Previous entry Next entry

BandA’s Travel Diary

Monday, 17 Nov 2003

Location: Bulgaria

MapChapter 2 – Bulgaria

Monday November 17

About midday we arrived at the Turkish-Bulgarian border. We were heading to Varna, on the Black Sea coast, where we had arranged to stay with a Servas Host. Even though things went smoothly it still took a full hour to go through Turkish and Bulgarian customs and immigration. We felt really sorry for all the truck drivers, as there was a line of fifty or more trucks waiting to go through. This was typical of our other border crossings. While waiting, we converted the 40 Euros. which we had not needed for our Turkish visas, into Bulgarian Dinars. We also bought a phone card (all phones seem to require cards) so that we could ring our host when we arrived in Varna.

The next stage of the journey was through poor, rocky, wooded, hilly country where the homes were very simple and the main occupation seemed to be selling firewood. We also saw some small vineyards and reflected that the standard of living seemed to be lower than we had seen in Turkey. Horses and carts, which had a hoop over the horses’ heads from one shaft to the other, were quite a common sight but we saw very few bicycles, let alone motor scooters or motorbikes. We passed through Burgas just on dark so for the last couple of hours we could not see the countryside.

The bus dropped us in Varna and, as usual, we were immediately approached by a taxi driver who offered to take us to wherever we wanted to go. We explained that we would not know where to go until we had spoken to our host. He kindly offered to ring up for us at the nearby public phone with our phone card. Easier said than done! As in Turkey there were two sorts of phones, here they were either orange or blue. We gave our taxi friend our orange card only to find that the nearby telephone was blue. He then kindly produced his own blue card, rang our host and arranged that we should meet him in half an hour at the Casa Blanca restaurant. Our driver had his fare and we had our destination.

Outside the restaurant were tables and umbrellas so we huddled under one of the umbrellas “in the foggy, foggy dew”. (A wrote the next statement but B found the time quite long, especially as the delicious smell of coffee and food wafted out of the restaurant and the lights and warmth inside beckoned.) After only a short wait our host and his wife arrived and gave us a warm welcome. Before heading home we walked a short distance to a large square, very attractive and full of people, to collect their young daughter. On the way home we stopped off at a modern supermarket, which was very spacious and more “upmarket” than those we frequent in Australia. It had been Government owned under the communists but was now privately owned.

The home of Rumen and Veneta was 15 km out of Varna at a popular holiday resort called “Golden Sands” on the edge of the Black Sea. In the family home we found a number of pets: budgerigars, tortoise, cat plus a recently acquired very friendly Dalmatian pup, all legs and bounce.

As is normal in so many developing countries, people build their homes in stages. The ground floor of their home was very attractively finished with marble floors but, as there was no heating and as it was the custom to remove ones shoes, it was very cold. The next floor was still under construction and we were allocated to the only completed room which had a strong, fresh concrete smell. Adjacent to this was our own bathroom which had a toilet but no shower or hot water.

Veneta went to a great deal of trouble with our meals to ensure that we ate traditional Bulgarian food such as: sausages, delicious potatoes, sheep/cow cheese, mince meat and rice wrapped in cabbage or vine leaves, yoghurt, Bulgarian sweets and, of course, Bulgarian wine. (Wine is Bulgaria’s chief export.)

Rumen had been a lecturer in electronics at the local university but, since the fall of communism in 1990, had become a private businessman running an apparently flourishing import/export business with two or more local outlets. Since 1990, there had been a succession of unstable governments, including some communist ones. Currently the previous King, Simeon, was the Prime Minister and, strangely, we were told the communists had invited him back from his long exile. There is now a coalition Government supported by a “Turkish” minority party. As a result they are introducing a “bi-lingual” education system to “encourage National unity”, though to us it would seem this would do just the opposite. We sensed that not a few people yearned for the “good old days” under communism when there was at least economic security, if not political freedom. Currently social services were minimal. Rumen’s mother received only $26 per month by way of an old age pension.

Veneta had very little English but Rumen was exceptionally good at translating for her our half of the conversation. The only thing he did not translate for her was when B explained that at Betan she did the cooking, while at Tanjam A did all the cooking. B challenged him over this and he then reluctantly told Veneta the whole picture. He did see the funny side!

Tuesday November 18

We had a sleep in till 0900 and a solid breakfast of yoghurt, puff pastry and herbal tea. After this, while waiting for Rumen to drive us to town, we went for a half hour walk (down a very steep hill) to the nearby beach which in summer and in better times had been a very popular holiday resort for German, Russian, French, English and East European tourists but appeared to us rather run down. We, naturally, took the opportunity of dipping our fingers into the waters of the Black Sea!

About 1100 we were driven with all the family into Varna, where Rumen dropped us at the large Orthodox Cathedral dedicated to the Assumption of Our Lady (virtually all the Christian Churches in Bulgaria are Orthodox). The outside was very ornate with gold cupola, etc. Inside it was rather dark. The walls and Iconostasis were liberally adorned with pictures of saints which A examined in great detail. There was a group of women near the Iconostasis cleaning up after what appeared to be a morning tea. It wasn’t long before we realized there was about to be a funeral. Large numbers of men came in each carrying two flowers and the open coffin was wheeled in with the corpse raised to enable good viewing. At this point we thought it would be polite to leave and, consulting our map, headed for the Railway Station to make arrangements for the next stage of our journey. We were planning to head west the following day to Plovdiv or actually Pazardzhik, some 30 km further on. After wandering through the streets we arrived safely at the Station where A rang our Servas Host to confirm arrangements. Fortunately, we found the correct coloured phone to suit our blue card. Unfortunately, less than one minute after finishing the call A realised he had left the card in the phone, only to find that someone had already pinched it, so we had to buy another. This time it was an orange one! We checked out the train times to Plovdiv for the next day but didn’t realise that the train continued on to Sofia so we could have gone the whole way to Pazardzhik by train. In contrast to Turkey where they have been using the Roman alphabet since independence in 1925, Bulgarians use the Cyrillic Alphabet. With the help of our guidebook we gradually mastered this but it made the reading of timetables at the station, etc. an interesting challenge.

Our essential business completed we were now free to explore the city. B was excited to see that there were Roman Baths in the vicinity so we headed for them noting on the way a number of old buildings which had clearly retained old Roman walls as part of their structure. The Baths proved very interesting and, with the help of their Guide Book, we were able to identify the key features and gain a better understanding of how these baths worked. As usual we were the only people there, apart from the lady in the ticket office.

In Roman times Varna was called Odessa and was situated in Thrace. We both were impressed at the extent of the Roman Empire and the impact it must have had on the local areas. This was confirmed when we visited the Museum, a pleasant walk away from the baths.

This was an imposing building that had been a Girls’ School—two or three storeys, plus basement, built around a quadrangle. Here too we were the only visitors. Grilles, which an attendant opened to let us through then locked behind us, closed off each section. It was much colder indoors than outdoors and there was no heating so the attendants huddled in fur coats or padded outer garments. There was also no lighting; this was turned on as we entered each section. It was dusk by now so we often waited in the gloom for the lights to come on.

The exhibits were well worth it! Some of the most impressive ones dated back to C5 BCE. These consisted of the oldest wrought gold known in the world and the detail was exquisite. Some of it was displayed under a magnifying glass and the fine detail was incredible. How did the goldsmiths see to create such intricate work? We also enjoyed seeing funerary objects, reconstructions of early graves, statuettes and pottery from ancient times and church paintings and mosaics from later periods. The last part of our visit had to be fairly rushed as we neared closing time but, luckily, we had seen the best first.

Varna is a beautiful city and has a strong flavour of cities like Paris or Vienna. The city centre had been well designed with trees lining the main streets, and not a few fountains. A large number of subways provide safe crossing of the major roads for the many pedestrians who thronged the streets day and night. At night the churches were illuminated with floodlights that brought out the beauty of the golden cupolas. None the less it appeared rather run down and gave the impression of having seen better days. The footpaths were in poor repair, the fountains had no water in them and many of the streetlights were not working. There was no control of parking so people parked wherever the fancy took them. All the public toilets were “squat” types, and much of the time the cost for their use was $0.20-$0.50. This was the situation in all the countries we visited. Despite having to pay, you would be lucky to find toilet paper. The shops in the city centre were very up-market many selling fur coats, jewellery, and fashion clothes. We were surprised to see a number of casinos. Advertising was very explicit and even at 1000 in the morning there were very "adult" shows on TV. We were interested to see, though we did not use, a public “sexphone” booth (complete with a scantily dressed model dummy draped on a chair) on the footpath!

We had arranged to meet our hosts at 1900 to return to their home but by 1700 it was quite dark and cold so we called in at McDonald’s to fill in the time out of the biting cold and had our usual coffee and ice cream. Unfortunately they have not heard of free coffees for Seniors in Bulgaria! McDonald’s also had the advantage that they served white coffee which we both preferred to the usual Turkish coffee.

As we made our way back to “our” umbrella at the Casa Blanca, we marvelled at the large numbers of people enjoying a walk through the streets. On the way home we once again visited the supermarket, this time to buy some goodies for our hosts.

Wednesday November 19

This morning we made an early start leaving our hosts at 0700 to catch the 0830 train. The Dalmatian gave us his usual exuberant greeting and farewell but we finally managed to unlock the gate and escape his clutches. We had planned to go into Varna by bus and then walk the 500 m or so to the station but, while we were waiting at the bus stop, a taxi driver offered to take us right to the station for little more than the bus fare so we had plenty of time to spare.

It was to be about a 6-hour train trip from Varna to Plovdiv. The 2nd class electric train was very similar to the compartment type trains with corridors we used to have in Australia. Initially we had a compartment to ourselves and our baggage which we left on the spare seats to scare away other travellers. Before we left a deaf mute looked in, handed us an explanatory card to read, and left a pen with us. He was seeking donations. Of course we gave him one and he “signed” that we were angels headed for heaven! After a couple of hours travel some people came in and told us we had their seats (there was no sign of reservations) so we had to move to another compartment which was only half full. Fortunately there was no smoking in the compartments but people went out into the corridor to smoke so the atmosphere was really not smoke free. The toilets were fairly unpleasant (enough said!) but, what was worse, B got stuck inside and couldn’t get out for some time!

The first part of the trip was through very hilly country and the train slowly “wound its weary way”. After that we reached the flatter part of the country where agriculture was more intense. We enjoyed our trip as so many things we saw were interesting and puzzling. We passed many factories, especially in the countryside. Why had they been deserted and left to rust away? Why was there a mixture of very small “peasant’” plots and large extensive fields? Why were so many farms so neglected? Why were there no fences? Why were the “glass houses” falling into disrepair? What was the explanation for some very run down apartment buildings with an absolute mess of rubbish around but with numerous satellite dishes for TV?

We assume the big farms were a carry over from the communist days when large collective and State farms were the norm. Later we were told that since the fall of communism the question of land ownership has not been resolved. In many cases we saw farms, vineyards and extensive areas of glasshouses neglected because there were disputes over ownership. We saw no fences because there were very few animals. The only animals we saw were sheep and they were being shepherded by men-not children. We later discovered that the run down apartment buildings were gypsy enclaves and that Bulgarians have little respect for Gypsies who receive “favoured” treatment from the Government. They mostly come from Turkey so they want to receive Turkish TV by satellite. We also noted that horses and carts were quite common and so was litter, especially plastic bags. This was nothing to what we were to see later in Syria and Jordan.

Even in Plovdiv there was a large, attractive building beside the bus station which was now deserted with most of its windows broken. Thanks to the poor state of the economy, wages are very low, about $140 a month. This, combined with a very high rate of unemployment (>20%) especially in the countryside, made life very hard for the people.

On arriving in Plovdiv we rang our Host who lived in Pazardzhik some 30 km further west. He told us he would meet us when we arrived there by local bus. By this time it was about 1700 and there was a big crowd, largely University students, crowding to get on the bus. Clearly there is no word, or concept, in Bulgarian for “queue”.

Our Host, Nikolai was at the bus to meet us and we walked some 500 m to his apartment. (We were more occupied with talking to him than noting the way to his home which we would need to know when we retraced our steps the following day!). We were greeted by his wife, Bogdana and their 2-year-old daughter, Teodora (Tedi). They had a small one-bedroom apartment and they kindly arranged for us to sleep on two benches in the kitchen. We were delighted to enjoy a good hot shower. Bogdana was very pleasant but had very little English and, as she was pregnant, Nikolai did most of the cooking. He was a good cook so we enjoyed the fish, chicken, and other Bulgarian meals he prepared.

Thursday November 20

Nikolai runs a small Internet café with about 6 computer terminals. It was a satisfactory business until another bigger business started up nearby. He kindly allowed us to pick up our emails—all 50 of them. We also took the opportunity to catch up on home news through The Age site on the Internet and discovered there had been floods and fires in Victoria and Tasmania. To our surprise we also read that there had been further bomb attacks in Istanbul only 15 minutes previously. News travels fast on the Internet!

After this we then went back to Plovdiv by local bus to look around the town and arrange for the next stage of our journey back to Turkey. On the way we saw just about the only car accident in the whole of our six-week holiday. This was rather surprising considering the way people drive there.

On arriving in Plovdiv we had lunch at a very pleasant restaurant, one that would normally cater for tourists but which was virtually empty. What we especially appreciated was that although there was a notice indicting a $0.20 charge for the toilet, there was no one to collect it! Our priority task was to check our buses for the following day back to Turkey and down to Gallipoli where we planned to arrive the following night. We were rather disappointed to be told that there were no buses going direct to Gallipoli or Çanakkale and we would have to get an Istanbul bus as far as Edirne, just over the Turkish border, and then “perhaps” there would be a bus from Edirne to Gallipoli. A further complication was that there were no morning buses to Istanbul. The earliest was at 1400 which would be too late for us to get to Edirne and then make a connection on to Gallipoli. We had no option but to make a booking for that bus to Edirne where we would stop overnight and go on the next day to Gallipoli.

Our next important task was to cash some travellers cheques. We spent the best part of an hour following confusing signs to the only bank that cashed travellers cheques then found they were most unwilling to cash them. We had the impression that it was a rare event there. What was worse it cost $10 to cash each cheque! There is no question that the use of a credit card at an ATM is by far the most convenient and cheapest way of getting local money. One catch however is that most foreign ATM’s accept only a four-digit pin number and B had a six-digit number!

After this we explored the town a little as we worked our way to a very well preserved Roman amphitheatre which was discovered only 35 years ago when a landside exposed it. It was, of course, up a hill, and we climbed up from the bottom to a gate which proved to be locked. An attendant, with a guard dog, made signs that we had to go round to another gate. We went down the steps and up to the next gate where the same attendant took pity on us and opened it to let us in. We should have entered from the top of the amphitheatre! When we left by the top gate we found ourselves in the artists’ quarter which gave us plenty to look at. The only problem was we were not sure how to return to the main square.

The beautifully restored amphitheatre at Plovdiv

Wide streets radiated from this square so we eventually found one of these, stopped at McDonald’s for a cup of coffee and ice cream, and sat at an outdoor table to enjoy it. We were not alone. It was a very mild day and it was great to see hundreds of the locals sitting out in the square enjoying the sunshine and a drink. There were also jugglers, magicians, and musical groups to entertain them.

We lost our way a bit back to the bus stop but still enjoyed the walk. On arriving back at our host's apartment we had trouble getting into the apartment block, as the correct buzzer lacked their name. Fortunately another resident arrived and opened the door so we sneaked in like the Japanese submarines into Sydney Harbour in 1942!

Friday November 21

Since our bus did not leave Plovdiv till 1400 we had a spare morning in Pazardzhik. We collected our emails and checked the rainfall at Hill End since we had left home. A was quite depressed to see there had been none—“We’ll all be ruined” said Hanrahan! Nikolai had an old car – an Opel – so he drove us to a large, modern supermarket on the edge of town where we bought various goodies for our hosts. (He did not know our reason for wanting to go there.) Then we were on our way back to Plovdiv where we would catch the bus back to Turkey. Although we had been told that the earliest bus was at 1400 we found that there had been a 1200 bus—but that was with a different bus line so they hadn’t told us about it. Our bus was half an hour late, so, as there were insufficient seats at the bus station, we had to stand and, at the same time, put up with a great deal of smoking. Throughout Bulgaria, smoking, especially by the young people, was very common. Finally the bus arrived and we were again on our way.

This route took us through better agricultural country where there were lots of winter cereals and Brassica crops. As almost everywhere else, there were no homes on the farms but always concentrated in the villages. We reached the Turkish-Bulgarian border just on dusk and immediately faced a problem. The immigration official seemed unwilling to process our passports. We, of course, had no idea what his concern was. Once again we were taking care of. This time by an English speaking Turkish Angel in the guise of an Environmental Protection postgraduate student heading home to celebrate Byram. It turned out that tourists who stay more than 48 hours in Bulgaria are supposed to get documentary evidence from their hotel or from the local police as to where they stayed. This was probably a carryover of communist days. We were even shown a piece of paper on which this regulation was spelled out in English. It would have been a bit more helpful to have been given it on entering the country rather than on leaving it!! After a lot of discussion between our “angel” and the official she told us we would probably have to pay a fine for not following regulations. Eventually after a lot more discussion on the part of our angel the official said, with a grin, that providing we brought along a kangaroo on our next visit he would let us through. After a total of one and a half hours at the border we were back in Turkey.

Thus ended the second phase of our holiday, one which had been both very enjoyable and very educational.