We enter Bulgaria somewhat unexpectedly. For the 4th time in Romania, on this Sunday 10th January at about 3pm, we were left stranded by our when we arrived at the doorstep of our booking. We are only 2 km away from the border, so we hurriedly decide to book a new accommodation on the other side. We buy the e-vignette for the Bulgarian roads on the phone. No sooner said than done, we found ourselves in Bulgaria!
This border crossing turns out to be the easiest and fastest so far (apart from the mini-flood around the customs area)! On the other side of this invisible wall, the atmosphere is quite different. The stray dogs have disappeared. The landscape has changed from a kind of suburb that had been running alongside the road for dozens of kilometers in Romania to agricultural plains as far as the eye can see in Bulgaria. Also, everything is so much simpler when the signs are in Cyrillic and you don’t understand anything … there are a lot less rules to follow!
The weather is getting cloudy and we arrive at night, in the rain, in a B&B that looked very attractive on the pictures but is actually rather creepy. In retrospect, it was one of our worst accommodations in the country!
The Black Sea, seen from Bulgaria
The next day, we start to explore the Black Sea coastline on the Bulgarian side until we are hit by a big storm which confines us in the car and causes us to drive through bigger and bigger puddles. The weather forecast is not expected to change for the next 3 days so we seize the opportunity to take care of the 20,000km car service a bit early, to be on the safe side as Citroen garages are quite rare here.
However, we still have time for a few visits:
- Balchik Castle, the summer residence of Queen Mary of Romania. Whom we left last time in the castle of Bran (Romania), which was her main residence. The castle includes her botanical gardens. In the rain and in winter, we don’t advise you to visit the gardens ! Luckily there was a greenhouse with an impressive collection of cacti and a wine tasting of wine made from the queen’s roses.
- The lighthouse of Shabla, the easternmost point of Bulgaria, saw between the fog and the foam of the waves. As well as Cape Kaliakra.
- The city of Varna is known for its Roman baths … and for the X Olympic Congress of Renewal in 1973 of course, which opened the doors of the Olympic Games to professionals. A small plaque on the Avenue of the Olympic Games in Varna but a big step for Michael Jordan!
I forgot to mention that Bulgaria has a few more Covid restrictions than Romania. Museums are open but all bars and restaurants are closed unfortunately.
Veliko Tarnovo, the former Bulgarian capital
Now that the car is ready to leave, it is in a white landscape that we reach Veliko Tarnovo. It is located in the middle north of the country. On the road, we pass by :
- The petrified forest of Pobiti Kamani, tree trunks that have fossilised over the last millennia.
- Madara’s horserider. A life-size reproduction of a horseman killing a lion, carved in the mountain. The work leaves us a little disappointed, given that it is on one hand the emblem of the country and we expected something spectacular; and at the same time, the rider is quite difficult to spot with the naked eye when you are standing in front of the cliff – but its history is interesting nonetheless. It is a sculpture dating back to the 7th century that places the first Bulgarians in history. This symbol is also found on coins.
- The mosque of Razgrad. Yes, since we are in Bulgaria, there are as many minarets as there are church belfries! The minaret doesn’t ring at night for the moment, fortunately, but it is a very pleasant reminder of coffee-time at 2.20 pm every day and and of snack-time at 5 pm 🙂
- We go on to several plains and hills, each one whiter than the next.
After a final bend in the road, we reach the town of Veliko Tarnovo which was one of the ancient Bulgarian capitals (there were 7 in total, including Constantinople at some point!). Built on hills surrounding a rocky spur with a fortress and a church, this town is very pretty and it is here that we settle for a few days. Here we also begin to discover the Thracian people. These are the people who lived here in ancient times and before the Roman invasions – the neighbours of the Dacts in Romania.
Back in 2021, Europe is experiencing its first cold wave of the year, and we decide to visit this fortress. While looking at the frescoes in the church (which have their own modern style), we hear French being spoken. By a Pavlovian reflex, Lauren says “Bonjour !”. Following this, we meet Vincent and Lauren (spelled the same way!!!), a couple (almost the same age as us), who left Bordeaux (not like us) around mid-October (like us), but starting out towards the South (not like us) and waiting for Greece (like us) in a camper-van with their cat (not like us). During one hour in the freezing cold, we tell each other stories about the border crossings, our car problems, itineraries and plans the rest of the trip. Super cool 🙂
After visiting Veliko Tarnovo, we turn to its surrondings and found this short walk in the Emen canyon.
Over hill and dale, towards the South!
After a few days, we’re off to the Shipka pass at 1150 meters of altitude, to arrive in the Southern half of the country. We realize that we have a knack for always choosing the best day to cross mountain passes… On our plate today, a temperature of minus 8 degrees along with a snowstorm, and absolutely no snowplows around.
As if we haven’t had enough for the day, we go up to another pass to see the abandoned Buzludzha monument. A kind of concrete flying saucer built by the communist regime. At the top (1432m), the weather is the same than at Shipka (which seems obvious in retrospect but we were really hoping for a difference back then), even if it seems to be a very popular place for Bulgarians and their children to come sledging. We were only 50m away from this Soviet saucer, but impossible to see in through the thick fog. On the way down, we realized that the police had arrived to close the road because there were too many people and too much snow. We finally saw at the end of the day, but from a very long distance, 60km away, once we got back down on the other side of the pass and the weather eventually cleared up.
Arriving on the southern side of this massif, we are in what they call “the valley of the kings”, a bit like in Egypt. Along the valley, there are about ten Thracian tombs. You can recognize them because they are a kind of mini slag heap of 6-7 metres high. This valley is also the valley of roses, the Bulgarian speciality! (It smells good at the beginning but when there put rose flavour everywhere and even in the food, it is definitely less pleasant!)
To finish that eventful journey, we take advantage of the end-of-day weather clearing to drive along the Balkan massif, and in particular the Stara Reka reserve until the town of Kalofer, to admire the fresh snow on the mountain peaks.
More in the next issue of Cazdal-Austral magazine 😉