Saturday, 1 October 2016

OFF THE RAILS- Slow Train through Bulgaria

After a quite stressful time in Cambridge, we felt the need to get back out there and travel nearly as far as we could in Bulgaria. It's not a country we knew anything about, apart from the facts that is post Soviet, the poorest country in the EU, and famous for wine and yogurt, so we booked a cheap flight and arrived ready for a mini adventure. The applause from the passengers on the plane landing in Sofia was hilarious, and the Bulgarian pilot sounded like Count Dracula. The shuttle bus into town from the small, hot and smoky budget airline terminal had finished for the evening, but we managed to find our way to our Air B and B through the dark city with only a few hurdles.

Our first step on arrival was to learn Cyrillic, as most signs are in the script, and we weren't sure about how many people spoke English (not many away from the coast, and mainly younger people). We were struck by the very stern and serious looking Bulgarians. Even when we tried to break them with large smiles like grinning idiots, we often just got blank looks back. We got used to it, and put it down to their turbulent history, and to them being no nonsense. Even without the smiles, they were usually very helpful and kind.

Funky signs, Sofia

No idea what it means, but looks great!

Our first stop was Koprivshtica. We were excited to find the train carriages "Soviet style", with separate compartments, a long corridor leading down the side, and stern, but helpful female conductors.The trip from Sofia into the countryside was at first industrial, then gave way to giant sunflower fields, and finally forested, hilly areas.

Corridor on Bulgarian train

Compartment on Bulgarian train

We were dropped on the outskirts of the small town by the railway shuttle bus, and after wandering around an apparently abandoned part of the town, we finally found our guesthouse. No one was around (as we later learnt was normal in Bulgaria), but after a phone call, the old Bulgarian grandma and her efficient English speaking grandson arrived to show us our cozy room, set in a lovely garden, complete with outdoor BBQ and shared kitchen.

Lovely guesthouse, Koprivshtica

We spent our few days rambling up and down the hilly cobblestone lane ways, admiring the National Revival houses that were mostly built when the Bulgarians finally got rid of the Turks and could do their own thing (late 1800s). The uprisings began around this area, and many important revolutionary leaders came from Central Bulgaria, hence the many monuments, statues, memorials and paintings honoring them around. Even the new houses, and add ons to the old ones were in a traditional style, as the entire town is heritage protected. An interesting feature of Koprivshtica was the high wooden gates and stone walls which enclosed the houses and yards- a result of much ransacking over the years.

Stone walls with wood supports, typical of the National Revival style, Koprivshtica

Uniquely designed gates, Koprivshtica (note the giant man hole covers!!)

Lovely style, Koprivshtica

Many houses had benches out the front, Koprivshtica

Street leading down to the village center, Koprivshtica

A particularly grand gate, Koprivshtica

Love the ladder, Koprivshtica

The center of Koprivshtica was a casual square, with plenty of scruffy cafes and bars, as well as a few smart ones along with souvenir shops for the tourists. We tried our first Bulgarian beer, and discovered what a large range was on offer for just over AU$1 for a very large bottle. The Bulgarians seemed to like a drink, with the fridge at the train station full of only sandwiches and vodka, and many men drinking beer early in the morning at cafes. The shops were full of local fruit, such as pears, apples, nectarines, peaches and plums- all nice and irregular, sweet and ready to eat. We were surprised to see horse and carts in use by farmers- something we saw all over Bulgaria.
The weather was refreshingly cool, and we were glad of the piles of blankets to snug under at night. We slept so well, felt relaxed and were enjoying being in a new country.

Old boys in the village, Koprivshtica

Koprivshtica window

Inside Koprivshtica church

Soviet viewpoint, Koprivshtica

Nearly hidden, Koprivshtica

Wrestling match, Koprivshtica

Wonky old truck, Koprivshtica

The next town on the line was Karlovo. The train trip was exciting with several VERY long tunnels through the mountains, and the scenery was farms in the huge valley growing walnuts, cherries, grapes and roses. Bulgaria is by far the biggest producer of rose products in the world and this was the beginning of the romantic sounding Valley of the Roses. Karlovo was a quick stop for us, and a chance to spend a couple of days in an ordinary town with no particular tourist attractions. Bulgarians come here to pay homage to a revolutionary hero, but we just wandered around and discovered cafes and food outlets!

Wall art, Karlovo

Funky Soviet art, Karlovo

Karlovo train station

A real old beauty, Karlovo

Couldn't get enough of these old Russian cars! Karlovo

When we left, there was some confusion about our train ticket, and we finally found someone who explained that we must change trains half way, but as our first train was an hour late arriving, we didn't have much hope of a connection. Much to our surprise, we were bustled off the first train by the conductor and fellow passengers, and onto a waiting second train with no problem at all. This happened a few times during our Bulgarian travels, and we were very impressed with the organization with connecting trains. The scenery changed to birch and beech forests and was beautiful.

A local hero, sign on the train station, Bulgaria

Typical old abandoned train station, Bulgaria

We arrived in Tryavna, and found our amazing spacious room with a local musician in the center of the quaint town, filled with atmospheric streets and old buildings. Another reason we had come to Tryavna was see the Dryanovo Monastery (Bulgarians traditionally follow the Orthodox Christian church). We had a great time getting there and back on the train, being dropped at a tiny station literally in the middle of no where without even a station, and finding our way through the wild blackberries, then the forest and along a picturesque river. However, we were severely disappointed with the tiny church with modern looking murals that passed for the monastery. We have extremely high monastery standards after traveling in Armenia and Georgia, and this place really didn't cut it. To be honest, most of the religious buildings we saw in Bulgaria were a bit average, by our standards, and the high fees charged for entrance and taking photos didn't help.

Beautiful river near Dryanovo Monastery

The station in the middle of nowhere!

Back in Tryavna, we enjoyed the long narrow streets with pretty timber framed buildings- some had been transformed into small hotels and cafes, and others were still atmospherically in various states of disrepair. People here loved their grape vines in their gardens, to eat, presumably, but also to keep the garden cool in the heat. Apples, hazelnuts were also prevalent, as were conkers.

Exterior of very old church, Tryavna

Sneaky pic inside the same church

Typical Tryavna garden with grapevine

Curious custom we saw everywhere in Bulgaria, especially on doors- remembering the dead

Cats for sale! Tryavna

Lovely cobblestone street, Tryavna

Traditional building, Tryavna

Run down old house, Tryavna

View of Tryavna

Example of National Revival architecture, Tryavna

Picturesque old windows, Tryavna

Another train trip through the forest brought us to Veliko Tarnovo. We decided to head up to Arbanasi, a small village on the top of a hill outside the town, and tackle the bigger, historic Veliko Tarnovo after a few days. Arbanasi was a bit of a disappointment. Yes, it had a lot of National Revival style houses and wobbly old streets, but it was also filled with wealthy Bulgarians and Russians and every second heritage house had been turned into a flash hotel, spa or restaurant. We found the only "locals" shop in the village, where we wiled away some time drinking beers out the front and watching all the rich tourists. Although it lacked the charm of Koprivshtica or Tryavna, we enjoyed the lovely friendly guesthouse and garden where we stayed, and met a few Brits who had bought up cheap old houses in the area to fix up and spend holidays (3,000 euros cheap!). We were surprised how few of them spoke Bulgarian, and didn't envy them negotiating with solicitors, builders, electricians etc with no language skills!

First time Sal's seen rose hip, Arbanasi

Old ladies sold lace outside the churches in Bulgaria

Love this crooked tree, Arbanasi

Lane way, Arbanasi

Lovely wall, Arbanasi

The absolute highlight of our stay in Arbanasi was the Nativity church, a wonderful domed shaped building which was on the inside filled in every square centimeter with intensely colorful murals. It was well worth the 6 lev/AU$4.50 entrance fee.

Looking down on us, Nativity church, Arbanasi

Lifesized figures, Nativity church, Arbanasi

Beautiful shapes in the Nativity church, Arbanasi

After a few days, we moved down to the dramatic setting of river side Veliko Tarnovo. We decided to stay at our first and only hostel in Bulgaria, and found it good value (especially with the enormous breakfast AND dinner that were included!), with lots of lovely sunny places to sit and chill, but rather noisier than we'd become used to. It was full of young people traveling around Europe, although many of them seemed to be on the same trail.

Universal drink, Bulgaria

Decorated electric box, Veliko Tarnovo

More cats than dogs in Bulgaria :)

We immediately liked the rough around the edges town, and spent a lot of time walking and exploring in the old quarter. First to the huge Soviet style monument with wonderful views over the town, then to the Byzantine buildings in the Asenova area down by the river, with wonderful views up to the fortress, various churches, view points, squares and back streets, and finally, to the fortress itself presiding over the city. We are self professed Indian/Rajastani fort fanatics, and to be honest, they are pretty awesome and hard to beat. However, the fortress in Veliko Tarnovo was pleasant, and we even found some forest paths around the bottom away from the hoards of tourists.

Simple back streets of Veliko Tarnovo

View of Veliko Tarnovo

Church dome, Veliko Tarnovo

Gorgeous Byzantine architecture, Veliko Tarnovo

Asenova area, Veliko Tarnovo

Veliko Tarnovo fortress with moody sky

The church inside the fort, Veliko Tarnovo

Inside the church, inside the fort, Veliko Tarnovo

A town of views, Veliko Tarnovo

Fortress gate, Veliko Tarnovo

Close up of Byzantine window detail, Veliko Tarnovo

Forest path away from the crowds, Veliko Tarnovo

After a few weeks of traveling, we decided to head to what we knew in advance was the most touristy place in Bulgaria and home to many package tourists- Slanchev Bryag, or the horribly English named Sunny Beach. Sal had never been to an European beach resort before, and we thought it might be fun to embrace the tackiness and relax in the sun for a week or so. The quite swish apartment we found for a bargain price on Air B and B was also a good incentive. Well, it was tacky and built up; developed just for tourists; full of overpriced restaurants offering full English breakfasts and fish and chips; gaudy shops full of crap; overweight Russians and Brits; sex shops and nightclubs. Needless to say, it was not our scene at all, but we still had a good relax on the surprisingly lovely and warm beaches, enjoyed our comfortable room, people watched from our balcony, ate good Bulgarian food from a cheap cafe we found, and cooked for ourselves in our own kitchen. Our apartment complex was quite deserted, as were many of the hotels in town, and we were glad we hadn't come in July and August when the thousands of hotel rooms are full and the crowds must be horrendous. After a not very "Bulgarian" experience at the beach, we were ready to head back to the capital, Sofia, for our last few days. We won't be rushing back to Sunny Beach!

Sofia was not the most inspiring capital city we have visited, much of it having been destroyed in WW2, when Bulgaria chose the wrong team, sided with Nazi Germany, and were extensively bombed as a result. There were bits and pieces that interested us, such as the magnificent St Alexander Nevsky cathedral with it's multicoloured murals of icons and black and white tiles, and the small but fascinating market out the front filled with lace items, old photography equipment, paintings, Soviet and Nazi memorabilia, including old uniforms, pins, daggers, watches and medals. It was charming to discover the three gorgeous buildings of the old synagogue, the Ottoman style mosque and the Russian style Church of St Nicholas the Miracle-Maker all within a block of each other. The people were friendly enough, apart from the mean priests in the churches who shouted at Rich for taking photos. Most of the churches we saw in Bulgaria were topped with round domes, which from the inside had a mural of Jesus looking down, lots of sweet smelling incense and bearded black-robed priests.

Church of St George, oldest building in Sofia

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Sofia, a real beauty

Detail above the door, Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Sofia

Solemn looking mosaic, Alexandra Nevsky Cathedral, Sofia

Russian style Church of St Nicholas the Miracle-Maker, Sofia

Moorish revival synagogue, Sofia

Colourful former Turkish baths, Sofia

Millions of icons, market, Sofia

Monument to the Soviet Army, Sofia

Public transport in Bulgaria was generally wonderful. We tried to take the train everywhere we could, although locals told us the bus was faster. We loved the close up views of the countryside, the rocking rhythm of the train, and the interaction with people. They were incredibly cheap, and apart from one occasion, usually on time.

Excited before our first Bulgarian train trip!

Lovely scenery, Bulgarian train ride

There is an excellent train website, that we often pored over finding the best and most scenic routes to places. An strange sight was the elderly women employed to keep the tracks clean of rubbish and weeds- definitely successful, as we have never seen such spic and span tracks! Buses we took we also fine and the tram system in Sofia was very free and easy (as in no one pays!)
We found this page on the Bulgarian Railways website amusing:

Typical railway station kiosk, Bulgaria

Funky Bulgarian ticket office

Ticket in Bulgarian- had to learn quickly!

Incredibly clean train tracks, Bulgaria

Station master waving the train off, Bulgaria

Bulgarian food has a lot in common with Greek, with the national salad shopska being the same ingredients as a Greek salad, just cut up differently. They eat a lot of pizza, kebabche (spicy sausage), and kofta, (rissoles) as well as doner kebab in fast food joints. Other national dishes we tried were bob, a kind of bean casserole, and tarator, a cold yogurt based soup, both liberally sprinkled with the national herb, dill. Most places we stayed didn't include breakfast, but in Arbanasi, we took advantage of our host's good cooking and tried the continental style breaky one morning, and the far more exotic banitsa- a filling and delicious cheese pie with Bulgarian yogurt the next day. They love their cheese here- it's either sirene, a white feta cheese, or kashkaval a mild yellow cheese. The famous Bulgarian yogurt lived up to its name, and many mornings we enjoyed it with fruit and muesli. A meal in a cheap cafe or restaurant for two with beers was about 10-15 lev/AU$7.50-AU$11, and a slice of pizza roughly 1.50 lev/AU$1.10. Local beers were very cheap (less than 2 lev/AU$1.50 even at a more upmarket cafes), as were bottles of Bulgarian wine (less than 3 lev/AU$2.20 a bottle), and there were coffee machines absolutely everywhere in the streets (0.50 lev/ AU0.40 cents a cup).

Enjoying a Bulgarian beer in Koprivshtica

Bulgarian shopska salad- same same but different to Greek salad

Kebabche dinner, Bulgaria

Unidentified berries, Bulgaria

Tarator, a cold yogurt soup, Bulgaria

Mmmmmmm, we loved bob, Bulgaria

Breakfast, Arbanasi

Banitsa for breaky, Bulgaria

Our selection of Bulgarian wines, Slanchev Bryag (Sunny Beach)

Hazelnuts there for the taking! Tryavna

All the rooms we stayed in were immaculate, and cozy, sometimes with attached bathroom, sometimes shared, always hot water, TV (Bulgarian TV leaves much to be desired!), WIFI, and very comfortable and friendly. The cost was on average 35 leva/AU$25/£15, which, of course isn't cheap by our usual Asian standards, but certainly is in Europe.

Cute little kitchen area at guesthouse in Koprivshtica

Great room in Tryavna

Guesthouse garden, Arbanasi

Outside guesthouse, Arbanasi

Our "apartment" in Sunny Beach

Even though Bulgaria is in the EU (but has it's own currency, the lev), there is a certain mentality that separates it from Western Europe. It seems much more laid back in it's interpretation of "the rules", with things like smoking in public areas very prevalent. Although we don't like the smell of cigarette smoke, it was refreshing to see people being sensibly considerate with their fags, but still able to smoke outside cafes, train platforms and on room balconies.
The extremely Indian look of the local gypsy people was unexpected- nothing like the appearance of the "gypsies" in the UK. Most of them were ragged and poor looking, and there were a few beggars in Sofia, but mostly they stayed to themselves. We were very shocked to see a shanty town from the train, full of gypsies, rubble, falling down shacks and rubbish that would not have looked out of place in India.

Bulgarians have an extremely confusing tradition of shaking their head from side to side for "Yes", and nodding their head up and down for "No". Nothing like the Indian head wobble, which can mean various things, this was a definite unmistakable opposite gesture to what we know. You can imagine the puzzlement this caused in conversations. For example, on the train we asked a man "Is this stop Karlovo?", he shakes his head, we sit down, then have to jump up again when we pull into Karlovo. He meant yes. Another time, we asked a lady on the street if she spoke English, and she nodded. We were confused when we asked her a question in English and she had no idea what we were talking about!

Overall our month in Bulgaria was an enjoyable, easy and relaxing  time, and a great way to spend our last weeks in Europe.
We've been so lucky for the last eight months to be able to see so many of our lovely friends and family in the UK/Europe, and we are so sorry for those we were forced to miss, due to an unexpected lengthened stay in the UK due to Rich's health problems. The biggest thank you of all is to our sister and brother in law in Cambridge for their generosity and putting up with us for long!
Now, it was time to leave this part of the world, and head back to Asia and see what has been happening since we left eight months ago!

The man in seat 66!