By the time we left Romania we were running on empty. Out of both energy and motivation after five weeks of constant travel from Frankfurt to Bucharest, Bulgaria seemed little more than a necessary stopover.
Just a few more days, we thought, and then we can finally unpack our bags in Istanbul. Chill out. Relax. Stop moving for a while. We just had to make it through Veliko Tarnovo and Plovdiv first, places I knew nothing about. It’s fair to say that my expectations of these two cities were not high.
Which, as it turns out, could not have been further from the truth.
They were both amazing.
After a long travel day to get there, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Veliko Tarnovo. It had been recommended by a couple of people, but then again, so had most of eastern Europe. Sweaty, dusty and hungry as we piled out of the cab, we plodded down towards our home for the next two days.
V.T. Poolside Hostel. The clue was in the name as to why I’d chosen it, but descriptions on booking sites are notoriously optimistic to say the least. As soon as I pushed open the front door and took a deep breath, however, I knew we’d come to the right place.
A glorious, richly wooden scent wafted out to greet us. The place had only been open a few months, and it smelled like it. Set in a restored stone building, it was easily one of the best hostels I’ve stayed in – and that was even before I went to lie beside the pool. Which looked, surprisingly, exactly like the pictures on the website.
I had been growing ever more impressed by my food the further east I’d travelled in Europe, and Bulgaria was to be no exception. For a cheese freak like me, it was heaven. I had around a dozen meals during my time there, and I’m pretty certain every single one of them contained some form of processed milk product.
White cheese. Yellow cheese. Shaved cheese. Sliced cheese. Hard cheese. Soft cheese.
Usually all on the same plate, and frequently washed down with an ice cold pint of cheap beer. Except at breakfast time, of course. That’s when I had two beers. Obviously.
While I would have been more than happy to spend every waking minute of my stay poolside and achieving absolutely nothing, my traveller’s guilt eventually got the better of me. It was time for a walking tour of Veliko Tarnovo.
Although the tour itself was nothing special, the town’s sights pretty much sell themselves. Old Ottoman buildings crowd together along the broken cobbles, The gorgeous Yantra river seemed to serve as the backdrop for every other photo. Sculptures and memorials abounded, a reminder of battles and uprisings through the centuries. And then there was the remarkable, enormous Tsarevets fortress off in the distance…
It’s a beautiful, historic town, gorgeous in summer and – judging by the photos – stunning in winter as well. These days I always keep an eye on each new destination wondering if it’s somewhere I could stop and live for a few months when the need arises. Veliko Tarnovo is absolutely one of those places.
Moving on somewhat reluctantly to Plovdiv the next day, Hostel Mostel (which runs a small chain of hostels across the country) was a distinct downgrade. It wasn’t bad, as such – it just wasn’t good either. Still, we were only there for a night, so our care factor was suitably low.
With such limited time, it was important to make the most of every minute exploring. So, of course, we promptly turned the wrong way at the first intersection and spent the next fifteen minutes walking beside a busy main road and through a dark, fume-filled tunnel. Perfect.
Abandoning that for a stairway up towards the old town, we had yet another excellent meal (yes, with cheese and beer) before wandering aimlessly for the next several hours. As impressive as the buildings, mosques, bars and cafes were, the standout highlight for me was the Roman theatre. I’m a sucker for ruins in general – a legacy of several years of classical studies at school and university – but these were something special.
The theatre reminded me of a much smaller and more intimate version of the Colosseum. Only partially restored, it was almost empty by the time we stumbled across it late in the day. The highest tiers in a Roman theatre were reserved for the least-privileged, but two thousand years later they were the best seat in the house. With views out through the ruins towards the city and mountains beyond, it was the kind of place I was happy to explore for ages.
And so I did.
And that, other than an excellent gelato and a less excellent meal at the hostel, was pretty much the end of our time in Bulgaria. A quick trip to the bus station the next morning and we were done, a mere nine hours between us and our arrival in Istanbul.
As excited as I was about arriving in one of the great cities of the world, I was surprisingly sad about leaving Bulgaria. My preconceptions couldn’t have been further from the truth – in the space of a few days it had transformed in my mind from a transit stop to a beautiful, friendly and culturally rich country.
And did I mention the beer and cheese?
Bulgaria, I’ll definitely be back.