Here we go. We say goodbye to Gorna and head east. We have put together a little road trip through Bulgaria and, just in time for our journey, the weather is also getting better. Until now it has often been foggy and grey, now the sun is supposed to shine all week and the temperatures are pleasantly mild with about 8-10°C despite the winter.
We make our first stop above Shumen. We have already been here once during our 6-week stay and already then a huge monument on the hill caught our attention. The propaganda of the communist era has left an immense and impressive mark on the country. The monument was inaugurated in 1981, to celebrate the founding of Bulgaria 1300 years earlier. An imposing structure made of 50,000 cubic metres of concrete and 70 metres high, for those who know something about numbers. We are impressed by the power of this building and our discussions once again revolve around communism. We pay the entrance fee for the first time. After a meagre lunch, we continue to the sea.
The Bulgarian coast on the Black Sea is known for all-inclusive holidays in big hotel complexes, so not our thing at all. Nevertheless, we want to visit the coast, there must be something about it that makes it so popular. On the way we make a short stop at a horseman carved into the rock face. The visit is on the way, so we give it a chance. We pay an entrance fee a second time.
Varna, a vibrant city by the sea is our destination for the evening. Unfortunately, large car parks are scarce and so we first circle the streets for a while until we find a place. We like to spend the dark hours in the city, where there is still something going on. Happy, a restaurant chain with the biggest menu we have ever seen, is once again our salvation (we dined there 3 times during our stay in Bulgaria). At this point we would like to mention a special Bulgarian feature: coffee machines. They are everywhere. Sometimes you can see three or four of them from one position, very impressive... For the night we drive one hour north to a cape. Our imagination: lonely cape, sloping cliffs, sea, wind, beautiful sunrise in the morning, pure nature. The reality: lonely cape in front of huge wind turbines, many old ruins, sea, wind, cape tip full of military installations. We place our tent right next to the ruins and sleep very well despite everything. During the day, you pay an entrance fee here too.
A short visit to a lonely beach and then we leave the sea again. The region did not really convince us, but it is certainly not the time of year for a beach holiday. On the way, a short stop at column-like stone formations. It is on the way and so we decide to make a short stop. We pay an entrance fee. We continue to a castle on a plateau. We pay an entrance fee. Our actual destination is a rock monastery, which is supposed to be accessible by a walk. In fact, we find it after about 30min of walking. A rusty bridge leads to the entrance. As we see others walking over the bridge, we trust the rusty ropes and dare to cross the bridge. The rock monastery is small but the idea that people used to live here impresses us as much as the unsecured windows directly above the rock face. Surprisingly, we don't pay an entrance fee.
The next day begins with a long drive. Many thanks at this point to McDonalds, which is announced 130km in advance with posters. A real highlight on long car journeys. So far, our enthusiasm for Bulgaria has been limited. Everything we saw was beautiful and interesting, but didn't knock our socks off. Plovdiv is something else. Beautiful old houses, charming alleys, good restaurants and extensive pedestrian zones gladden our hearts. It is one of the oldest cities in Europe and was chosen by us as Bulgaria's favourite city. Many of the old houses have been renovated and can be visited. You pay an entrance fee.
The "Wonderful bridges" in the middle of the Rhodope Mountains, a mountain range, are the destination of our next day. There are many caves and rock formations in Bulgaria and this is one of them. The feeder road is partly a challenge due to icy sections, but we reach our destination in one piece. After a 2h drive through the Nier region, we are once again surprised. In the middle of nature, far away from civilisation, there are souvenir stands and a tourist information. Fortunately, it is completely off-season and there are hardly any people, but in summer it probably looks quite different. At the car park we cook lunch on our gas cooker, which attracts a few astonished looks. The natural rock bridges are indeed imposing and amaze us. We try to capture the dimensions on photos, which is only moderately successful. The day in nature does us good and the weather is wonderful.
After hiking comes pleasure, or something like that. In Velingrad we enjoy two nights in a hotel with a spa area. This is no coincidence. In and around Velingrad there are up to 90 mineral water springs, which is why the place is a popular destination for wellness lovers. We don't necessarily count ourselves among them, but it is definitely something nice to do in between.
Before we travel back to Gorna and return our small bus, we make one last stop, the Rila Monastery. Monasteries are not rare in Bulgaria, there are 211 of them. Every day we saw signs leading to some monastery or other, but the Rila Monastery is the biggest in the whole country. And after visiting it, we can say that it is probably also by far the most beautiful. We let the pictures do the talking. And the best thing is that you don't have to pay an entrance fee...
What we will remember are the entrance fees. In no other country has so much profit been made with even the smallest tourist attraction. The prices are not expensive, but sometimes hardly anything is done to maintain the infrastructure. The Bulgarians have learned to deal with this. They simply know the ways past the ticket office so that they can get in for free, but somehow we lack a bit of audacity. It sometimes annoyed us to pay for even the smallest attraction, at the same time we are only there once and if you are already standing in front of the door, you somehow don't go back.
Our Bulgaria adventure ends in Gorna. A last visit to the Kafi Samurai, a final farewell at the homeless centre, a goodbye to our car and then we get on the bus to Sofia. There we kill time until the bus leaves in the evening to take us to Istanbul.
Bulgaria was an interesting side trip for us. The country is very different from the countries we visited before, which probably has a lot to do with its history. We liked Bulgaria, but as already mentioned, it didn't knock our socks off. But we also think it has a lot to do with the time of year. The grey, cool days and the leafless forests (of which there are many) make for a rather dreary picture, and in summer this would probably be quite different. Who knows, maybe we will return one day and see the country in summer. Istanbul and Turkey are calling. We are really looking forward to it. But everything turns out differently than originally planned. But more about that in the next article.