Gap Year Days 111 – 123
Bulgaria! Yet another country that if you asked me about a few months ago I would have been hard pressed to even name the capital. I was so keen to visit though, because it seemed so exotic. I don’t think I know anyone who had visited here before (Edited – actually, I do, I just didn’t realise they had been here!) and really we had no idea what we were in for.
We had to get a bus from Bucharest to Varna in Bulgaria, which we almost didn’t get! About half an hour before we left for the bus station something made me double check where the station was. We had just assumed we were going to the main bus station. In fact we had to walk in the complete opposite direction, then wait in a carpark for the bus. Even when we got there we were not sure it was the right spot. The only thing that comforted us, was there were a few other people looking similarly lost waiting for the same bus.
Five hours later we were delivered to Varna. We had no wifi, as while we were in Bucharest our Italian SIM card decided to stop working. We’re not sure why, as it worked elsewhere in Romania. I can only assume that we had been roaming outside of Italy too long and contravened the EU rule about most time being in the home country. Anyway, in all our searching for the correct place to catch the bus, we had forgotten to screenshot the location of our hostel. Arghh! We were saved by another backpacker who let us use her phone to look it up. Only a forty minute walk with all of our luggage! We didn’t have any Bulgarian currency to catch a taxi, so off we went.
Varna is the third largest city in Bulgaria and it is located on the coast of the Black Sea. It has a population of around 350,000, but that swells considerably in summer as tourists flock here from all over Europe to take advantage of the great weather and cheap prices. Just a few kilometres up the coast is the resort area of Golden Sands, where there are many huge beachside hotels catering for all inclusive beach holidays.
Those big lovely hotels were not our base though. We had chosen a cheaper option – much cheaper in fact! A private room at the Central Hostel was just €25 per night. Unusually, there are no dorm rooms here, the whole hostel is private rooms. The rooms were clean and neat and TINY! There was room for a double bed and that was it! We had to have the door open to push our backpacks under the bed to store them. The shared bathroom was just down the hall and not too bad, but the toilets had some issues!
The whole hostel was self service. We only saw a cleaner the whole time we were there, and she didn’t speak any English at all. When we arrived we had to check in using a kiosk. Part of the process was to create keys by programming some of those credit card sized room keys. The only problem was, there were no blank cards for us to use! A phone call, language issues and a half an hour wait later, we got into our room.
It was about 10pm and we still hadn’t eaten, so off we go to find first an ATM and then food. It wasn’t our night, because our card wouldn’t work in the ATM and we had to dig out the card for the backup account. We finally had cash, and were wavering between exhaustion and starvation, and we saw those magical Golden Arches in the distance! But even that wasn’t to be our salvation! Inside was packed with only one person serving, there was no English at all and Bulgaria uses Cyrillic text so we couldn’t even guess what was what. So we gave up. Can you believe we were too tried to even work out a McDonalds menu? The pizza place not too far up the street was much easier to figure out!
The heat that had been following us around was still with us for our time in Varna. Each day was again above the 36 degree Celsius mark. Luckily we were right near the beach. We did spend quite a bit of our time at the beach, whether cooling off in the water, walking in the evening, or eating and drinking at the cafe’s, bars and restaurants lining the sand. During summer, when the sun goes down this beachfront turns into party central. The street is crowded with people, and the music pumps nicely out of the bars and restaurants. There are lots of nightclubs that open late in the evening and close in the very early hours of the morning. We didn’t test them out, but according to some of the young people in our hostel, they were pretty good.
The beach itself is – unusually for Europe – free to visit. It is even free to position yourself under one of the many umbrellas that have been placed in the sand. While there are plenty of people around, the main Varna beach is big enough to cope with them, and we didn’t feel like we were squished in like sardines. While I like to be near the sea, and I like to look at the sea, I am not really a swimmer. I did venture into the water here though. It was calm and clear and relatively shallow. This is probably fairly normal for Europe, and completely contrasts to some of the beaches in Australia (Bondi for example).
In between beach visits we found time to do a free walking tour. We spent two hours walking around town with a knowledgeable and interesting guide. Varna has been a town constantly for around 6000 years, so there is a lot of history. It ranges from the Roman baths, to the much more recent soviet-style town hall, with a balcony that saw all sorts of famous soviet visitors paraded in front of the local people as part of the deal to have a free beach holiday in the government houses.
On the guide’s recommendation we later visited the Archeological Museum. The museum’s claim to fame is the oldest processed gold anywhere in the world – some little gold loops which were possibly part of a necklace or bracelet. They are almost 6000 years old. We were lucky enough actually see them, because they have been out visiting some of the other big name museums around the world, but were back for a few months.
We also popped our heads into the Varna Cathedral. This is yet another busy Orthodox Church, with lots of gold and amazing scenes painted on the walls. It is worthwhile to at least have a quick look as you pass.
Our time here was a bit of a recharge, so we didn’t do a lot, but there really are so many things to do in Varna. The Tourist Information Centre was brimming with brochures and activities, so I suggest to go there right at the start of your visit. The walking tour also starts here, so maybe combine the two.
We booked train tickets to Sofia from Varna. What we probably should have done was book bus tickets – at least thats what nearly everyone in the hostel told us AFTER we booked the tickets! Mostly because the buses have air-conditioning, the trains do not. We really hoped they were wrong, but no, I can report, trains in Bulgaria do not have air-conditioning! We had a very hot and steamy seven hour train ride into Sofia.
In Sofia we were staying in three different places. The first two nights were at the Best Western Premier Sofia Airport. We had a great room with views towards the airport runway, so we could watch the planes take off and land. About an hour after our arrival though, the weather turned from hot, to hot and stormy! There was much thunder and lightning, so we got comfortable in our room and spent the rest of the day in.
In fact we spent the next day in too. Unfortunately, even while travelling full time, real world things have to occasionally be dealt with. Since we knew we were going to be outside of the city centre with less than stella public transport links, I had pencilled in this day to do our tax returns! We also spent the day catching up with family, and planning the next part of our trip.
What I didn’t know when we planned to stay in was that the Best Western shuttle bus would have happily dropped us at the airport to catch the metro into the city and then picked us up again later. We took advantage of this service the next day, as we moved into a centrally located hostel.
That evening we joined a very popular free walking tour to learn about the history of Sofia and learn our way around the city centre. It was fantastic doing this in the evening, as it would have been so hot during the day – although they do offer that too.
Sofia is one of those great places where everyone is free to worship how they like and there is very little conflict over religion. Within a few hundred metres it is possible to see a Catholic Cathedral, a Mosque, a Synagogue, and an Orthodox Cathedral. Some of the structures are relatively new, some older. When the country was under communist rule, religion was illegal, so many churches were destroyed. There was one interesting church we saw that was for some reason preserved. The tiny Church St George Rotunda is hidden inside of the Bulgarian Parliament building. The soviet-style building was built around the church, leaving it in a central courtyard. Church St George Rotunda is the oldest building in Sofia, built in the 4th Century. While the gates to the courtyard are guarded, it is okay to go inside and have a look.
Churches seem to feature in many of Sofia’s great stories. A well known trait of Bulgarians is to be late, and they now have a justification for it! In 1925, there was an assassination attempt on Tsar Boris III where the roof of the Cathedral Church Sveta Nedelya was blown up during the funeral of another prominent citizen. It resulted in the deaths of 150 people, and many more were injured. Fortunately, Tsar Boris III was not injured – he was not there at the time, because he was running late!
Part of our tour took us down the yellow brick road! Yes, this must been where those stories came from! We’re on our way to Oz! But no, just on our way to the next street in the centre of Sofia. The actual story of the yellow bricks is a bit fuzzy. Many people believe the bricks were a gift from the Austrians, but apparently this was a rumour spread by the government at the time. They had paid a lot of money for these bricks, and weren’t happy to see they were yellow, and also extremely slippery when they are wet (they were bad enough when they were dry!). The Austrian story was circulated to save face with the public, and justify their continued use. I mean, how could they refuse a gift without insulting the giver?
Our tour ended outside of the beautiful Cathedral Saint Alexandar Nevski (yes, another church). This is the one that you will see as soon as you start looking for information on Sofia. It’s no longer used as a church, it is now mostly a tourist attraction. It also houses a small icon museum. We didn’t go inside during the tour, but did go back later to have a look. We found it to be surprisingly old and a little unkempt. By now we have seen some stunning Orthodox churches, and with a little more TLC, this could be absolutely stunning too. Perhaps because it is no longer used, money is not spent by the church on it’s upkeep. (This was yet another church where photos where not allowed, so you will just have to take my word for it.)
One walking tour was not enough for us in Sofia. I discovered that there is a free food tour too! I had never seen a free food tour before, and as we were told, this was the first of its kind to be offered anywhere. While the tour won’t replace a full meal, we got to visit five places and try eight different foods and drinks. There were also stops in other places along the walk too, to learn more about Bulgarian culture and history. I had such a great time on this walk that I have written a whole other blog post on it. We even went back to one of the places later to enjoy more of their food, which is reviewed here.
Both walking tours we did had fantastic young tour guides that were knowledgeable and interesting. It is so nice to meet such enthusiastic people that are passionate about their country, and positive about the future. They generally acknowledged there is still work to be done, but Bulgaria really does seem to be going in the right direction.
Our last two nights in Sofia were spent at the Novotel Sofia. It was so nice to be back in a fantastic comfortable bed after the less luxurious hostel. The hostel also had a – let’s say – challenging bathroom, so it was a relief to jump in this huge shower, wash my hair, and even have a hairdryer to deal with the frizz! I felt human again.
We planned to spend the next day hiking on Vithosha Mountain. There is an old UNESCO church to see, and a waterfall and lake to visit. It is possible to do a free hiking tour here too (the company also offers a free bike tour! So many free tours in Sofia.) but we had chosen to do it by ourselves. Unfortunately we woke up the next morning to pouring rain. We waited, hoping it would stop, but it did not let up at all so we had to call off the hike. With no real plans, the most adventurous thing we did all day was wander over to The Mall (yes, that’s the name of the shopping mall right next to the Novotel) for a little window shopping before grabbing lunch in the food court. Even then we got soaked walking the few metres back to the Novotel.
And like that our time in Bulgaria was over. The heat knocked us around a bit, so we spent a lot more time relaxing, swimming, eating, drinking and generally taking things a bit slower. Next time we are back here I will ensure we get to Plovdiv as others told us many good things. We were also told there are some great snow fields around the place, so Bulgaria is not just a cheap summer destination, but winter too.
Sofia was a city of huge contradictions. As we travelled around, some areas look really drab and run down with old soviet apartment buildings lined up next to each other. Other areas had the new malls and facilities we saw. The city centre is clean, safe and easy to get around.
The only local transport we used in Bulgaria were the trains, which we’re clean, efficient and cheap. They were a little confusing to use, as the two lines overlap, but are drawn differently inside the trains, on the station maps, and on the Sofia public transport trip planner. We also found that when at the platforms and trying to work out which side was the direction we wanted to go, often the sign didn’t say the final stop on the line, but rather than next main stop. It was easy once we got our head around it though, and cheap – tickets were about €0.85 each. They are even less if you buy ten at a time.
I might have already mentioned it, but Bulgaria was cheap! We found it no trouble to grab a meal and a drink (beer and wine) for both of us for €10-15. The food court meal at the mall was more like €7 with non-alcoholic drinks.
Wifi was again widely available in Bulgaria. Everywhere we stopped to eat had it available. The malls and shopping centres we visited had it free too throughout the centres. Even the bus company where we booked our tickets onwards had it available. It was very handy while waiting for the bus to turn up.
Stefan Stambolov 15, 9000 Varna City, Bulgaria
From €25 per night double room with shared bathroom
Orient Express Hostel
2 Balkan Str., Centrum, 1303 Sofia, Bulgaria
€26 per night double room with private bath room
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Josie is a forty-something budget traveller. She only discovered travel in her late thirties, but since then has travelled extensively including taking an adult gap year. She is now based in Australia and loves sharing all she has learned about travelling on a budget but with the comforts a Gen Xer requires.