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.
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.
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.