Reflections on Bulgaria

Reflections on Bulgaria

As we prepare to hop over the border to Romania, our minds naturally glide over our month in Bulgaria’s beautiful realm. What will we member most about this eastern beauty?

For me, Bulgaria will represent a country of the inner journey rather than the actual miles we covered. Life on the road makes you a student of this great classroom and if you embrace it, it will enrich your soul and I am particularly thankful for my personal insights. As they say, “Every day is a school day”, if you are open to its teachers.

A Game of Two Halves

Our biggest reflection is that Bulgaria is a game of two halves. We are not quite sure why, although there was something about the southern half of the country that really connected with us. The Rhodope mountains that dominate the landscape, our first taste of authentic Bulgarian life in Melnik and the simplicity of mountain life really does get right underneath your skin. Even heading into the Central Balkan mountains gave us the thrill of discovery and exploration that we so love and that feeds our curiosity.

And then we entered the second half… A game that didn’t offer us the same deep connection and heart-bursting revelations that we had been experiencing. There felt like there was something missing, a real disconnect that we struggle to pin-point.

Don’t get me wrong, the northern half of the country around Veliko Tarnovo, Ruse, Shrumen and the Black Sea coast have their highlights, although there was a definite shift in energy for us that happened along the way. Whether it was because we entered into the poorer region of the country or the transition of the modern Bulgaria that is littered with a determination to fit in with its European family or the mafia mentality – something didn’t quite fit for us.  There felt like a real struggle here – a fight to create an identity that releases them from their historical past and stand independently amongst their peers.  Life just didn’t flow so effortlessly in the north as in the south.

Polar Opposites

And there we have it – we have hit the nail on the head. Bulgaria, as we reflect on our two halves, is a country of extremes – of polar opposites and it makes it hard for the visitor to make head nor tail of its culture. Is Bulgaria the innocence and simplicity of the southern mountain region or the more modernistic, spotty  teenager of the north striving for respect from its European comrades?

Bulgaria has a reputation for being the poorest country in the Union and our feeling is that this strikes deep within the hearts of the younger generation and they are rising up to challenge this fiscal label. And that’s what we’ve been feeling – a struggle, an internal battle.  How interesting that it synchronistically matches the internalising that I have been working through this month. In beautiful harmony I have been in tune with the changes we’ve felt from north to south.  Bulgaria’s new European face is still so young and it will undoubtedly evolve, although in their effort to find themselves, the country has an underlying identity crisis.

What is this oppositional energy that we’ve picked up here?

Young and old

It is so obvious as you explore this fine country that there are generational challenges. The old folk who lived in pre-Communism Bulgaria through to today’s EU partnership, cling on to their simple way of life. They work their land with reverence, their curved backs evidence of their daily rituals. They sit watching the world pass by or tend to their herds without any thought of success or financial improvement. Just very happy in their traditional lives of simplicity and authenticity. And as the youngsters leave their village retreats for a life in the city, a huge gap begins to open up between the generations. Family homes with decades of ancestry are left to decay as the kids search for their wealth in the expanding cities, whilst their elderly kinfolk hold onto the fabric of their family life.

Rich and poor

The extremes have been eye opening, where you see the meagre lives of the country peasant contrast with the Audi’s, BMW and out of place, top of the range Porsches of the younger generation.  It leaves you puzzled as to how that cavernous gap has been created. The gypsy camp we saw in Varna leaves you affected by their lifestyle and constantly grateful for the life we lead. The pony and traps that course their way through the countryside laden with worldly possessions as they find a way to scrape a living versus the petrolhead generation with their new European wealth. It’s a puzzle.

Communism and EU

Evidence of Bulgaria’s Communist state, that formed the country’s backbone for 35 years following WW2, is clear across the northern half of the country. Square tower blocks stand as a reminder of their Communist rule, although their struggle after the fall of Communism is clear to see in the dilapidated industrial buildings, the unfinished projects and the struggle to find their way in the new world. Interestingly we saw International Partnerships from Japan, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway, as they fund the restoration of Bulgarian history in an attempt to create greater equity in free trade. Since 2007, the EU has embraced Bulgaria into its family and now the younger generation have the responsibility to bring the nation into a new culture of prosperity and stability after its tempestuous history of struggle and battle.

Muslims and Christians

It has been a humbling experience to witness the harmony of Muslims and Christians living side by side.  Villages hold no shame in having the two temples as neighbours, honouring everyone’s faith and respecting their right to worship their own gods.  More countries could take a leaf out of Bulgaria’s book.

 

Facts and Highlights – Motoroaming style

1. Despite this divide, Bulgaria is an intriguing country that really does entice you to spend more time here.  Although I think if we did it again, I would come north to south, as we leave Bulgaria with an energy of curious confusion that needs to be processed.

2. The cost of living is incredibly cheap in this Balkan beauty and you will spend so little money here. Petrol is cheap, LPG easy to get hold of and food good value for money. For our month here, we have spent about £500, which is well over half of general expenses in the western European countries we’ve visited.

3. If you come to Bulgaria with a camper, campsites are few and far between.  Along the Black Sea there are more options, although wild camping is generally accepted here, even in high season.  We simply asked permission and everyone was happy to let us stay.  We found some amazing spots along the way and although we have been a bit uncomfortable in the last week or so in the northern region, it has been a positive experience making sure we avoid the complacency trap.

4. The language is tricky although with a few basic words and your 1-10 numbers, you can get by. In the towns and cities, many people speak either German and/or English, although in the mountains there is nothing except Bulgarian. Although a warm smile and a wave goes a long, long way in building relationships with the locals, who are a wonderful nation.

5. Cash here is king.  Like its Greek neighbour, Bulgaria likes to deal with liquid cash and not cards, so when you first arrive in the country, get straight to an ATM and draw out some money.  We used to get 400BGN at a time, which is about €200.  The only place we managed to pay by card was in Decathlon and the Apple store in Varna.

6. Lidl is everywhere in Bulgaria although if you fancy a change, then you have Billa and in some larger towns you have Kaufland, a German shop which has a large range of goods.

7. The roads are generally ok here.  We travelled on one dreadful main road from Sofia to Ruse anTryavnad Veliko Tarnovo, which is a main route from the Romania border in the north – and it is AWFUL!  Pot holes, cambers and a tyre graveyard from lorries shedding their blown out rubber.  Obviously the villages are less well maintained, although we thought the roads in Italy were worse than Bulgaria, on the whole.

8. You will see very few motorhomes here as many don’t venture this far east. Those that you do see are typically local vans.

9. The kids break up at the end of June, so if you are here in the summer, factor this into your plans.  That said, nowhere is really that busy.

10. Fruit is great to pick up from roadside sellers which is often personally harvested and much cheaper than the supermarkets.

11. There are no tolls on Bulgarian roads, except for the two bridges that span the Danube over the Romanian border, which are €6.  Although you will need to buy a vignette, which will cost you €20 per month and can be easily picked up as you cross the Border from Greece.

12. Water is very easy to get along roadsides especially in the southern region.  In the north, they are less profuse, although they do still exist if you keep your eye open.  We never had a problem although did resort to buying bottled water rather than drinking from our tank, even with a super duper filter.

13. Eating out is really cheap in Bulgaria and the wine, so Myles tells me, is delicious.

14. Whilst you’re here, do not miss the Rhodope mountains, the Central Balkan mountains, Shipka and Melnik, just as a starting point.  Etâr is wonderful for seeing authentic artisans at work and definitely worth a visit. Veliko Tarnovo is good for a day’s visit and full of history and charm.

15. Bulgaria is a land of sunflowers, fields of golden ears of wheat, sweetcorn and tombs in the north and quaint villages, mountains, gorges and caves, geological rock formations and simple village life in the south.

16. When you think of crowded beaches, tourists and busy roads, then halve that image and then halve it again and you will probably have Bulgaria’s high season.  It is a place yet to fully arrive on the tourist scene, so now is a great time to come, even in the height of summer.

 

Closing thoughts

So what would our closing thoughts be of our Bulgarian experience?  A contrasting one that has taught us so much about Europe and its developing communities. It has opened our minds to the modern day fight for independence and identity. It’s taught us how a fusion of east and west and Muslim and Christian can live in harmony and it has reminded us how simplicity brings more happiness than complexity.

Finally it brings home how some countries struggle to find their own identity through the myriad of challenges that the traditional world and our modern fight for survival create.  No where more than Bulgaria has this been so evident.  It has been a great classroom.

A country rich in natural beauty and traditional simplicity that stands amongst its European rivals effortlessly. A country that needs to be explored and, with interest, observe as it creates its personality; holding onto old values whist embracing modern free trade rules.  Bulgaria is a fascinating country whose growth and emergence will continue to intrigue us as the years unfold and they find their feet.  Let’s hope it retains its traditional roots whilst finding a progressive route through their European opportunity.  We will return as there is so much more to experience and so many more lessons to learn.  Thank you Bulgaria, it’s been an interesting tour.

Karen x

Dave does Shipka Pass, Bulgaria

High up in the mountains above Shipka on the Shipka pass in Bulgaria stands a dilapidated relic of communist Russia’s dominance. Used in its hey day as a socialist assembly centre it is now a sorry sate of it’s former glory.

 

Bulgaria’s Beauty Continues

Bulgaria’s Beauty Continues

                 Route 2 – Bulgaria Tour

Trekking north from our southern Bulgarian initiation, left us a little sad, only because of the innocence and raw beauty of this undiscovered piece of heaven.  And as we said goodbye to the pine forests, we came into flatter land; well relatively speaking.  There were, in truth, some rolling hills and golden fields of corn, which offered us a lovely contrast to the mountains, and here sunflowers reigned supreme.  With heads bowed to the sun’s dominance, acres of bright yellow start to give way to a lime green hue as the season’s fruit bears its gift.

The Stone Mushrooms

     Petrified Stone Mushrooms, Beli plast

A little stop at the rock phenomenon, Stone Mushrooms, just outside Beli plast village, in between Kardzhali and Haskovo, is worth doing.  2.5m high stone formations unique to this area, shows Mother Nature at her best. 20 million year old volcanic rocks that have been weathered by sun, rain and wind hold great legend.  It is said that the petrified mushrooms are the daughters of a villager who lived in a fortress.  The fortress was attacked one day by the Turkish Ottoman army and the daughters took defensive action, killing the Ottoman leader.  The slain soldier’s friend took his revenge and caught the murdering daughters and, one by one with his magic staff, killed each one, turning them to stone. Geologically speaking, the rocks have a high volume of zeolite minerals, which are said to purify water.  A great little stop.

Camping Alexandrovo – A little retreat

             Alexandrovo Campsite sunrise

Our retreat, after what seemed like a big exploration of new territory that left us a little travel weary, was Camping Alexandrovo, just east of Haskovo. (41.987199 25.726452 www.alexandrovocamping.com).  A fabulous home-from-home spot that allowed us to rest up, run by the lovely Matt from England.  The wildlife here was wonderful, with Golden Oriels, Hoopoes, Woodpeckers, nesting doves and Wolves as our nighttime melody and the cattle being herded – our morning song, lit up by amazing sun rises.  Just such a wonderful stopover for four nights and a place we would definitely recommend and come back to.

Here’s Dave’s view of this lovely spot.

This was though, where we sadly said ‘au revoir’ to our convoy buddies from Followourmotorhome as our paths took different routes as we headed directly north, into the central mountains. What treasure would this region hold for us?

To reach the mountains, a passage through Kazanlak was required, which from our southerly approach was seriously ugly and the first time I felt a little uncomfortable. We wanted to visit the World Heritage Site of the Thracian tombs, although finding somewhere safe to park was tricky. So we hopped, skipped and jumped out of there and headed for the mountains.

The Belly of Bulgaria

           Shipka Monastery

Our tyres continued to roll towards the Valley of the Thracian Kings, and Shipka, where ancient and modern history both leave their marks. 4th Century BC tombs are scattered in the plains of the Shipka valley, interlaced with lavender and sunflower fields, making a pretty landscape for history to really feel embedded.  Thracian Kings and archeological sites are found all over this region.  Although what caught our eye more so, was the distant sparkle of something hidden in the woods.  And so like magpies, we felt compelled to take a look.  What soon became clear was that gleaming mirage was in fact an enormous Russian style Monastery that belied the simplicity of the charming and humble Shipka village.  A short walk up hill is rewarded by a breathtaking piece of architecture that transports you to something out of the Kremlin rather than Bulgaria.  Although of course the intricate partnership between the Soviet Union and Bulgaria during the Communist rule, soon allows the penny to drop.  A short visit to this wondrous religious monument is definitely worthy of your time.  Check out the intricate detail of the exterior, its shiny domes and gaze in wonder at the surprisingly small yet highly decorated interior.  This is a serene place to while away half an hour or so.

Captain James T. Kirk, I presume?

Our little diversion did not deter us for long though, as our original destination was the Shipka Pass, where talk of a UFO piqued our curiosity.  This stunning road allows you to enter deep into the belly of Bulgarian culture, as carved into inch of earth are the battles of the Russo-Turk war of 19th Century, where Bulgarian volunteers played their role in defeating the Ottomans alongside their Russian comrades.  Monuments throughout this region offer reminders of this significant war.

The pinnacle of this route though is the almost eerie building that rises up from the mountain’s heart as if in some dominant defiance against the rebels. The Buzludzhanski Monument perched 1441m up on the mountain top looks more like a UFO than the Social Assembly Hall that was its original identity.  Looking like something out of Star Trek, this concrete spaceship is, these days falling apart and offers the now democratic Bulgaria a real diplomatic dilemma; repair it – showing solidarity to the past or leave it to decay and focus on surging forward progressively under EU protection.  There are rumours that there is to be some investment in restoring the building and turning it into a historical museum – so watch this space – if you pardon the pun!

                   Scoobie’s wild spot

There’s a couple of great wild spots up here (42.731573 25.389351 and 42.7314 25.3872) where the views up and down the mountain are quite spectacular.  The hike up to the now derelict UFO is worth it for the view alone, and the 2 mile round-trip to see the other monuments in the forest is  definitely worthwhile.

 

Etar – Ethnographic Museum

                      Etâr Village

We seriously thought about stopping at this peaceful place, where even the birds seemed to be silenced by the eery eyes looking down the valley.  Still after a few days of respite earlier in the week, we carried on, along one of the worst roads we’ve encountered so far in Bulgaria.  It was a doable road, although had to be taken with caution and slowness of speed as the rough, pot-holed tarmac left a lot to be desired.  Picking up a couple of Hitchhikers, which is becoming a Motoroaming habit, allowed us to stay a little distracted from the stress of the terrain and after dropping them off we found a decent surface, under which we could get into third gear, finally!  A short 20 minute journey took us to Etâr, which is an open-air museum presenting historical arts and crafts indicative to the region.  The village has been created beautifully and invites you to step into a rustic way of life, with nearly 50 authentic workshops, many of which are powered by water mills.  It’s a great portrait of a Bulgarian by-gone era and really helps you appreciate the culture of this central mountain region.  And for 5 Leva per person, that’s about £2.00 each to you and me, it’s a steal.  Whilst so close, a little trip up to the Sololski Monastery, 6 miles up the hill is worthy of the diesel.  Although not as grand as Shipka’s offering, this understated 19th Century religious building, set with the backdrop of pine forest, is a sight to behold.  Especially the original chapel, which with its sky-blue exterior and ornate inside, is worth a peak, even if you’re not of a religious persuasion.

A synchronistic meeting half way down the hill with, not only another motorhome – a British couple to boot ended off the day beautifully as we shared an evening together.  John and Kath had been hot on our tails since Greece strangely and it was lovely to pass the time and share travelling stories together.

Our finale of this little section of the central mountains was Tryavna, home to wood-carvers extraordinaire.  The town, despite its mountainous position and perceived ‘middle of no where’ image, has built on its wood fame and is an elegant and buzzy administrative centre, which we were not expecting.  Outside of the touristy central square, the old town gives you the real feel of the carpentry skills that were and still are to some degree, renowned across Bulgaria.  The 19th Century artistry amidst a romantic blend of cobbled streets and bridges is a working town, where craftsmen still train.  If you look up above the tourist shops, the architecture of the buildings is incredible and every door has an ornate carving of some sort, revealing the talents of the modern day and historical experts.  An hour will suffice in this cute little place as Veliko Tarnovo will call you onwards.  And onwards we came – a new chapter we begin to write and share with you we will – soon enough.

Until then, we will leave you with images of mountain monuments, spaceships and authentic Bulgarian culture hidden deep within the heart of this central treasure trove of loveliness.  Kx

 

 

 

Heart-Bursting Bulgaria

Heart-Bursting Bulgaria

After the relative safety of our travels through western Europe last year, where we cut our teeth and built our confidence, it seemed the right time to venture further afield. And ‘Greece was the word… that we were hearing.’ What a great leg our Greek Odyssey was, opening our eyes to this amazing southern European jewel. With eager eyes – and leaky eyes, it has to be said, as corner after corner of luscious, sparkling and generous spirit caught hold of our souls. Surely this was the pinnacle?

Although thankfully, very quickly into our nomadic travels, we learnt not to judge one place against another, as the world is so amazing, diverse and unique, that to compare is to dishonour. So we have learnt to be in the moment and fully appreciate all we are experiencing without too much comparison.

Although leaving Greece with a huge basket of mind-blowing memories left us wary about how we would feel about Bulgaria, which was totally new to us. Would we fall in love with this too, or would there be some disappointment after such a great Greek tour?

  Bulgaria – Route 1

Beautiful Bulgaria

Well our worries were soon allayed after a really easy border crossing, just north of Serres. Within 20 minutes we had passed through Border Control, changed our Euros to Lev (at a rate of 1.84) and bought our vignette for €20. We were ready to go.

With nervous anticipation of potholed roads, that many had warned us about, we headed to Camping Kromidovo. And the roads were actually great until we approach the campsite’s village where it became tricky to say the least. So a beautiful little campsite awaited us, greeted by English couple, John and Sarah, (41.454485 23.362855). A little retreat here was just what we needed as we allowed ourselves to decloak from Greece and ground ourselves into our new country home.

                       Melnik, wine region

Wine-region Melnik

A cycle to Melnik was our very first outing and as we glided down hills and climbed up ridges, we soon got a very good flavour of Bulgaria landscape and culture. People us gave toothy smiles and friendly waves, cars hooted warmly as they passed us with care and wild pigs, donkeys and wildlife galore fringed the roadside edges.

Melnik itself was charming and its architecture was nothing like we had seen in Greece. In fact, throughout our Greek leg, it was one of our biggest disappointments. So to see such rustic buildings built with dark oak and stone, with timbers reminiscent of England’s Tudor period, quaint bridges spanning across dry river-beds and the faint echo of Bulgarian folk music filling the air, was spirit-lifting.

                      Bulgarian musicians

Rhodope Mountains

Great food, tasty, cheap wine blended with generous, warm-hearted locals and pretty landscape, soon revealed that we had nothing to fear. Except things were set to get even better as we moved eastwards into the Rhodope Mountains to escape the impending heatwave. A recommended location for hiking, natural wonders and stunning scenery seriously appealed to us as we wove our way across the windy, undulating landscape.

                 Bulgarian watering hole

Reunited with our convoy buddies from Followourmotorhome, we had wild camping on our minds. It didn’t take long for the mountains to build up in front of us and the pine forest to consume us with their heady scent. The Rhodopes are simply stunning and our breath was taken away as we meandered around each bend. It amazed us to see timber huts along the roadsides with canteen tables, fridges and outdoor ovens with natural springs offering refreshment to the workers quarrying for slate tiles and logging the trees. This earthy partnership gave us a real sense of community spirit and compassion.

The Buynovo Gorge was our final resting spot that we would call home. After a nerve-wracking journey through the gorge with dangerous overhangs and heart-stopping bends, and infrequent passing places for the two-way traffic, we were very happy to arrive. Staying in heart of the gorge, with the sound of the river crashing through the rocks and the sheer granite walls towering above us, made this a gorgeous spot to rest our heads. Tomorrow we would explore.

The Fab Four Go Exploring

          Our dice with death, or so it felt!

Yagodinska Cave is one of the hotspots of the area, although there are so few foreign visitors here, so you will only share it with locals. In fact, in the last ten days we’ve only seen four other motorhomes, and they were Bulgarian. The Cave tour, in Bulgarian of course, took us deep into the earth with great architecture to wow us. In truth, the Dragon’s Cave in Kastoria, Greece was more impressive, although again, trying letting go of our comparison eyes allowed us the chance to see it in all its own glory.

All along the gorge route you have the eager smiles of the Safari Jeep owners all keen to take your €5pp fee for the adrenaline ride of your life. The Eagle’s Eye view point is a popular hike, although finding a route was difficult so we resorted to the jeep ride. Well we were not expecting the bone jangling, body shaking ride that we got. Scared half to death, although perversely fun! Here’s the video we cobbled together through the rather bouncy journey.

Trigrad Gorge

Our next stop was Trigrad Gorge, just across the valley.  Whilst we felt a bit caved-out, you can never tire of the scenery presented before your eyes. We found ourselves at a spot in Trigrad village for the night and took the walk down to the Devil’s Throat Cave. This offers visitors, for a mere €4.50, a sight of Europe’s highest underground waterfall, which has been traced by explorers for decades and they cannot find where the river exits the cave – it just disappears into the ether. The climb up 300 steps from the cave floor to the surface was a challenge, especially for Myles’ vertigo, although it was a totally different cave and always worth a visit.

                     Rhodope Mountains

My first solo cycle up the Trigrad valley, really nailed the beauty of this country, as I passed orchids, saw eagles soaring up in the forest and farmers looking after their potato and spinach crops. Eventually I ran out of road and the pathway to the village with a dead-end was just left to rock and potholes. The village had probably never seen a cyclist before let alone a Brit, so I felt like I was entering a hidden world, untouched by commercialism.

Heart-bursting Bulgaria

And that is my sense of this part of Bulgaria. There’s a real innocence and genuine simplicity about how the locals live their lives. They are not bothered by the internet going down or the latest gadget being released. They just care for their cattle, tend to their crops and make hay whilst the sunshines. How poignant a proverb that is for Bulgaria, as it seems all their efforts during summer are geared towards preparing for the harsh winter months.

            A gaggle of girls, Bulgaria style

So our first 10 days in Bulgaria have been an immersion into a culture that is so different to any other country we have seen so far. Hard working men and women walk with curved spines from their toil in the fields, cow herders in their 90’s still work with an energy that I’m jealous of and everyone has a smile or a wave for you. We feel safe, welcomed and endeared to this alluring place and look forward to uncovering more of its charm.

 

Warning superlative overload coming to a blog near you.  Karen x