Tim likes to travel. Follow his adventures as he explores the world.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Veliko Tarnovo and Vratsa, Bulgaria: The Balkans by Bus Road Trip Christmas 2016 pt. 6

This is a six-part blog. Here are the links to all of them:
Veliko Turnovo and Vratsa, Bulgaria / Final thoughts


Having fun at the Tsarevets Fortress, even though it's -3 degrees
Having fun at Tsarevets fortress, even though it's -3 degrees


Day 13: Just arrived in Sofia at 23h30. Wind is unforgiving as I walk down the street to the hostel. Greg arrives two and a half hours later and we chat a bit before heading to sleep.

Day 14: Wake up after three hours of sleep and head straight out to bus station. Eat breakfast at the bus station. When I pay, I get that familiar friendly Bulgarian treatment, as the lady reluctantly breaks my 20. Why do large bills even exist? 

We have a full bus to Veliko Tarnovo, and though it's a bumpy ride, we still manage to grab an hour of sleep. Arrive in Veliko Tarnovo and there is snow and ice covering the ground. We have to whip out GPS, as no one in the bus station speaks English and we don't see an information area. We decide to take a shortcut through Park Sveta Gora and see the Asenevtsi Monument and Natural Art Museum. We don't realize that there is no direct route to our hostel from here, so we have to backtrack a little before we can continue on. Good thing, because we stumble upon the old Main Street, which is lined with signs explaining history and culture.

Arrive at Hostel Mostel and drop off our bags. Go up and walk around Tsarevets Fortress. Great views of the city covered in snow. As you walk around you can hear speakers that give information about the fortress in English. Greg has a new camera, so we take all the photos. There is nothing that wasn't photographed this day. My hands and toes are freezing. The steps to the Patriarchal Cathedral St. Ascencion at the top of the fortress are so slippery that I almost died several times. Greg literally had to grab me once and saved my life. 

We are hungry so we walk to find restaurant but everything is closed. Oh yeah, it's Christmas Eve. We walk to Samovodska Charshia (old market) and find Stratilat (Bulgarian for "leader") restaurant open and eat there. On the way back to the hostel, we stop at the Birth of Mary Orthodox Church and there are a lot of people inside, maybe because it's Christmas Eve. 

Head back to the hostel and eat the spaghetti carbonara dinner that is free for the guests of the hostel. It is Christmas Eve and there are six of us in the hostel and Greg and I want to spread some holiday cheer, so we round everyone up to hang out and play some card games. I make homemade eggnog for the first time in my life, without using a specific recipe and it actually turns out quite delicious. Joe from North Carolina is on night duty, but joins us anyway. Mayra from Colombia, Pablo and Cristina, brother and sister from Mexico, Greg and I have a good time playing and speaking half the night in English and half in Spanish.

Thoughts: Like a hundred coffee vending machines all around town. Seems no one outside of the hostel and the restaurant spoke English, which offered us that authentic I'm-a-foreigner experience. Today was definitely the coldest I have been on this trip, especially since there was no sun and snow was everywhere.


Artistic photography and handstandery
Artistic photography and handstandery

Frozen river, snow, fairy tale landscape... we're just missing Elsa (yes, I've seen Frozen)
Frozen river, snow, fairy tale landscape... we're just missing Elsa (yes, I've seen Frozen)

The 5th tsar has arrived
The 5th tsar has arrived

I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. Newton
I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. Newton


This was a well-protected fortress
This was a well-protected fortress 

Murderous steps
Murderous steps

Inside the Patriarchal church seemed to be water-painted instead of the traditional painting style
Inside the Patriarchal church seemed to be water-painted instead of the traditional painting style



Day 15: Free breakfast at the hostel, shower, and then say goodbye to everyone to catch a cab to the bus station to catch our bus to Vratsa. Randy, the guy at the hostel, who is from the area of Vratsa, says we are going to the poorest region in the EU. There are six people on our 20-pax bus and very few other drivers on the road. Stop halfway through to go to the bathroom and grab a snack, but we don't realize we can't eat on the bus so we try to stuff our faces with part of our snack and then put the rest with the luggage. Then we get on the bus and see a girl eating. She was sneakier us.

Arrive in Vratsa and Alex lives really close by, so he walks to come pick us up. He speaks little English so we mostly communicate in Spanish. When we get to his house, we are greeted by his puppy, a full-sized German Shepherd. Alex has a pull-up bar in his house, though he never uses it, so Greg and I ensure it's not just a decoration and do some pull-ups. Then, Alex treats us to his homemade rakia. There's no food in the house, so we head out to see the town and to eat dinner.

We walk down the main street as Alex explains the history and information about the town. Alex confirms that this is the poorest region in the EU. He said he recently bought a second house for 1,200€. We walk throughout the town, but all the restaurants are closed. Shortly thereafter, we find the only restaurant open on Christmas and have dinner. Alex's friend, Emilian, joins us for dinner.

Later some more of Alex's friend show up, plus an instrument maker, who brings 10 instruments to share, as we sing songs and play instruments together. The musician gifts me a giant maraca-type instrument. When we leave the restaurant, it is raining - the first time on my trip. Head to a rock bar and mingle with everyone there. We stay out super late, making new acquaintances and eating other people's popcorn.

Thoughts: I was surprised to see so many people in the rock bar on Christmas day, but most of the people were young people that are just home for the holidays. There is a 2 lev bill and coin in circulation, as they are phasing out the bill for the coin. This time around I spoke more Spanish in Bulgaria than English.


Plaza Hristo Botev, ice skating, and two pinos  (pino is Spanish for "pine tree" and "handstand")
Plaza Hristo Botev, ice skating, and two pinos
(pino is Spanish for "pine tree" and "handstand")

We even got to eat some typical Bulgarian dishes
We even got to eat some typical Bulgarian dishes 





The band broke up shortly after this photo
The band broke up shortly after this photo

Day 16 and 17: After almost no sleep, I catch a train to Sofia, with the idea of seeing the beautiful scenery that is not offered by bus, but I sleep the whole train ride. It's a rainy day in Bulgaria. Catch the metro to the airport. At security, they almost take my souvenir maraca and I have to play it to convince them that is just an instrument. After a few hours at the airport, I finally fly out.

Land in Madrid, but have to wait five hours for the bus to Pamplona. Alsa must have heard me talking bad about them (Day 4) because my first bus is a premium bus and we get breakfast, coffee, tv's and very comfortable seats. I paid less for this bus than the normal one! Transfer buses halfway through the trip, back to a mediocre bus - they just wanted to tease me. I get home in about five and a half hours. 

Thoughts: People in Bulgaria who work a job where they are supposed to give you information are super unhelpful, but random people and people on the street are more helpful and kind. Ainhoa bought me some winter socks before the trip and they really made a difference. My ribs are still sore from a few days ago. The weather in Spain is so nice at 11 degrees.


Goodbye Balkans. It was fun while it lasted
Goodbye Balkans. It was fun while it lasted

Accidental upgrade to first class
Accidental upgrade to first class


Final thoughts: Thankfully, I never used my poncho on this trip. I've now been to 35 countries in Europe, on my quest to see all 50 countries. I spent over 60 hours on buses, 6 hours on planes, and 5 hours on trains during this trip. Of my 17 days of travel, about three were spent on some form of transportation. I spent an average 38€ per day. This is the second longest trip I've ever taken at 17 days, after my 18-day trip to Aix-en-Provence.

In the Balkans, I noticed some common themes:
-St. Cyril and Methodius statues (missionaries and inventors of two slavic alphabets)
-The cuisine is quite similar
-Alexander the Great
-Stray animals
-The decorations inside of churches. Mosques and churches have amazingly painted ceilings. So doing that in my house one day.
-Crosswalks are just a suggestion for drivers, pedestrians need to cross with caution
-Sidewalks are not well made and sometimes just disappear
-Mother Teresa
-German Christmas markets are in every country in Europe.

It's ironic that I disliked history class in school, but when I travel, I absolutely love the history and culture. Learning about cultures and history in the school system is like eating processed food: shoveling crap to feed the masses, devoid of nutrients, only adding synthetically created minerals and vitamins. Traveling is like eating real food prepared by a local's grandmother - fulfilling down to the soul.


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Location: Bulgaria

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