My first stop in Bulgaria, Veliko Tarnovo, featured in my top five places to see in Europe, a fact I forgot when I arrived in a ‘travel grump’ and immediately felt like I wanted to leave.
At the train station I had to dodge weird men who did not own a taxi, and when I got into an actual taxi, I was told that Bulgarians are bad people and that the EU only benefits Germany and France. Then at the hostel, it was like a hippie commune! Jaunty rating, 0.
Once I’d had some dinner, water and relaxed, I started to remember why I was here and was much happier. Turns out a seven hour journey without aircon in 32C can make you a little irksome!
I got myself to bed early and woke up at half six to explore the old medieval capital of Bulgaria on my own, before joining a free walking tour at 11am. Seeing places before most people are awake is completely different to when a place is thriving with activity, and I really enjoy the juxtaposition. Firstly, I had a chore to complete; I needed some actual cash as Romanian leu weren’t cutting it here unsurprisingly, before heading back to the hostel breakfast.
In the dining room, I met a touring cyclist (how many of these are there?!) who essentially hadn’t had a set morning meal in three months and was going for it. This woman didn’t need anything and was even unphased when her mobile was stolen. I marvelled a bit as it showcased a hardcore level of nomad-ness.
The walking tour, my second of the trip and of all time, was historical and covered twenty one points in the city, all associated in some way to the city’s past. The tour discussed many things, from why they sided with Germany in the war (to regain lost territories), to how they were very nearly the modern capital of Bulgaria, but lost out to Sofia due to one deputy judge’s vote. As someone who never really considered walking tours, I think I’d like to do one in London when I’m back as you learn so much, things you can’t just simply Google, as most of it is from a local perspective.
Once I said goodbye to the group, including a girl I hope is reading this, I marched up to the famous fortress and whoah, was it hot! With limited shade I climbed to the top. The orthodox church that stands tall above the city is unique for being decorated with cuboid art and it was bizarre and amazing to see (juxtaposition again). You just don’t expect it and the shock value was a nice surprise after that climb.
I then took perhaps the best selfie of the trip when I’d walked back down, and then up and along the right tower:
All of this called for an ice-cream, after which I headed back to the hostel to book a taxi to the train station. A small place, the trains aren’t known for being on time or for the time advertised, so I got there early to ensure I made it to Sofia, the modern capital, the same day. In my travel notes, I’d marked this route as a night train but realised I could get a much better train without a reservation. So, last minute, I booked a night in a hotel – aww, this will be nice – for my first night of three in Sofia; the others are hostel stays.
Sat on this train at the moment, I was initially adopted by a lovely Bulgarian couple who didn’t speak English, and I of course can’t speak Bulgarian, but we did a good job at communicating. I showed them my route and understood from a mime that his daughter of my age spent last summer in Canterbury, UK strawberry picking. Unfortunately, I have since been abandoned!
If you’d like to go to Veliko Tarnova and do your own walking tour, I think it could be given a couple of nights stay rather than my one. I did everything I wanted to and even had some downtime in the sunshine as well, but it’s meant to have a good night life and more could be made of the museums. You could actually experience culture shock here; there is little money and it shows in dilapidated buildings and in the number of local beggars. My taxi driver described it as ‘the real Bulgaria’ but in truth, it’s just one of many rural locations left in the shade of a mighty capital. The best feature in my eyes, is the natural location of the city, set in an expansive valley that showcases the fact a third of Bulgaria is made up of forest.
PS – I have a bite on my leg.