This week, I wrote about my travels through Bulgaria last fall. I loved Bulgaria for the amazing history and gorgeous outdoors. Sofia was a surprisingly interesting capital city and I loved being able to get outside and hike in Bansko. If I visit Bulgaria again, I would love to go in winter and see Sofia, the Rila Mountains and Monastery and Bansko.
7 Days in Bulgaria:
If Bulgaria is on your list of places to visit, try finding a cheap flight to Paris or London and then take a local carrier (BulgariaAir) into Sofia, (easyJet now flies to Sofia too), or go overland by train.
Next up, Turkish delights!
My first experience traveling abroad was to France in 2006 (when I officially got the travel bug). Since then, I’ve wanted to go back and see more of Europe. However, with the euro and dollar exchange rate at $1.60 this summer, I decided to stick to the outer edges of the EU that don’t use the euro yet. By starting in Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, I didn’t have to cringe every time I made a purchase, but still had the convenience of being in the EU. Turkey was my next stop, and while not quite Europe, it was an amazing introduction to the Middle East. By the time I got to Greece in September the USD was on the rise and I didn’t feel guilty with every gyro and second gelato purchase of the day. So I rounded out my second visit to the European continent by ending in Spain. I’d still like to see more of Europe (I probably always will). And I still haven’t been to Italy! Or Germany! Or Sweden! Or…
I spent my last Lev on snacks and baklava, changed into my comfiest outfit and headed to the train station to catch the overnight sleeper train to Istanbul. It’s kind of neat to be on the Orient Express to Constantinople. ;) Our train was, of course, late so we ended up leaving two hours later than expected. I fell right to sleep and was awakened shortly at the Bulgarian border. Thirty minutes later we got to the Turkish border and then the real fun began. Everyone had to get off the train to buy visas and then stand in line. When I finally made it to the front, they stared at me and pointed to a different line. Several lines and exhausting hours later, my passport was finally stamped, and we were allowed to get back on the train. Thankfully, our belongings were untouched!
After a bumpy night, our train pulled into Istanbul around 10 am. I was sweaty, hungry and just about grumpy, so after we ditched out bags at the hotel, I ran for the ATM to get Turkish lira and then settled in for my first real Turkish coffee! We were right in the heart of the tourist area in Sultanahmet, so everything was pretty expensive, but I ordered the fruit platter anyway. After being in Eastern Europe for three weeks it was amazing to have a massive plate of fresh fruit! Ahhh! Türkiye
Bulgarians don’t do breakfast. I went into town and ordered a cappuccino (while eating muesli and yogurt from the market). I sat outside, writing in my journal and enjoying my coffee, while everyone else was smoking and drinking coffee. So very Coffee & Cigarettes. I’m wondering if Bulgaria has a higher smoking rate than other European countries.
We traveled to Plovdiv yesterday, and our hotel is right in the downtown, pedestrian-only area. Brilliant location. My plan was to walk up to the ruins on the hill to see the Roman Ampitheater, but the entrance shown on the map was locked and very deserted, so I walked all the way back in to the other entrance. Frustrating, and after walking around for a bit, I grabbed a gelato and headed for dinner. Typical Bulgarian food for dinner, I had grapeleaves and a salad, which consisted of… cabbage!
This afternoon we went to Aqualand waterpark in Plovdiv. Hilarious. I would highly recommend visiting a water park in Eastern Europe, good times. Oh, and oddly, there wasn’t a changing area, and only one bathroom. I guess the Bulgarians know to put their bathers on before arriving at the park! It was fun to get some sun. After five hours of laying out, inner tube slides, swimming, and watching a few Plovdiv residents get more than a little frisky (yes, it was a little shocking), we headed back into town to get ready for the overnight train to Istanbul – The Orient Express. Excited!
Hiking day! I’ve been itching to get outside since I was in Bucharest. Thankfully, Bansko has a lot of hiking opportunities since the mountain is used for skiing in the winter. We drove up to the last lodge area where the road ends and hiked for a few hours alongside the creek. Incredible views! It was so nice to be out in nature. I spent a little too much time rock hopping and got a little too comfortable in my surroundings, as there was a falling incident. I banged my left ankle up and have scratches up and down my shins. Oddly I didn’t really feel any pain, but I was bleeding so that raised some alarm. We took a break by the creek, and then hiked back down to the trail head. Today was probably one of my favorite days thus far. I want to come back in winter! After lunch, we visited the Dancing Bear Sanctuary in Belitsa. Although incredibly depressing, it was amazing to see how the bears have been rehabilitated. One of the requirements for Bulgaria to gain entry to the EU was for the cruelty of animals to be outlawed, as it was still legal to have dancing bears in the streets of Sofia. From a young age, “dancing bears” would be disfigured and mistreated, in attempts to train and show them in order to make money. The Sanctuary was created to house these bears and also in attempts to rehabilitate them. There are several fenced walking paths through the 3 acre park. At first I wondered if we would see any bears, but we ended up finding quite a few! It was so neat to see them on the other side of the fence walking or laying around, especially since they’ve all been saved from being tortured and they couldn’t live in the wild on their own. The girl at the front chatted to us about the bears and apparently I’m a lot like a bear… they’re vegetarian, but they do like fish and they love honey. ;)