Let me take you to the Balkans again!
Living in France, I had a vision about Bulgaria and Romania. I always thought them to be gypsies and the two countries are notoriously dangerous and it was unsafe place to visit. Most of the crimes that happened in France were pointed towards Gypsy camps.
I had heard so many stories about the 2 countries that I changed my doctorate thesis topic, which was originally social housing in Sofia.
“Bulgarie, Roumanie? Ah bon? Mais pourquoi alors?” (Bulgaria, Romania, oh really? But why there?) were the questions asked when I told some Friends from France about my trip to B and R.
Let me tell you that Bulgaria wowed us in many ways and more than what we expected.
Some legal formalities before I actually enter the country.
- Indians need VISA to enter Bulgaria.
- If you are holding Schengen VISA, then you could enter without having to get another VISA. With Bulgarian VISA, you could enter ROMANIA (there is a small story which I would, without fail, tell you all when I arrive at the border.
- VISA formalities might take up to 3 weeks and costs 8k per person.
- Also possible for speedup the process of you paid more money another 8k per person. Possible to receive within 1 week.
Disclaimer: This information is based on my personal experience only, check with the consulate for further legal formalities
It was the end of September (30th precisely) and the weather was awesomely pleasant. To be honest we were a little red-faced when we learned about the weather forecast for the next few days of our stay. (I swear I had checked the weather before I packed all my heavy jacket, facepalm!)
On this note, welcome to the Balkans!
The first day in Sofia was more of relaxed and aimlessly walking in the main district of the city. We were too excited to eat the Crepe when we spotted a creperie that looked like a recreation park Carousel. I must admit, the taste was so great and the crepes were so huge that it was impossible for us to finish, even the half of it.
After devouring the gaint crepe, we strolled in the National Palace of Culture. Flanked with a large park and fountains, there are historical monuments and an overwhelming sense of vastness. It's the biggest multi-functional conference and exhibition center in South Eastern Europe.
After the tour we followed the yellow brick road, literally, the street is made up of yellow bricks, for some ice cream, we needed some fuel to gear up for more walking. We walked across the Vitosha Boulevard; the street is named after the famous Vitosha mountains surrounding Sofia. This is the main pedestrian walkway in Sofia and a perfect spot to relax, eat, and shop.
We indeed had a great time strolling in the busy street, enjoying the perfect weather and the jolly good atmosphere.
Our tour to the Bulgaria that I hoped to see began on the next day of our arrival. Morning, Hristo with his green Caddy arrived at the hotel lobby. He was a cheerful young man with so much of enthusiasm to show his beautiful country. I must say, he was truly a person with so much information and a true patriot.
After the brief intro of ourselves, we hit the road and began the real tour into the wonderful country.
We started towards this quaint little village called Melnik which is about 180kms from the capital. The journey was very interesting with some serious history of Bulgaria, starting with Proto Thracians of the 4000 years B.C then marching with Roman empire and discovering the Slavic and Proto-Bulgarians of the 7th century who came from the North of Kazakhstan, Turkey and part of Mongolia. Further how Byzantine empire attacked the Bulgarians and interesting to know that Romans were indeed defeated in this famous battle by ambushing in the Balkan Mountains. But this victory was unfortunately short-lived when the Romans attacked again and ruled Bulgarians till 1195 AD until the Ottomans. The atrocities were un imaginable which made the Bulgarians seek help from the Russians that eventually declared war against the Ottomans and were freed on 3rd of March 1878.
Somethings to remember
- Cyril and Methodius created the Cyrilic alphabets and was developed in Bulgaria in 865
- Pliska was the first capital of Bulgaria.
- 176 different taxes Bulgarians paid to the ottoman empire.
- Bulgaria was founded in 681 AD by the Khan Asparuh a descendant of Mongols.
After a brain storming lesson of History, we were in the place what I called a Wine sanctuary. Hristo told us to find a house that does not have a vineyard…. and we couldn’t find one, it was not a tough task since the village only has about 208 habitants and only few houses lined up along the sand pyramids with queer forms.
We were excited to come to the highlight of the tour; Wine tasting! We visited ‘Shestaka Wine cellar” He was a man that knew his wine. An absolute know it all about his work and I must say that his wine was ‘sacré’ like the French say. We tasted all his 4 types of wine, 1 white and 3 red wine. The beauty of the white wine was that is made up of 6 types of Bulgarian grapes. Here I go..read further if you are a wine lover like me.
So the 6 types of Bulgarian grapes
- Tamianka (for aroma)
- Sandanski muscat
These bouquet of grapes in one heavenly drink, made the day so memorable and enjoyable. Nasdrave!
Our first traditional try of Bulgarian food was at the lovely bistro in Melnik soon after the wine tasting. I am not a salad person, but in Bulgaria, I did not miss to eat the delicious “Shopska” in every single meal. Bulgaria’s renowned salad is a simple combo of diced tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and peppers, with grated sirene cheese. Shopska salad is the perfect appetizing companion to a shot of rakia, (a fruit brandy) at the start of a Bulgarian meal.
Ayran (buttermilk), Shopksa salad, Rakia, flat bread, Serene shopkska style with flat bread were on our table for lunch. We enjoyed our food while overlooking the once again queer shaped sand valley.
Next stop, Kovachevitsa. Vesco and Susi with their pet Bobby were waiting our arrival. This was the best stay, best food and best time in this trip. We experienced everything traditional here and I am glad that they were such good hosts.
We stayed in a traditional house in the mountains, with traditional construction with 15” wall plastered with hay and clay.
We walked a bit in the narrow-abandoned streets of this village until we thought about Susi’s yummy dinner and for some Rakia.
Here in Bulgaria, dinner is the main meal of the day with huge portions, long talks around the table and often soaked in a lot of alcohol. Bulgarians are heavy drinkers. Rakia is the strong, national drink, often home-distilled using plums, apricots, pears, grapes, and other fruit. I’ll admit, Bulgarian food isn’t the most popular in the world. Or in Europe. Or not even on the Balkans. But if you hadn’t tried it, you’ve missed on an incredible treat. I was awfully surprised as to so much vegetarian dishes and delicious too. As vegetarians we always have trouble in most part of the world except here. We had no trouble at all in finding what we liked.
That night was more like a couple of old friends catching up over a drink with traditional music in the background. Vesco knew how to play cool host, he played popular Bulgarian songs and Rakia continued to march on our table, non-stop. Dancing to Bulgarian music and learning a step or two was unforgettable.
We had no trouble at all to wake up next morning. After the breakfast we went to explore this beautiful town of 39 habitants.
Village of Kovachevitsa, was founded at the end of the 17th century AD, you can feast your eyes on a variety of Nature’s gifts gathered in one place – picturesque canyons, a crystal-clear river, thick forests, incredibly fresh and cool, towering peaks offering breath-taking views. All this will transport you to the long-forgotten days of the past. The village of Kovachevitsa is tucked away between the ridges in the remotest south-western corner of the Rhodopes. Stone houses several floors high hang over the narrow streets, their distinctive roofs made of flat stones. They say that once you wake up in Kovachevitsa and hear the chime of the church bell, your heart remains forever bewitched.
Waving good bye to our new friend Bobby, we drove towards another small and remote village Gela.
Somethings to remember
- Velingrad is the spa capital of Bulgaria
- Martenica is a small doll dressed in white and red that is exchanged on 1st March between friends for good luck.This can also mean a bracelet 🙂
The best part in having a private vehicle and a guide is you decide where you want to stop for coffee. We stopped in a very traditional looking café that had a magnificent view of at the mighty Rodophe.
It was quite dark when we reached this remote village. GPS did not really help us in finding our way to the place that we were to be staying that night.
The village of Gela lies in the outskirts of the Rhodope ridge of Karluk. Waking up to the melodious sounds of the chimes outside and to the soft sun rays from the window was magical, something that made our previous night’s drive so meaningful.
Located about 1500 m above sea level, in the heart of the Rhodope Mountains, the picturesque village is surrounded by three of the highest peaks of the mountain – Golyam Perelik (2191 m), Orpheus (2188 m) and Turlata (1825 m). The only disturbance that you hear is the bells from the cattle and sheep and soft breeze.
I had assumed that Bulgarians eat heavy dinner but after the breakfast, I would reconsider my earlier thoughts. We tried the traditional Makitsa and home made blueberry jam. As I tasted these yummies, I felt how lucky I was to be alive!
From here we would be driving to the most famous Wonderful bridges, the natural phenomenon of Chudnite Mostove or “The Wonderful Bridges”. This was a fascinating place. In this terrain of limestone, a unique landscape has been created by the process of aggressive erosion. Long ago these bridges had been one undivided cave, created by the power and destruction of river flow plus years of weathering. In time portions of the cave would collapse forming the impressive marble hole like bridges we see today.
This place is quite unusual due to its formation. There are 3 bridges which is interconnected to each other through Arches, buttes, sink holes and rocks. The larger bridge, consisting of 3 arches, makes it easy for exploration, the smaller bridge, being sometimes (in someplace) seemed impassable and then the third and the smallest bridge is defined as a ponor cave in which the waters of Erkyupriya River recede only to reappear again 3 kilometers downstream.
Northeast of Chudnite Mostove lies yet another remote beautiful secret, village of Kosovo. Rural life has hardly changed in the last century for residents of the villages in the Rhodope Mountains where horse-drawn plows are still common on family plots. Their stress-free and simple lifestyle has contributed to the longevity factor of the mountain people of Bulgaria.
The place where we stayed was yet another traditional house in the mountains. Backyard full of plum trees, apricot trees and dogwood trees (I hadn’t heard of this tree until that day). It was so much fun plucking fruits and eating them.
The Bulgarian Renaissance architecture has been well preserved and conserved in the village of Kosovo. With 11 habitants, the people of this tiny village seemed very nice and welcoming. Our host was a climber and we exchanged some valuable information about climbing and travelling that night over some fine wine and Sarmi.
Plovdiv is a popular touristic destination. Honestly, after visiting these places, heaven on earth, I had very little enthusiasm to enter a city. Since, I am a history enthusiast, it did re-awakened my senses and took me back to the Thracians.
Somethings to remember
- A must try food in Bulgaria is Sarmi with cabbage and vine leaves.
- Banitsa, a layered baked pie for breakfast with jam
- Bulgarians can their vegetables for winter.
- Rakia and Shopska salad is probably best combination in the world.
Plovdiv is one of the oldest cities in Europe – the beginning of its history dates back to 4,000 years BC. During the period of the Roman Empire, Plovdiv (at those times – Trimontium) was an important regional center. The city flourished with a large-scale construction of buildings, facilities and roads. Numerous well-preserved artifacts had remained from those times, such as cobble stoned streets, fortress walls, buildings, water supply and sewerage systems.
We enjoyed that day’s lunch. Eating in Bulgaria is an unforgettable experience. So much so that the cuisine alone is enough reason to visit the country.
On our way to Bucharest, we stopped at a Veliko Tarnovo one of Bulgaria’s most picturesque cities. The city is built on three hills, the tallest of which is called Tsarevets and is home to a massive historic fortress. Its unique architecture, Old World charm and status as former capital of the Bulgarian Empire are just a few of the many reasons Veliko Tarnovo is considered one of the most beautiful cities in Bulgaria.
We visited the Tsarevets fortress and our guide with is usual high spirits showed us and gave us all the necessary information about this lovey fortress, which I am not going to bore you with. However, I do wish to write about one of the strangest places, The Patriarchal Cathedral which is located in the fortress.
The Patriarchal Cathedral of the Holy Ascension of God (try saying that three times fast!) is located on the top of the Tsaravets fortress. It’s one of the strangest churches I’ve ever been in, with extremely unusual religious artwork inside. Whereas the outside of the church is very traditional, done in the Byzantine style with a traditional stone exterior, the inside is just straight up wacky. The interior of the church wasn’t always so strange. It used to be incredibly ornate, with floor mosaics of multi-colored marble and gemstones like sapphire. The walls were covered in more traditional Orthodox frescos. However, the interior decor didn’t survive the years, and during the reconstruction efforts in the 20th century, the church got a decidedly unusual facelift. Artist Teofan Sokerov repainted it, depicting images of Bulgarian history in a modernist – and rather creepy – style. Because of these strange murals, the church has never been re-consecrated and is no longer in use today, except by curious tourists.
About 195 kms towards North of Veliko Tornovo was our next stop, Bucharest. It was very exciting to visit another country.
Just a word of caution, at the border, there is a huge wait and if you are unlucky and fall into the hands a of a nincompoop the it would take another hour or so. With Bulgarian VISA, Indians can enter Romania. But as I said, if the officer is poorly informed or only a “stagiaire” then he could ask for an additional $500 per person in order to enter the country. But if you are an experienced traveler, you could always ask for a higher officer who would come to your rescue.
I find Bucharest more modern than Sofia. Lot of influence from both West and North. It was more alive than Sofia in terms of shops and streets. Transylvania always evoked a sense of mystery with all the dark and creepy legends and tales.
Dracula slept here…… Bran Castle perches dramatically on a hill in Transylvania, its burnt-orange-tiled turrets and steeples rising above a crown of trees in Romania’s Carpathian Mountains.
Irish novelist Bram Stoker based his fictional toothy vampire on this historical 15th-century prince, whose fondness for skewering enemies on stakes as a public warning earned him his nickname. Although Stoker never visited Transylvania, the Irish author relied on research and his vivid imagination to create the dark and intimidating stomping ground of Count Dracula, leading to persistent myths that it was once the home of Vlad Tepes, ruler of Walachia. While the association with Dracula is sketchy at best, the castle continues to hold a strong attraction for all fans of the Count.
On a moonless fall night, the imposing castle may look like a lair for the Prince of Darkness, but in the daylight the place actually seems more fit for a queen. Which it once was. Queen Marie of
Romania called the 57-room chateâu home from 1920 to 1938. Behind thick defensive walls, the castle reveals a maze of cozy rooms, nooks, and crannies; a balconied inner courtyard with a well; and even a secret stairway to a wood-paneled library.
It really doesn’t matter if you visit Dracula in your mind or the Queen, in the end, you visit the fragment of the old times 😊