The train from Bulgaria to Romania, Veliko Tarnovo to Bucharest to be exact was old, on the empty side, and super warm. For the majority of the ride, we had an entire car to ourselves. It sounds nice, but it actually made me miss (a little bit) the trains overflowing with people and animals and something that was bound to surprise you.
Our bus ride from Sofia to Veliko Tarnovo was rather uneventful, until Todd picked us up. Todd works at the Hostel Mostel in Veliko Tarnovo and he picked us up like we were old friends, yet visiting his city for the first time. I love good people. (Todd, if you’re reading this, hope that last test went well before graduation!) We dropped our bags off, Andrew had a bit of a nap, and then we were off in search of food and Tsarevets Fortress.
The town is exactly what I thought Bulgaria would be like, what any small European town should be like. Quiet, with people sitting in front of their shops or peeking out of their windows to watch life on the street below. There were only a handful of restaurants on the main street running through town. When we wandered off the main street, we found ourselves on a more touristy street- without the annoyance of a typical ‘touristy street.’ Shopkeepers could have cared less if we ducked in for a keychain or handbag, as most were busy smoking or gossiping with a friend on the phone. Not many other tourists were around. The only surprise of the city was how unbelievably hot it was. We later found out the town is the hottest of all of Bulgaria. We have yet to figure out why.
We made our way to Tsarevets Fortress, what Veliko Tarnovo is known the most for. That, and being the historical capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire. I guess that’s worth mentioning as well. Andrew made me pose for the picture above after he realized I had caught him on video being silly. I obliged. The hike up was rough, in the heat, after a huge meal. We thought we were being smart by going around five, after it was supposed to be “cooler” but we were dying and I had to linger in the shade often. We were also told we needed at least two hours to explore the entire fortress, but we found that less time was enough for us. Maybe had it been cooler, we could have stayed longer… But it wasn’t. And we were hot. The views were wonderful though!
Tsarevets Fortress was the Second Bulgarian Empire’s primary fortress from 1185 to 1393. During this time there were houses, chuches, everything that used to be in most fortresses. Unfortunately, not much stands today, except for the reconstructed church; The Patriarchal Cathedral of the Holy Ascension of God at the very top of the fortress. It’s no longer functioning as a church, but visitors can go in and check out the frescoes that I’m fairly certain my mother would simply call ‘ugly.’ They weren’t my favorite, but it was fun to see something so different. Some looked so out of place, like they were collaged together, not painted. Like I said, interesting…
I liked the "DANGER!" signs as well. I would have liked them even more if someone had scrawled out “NO YOGA POSES ON THE WALL!”
What’s better than a hop-on hop-off bus tour around a new city? A free walking tour. This was our first one, you know, with a guide and not Andrew reading from Lonely Planet or Trip Advisor where we should go and what we should do. I’ve become more and more appreciative of opportunities on this trip where we can hand over the reigns to someone else for a couple of hours, and this was no exception. I don’t know if this is a trend or not (being as it is my first one) but it seems as though guides for free tours are exceptionally better than guides for paying tours. Our guide, Radina was nice, knowledgeable, and made all of the historical facts and timelines entertaining! For a complete list of free walking tours around the world, check out their post on the Sofia Free Tour Blog. (They’re the free tour that just keeps giving!) You can also find them on Facebook here, if you’re interested.
As always, on this trip, I find myself facing the fact that I did not pay nearly enough attention in my history classes in school. Andrew and I have talked about this many, many times. I feel like I did everything backwards. I should have gone on a trip around the world and THEN school. I would have been a much better student if I had. Now I find myself playing catch up and going down the rabbit hole of Wikipedia every other day. If I’m not looking up history, I’m looking up religion, or at least adding to the growing list of books I want to read about both and cursing the Kindle makers for pricing e-books so high. The more countries we add to our list, the more my news feed grows as well.
When we first started traveling, we would send each other articles about North and South Korea. Then articles on India were added to the list. Then Palestine and Israel. Then South Africa. Lately we’ve been keeping up with Turkey, Greece, and now Bulgaria. Sometimes my head is so full, I have to clarify who is what and from where and what politics they practice to keep up (ahem, to attempt to keep up) with it all. Instead of trying to remember, and/or spend all morning looking up the history that Radina shared with us on the tour, I’m simply going to post pictures and let you enjoy. You know how to look things up on Wikipedia if you need to, right? Right.
Within one square in the middle of Sofia, there were four different buildings of worship, each of a different religion, and each from a different time period. Our guide also told a fun story of how the department store (the first in the country) was also built on this square. When her family would come into Sofia, she would be so excited to ride the (first, and only- if I remember correctly) escalator during communist times.
When we were in Africa, we met and became friends with a lovely Romanian girl, Christina. She was ecstatic when we shared a box full of melty chocolate with her (that Andrew’s mom had sent to us in Tanzania). She told us about growing up without chocolate until one day it was available and she went crazy. Isn’t that fascinating? Can you imagine chocolate and escalators being a special thing?
Government buildings. These poor guards were wearing such heavy, heavy uniforms. I felt bad for them having to stand outside in the HOT sun, but then we were told they change out every hour because it is so hot standing outside in the sun even for just one hour.
Churches were Everywhere. The biggest, and most impressive was the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. It’s one of the largest Eastern Orthodox Churches in the world. We weren’t allowed to photograph the interior, but I assure you it was equally impressive. And dark. Not many candles nor lights were lit, I’m guessing to help preserve the murals on the walls. We sat for awhile inside. To escape the heat outside, and because we’re both fasciated with religious traditions around the world.
Fun fact: Sofia is not named after Saint Sofia. We were told this is a common mistake, even in Bulgaria. It’s named after Ayasofia, which in Greek, means wisdom. If this question comes up in your next trivia game, you’re welcome!
Another fun fact (one that might not be as useful in your next trivia game): It is unbelievably awesome to have friends scattered around the world. Who knew I’d have a friend in Sofia who we could meet up for dinner with?! He ordered a mountain of food for us, insisted we try the Bulgarian rakia. When in Bulgaria… Despite having a baby on the way (update the little one was born a week after our visit) he insisted on contributing to “our cause” of trying to make it a full year (or more) around the world. So, not only are my friends leading amazing lives in foreign countries all around the world, they are generous to boot. (Thanks a million, Mark. Dinner is on us next time!) Below, he threw up the Bulgarian thumbs up and I threw down the Korean peace sign. Because we’re gangster travelers like that.
We’ve had some pretty interesting timing on this trip, to say the least. Most recently, we were in Istanbul right before protests got serious (and violent). We left Athens before protests and strikes began. But today, we seemed to arrive right smack in the middle of another country protesting their government. We actually missed them the day we arrived, as we were exhausted and didn’t stray too far from where we were sleeping, but we heard all about them the next morning over breakfast. I filmed the video above on the 18th. If you’re interested in this country’s battle with their government, you can read all about it here!
The reason we didn’t make it out to see the protests is because we were ‘up’ but not exactly ‘at ’em’ in Sofia before six in the morning. We had just gotten off our overnight bus, but were warned not to take a taxi in Sofia, unless we wanted to get ripped off. So, we walked. It was a couple of kilometers. Enough to wake a girl up after an overnight bus from Greece. We were hoping, but not expecting to be able to check into our room sometime in the morning. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to until around noon. Fortunately, the hostel was equipped with a nice lounge area, wifi, and a buffet breakfast (with drip coffee!) so we were able to eat and relax (as much as we could) until our room was ready.
When our room was ready, showers became the priority, followed by sleep. Some sleep, but mostly just kinda laying.