Bulgaria
June 25, 2005 GMT
Bulgaria

At the beginning of June, the motorcycle registration expired. Dave's dad will get the new one in the mail, which he'll forward to a contact in Istanbul. But there are two borders to be crossed before we get to Istanbul. With an expired registration. Whaddaya gonna do? A little computer magic, most likely, with the scanned version of the old registration. Dave happens to be an accomplished computer magician and has produced a fine-looking-if-one-sided-version-of-a-registration that just happens to expire in June 2006. The following transpires at the Bulgarian border:

Jovial border guy at control booth (skeptically examining fine-looking-if-one-sided-version-of-a-registration): '' What is THIS?''

Dave: ''It's a California registration.''

Jovial border guy at control booth (with skeptical chortle): ''California registration?''

Dave: ''California registration.''

Jovial border guy at control booth (with skeptical chortle): "California registration?!"

Dave: "California registration!"

JBGACB (with continuing skeptical chortle): ''Crazy Californians.''

Thus we are welcomed to Bulgaria.

The welcome feeling continues when we stop into the first town of Ruse, which the book says has one of the nicest main squares in the country. All the signs are now in Cyrillic, so along with the standard new-country feeling of slight disorientation comes the added confusion of inability to read where we're going. All we see is boring apartment blocks. The young guy at the gas station speaks no English but tries his best to decipher our non-Cyrillic map and is profusely apologetic when he can't. He smiles and wishes us good luck. We've had a late start so plans to explore Ruse are abandoned for continuing to the day's destination, the hillside fort town of Veliko Tarnovo. Where we get lost again. Another guy stops to ask if we need help. He doesn't speak enough English to give us any but it's so nice to feel all this friendliness.

The town is laid out on hillside ridges.

Veliko Tarnovo.jpg

The initial approach reveals the castle and some low walls a third of the way down the hill. The road leads into a small older area which appears to be the extent of town until you continue a bit further and find yourself in a more modern main street covered with a plethora of fashion stores and trendy restaurants. You can't tell unless you climb high above on another hill that a typical apartment block part of the city extends much further into the distance.

In the center of town, we're approached by an older woman offering a room. She, perhaps, is too friendly. She takes us up to her apartment, which is okay, but when Dave tells her he needs a place to secure the motorcycle (which she does not have), she will not give up. It is hot and we're sweating in the moto gear but she drags us "just a few minutes" (40, there and back) across town to where she says the moto can be parked. It isn't secure. Still she won't take no for an answer. Over and over and over she says, "My place is in centar. In centar. Is good for you." It is with GREAT difficulty that we finally take leave of this chatty, slightly desperate and obsessive person.

More cruising around town takes place. There are some motorcycle guys, so we pull over to chat. They are from Veliko Tarnovo and one of them apparently owns a hotel nearby. As we stand around talking a bit he pulls a rifle out of his leather jacket. Guess we better tell him we like his hotel. "There's been a problem with wild dogs biting children so we're doing some hunting," says his friend. The guy looks just as likely to shoot some of the children. His hotel is too high-class for us but fortunately the gun remains focused on the dogs.

Onward ho. We spot a narrow cobbled street lined with classic old Bulgarian-style houses.

Old Bulgarian House.jpg

The approach is quite scenic, with a view of the homes seemingly perched one atop the other, amphitheater style. A murky brown river courses around a small promentory, which harbors an imposing statue and a stately museum.

Veliko Tarnovo and museum.jpg

However the narrow rutted road has no obvious outlet. Not wanting to be stuck in the laps of those curious old ladies who are eyeing the rather large motorcycle, we turn the bike around and head back.

At the start of the road, a bearded academic-looking guy about 40 engages us in conversation. He lives, he says, down the road and has rented rooms to people, but says his rooms are "simple". We don't care, simple is good; but though he brought up the rooms he doesn't seem that eager to show them. After chatting a while he leads us back down the same narrow road, Dave gingerly maneuvering the bike through the cobblestones and Erika walking alongside.

flowers along cobbled street.jpg

He tells Erika that both his parents died in the last 2 years, that people in the town are not much of a community, and that he lost his job some time ago. 10 minutes later we're back at the same spot where we'd just made the turn back out. A crumbling structure stands before us. He unlocks the door and we step in. Dust lines sheets of ancient plastic covering a bed heaped with clothes, books, a broken chair. Plaster is peeling off the walls. The windows are cracked and dim with dirt. "It would take just a few minutes to get it ready", says the guy. Um. And where is the bathroom? we wonder. He walks across a hallway spiked with protruding wood planks to a small room on the right. There's a low round thing with a board over it and a bucket of something on that, apparently a toilet. He mentions needing to take something out. This is hopefully not a reference to excrement. We like this guy, but. No sign of surprise shows on on his face at our euphimistic apology and departure.

Back up to the center of town, it's been hours since we arrived. We're really hot and tired. When yet another guy approaches us with offers for a room, with a garage, there is no hesitation. He hops into a car and we follow him down that same narrow street, the THIRD time this afternoon, to a spanking new place with a big airy room and a fabulous view across the river. Bingo! Dave stows the bike in the garage. It's a fine feeling to walk by the curious old ladies and say hello without the barrier of our astronaut gear.

And a good thing the place ends up being comfortable, as Dave will be spending the next 48 hours in bed there after picking up a nasty case of food poisoning. Images of sitting you-know-where in the previous crumbling residence and taking out bucketfuls of...stop! enough, we won't go there.

Before succumbing to the evil intestinal bacterial invasion, Dave has time to accompany Erika across the long green ridge draped in fortress decor.

fortress.jpg

A small group of tourists is entertained by royally dressed marionnettes, their voices propelled from somewhere else like the human sitting next to them.

marionnette performer.jpg

Historical religious events are depicted in stark modernist style within the fortress church; jolting and incongruous to the traditional setting yet also strangely compelling.

church door.jpg

At a small souvenir stall, we are given a short lesson in the Bulgarian language by a sweet young woman who is helping her mom out for the afternoon.

Teodora and her mom.jpg

The castle boasts a light show that can be seen from the riverview restaurant, where we watch while being served a truly gluttinous amount of food. Okay, so we ordered 2 pizzas, 2 breads and a salad, but portions were much smaller in Romania. Every last crumb is heroically gulped down as the castle fades from red to green to blue to gold against the darkened sky.

In case you're ready to buy that wispy pastel beachwear and those sparkly summer sandals, Veliko Tarnovo has them. It's a consumer paradise compared to Romania. The large, chain-type restaurants (serving intriguing tidbits like "stuffed chicken mess in veil") underscore the city's gravitation toward Western-style trendiness. We're also struck by the abundance of real estate offices--there must be two on every block. Dave pores over catalogs in one of the offices and considers buying a 15,000 euro fixer.

For the next few days, Erika lackadaisically peruses the merchandise between bouts of nursing unhappy Dave. More interesting than the stores is the National Bulgarian Museum, with its modern religious and secular portraits.

museum portrait.jpg

another museum portrait.jpg

She walks up 488 steps to the top of a hill but finds none of the anticipated views--disappointing, but good exercise. One evening we can see equipment being set up for a concert at the museum/monument across the way. A European Union flag is draped behind the stage, but we can't figure out the actual theme of the event. There are a number of impassioned speakers along with some surprisingly good singers.

concert.jpg

In all, 5 days pass before we leave Veliko Tarnovo. A fierce competition occurs between the street's old ladies as to who will get to keep Dave. Luckily for Erika he ultimately decides to continue on with her.

curious old ladies.jpg

Bulgaria is famous for its monasteries, most of which are in the part of the country we're not going to. The closest to our route is Dryavno, in a small wooded valley en route to Tryavna.

Dryavno Monastery.jpg

An older guy in the parking lot tells us that the monastery is a 45 minute walk away and offers (for a price) a guided tour. The distance doesn't seem right--isn't that the monastery right next to the parking lot? Erika goes poking around the ajoining grounds (which are indeed the monastery) while Dave talks to our would-be tour guide. He tells a plaintive story of being a French and English teacher for many years but having no work now. When offering his services to a tourist agency in the large seaside town of Varna he was told he was too old. Can you get me a visa to come to America? he pleads. Would that it were so easy...

Instead we continue on to Tryavna, a charming town showcasing traditional Bulgarian stone-and-wood homes.

Tryavna homes.jpg

River through Tryavna.jpg

Though it hasn't been blasted into complete tourist purgatory yet, it is apparently familiar enough with foreign visitors to provide our first taste of dual pricing. Tourist attractions generally cost about 4 times what locals pay. It should be easy enough for the desk clerk at a large hotel to rattle off the cost of a room for two, but instead she must consult her calculator to come up with that outlandish figure. Staying in a local person's home costs less, but it still isn't all that cheap. When will everything start getting cheaper? We enjoy the free things, like finding a local street fair and listening to the old town clock sing Bulgarian folk songs at 10:00 pm.

old town clock.jpg

The countryside isn't as dramatic as places we've been in the past, but the riding is pleasant. We ascend a low mountain pass that from a distance looks almost tropical. It isn't high enough to have pine forest but is covered in thick scruffy groves of trees and brush. At the summit towers a strikingly weird monument. It is Shipska, some kind of war memorial. We mount the stairs get a closer look but don't go inside due to more dual pricing, which Dave boycotts in principle.

Shipska war memorial.jpg

The first in a series of afternoon rainstorms starts now. Soon it's pouring down and the mountains disappear from sight. You can smell something wonderful--it's lavender, from fields barely visible in the rain.

fields of lavender between Plovdiv and Shoumen.jpg

The small rutted road gets smaller and ruttier as time passes. Potholes filled with water dare you to guess their depth. Dave doesn't know exactly how deep some of these rain-filled potholes are, but blasts through them on the Transalp anyway. Bump, splash, ouch, bump. It's kind of a useless, surreally nonsensical experience to ask directions from people whose language you can't understand, but worth a try for entertainment value.

In due time we reach Plovdiv. The manager at the accomondations agency speaks French, which she learned by growing up in the same building as the Belgian Consulate, which currently houses the accomodations place. We meet two American-seeming Malaysian backpackers who are also trying to navigate the lodging system. The room is a few kilometers away, with friendly hosts and a big hairy rug. It appears to have been harvested off the back of a yak hibernating near an anthill in a duststorm. One hesitates to speculate what might be nesting within. Erika attempts to shake it out the window. In the nick of time she hoists its mildewed bulk back inside, fortunately sparing any number of unsuspecting innocent pedestrians the tragic fate of suffocation by yak rug. Ick, now the sheets are covered with musty dust. Maybe we can shove it under the bed. Eew, now the floor is covered with musty dust. Perhaps it is meant that we walk on yak hair now as an introduction to yurts to be encountered later in the trip.

Plovdiv is a large town in the center of the country with that classic combination of features: a nice old town, a classic European style pedestrian walkway, tree-lined apartment-block-filled streets, and yucky industrial outskirts. It's not all flashy or striking but again there's something pleasant about the atmosphere.

local man enjoying the atmosphere.jpg

The first night we discover parks with trendy pubs and the walkways with their abundance of capitalist opportunities. So many more than in ex-Yugoslavia, though the peeling apartment blocks look pretty familiar.

Central Plovdiv.jpg

Dave on pedestrian mall in Plovdiv.jpg

Store in Plovidiv.jpg

It's confusing to find the old town. We stop at a park bench filled with a group of older gentlemen enjoying the shade.

older gentlemen enjoying the shade.jpg

They pore over our map but can't seem to agree on directions.

trying to agree on directions.jpg

After about 25 minutes of listening to animated Bulgarian a friend of theirs comes along who speaks French. He translates the story of his 80-year old friend, clearly a sharp and interesting guy. While the French speaker became a doctor, as did his 2 sons and his wife, his friend held over 20 jobs assigned by the Communists; he was never able to pursue what he really wanted. The 80 year old finally offers to walk us to the old town, as he lives nearby. While the frustrating language barrier has briefly disappeared with the help of our French translator, the liveliness dissipates as soon as we're alone with our Bulgarian-speaking guide. What a richer experience it could be if only we knew more of the language.

saying goodbye to our friend.jpg

The old town turns out to be 5 minutes from the park bench (that was 5 minutes of discussion for every minute of walking.) Its shady cobbled streets are peaceful and classy.

old town street.jpg

Erika falls in love with some ink drawings done by a kindly white-bearded artist and buys her first souvenir of the trip--you can't carry much of anything extra when a year's worth of gear for two people must fit in two 9"x16"x18'' side cases.

Erika and ink drawing vendor.jpg

At the top of the hill is the completely preserved and restored Roman amphitheater, still used for concerts and other events, and a good view of the city.

roman amphitheater.jpg

It is fortuitous to meet the French speaking doctor on the park bench as Dave's ear has been stuffed up. The doctor writes up "I need to see an ear/nose/throat doctor" in Cyrillic along with the address of a clinic; so on the last morning in Plovdiv it's off to the otolaryngologist. The clinic is conveniently located around the corner from our room, in (of course) a big communist-style building. Erika anticipates hours of waiting with hundreds of people and is pleasantly surprised to find that Dave's prediction of a brief stay is correct. Dave is pleasantly surprised to find it will cost only 4 times what locals pay ($20) for his ear problems to be flushed away.

doctor doing a fine job on Dave's ears.jpg

The nice doctor does a fine job, though, and 10 minutes later we leave the clinic with city noises returned to their usual decibel.

Leaving town involves the usual disorientation: exiting roundabouts on the same street we'd entered; driving down dead-end roads near abandoned buildings; recognizing landmarks we'd passed ten minutes before. Dave gets it all sorted out eventually. Then there's another rainstorm. More potholes and confusion. After all this, staying away from another big city sounds pretty appealing.

A large restored fort overlooks the city of Shouman. No one else seems to be staying at the lodge in a thick pine forest nearby. The atmosphere seems to be of another era, perhaps one when it was frequented by a more glamorous class of people. It still retains a bit of its faded elegance; fortunately the prices reflect the fading part. The proprietor cooks us what must be the only food in the kitchen at the moment: meatballs and french fries.

Fueled by some after-dinner raki, Erika sets out to find the fort. It's supposed to be a mere 300 meters from the hotel. Walk, walk, walk, not a fort to be found--just a grove of silver trunked trees glowing in the dusky light. After passing a large building where a Bulgarian version of "Hotel California" is blasting, the forest feels very still and the birdsong seems to echo off every leaf. A new sound she can't place contributes a slow, metallic beat to the evening serenade. The faintly visible image is as indecipherable as its accompanying sound, shadowed and dissected by the multitude of tree trunks. Why, it's that big musty yak, returned-to-life, traversing the forest with a green dye job. As its means of transport brings it close enough to see, the yak redefines itself. What do you know, it's a mass of hay, farmer atop, pulled by a horse-drawn cart. The horse's hooves fade away as the cart passes through, leaving the birdsong triumphant once more. Somehow it feels like one of those transcendent magical travel moments. Or maybe it's just the raki.

Next morning, a 300 meter walk in the OTHER direction leads straight to the fort. It's too early for anyone to be at the booth collecting entrance fees, so entrance is free. The walls can be summited for a panorama of Shouman and an overview of the remaining foundations below.

Shouman fort.jpg

On the way out, someone is walking towards the ticket booth--time to pay up. Instead, the young man takes us inside a small museum with artifacts from the region. He is studying ancient history and searches for the best English he can find to painstakingly explain the meaning of each and every terra cotta fragment. We offer up money at the end, but he waves it aside, saying, "You are my friends".

Shouman is also known for the Monument of Bulgarian Founders, looming over the city on a ridge across from the fort. Our book awards it high accolades along the lines of "ugliest monument ever". From a distance it does look kinda like some industrial complex severed by earthquake into bulky piles of awkward jutting blocky angles. It's almost as strange, though more interesting, up close.

Monument of Bulgarian Founders.jpg

Less interesting and predominantly strange is the old-tasting kebap lunch that day, obtained from a small street stand in Shouman. Erika KNEW she shouldn't have finished that thing.....

It's raining again en route to the big seaside vacation town of Varna.

Varna sunshine.jpg

A sign leads to an accomodations place at the train station, but they insist that there are no places anywhere in town with garages to store the motorcycle. A friendly Bulgarian guy who's noticed the bike strikes up a conversation--turns out he's lived in San Diego for the last 10 years and is visiting Varna on business now. He rides a motorcycle also and expresses regrets that he can't show us the local sights, but his train leaves in 10 minutes. Ah well.

But the eternal question--where to stay? Alongside a bustling shaded street is another accomodations place. In about three minutes the sweet young woman locates a room with garage. Dave is finally to get his wish: lodging in a Communist apartment block! The old lady waiting for us outside the building speaks no English but seems unflustered by the American tourists on the big bike.

Our hostess.jpg

We stay in what must have been her son's room; photos of an intense, serious-looking young boy morphed into an intense, serious-looking young man eye us warily as if to make sure we behave in his mother's apartment.

Varna is well equipped as a worthwhile tourist destination. There's the Archaological Museum around the corner (second floor closed for renovation);

Archaological Museum.jpg

the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin (or was that Ascention? what was she assuming, anyway?);

Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin.jpg

pedestrian promenades with many consumer opportunities;

Shop girls.jpg

traditional dance performances by Bulgarian kids and accompanying thunder showers;

Children's performance.jpg

and around 8 kilmoteres of beaches lined with restaurants and nightclubs and a buffer of similar length parkland to keep out reminders of the city.

Varna beach.jpg

Varna also supposedly has ruins of Roman baths, but they are hidden amidst a warren of narrow streets that refuse to yield any hint of this elusive attraction. Finally someone points us to a street one block from where we'd been circling ad nauseum, and there they are. It's an unusual arrangement: on one end is a pretty church; the rest of the ruins, which cover a small city block, are surrounded by modern residences and condos.

Roman Baths.jpg

A search for the quieter side of the Black Sea coast leads to the UNESCO World Heritage villages of Nesebar and Sozopol. Both are small, well-preserved historical towns on promentories surrounded by ocean. Not a lot of tourists up til now; but that must be because they've all been in Nesebar, fighting over the best souvenir.

Nesebar village.jpg

There's a reason places attract lots of sightseers, and it's clear why people are flocking here: quaint to the point of cliche, its cobblestone streets are lined with stores selling kitch to overweight sunburned consumers. It also has seaside fish restaurants with hawkers luring people in and typical Bulgarian homes and churches with their stone and wood facades.

Historic Nesebar church.jpg

Across the water lies Sunny Beach, which we were told by a few Bulgarians was a must-see. It's a Cancun style community with way too many condos and hotels. Must-leave.

Maybe Sozopol will be better. The ride south is pleasant, with far less (though still some) coastal development apparent. The route swings through the unappealing industrial outskirts of the large city of Burgas, where the thermometer jumps 15 degrees. Fortunately there are no skeletons of uprising highrises as Sozopol beckons in the distance; just a 2 lane road hugging a campsite-strewn beach and a small harbor. We cruise through the still-touristy but less-innundated old town before finding a place on the outskirts. The view isn't so scenic, encompassing as it does some smaller-scale construction to the south.

View from our Sozopol accomodation.jpg

But there's a beach below for that long-awaited dip in the ocean, and a low-key yet lively stretch of seaside cafes and restaurants where families are strolling and buying their inflatable water paraphernalia. Erika's morning walk a few kilometers to the old town uncovers sleepy cobbled streets not yet tramelled by descending hordes. Sozopol easily earns The Official Dave and Erika Bulgarian Seal of Pleasantness.

There's only one more night before heading to Turkey, and we still want to explore the much-less developed coast further south. The road winds through small coastal towns where the only visitors seem to be cows catching a tan on the sand.

cow beach.jpg

As clouds gather again, we pull off the road into the miniscule town of Sinemorets to a coastline reminiscent of Sonoma County, California.

beach below Sinemorets.jpg

What a great view of the quiet beach, dramatic with stormy sky. Wonder if that unusual umbrella-strewn geometric blue building might be a guesthouse?

Sinemorets guest house.jpg

The young, artsy-looking, English-speaking woman at the gate brings us into the high-ceilinged courtyard, where her father and some friends are gathered around a greasy lunch and bottles of alcohol. Haunted by memories of lardy overindulgence at Mihaelo's place in Bosnia, we politely decline. But we accept invitation to stay in the hippily atmospheric upstairs room, complete with triangular balcony overlooking the sea, as Fleetwood Mac blares from the stereo in the bar.

Dave on balcony.jpg

Sinemorets is low key, though the sky stirs up some intensity as winds howl all night and buckets of water dump from the heavens. Luckily only about 2 buckets leak through the balcony doors onto the floor. Next morning's early beach walk under grey is just a short leg-stretcher before we tackle the long ride to Istanbul.

walk along Sinemorets beach.jpg

Posted by Erika Tunick at 03:40 PM GMT
 

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