I live in Bucharest, Romania and I must admit that I did not really visit our neighbors. Shame on me, right? That’s why this year I wanted to begin paying courtesy visits. I started with a weekend getaway to Bulgaria during the last weekend of April (April 28th – May 1st) with Veliko and Nesebar. Hungary, Ukraine, Serbia, Moldova, you are next!
For this Bulgarian weekend I have a 2- in-one story for you. My boyfriend’s and mine. I admit I was a little nervous when I asked him to write about it as I expected bullet points. Well, I got bullet points! 🙂 But then he came through and sent me his thoughts in readable form. It was quite fun to write this piece and I hope you’ll find it useful.
So, here it goes…
[My story]: Wear Comfy Shoes and Trust Your Sense of smell
I had heard of Veliko Tarnavo from a lot of my friends as being this boho place very close to Bucharest with nice cobble streets and amazing scenery for photos. And I so wanted to go. So when he said let’s take a short weekend off to Veliko and Nesebar I said yes and … did nothing. I let him do all the planning. And he did a great job, it turned out to be a relaxing weekend with long strolls, friendly people and lazy mornings in sun.
And this is how our journey began, with sunny yellow hills ahead.
Both Veliko and Nesebar are towns you can see in two or three days. My advice: wear comfy shoes, this is about to get medieval on your feet! Streets are narrow and quite steep, I believe the pavement is as old as the towns themselves. For example, Veliko, also known as the city of tsars, is as old as the 12th century and is included in the UNESCO Tentative List of cities and sites that represent World Heritage. The cathedral in Veliko is the focal point of tourist attractions and it is gorgeous during the sunset/early evening when it is beautifully lit. I do recommend you see it then and use the daylight to stroll around the little streets and discover small family tavernas with amazing views like the ones below.
Bulgarians are known for saying yes instead of no. If they nod yes they mean no and vice-versa so beware when you ask for directions or buy groceries, you might end up taking the wrong turn or buying eggs instead of water. And smile a lot when dealing with locals, they will be more inclined to help even if they do not speak English.
Another interesting particularity is how they commemorate their passed relatives. Short story: they poster photos of them on building walls and doors. The posters include a photo of the departed and a short description and they put them up in the neighborhood the person used to live. Morbid, strange, you say? Might be, but somehow it’s endearing that they still have that sense of community that the big western cities lack.
But boy, oh boy, do Bulgarians have some ugly buildings! I am not talking about the old part of Veliko, but rather of the working class neighborhoods and smaller towns we’ve gone through on our way to Nesebar. They have a fetish for castle towers – they stick them up on any type of buildings, including blocks of flats that have nothing in common with anything castle related. It’s weird and I found myself counting castle towers down the road. I did find some other cool sightings on our way – they have amazing pink trees blossoming in parks and quirky graffiti drawings to ease your mind.
All that ended once we reached Nesebar. I breathed in the salty smell of the Black Sea, the picturesque view of the harbor and … where to eat, of course! Stay away from the restaurants by the sea and try to wander the streets for smaller, more quaint family restaurants. For dinner we did trust the smell of fish coming out of a small place on a side street and ended up in an all white, small but cozy restaurant that specialized in fresh fish and local wine.
All in all, this is a good weekend getaway for Romanians who live close by. Road quality is poor so you do need a driver who knows what he’s doing and awesome music to keep you company on the road.
[His story] Road quality: Keep your Eyes Open and Your Seat-Belt On.
Choose wisely! Going to the Balkans during the summer is a smart choice only if you go to the seaside. Unless you want to sweat it out at 40°C in a city filled with cars and people acting like caffeine doped zombies. That’s why I recommend early May (and late September) for this trip.
Veliko Tarnavo/ Veliko Turnovo is a 3h drive from Bucharest on decent roads and crossing the Romanian-Bulgarian border is now rather fast as they finished painting the bridge (cost = 12 Ron, ~3 euro). Once you enter Bulgaria, you have to pay the road tax there (8 euro/15 Leva) and drive. You’ll see ugly buildings by the main road in Ruse, green scenery, yellow hills with rapeseed cultures and there you go, you’ve reached your destination. It’s a rather small city, with abandoned buildings, a handful of pharmacies – none you can find when confronted with a headache!, cheap-ish restaurants, but old badly paved roads, a few statues, many stray cats, some fortress walls to visit, a couple of museums and cool parks and…that’s about it. It’s good for a weekend escape (2 nights).
Take notice of sign language: If you ask if they speak English and they nod their head downwards, that is for sure a “no”, it’s just the Bulgarian way of sign language. That’s why it’s better to use finger pointing on the menu (pray you get one with photos!) and yes, don’t rely on the credit card: cash is king!
Accommodation: Hostel Mostel is a good choice, 20 euro/night/double room, near the old fortress.
Nesebar is an awesome place to spend a couple of days, mostly on the narrow streets of the old town. You’ll reach it if you drive on towards the Black Sea, half of the distance is on smooth highway. The other half, well, as Forest Gump once said (probably about the roads in East Europe): ‘it’s like a box of chocolates, you’ll never know in what pothole you’ll get stuck’. Keep your eyes open. And the seat-belt on.
Prices in restaurants are rather high and smell like tourist traps from a distance, some even smell of fried fish, a good bait for the hungry confused pedestrian. Again, cash is king – leva/euro/lei. Spoken languages there – mostly Bulgarian and Russian. Tourists – mostly friendly Romanians. In terms of costs: car parking – 2 leva/hour or 8 leva/day, bird shit – free. Cheap authentic wine = 2 or 3 euro in the local shops.
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