Bulgaria – a beautifully diverse Balkan nation.

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Finding a bus for the onwards journey to Ruse, a small town just across the Danube in Bulgaria was a difficult task in itself. Finally, after hours of scouring the internet, we found a small company called Pegasus who ran a daily minibus across the Bulgarian border. The three hour journey cost us ten euros each and was really pretty enjoyable. A sort of VIP experience in a slick Mercedes minivan. We had never been to Bulgaria, and knew very little about the country. Apart from Gheorghe Hagi, a great attacking midfielder in the nineties and Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur’s former forward, Diemetar Berbetov, my knowledge was pretty appalling. I’d heard of very few of its popular travel destinations, only Varna on the Black Sea, Sunny beach, famous for all the wrong reasons, after an ITV series on its infamous beach resort and the capital city of Sofia. As always, we were both excited about exploring a new country. We arrived at a shabby bus station on the outskirts of Ruse and grabbed our rucksacks ready to find our guesthouse. After walking for about three kilometres in the searing heat past a music arena and the local football stadium, we arrived. The owner was a lovely guy with a beaming smile and after showing us to our small but cosy room, asked if I would like to drink some Rakia with him in the evening. Rakia is a Bulgarian spirit and can be up to eighty percent proof! He told me the locals sip it at breakfast or enjoy it with a salad in the afternoon.

An international gymnastics competition was taking place and a team of girls from Kazakhstan were staying in our hotel. Ruse itself was a pretty laidback town and was visually eye catching with its central square, cafes and fountains. We walked down to the banks of the Danube, but to our disappointment all we found was some half naked Bulgarians enjoying the sunshine and a cold beer. On the way back to our guesthouse, we found a local restaurant with a menu only in the Cyrillic language. We guessed at a couple of dishes and ended up with a delicious Bulgarian Shopska salad. Shopska is a tasty mixture of cucumber, onion, tomatoes and sheep’s cheese. That evening, we sat watching a group of local lads playing beach volleyball, and no, for once I didn’t partake in the Rakia drinking! Early the next morning, I woke up early and took a jog around the city. Now I hadn’t been running for at least three weeks so this was a real shock to the system. I would say it was more like a slow crawl around town. Running has been a passion of mine for years, I find it extremely therapeutic and alone time to gather your thoughts. I’m not a competitive person, I enjoy it purely for enjoyment and relaxation. I find, it can be one of the best ways to see a city, just pick a direction and off you go! It’s great to see the hustle and bustle of local life going on around you. I especially love to run early in the morning when it’s still nice and cool, it sets you up for the day. It’s pretty hard not to stop when you see locals tucking into delicious pastries and coffee. The weather in Ruse was close to forty degrees, so during the day it was pretty much a six hour siesta, sitting in the shade eating ice cream. I would say in the six months we have been away, Miz and I have probably had over one hundred ice creams…we love it so much and have discussed opening an ice cream parlour back home in Oxton Village on many occasions, good idea anyone?! We left Ruse the next morning on a local minibus to the small village of Sreburna where we would stay with our friends John and Jo.

The bus journey was lovely as we passed endless farmland, patchwork of fields filled with lavender, sunflowers and corn. The driver pulled up at a layby and pointed in the direction of the village. In fact, the driver along with the rest of the people on the bus found it pretty confusing that two travellers would be getting off here in the first place. “Are you Myriam?”, a voice called across the road. It was John, he had waited for our bus to arrive. John and Jo moved from Manchester to Sreburna about eight years ago and have a house with a beautiful garden in the village. They started a business as a guesthouse, mainly for tourists who use the popular Danube cycle routes and wildlife enthusiasts who come to witness the natural beauty of Sreburna nature reserve. The reserve has been recognised by UNESCO and is home to over eighty species of birds, including the elusive Dalmation Pelican. The village itself is tiny, it has a shop, a couple of pubs and a small restaurant. John and Joanne have been accepted into the local community and play an active part in village life.

The nature reserve has a museum overlooking the lake and offers free use of binoculars so you can zoom in on the wildlife. John takes great pride in his garden and grows all sorts of fruit and vegetables, including cherries, walnuts, hazelnuts, grapes, tomatoes, pears and apples. The local neighbours are known to pop their heads over the fence, kindly offering all sorts of delights. I loved the garden and we spent a few relaxing days enjoying the colours, flowers, wildlife and peaceful surroundings…oh and they also had a pool which was perfect as the mercury was at boiling point. John and Jo took us to the nearest town, Silistra, the scenery of the lake and the surrounding area was lovely, as was Silistra which is right on the banks of the river Danube. We ate ice cream and strolled through the shady park. John and I had a haircut. John had to explain to the barber exactly what I wanted, I felt like a little boy when your dad used to have to explain for you, it was great.

One evening at dusk, Miz and I took a walk along the river, the amount of wildlife was amazing. Flashes of kingfishers, pelicans, storks and some birds of prey, it really is a beautiful place. The next day, John and Jo’s daughters arrived for a holiday. They were so lovely and we all had a feast at the local restaurant. As the guys dropped us at Silistra bus station the next day, we were sad to leave. It had been great to spend some time with fellow brits, especially ones who had looked after us so well. Thank you guys, until we meet again!

The bus to Varna was pretty cramped, but the scenery yet again made up for this. Fields and meadows full of colour in every direction. Varna is a port city and seaside resort on Bulgaria’s Black Sea. It’s Bulgaria’s third largest city. It has fabulous city beaches and a huge sea garden which stretches five kilometres along the coastline. It was hammering down with rain as we jumped off a local bus on the highway. Trying to locate our hostel, flip flops simply aren’t built to withstand these monsoon conditions, as I nearly went flying on several occasions, much to Miz’s amusement! After marching up a never-ending hill, we saw the signs for Yanni’s guesthouse. The owner and his Thai wife upgraded us to one of their newly built Thai inspired beach huts. It was great, with a super comfy bed, a proper quilt, sky tv, a fridge and a modern bathroom. We also had a balcony which came with the most annoying dog in history, a little puppy which took pleasure in chewing on your feet, towels and sprawling right across the floor! There was a pool and a roof terrace with views out to the black sea. Miz and I headed back down the hill, which looked much better in the sunshine, to explore the local area. St. Constantine and Helena was the closest town to our guesthouse, and is predominantly a holiday resort for tourists travelling from the Balkans and Russia. It’s a pleasant place with a handful of decent beaches, restaurants and bars. We found an Italian restaurant two minutes from our hotel which served up extremely tasty and cheap pizzas. We went on my birthday before watching England v Tunisia  in the world cup, well the first half anyway. I fell asleep during the second half as it was so boring and the fact I’m getting so old I needed a nap. We took the bus into Varna the next day. It really was a super place and has the perfect mix of relaxing beaches, beautiful architecture and the hustle and bustle of city life. We strolled, sat in the sun and had a swim in the chilly water.

Next, we would travel inland to a place John had recommended to us, Veliko Tarnavo. The bus journey was four hours. As our altitude increased, the scenery became more dramatic. It’s a country full of natural beauty and the interior is often overlooked due to the lure of the coast. Veliko Tarnavo or Great Tarnavo in English is located on the Yantra river and attracts many tourists with its unique architecture. The old town is situated on three hills and offers breath-taking views in every direction. The town has an amazingly well preserved fortress, city walls and a charming old town with beautiful cobbled streets. It has over five thousand years of history and can easily captivate you for a few days. The owner of our guesthouse picked us up from the bus station. He showed us to our room in his two hundred and fifty year old house, complete with original wooden beams and locks. It was a wonderful relic of the past. We chatted to a couple in their sixties from New Zealand who had recently retired and had decided to travel for the next year or so. We then ventured out into the old town to explore. The town was full of antique shops, traditional eateries and viewpoints to enjoy the landscape from. Miz and I decided to walk up hundreds of steps to the highest point which nearly killed us. It was certainly worth it as the viewing platform offered three hundred and sixty degree views of the surrounding area. Wow, it was really something else. We had yet another chicken kebab, always the cheapest option when travelling on a budget and strolled through the old town back to our ancient but cosy living quarters. It turned out the owner of our guesthouse also worked in the local tourist information office, he really did have a real passion for his town and turned out to be a real stato when it came to facts and inside knowledge of the town. We headed out on the free walking tour along with a handful of tourists from an array of different countries. A couple from Virginia, two Spanish guys from Bilbao, a girl from Nebraska, a couple of Russians and an older German couple. Our guide was excellent and gave us a real insight into Veliko Tarnavo. One strange fact is in Bulgaria nodding your head actually means no and shaking it means yes…see you learn something new every day.

After the tour, we had a quick siesta to escape the midday heat, then headed up to Tsaravets. Tsaravets is a medieval stronghold located on a hill overlooking the city. It’s history dated back to 1185. The heat was searing as we sat on a bench taking the view in. All of a sudden out of nowhere, huge gusts of wind powered through the fortress and the valley below it, it was so refreshing. That evening, we ate ice cream for tea, not sure why, we just fancied it! Free walking tours really are a great way to find out about the city or town you are visiting. The guide is usually a local student who has local knowledge. They offer not only a history lesson but, local myths, legends and tips on great places to eat, drink and visit. It is also a great environment to meet other travellers from all over the world. Walking tours are offered all over the world and usually last between two and three hours. From Tarnavo, we took a minibus onwards to Plovdiv, now this bus took forever. Like most buses in Bulgaria, it stopped just about everywhere. We saw about one hundred locals get on and off before we reached Plovdiv, a beautiful town which will be European Capital of Culture in 2019. We had booked a six bed dorm slap bang in the city centre. It was great to be back in a dorm room, it always exciting finding out who you will be sharing with. We had two guys from a small village in the Dolomite mountains in Northern Italy. It was great chatting with them in broken English, mainly about football. It was also time for the beard to be trimmed, it had become unbearable and I actually felt like creatures were nesting in it! Anyway, it simply had to go…I felt like a new man.

Plovdiv is an ancient city built around seven hills in Southern Bulgaria. It has a Roman era ancient theatre with once seated six thousand people. It is said to be one of the oldest cities in Europe. As in all cities, we walked, walked and walked some more exploring every corner of this beautifully picturesque city. Everyday life carried on alongside Roman ruins with a reminder of the cities past around every corner. Off the main high street, a series of footpaths and steps led high above the city streets and offered a birds eye view of the city and the mountains in the distance. The city park was beautiful with many water fountains offering local people some refreshment from the midday heat. Plovdiv was really compact and was split into a few different quarters, one of which was named Kapana. It was a maze of tiny cobbled streets with great bars, eateries and micro breweries. It also had one of the cheapest and tastiest gyros and pizza stands I have ever had the pleasure to have known! A huge slice of tasty pizza was fifty pence and a pitta gyros for one pound…we didn’t hesitate and got stuck in!!

It was Mizzy’s birthday so we booked tickets for the open air opera, Madame Butterfly which was taking place in the Roman Ampitheatre later that evening. Now I’ve never been to an opera and it filled me with fear that I would be listening to and watching something which would leave me bored to tears or fast asleep on the amphitheatre floor. If nothing else, the sunset over the distant mountains world be spectacular. Three and a half hours later, I had been transformed, intoxicated and mesmerised by the wonderful world of opera. I didn’t fully understand everything, but loved every minute. Who would’ve thought it?! Well I guess if you don’t try, you’ll never know. It was past midnight and the amphitheatre was freezing as Miz curled up in a ball against me to keep warm.

Early the next morning, we were up at the crack of dawn to make our way to the bus stop for our ten hour journey through the Southern Bulgarian mountains and down to Thessaloniki in Northern Greece. In terms of a travelling destination, Bulgaria should make it onto your hitlist. It has wonderful mountain scenery, lakes, beaches, inexpensive food, cheap accommodation and friendly locals. Try it, we promise you won’t be disappointed!

Ready to board the Athens bus for Thessaloniki.