Sofia – Varna – Sofia
David and I had our earliest start yet from Belgrade, rumour had it that the train would be leaving for Sofia at 07:50 and as we waited at the station we quickly realized that there was no substance to this claim. After an hour and a half the train turned up and the race was on to grab a seat which we failed to do. It was becoming apparent very rapidly that this could be the worst experience of our trip so far. After around four hours of standing in the aisle, leaning out of windows and attempting to enjoy the scenery every time the train stopped for no known reason we eventually found ourselves with seats. We were sharing a cabin with a Serbian couple and it seemed the wife hadn’t spoken to another human being in six months. Fortunately we were also blessed with the companionship of English traveling veterans Eric and his partner. They were interested in our trip and travels so far and we were impressed by their age; 80 something and still touring the continent by train. Eventually, around five hours later than expected we crawled into Sofia and after avoiding taxi drivers and people trying to escort us to Istanbul we found ourselves at Hostel Mostel. After a quick introduction to the city map we were relieved to find the city had several 24 hour restaurants and grabbed a quick bite before crashing for the night.
The following morning we headed out into the city to see the sights, starting off with the Communist Party Headquarters which are looked down upon by the Statue of Sofia. We then continued on to Sofia’s best known sight; the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral which unlike many in Western Europe wasn’t ruined by scaffolding but instead a sprawling car park.
On street corners around the city there were small booths, relics from the Soviet occupation where soldiers once kept any eye on the streets now seemed occupied by redundant traffic wardens. Driving in Sofia is popular despite the fact that nobody seems to know what they’re doing.
Our tour of the city then lead us to the Monument to the Soviet Army, which while pale in comparison to Budapest’s Heroes Square was still reasonably impressive simply because it had outlasted the Soviet occupation; we had heard many stories of the destruction of other Soviet sights.
We took a break from the sights and stopped in the city gardens, where another monument was either being erected or dismantled. After a few hours people watching we found ourselves under the shadow of Mount Vitosha and decided it was time for lunch. We dropped some stuff off at the hostel and then headed to a traditional Bulgarian restaurant where I enjoyed what was called a wolf’s appetizer but I could only describe it as “all the meats” and David bravely went for tripe soup. After filling up we decided to head back through the city and find the Ladies Market, which spread across several streets, most of the stalls selling the same seasonal fruits and vegetables.
In the evening we were surprised to find the hostel offered a free beer and bowl of spaghetti as well as being offered a shot of Rakiya at the hostel’s partner bar. After a few beers we remembered we that we would have to catch a train the following morning and following “the Belgrade incident” we decided it would be best not to be carrying a hangover.
We awoke feeling fine, grabbed a breakfast and a guy from Sweden and headed to the train station. Sofia’s station is pretty confusing, everything is in Cyrillic and there are no obvious signs to follow. Fortunately there are plenty of guys about who will show you where to go and even escort you to first class, with the guarantee that everything will be fine for a small fee. We hung around in first class until the ticket inspector moved us along and we ended up in a cabin with an American-Bulgarian family heading out to Varna for a summer holiday. As well as having two young children for entertainment, the scenery as we passed out of Sofia topped the Elbe Valley and Sweden. The route follows a small river as it flows towards the Black Sea arriving between huge mountain ranges and small villages that were sprinkled across the lower valleys. The journey was a breeze in comparison to the one coming into Sofia and we arrived at the Yo Ho Hostel in the early evening. In our room we found Rob; this guy could easily become a cult figure for the travel scene. He’d sold everything, runs a fantastic blog and has no idea when he’ll stop travelling; he had been going for nearly 21 months when we met him. After our encounter with Rob, David and I headed immediately out for food and several beers at one of the beach bars; Atmosphere, where we had some of the worst food of the trip so far but some pretty tasty beers, so it wasn’t all bad.
The next day we missed breakfast and decided to check out Bulgaria’s most popular chain restaurant; the Happy Bar & Grill; the prices were reasonable and the food was alright and we had found ourselves another restaurant where they had very strict rule when it came to how attractive their waitresses had to be. After our food we headed down to the front and walked throughout the bars and clubs until we reached a jetty where people were fishing and throwing themselves into the sea. decided we should probably head back, grabbing a salad from one of the restaurants and passing Rob as he headed out to explore the city for himself. We chilled for a bit at the hostel before heading back towards the beach to find a place to grab some dinner. We stopped in Bistro Europe, David ordered some mussels (which I believe he would later regret) and I ordered some lamb meatballs which apparently meant fried fish in Bulgaria; who knew? After the confusion we enjoyed our meals and headed back for much needed sleep.
The following morning I left David in bed as he claimed not to be feeling very well and grabbed some breakfast and hung out with Rob and was introduced to Australian veteran traveler Wayne and the eccentric, hilarious Shakespeare-professor-in-training Avi. David emerged and we were taken to a soup house, with Avi convinced that it would be just the thing to sort David out. Sadly, the soup left us all underwhelmed and we went back to the hostel, David to bed, Wayne and Rob to the bus station to head to Romania and Avi and I to the beach. On our way down we stopped by a second-hand book store, where, to my delight I found a copy of Chuck Palahniuk’s Rant, Avi grabbing a copy of Shakespeare’s notorious Titus Andronicus. We got down to the sand, dropped our stuff and got stuck into our respective books. The weather wasn’t ideal and ominous clouds passed over several times and so we headed back to the hostel.
That evening Avi had informed me there was excellent food to be had in the hostel restaurant and that there would be a band playing in the hostel basement. We first enjoyed the Bulgarian Shopska salad and fried sprat before checking out some very talented young hip-hop artists who also humiliated us at table football, which we took as our cue to leave.
The following day David had taken a turn for the worse and didn’t emerge at any point in the morning. Avi and I decided we should try and do something cultural and the guys running the hostel took us and a couple of other travelers out to the impressive Stone Forest and the less than inspiring Aladzha monastery which was little more than an open cliff wall.
Still, we felt good that we had managed to see some of the sights around Varna. When we returned to the hostel, we got David up and convinced him that he would need something to eat and returned to Atmosphere. It became apparent that everything was not ok after David failed to finish his meal and so we headed back to the hostel. Upon our return Avi and I left David to bed and we headed downstairs to see what was happening. We found Australian hockey player-come-teacher Mitch and lone Dutch traveler Mae. After grabbing a beer and sharing a few stories we called it a night, agreeing we should meet up to go to the beach the next morning.
Another day, and another no show from David. I met up with Avi and Mitch, the three of us heading down to the beach and going straight into the Black Sea. After taking the plunge we dried out in the sun, Mitch left us to watch his beloved Queensland lose the second match of State of Origin. We met him again as we were heading back to the hostel, leaving Mitch to spend more time on the beach. Back at the hostel we found Mae and began making plans for the evening, and once Mitch joined us we headed down to the hostel restaurant and enjoyed zucchini fritters. After this we headed out down to the water front, leaving Mae in charge of finding somewhere for us to drink. Having had a craving for Latin music earlier in the day, it came as little surprise for her to lead us into a salsa bar, more surprising was that all three of us agreed and went in without complaint.
That’s not entirely true, I complained about the price we paid to get in and then again at the price of the beer, but I enjoyed myself despite not being able to dance and sitting out of the way watching with Mitch. Avi and Mae looked like they might have hit the floor, but much to our disappointment they didn’t. After a few hours, we decided we should find somewhere else and after walking the length of the beach in one direction without luck we thought about calling it a night. We first took a detour onto the sand, picking up a stray dog on the way and spent the rest of the walk back to the hostel trying to lose it with Avi being convinced it was trying to eat us.
The next day promised more of the same; no David and plenty more beach, we picked up South African Dan and his Scouse traveling friend. After another day packed with sun, sea and sand Mae decided she would cook us all dinner and we enjoyed zucchini, chicken and pesto pasta. David even managed to drag himself from bed to get involved. That night we said farewell to Mitch and his two new traveling companions as they were off to Bucharest. Avi then informed us he would be leaving the next morning, finally deciding it was time to head to Istanbul after many days of putting it off.
Yet another day and David still didn’t emerge. I made it downstairs early enough to see Avi fully loaded and heading out and found Mae already enjoying breakfast. David once again declined to join us on the beach but he seemed like he was feeling better. Mae and I spent another few hours on the beach again, before heading back to the hostel where we spent the afternoon playing Rummikub.
That evening we headed out together, David included to grab a meal and some cocktails which could have turned into a disaster considering David and I were heading back to Sofia the following morning, but depsite Mae’s best efforts we didn’t stay out too late or drink too much.
The following morning we were finally ready to leave Varna, we packed up, grabbed a quick breakfast, said goodbye to Mae and got back on a train to Sofia. On this journey we were in a cabin full of Bulgarians which gave me time to finish Rant and David time to listen to a lot of incredibly angry music. Once we arrived in Sofia we returned to Hostel Mostel to find they were hosting a stag party and we would be sharing a room with some of these “lads on tour”. Fortunately, the only real disturbance occurred when one of them decided that it would be much better to enter the room via the window than the door next to it.
The day was a write off, the two of us were lethargic and failed to build up any motivation for anything and bummed around the hostel for the entire day. Whether this was to do with the fact that we’d stayed put for so long, or whether fatigue from our trip had finally caught up with us I don’t know, but we sure wasted a day.
The next day we felt much the same but forced ourselves out into the city to see the famed yellow-brick roads. We thought we had missed them on our first stop and were somewhat excited, but once we had found them the mood quickly changed. We had seen the paving before, and you can even see similar stuff at home in Basingstoke.
So we went out for lunch to forget about another wasted morning. That afternoon we returned to the hostel and decided to get involved with a tour to the Rila Monastery the next day, most people we had met who had been had informed us it was not to be missed.
An early start and a full breakfast was followed by a 117km drive out to the Rila mountains and the monastery. There were just four of us going out there, but our driver informed us the following day he would be taking a minibus full and we were relieved that there wouldn’t be so many people around. On arrival we were taken to the Cave of St. John of Rila, where St. John lived for twenty years, even throughout the winter when temperatures dropped far below zero.
Through the back of the cave is a gap in the rocks and legend has it that those who crawl through it emerge free of sin, so we all crawled through it. Whether or not we are sin free remains to be seen. We then went down into the Monastery which is situated in a valley within the Rila mountains.
It’s surroundings make it very clear why it was decided to set up a monastery in the area, the location is not only beautiful but without a car, very difficult to reach. After spending several hours marveling at the frescoes and the mountains we returned to the hostel. David and I preparing ourselves for what would be our second expected epic journey; the Dubrovnik challenge.