The Grand Eastern European Adventure: Bulgaria

I’m a full two weeks into my trip now!  In some ways it feels like it just began.  I’ve been on my own for a few days now, the first days I’ve ever traveled by myself, and for all of my worries and fears I’m doing great!  Belgrade is actually a fantastic place to be on one’s own.  The city is smaller and more accessible, people are friendly and speak great English, both Serbs and other travelers.  And I’ve felt very safe here.  Hardly anyone bothers me on the street or even looks at me twice.  I kind of look Eastern European anyway, so that helps.

But before I got here, I spent a week in Bulgaria.  Getting to Bulgaria was certainly interesting.  We took a pretty crappy night train.  Apparently the night buses are much better but we didn’t know.  And I’ve been on good night trains, so I know this is not how they usually go.  It took a while to board the train and get going.  There was a lot of confusion with the train staff as to where to put people and a pretty long business of handing out blankets, pillows and sheets.  The couple that we shared our couchette with, a Swedish guy and Taiwanese girl who’d been on the road a while, were cool to talk to and that helped pass the time.  But the train stopped a lot.  The first stop was at 3 in the morning for passport control where we were made to get off the train and cross the train tracks to the most dismal passport control office ever to receive our Turkish exit stamp.  While not fun, it was kind of funny, and makes for a pretty good story.  But we were woken again at 4:30 to do passport control again for the Bulgarian side!  This time, burly Bulgarian police boarded the train and went car by car.  He flipped through the Swedish guy’s filled passport, and gave it back.  But on mine, he examined my face, had a female officer look as well, made me stand up in the light, unsure that I really was the person on my passport.  I think it’s because I had longer hair in my passport photo, so they thought it was a fake.  But eventually he took it, Zac’s and the girl’s with him to scan and finish processing at the passport office.  This took a little while, to do everyone’s on the train, and I heard this annoying American woman farther down being really concerned about the fact that someone had taken her passport.  I was more worried that they didn’t think mine was real, but eventually all passports were returned with our new Bulgarian entry stamp inside.

The rest of the train was pretty sleepless.  Once it got moving, I would drift off, but when it stopped immediately wake up again.  Pretty soon it was 8 am and we’d arrived at our destination: Plovdiv.

I really enjoyed our time in Plovdiv.  Immediately, it felt much different from any place I’d ever been.  Everything was written in Cyrillic, and people didn’t know much English, so it was a fun challenge to figure things out.  And it was an amazing place for people watching!  Men and women are both fairly dressed up just to walk around, and their fashion sense is outlandish and pretty stuck in the early 2000’s.  A popular trend was women’s t-shirts with tons of rhinestones and glitter and feminine designs, sometimes with broken English phrases that didn’t quite make sense.  Most women also wore pretty severe makeup, and dyed their hair jet black, or vivid shades of red or purple.  Our hostel, Hostel Mostel, was located pretty close to the major walking street of Plovdiv, so after a good nap on the first day we pretty much walked around and got ourselves orientated with the city.  We also did a little exploring in the Old City, a quaint jumble of cobblestoned streets and  Bulgarian Revival-style houses from the 1860’s, when Bulgaria was at the height of its wealth and had a large merchant class.  Most of these houses are now preserved as museums, and are nice to tour.  That first day we popped into one that was an art museum with an exhibit of Mexican art and also a famous artist who’d been active in Plovdiv in the early 20th century.  During our few days in the city, we were able to visit many such museums, as all are only 2 Lv (around $1.40) for students – which we are not but no one ever asked to see our student IDs!

The second day in Plovdiv we took a bus to the city of Haskovo, and then a smaller bus to the town of Harmanli.  In Harmanli is a Syrian refugee camp, and Zac had been communicating with Gil, a British woman who now lives in Bulgaria and volunteers at the camp.  We met her and a few refugees at a cafe and learned about her experiences with them and what the problems and needs of the camp are.  We’d brought along a bunch of old cellphones to give to her, as many refugees lose their phones or have them stolen in their journeys and they are a valuable lifeline to finding friends and family.  Thanks to everyone who has given us their old phones!!!  Gil was so happy to have them.

It’s one thing to sit and talk, but I’m a woman of action, so I was happy to hear that Gil was going to the warehouse were they store donations to finish processing a large donation from England, so we accompanied her.  We helped her sort bags of clothing into piles for summer and winter, as the seasons are so different in Bulgaria and they need to have the right kind of clothes ready to give to the refugees.  It was also funny going through those bags.  The Brits that had put together the donation were quite posh and some of the clothes were not what you’d think to donate to a refugee camp!

Within 2 hours we’d finished processing all of the clothes, and Gil gave us a ride back to the bus station for our journey back to Plovdiv.  This may sound cheezy, but it had been a very inspiring day.  The refugees we’d met were smart, hip young men, who are stuck in a camp trying to move through the red tape of the Bulgarian system so that they can have lives again.  Already Zac is home working on ways to improve the education system in the camp, and I’m going to come up with small ways that I can continue to help them as well.

Our last day in Plovdiv was the bigger sightseeing day, but started with a much-needed visit to the ANTEKA, the pharmacy.  It turns out that the Bulgarian mosquitoes love me, and I had several bites that had exploded into large, red, tender masses on my legs.  We got me some anti-itch gel, bug spray, and also some Claritin, as it was clear I was having some sort of allergic reaction to the bites.  The Claritin has really saved my life, as all throughout Bulgaria there was so much pollen in the air that I woke up stuffy and congested.

We also discovered Alex foods, a ridiculously cheap fast food stand.  All of Bulgaria was really cheap, but at Alex we ate huge falafel sandwiches for a mere 1.50 Lv (around $1.05) each.  Who knew the cheapest falafel I’d eat would be in Bulgaria?  Beer too, and coffee were staple commodities that could be gotten quite cheaply.  Beer is so common in Bulgaria that you can pick it up at the corner store in a 2 liter plastic bottle like how you buy soda for just a couple of dollars.  And while the main street of Plovdiv was lined with posh outdoor cafes, the best coffee was gotten from the corner store, an espresso in a plastic cup with sugar and a plastic stir-stick, for less than a dollar.

We spent most of that time the last day exploring the Old City of Plovdiv, seeing it’s mysterious old Orthodox churches and quaint house museums and grabbing souvenirs for friends at the many little shops.  The best attraction by far was the Ethnographical Museum, housed in one of the nicest of the Revival houses.  Each room was dedicated to a different folk craft or product of the region and had tools, finished products, and black and white photographs for each.  There were displays on wood carving, pottery, elaborate and intricate jewelery and belt-buckles, musical instruments, agricultural tools.  Believe me, it was much more fascinating than it sounds.  My favorite, of course, were the costume displays.  There were a few examples of the clothing of the wealthy merchant class, but I preferred the ones on the many different peasant villages throughout the mountains and plains of Bulgaria.  The clothing is very layered and intricate, with tons of embroidery, lace work, and woven patterns to adorn them.  The style of the clothing and adornments varied from region to region, so it was cool to see them side-by-side and compare the differences.

We also found a really wonderful vintage store hidden in the streets of the Old City.  It was one tiny room in the basement, packed with tons of Soviet antiques.  I found a great vintage dress that I’ve dubbed my “Soviet sundress”, and Zac found one of those little stove top coffee makers for Turkish coffee, which we’d gotten pretty hooked on in Istanbul.  That night we indulged in pizza and ice cream, and hit up a funky local bar for one last beer in Plovdiv before our early start the next day for our next destination in Bulgaria: Veliko Tarnovo.

It was originally my intention to write about all of Bulgaria in one post, but this is already far too long, so more to come on my Balkan explorations later!

Good Luck and Happy Travels,

Mo

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