Zdraveĭte Bŭlgariya – Hello Bulgaria
I crossed Bulgaria from southwest to northeast, from the Greek to the Romanian border. From the Black Sea coast through the Balkan Mountains in the inland of Bulgaria to the Danube lowlands in the north.
But it was already the end of October. Had I been here in summer, I would certainly have made the odd detour.
But it remained like this with three stops. Just behind the border in southern Bulgaria in Petrich. Later 200km north in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. And finally further northeast in Veliko Tarnovo.
Bad luck in Petrich
Because I had already driven 180km from Veria I wanted to stay overnight in Petrich. Only 20km away from the Greek border. In a small guesthouse I had already put my backpack in the room. Then I went back to the car to get some papers. I noticed that the key was still inside. And the driver’s door was locked. All other doors were locked as well.
That would actually not be a problem. Because the spare key was always in the backpack. But not now. Because we had left it in the hotel in Baku. And from there it had been sent to my son in Germany already.
So what to do now? I asked the landlady and she knew what to do. She called an auto repair shop. And after about an hour two mechanics arrived. With a screwdriver and a flexible wire the Landcruiser was open again in less than 20 seconds. It cost 10 leva, about 6 US dollars. Good thing that I didn’t know before how fast the car is to open 😉
Normally the driver’s door is not locked when you close it. Just for security reasons. So that you don’t exclude yourself in the Australian outback. Only if you press a small lever on the inside of the handle while closing the door, the door is locked automatically. And I must have done that out of carelessness.
But there was also something good about my mistake. I was invited by the landlady for dinner. She probably understood that I didn’t feel like looking for a restaurant somewhere in town anymore.
Petrisch is not really a tourist spot now. So the following morning I set out for Sofia. The landlady recommended that I make a short detour via Melnik. This is a museum place and the main destination for tourists. Mainly because of its historical buildings and the 100m high sandstone rocks directly at the edge of the village. And because of its winegrowing.
I drove there first, but then I just looked at the panorama from the road above the town. The weather was not that great. I did not want to visit old houses and churches. And I couldn’t drink wine anyway because of driving. The rocks I could see even from the distance.
But the small detour led to the fact that I drove about half of the 200km to Sofia on country roads.
And that was quite relaxed. Mostly without any traffic between the small towns.
In summer you can certainly enjoy hiking or cycling in this area.
The capital of Bulgaria
In Sofia I had booked an accommodation a little bit outside the city center as usual. But still in a way that I could explore the city on a 6km walk. I even did this twice on slightly different routes. Once in the morning. And because the weather got worse again I did it again in the evening. In the hotel there was a (public) bath with a sauna. There I was in between.
People have been living in Sofia for at least 5000 years. In Roman times the place was called Serdica. Then the Ottomans conquered the city. And only after 500 years did it regain its independence. The time in communism and western influences since 1990 brought new impulses again. The result was a very exciting mix of Persian, Turkish, Russian, Slavic and European culture.
Of course also when eating. Sure, I could have eaten hamburger. But it should have been something typically Bulgarian. It was too cold for Tarator (cold cucumber soup with yoghurt). Shopska salad wasn’t enough for me. Only cucumber, tomato, Bulgarian(!) sheep’s cheese, onion, parsley, salt. But no vinegar and oil. So I chose Kebaptcheta. This is similar to Ćevapčići in Serbia. But really just like that. The choice of spices makes all the difference.
By the way, if the communication in Bulgaria doesn’t work out that well, you have to be careful. Nodding your head means rejection/negation. And shaking your head means acceptance/affirmation. In other words, just the other way around as elsewhere.
A time travel through 2000 years
I didn’t need the subway to do this.
Not even the fancy tram that runs right through the city. By the way, since 1898.
Sveti Aleksandar Nevsky
It was built between 1882 and 1912 to commemorate Tsar Alexander II and the liberation of Bulgaria from Turkish rule.
Everyone can decide for themselves whether they like it better during the day or in the evening. I personally think it’s more beautiful in the evening.
For one thing, the square in front of the cathedral is not so crowded then. On the other hand, I also found the light more beautiful in the evening. Even if you can’t see the golden domes then. But I also had the luck that there was a full moon.
Behind the cathedral there is a small park with a flea market.
But they didn’t want to sell me a medal “Hero of Socialist Labor” from the USSR for 4 US dollars max.
And I was not allowed to take pictures of it.
Equestrian Statue of Tsar Alexander II.
A few steps further on, the Russian Tsar looks up at the parliament building on horseback. The 12m high monument was unveiled in 1907. That was also a thank you for the liberation of Bulgaria.
Either there is advertising from a German forwarding agency in the picture. Or from an American insurance company and an international hotel chain.
Or you can only see the horse’s tail. But then also the parliament building…
It doesn’t seem so massive and doesn’t stand in such a large and busy place.
It was inaugurated in 1914. Allegedly because the Russian ambassador had a longing for his homeland.
Ivan Vazow National Theater
Just as appealing as the Nikolai Church is the National Theater from 1907, I think.
It is named after a Bulgarian historian and writer.
Due to its location at the city garden of Sofia and the fountain in front of it, there is a very relaxed atmosphere here.
I didn’t see it, but it was already dark.
And at the end of October it wasn’t really warm in the evening anymore.
Rotunda Sveti Georgi
At first I didn’t really know exactly what it was. A church, an archaeological site, ancient ruins?
Actually all three. The brick building of the early Christian church was probably built in the 4th century. In the remains of a Roman settlement. And it is considered to be the oldest building in Sofia.
The location of the Saint George’s Church is somewhat unusual. Between large blocks of a hotel and the presidential palace. But it is located right in the middle of the old city center.
By the way, there are also remains of a Roman amphitheater just 500m away. With space for 20,000 to 25,000 spectators at gladiator fights, it was almost as big as the Colosseum in Rome. Unfortunately, I was unable to visit this archaeological site because it was already closed in the evening.
Triangle or square?
Due to the history of the city, all three world religions live peacefully side by side in Sofia. And in the center, their buildings stand together in a small space. A synagogue, a mosque and a Roman Catholic Church in the “Triangle of Tolerance.”
Sometimes the Bulgarian Orthodox cathedral Sveta Nedelya nearby is also included. Then the triangle of tolerance becomes the “Quadrat (or Square) of Tolerance.”
In an underpass at the Serdica subway station, very close to the Saint George’s Rotunda, there is still an ancient little church. The Sveta Petka from the 16th century with one meter thick walls and only one room.
If you look at it from the front, you can see the former building of the Communist Party of Bulgaria in the background.
In the opposite direction the statue of “Saint Sofia” can be seen in the background.
This statue was erected on the “Independence Square” in the year 2000.
It replaced a statue of Lenin that stood there until 1990 and is considered the protector of Sofia and Bulgaria.
And here are some more pictures from my city walk through Sofia.
To the Vitosha Mountains
On the second day I wanted to go a bit outside the city. Because there is the Vitosha Mountain. The local recreation area of the… Uh, how do you actually say to the residents of Sofia?
For the residents of Frankfurt or Hamburg that is clear, Frankurter or Hamburger. But Sofia? Sofiaer, Sofiosi? I’ll have to check it in the Internet right now. Wikipedia cheats around and writes “…the capital city residents…“. Other sources call them Sofia residents. And it is also called “Sofia City” or “Sofia University“. Ok then 😉
Anyway, I went to the foot of the mountains. That is up to 2.300m high. And it already starts in the southern suburbs of Sofia. At some point I parked the car and walked up a bit. But unfortunately it was foggy that morning and I gave up soon.
By the way, I already knew the fog in Bulgaria. A few weeks earlier it was the same from Burgas to the Greek border. And it was the same on my very first visit to Bulgaria. 1975, when I transferred a truck from Germany to Syria. At that time I had to put the truck crosswise at crossroads to read the road signs. Because there was no internet back then…
Further up in the mountains there should be a waterfall, a monastery and the so-called “stone rivers” or “Golden Bridges“. Long stretches of rather large boulders. But the signposting of the hiking trails was – well – a bit sparse. And I didn’t want to rely on Google Maps at all when it came to forest hiking trails.
Church of Boyana
I didn’t want to drive up the road into the mountains either. Because it was forbidden except for the military. A hiker told me that there were no problems. But as a tourist I did not want to take that chance.
So I turned around and drove to the nearby Sofia(!) suburb Boyana. I reached my destination with all kinds of queries through small and very small residential streets.
The Bulgarian Orthodox church of Boyana. It is from the 10th century and built of thick brick walls. Inside there are well-preserved wall paintings. And that’s probably why the church is on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
However, I didn’t find it that spectacular and soon decided to look for a restaurant nearby. But unfortunately in vain. So I went back to the hotel near the city center in the afternoon. And there into the sauna. Maybe you should visit the Vitosha Mountains rather accompanied by a local.
Towards the north of Bulgaria
A former colleague absolutely recommended a stop in Veliko Tarnovo before I continued my trip to Romania. This town is only 220km away from Sofia. And I passed there on my way to Bucharest anyway.
The drive on the highway on a sunny day finally took only three hours.
I’ve taken a room above the town on the highway. I definitely didn’t want to drive the Landcruiser into the winding and narrow streets.
And my choice wasn’t bad at all. Because the next day I was able to walk through the forest into town in half an hour.
This place is also at least 5000 years old. But it didn’t really develop in the Middle Ages. At that time, the Bulgarian tsars (kings) built a large fortress there.
The town developed within the fortress in the beginning and later beyond. Veliko Tarnovo became a political, religious and cultural center. And then it was even the capital of the Bulgarian Empire for 200 years.
But this development has to do with its special location as well.
Over thousands of years the river Yantra has dug a deep and steep gorge into the mountains. And additionally it makes several loops here.
This has created several large hills. The fortress complex was built on the most important one, the Tsarevets hill. And the city then expanded later to the other hills.
The fortress, the panorama of the old town on the steep bank of the river and old houses make Veliko Tarnovo a tourist destination today. Some say it is one of the most beautiful cities in Bulgaria. And Veliko Tarnovo was already the cultural capital of the Balkans in 2010.
The Tsarevets Fortress
Of course, my tour started at the fortress.
But I was there so early in the morning that the ticket booth wasn’t even open.
Of course the rebuilt cathedral of the Bulgarian Orthodox Patriarch was still closed. You should definitely walk all the way up to it.
Below the church you can see the remains of the palace of the Bulgarian tsars and the first settlement.
You can also probably take a guided tour during opening hours.
Then you will likely learn more historical details about the fortress complex.
The Varusha District and the Samovodska Charshia
Opposite the old political and ecclesiastical center is the Varusha District, today’s Old Town.
On the one kilometer long walk from the entrance of the fortress to the Varusha District, you will pass pretty old houses and a cathedral.
The old town has narrow cobblestone streets and 19th-century houses. Small shops with handicrafts inside. Especially in Samovodska Charshia, the craftsmen street.
If you don’t feel like walking any longer, you will also find nice cafes and traditional restaurants here. And you feel a bit like 200 years ago.
View into the valley – Monument of the Asen Dynasty and Stambolov Bridge
Then you have a great view of the Sveta Gora Park, which is located deep on the river. And to the Monument of the Asen Dynasty directly at a river bend.
It was built in 1985 in a socialist style. In memory of the Bulgarian tsars from the Asen dynasty. Asen I. and his brothers Peter and Kaloyan as well as Asen II, the son of Asen I.
The brothers started a successful uprising against the occupation of Bulgaria by the emperors in Constantinople in 1185. As a result, they then founded the Second Bulgarian Kingdom.
The location for the monument is perfectly chosen. Veliko Tarnovo is situated on hills and you can see the monument from almost every point of the city.
When looking down into the valley you can also see the Stambolov Bridge from 1897 over the Yantra river. Today, however, it can only be used by pedestrians and cyclists.
It would probably also be worth it to walk down to the monument. And to look up to the city from there. This should result in a completely different perspective on Veliko Tarnovo. However, I did not do that.
Monasteries in the area
Because I was in town so early in the morning, I had time to drive to one of the many monasteries in the area in the late afternoon. I had chosen the monastery of the Holy Trinity. Mainly because there should be monk cells there that were carved directly into the rock.
I was there quickly via small country roads. Because the monastery is only 6 kilometers away from the city. But unfortunately it was already too late. The door to the monastery complex was already locked. So I could only take a picture of the monastery towers and the rock face behind it. What a pity.
From Bulgaria to Romania
At an old riverbed I had another break in Bulgaria. I discovered a rock cave and walked over a small suspension bridge to a romantic waterfall. Before continuing my road trip I checked the Landcruiser for stowaways.
Actually, I didn’t want to leave Bulgaria with its many great landscapes yet.
And I would like to come back again in summer.
Because I think this exciting country in southeastern Europe is underestimated and has a lot to offer.
Then it was only a few kilometers to the border. The border is right in the middle of the Danube river.
Customs control and bridge tolls on the Bulgarian side were completed quickly. Then I crossed the river for almost three kilometers over the beautiful 30m high “Bridge of Friendship” built in 1952 – 1954.
By the way, there should also be a railroad connection and a footpath below the carriageway. But I couldn’t see that from above.
Dispute at the border
On the Romanian side there was a traffic jam behind the bridge. It therefore took me more than two and a half hours for the 2km to the checkpoint. Shortly before the border station something funny happened right in front of me. A Romanian Mercedes-Benz drove past on the right and wanted to get in front of the car in front of me. Then a heated discussion started…
Finally, the – well – stout passenger in the car in front of me stood in front of the car of her opponent first. And then she jumped onto the hood of his car with a swing. Both parties had to drive out to the right and were questioned by the police. So I passed the checkpoint earlier than the car in front of me. The driver was still discussing with the officers.
The entry into Romania took only a few minutes. But I had already lost a lot of time in the traffic jam. And so I only arrived in Bucharest after dark. Although the Romanian capital is only 70km away from this border crossing.
At this point as always, my dashcam video (2m 33s, 468 MB; Music: Secrets Secrets – Silent Partner, YouTube Audiolibrary).
- Into direction Sofia
- Towards Veliko Tarnovo
- To the border and across the Danube river
- Traffic jam right at the border
What I experienced in Romania later then, I’ll tell you in my next blog post.
Cheers, Ruediger 😎