary that we hadn’t gotten the chance to drink, we went and got it and sat on the stone steps listening to the music. Was really nice and relaxing and thankfully the evening air was a lot cooler.

Back inside the hostel, we sat down to use the internet and got talking to two boys from England (introduced by Tomas who found out that they were English and told us to speak to them). Turned out that they were from Colchester (about 20 mins down the road from where we live in Ipswich!) and one of them was actually from a little village about 5 mins from where I work. He even knew the ‘white house’ next to the Compasses Inn where our office is. Such a small world! They are on an adventure of their own as they are on their way to Greece to meet some friends and are driving all the way from Essex in a 1.1 Ford Fiesta! Good luck Tommy and Christos – hope you make it there in one piece!!

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So to summarise Bulgaria… it’s a poor, relatively slowly developing, ex-soviet country, whose people don’t have much national pride. But it does have some hidden gems – not only is the surrounding countryside really beautiful but the people are really friendly too! It does have something to offer everyone, but I think you just have to be open minded and see what you can get out of it!..


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