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Intrepid Tour 3 - Bulgaria...The End is Near

Explore Eastern Europe Part 3

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We crossed the Friendship Bridge and arrived in Bulgaria. Sadly this also meant we were on the last half of our Intrepid.

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We started our time in Veliko Tarnovo, the old capital of Bulgaria spending our morning visiting the amazing fortress that the city is renowned for. It was misty and the sun was struggling to make it through the clouds, which made the ruins seem even more magical while we explored them.

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We headed on a walking tour and learnt about Bulgaria’s numerous battles to gain independence from the Ottoman Empire. The old town area was built on the side of a hill and so the views were amazing. The houses were made with hidden stories. From the street they would look like a single storey house but really they could be four or five as they are built down the hill off the street. This helped when Bulgaria was a part of the Ottoman empire and certain houses and churches were not allowed to be taller than a man standing on the back of his horse.

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On our tour we also had an extra guide for most of the way that loved Lewis, one of the “street pets” of the city. The locals tend to fed them and the government has started vaccinating and neutering them. The dogs roam around happy and the locals seem happy to have them around.

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We also saw the impressive street art that was everywhere in the city. It was exciting to walk along and wonder what would be around the next corner.
Pagan traditions were not allowed in Ottoman times and so were done in secret. These rituals included dressing up as Kukeri to scare away evil spirits with his bells and scary costume.
One of the first things I noticed about Bulgaria were the notices posted everywhere with peoples faces on them. Originally I thought they were missing people (it seemed like a lot!) but I discovered on our tour that these are Bulgaria’s death notices. They put them on the street and in bus stops rather than the newspaper.

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Dinner was the same place both nights. Tomi showed us an amazing restaurant where they made delicious traditional and Italian cuisine. I was beginning to see the Turkish influence appear in traditional cooking now we were getting closer. I had the most delicious meatballs cooked in a pan. The potatoes were the best I have had on the whole trip! I also finally got a delicious desert. It was chocolate souffle with orange ice cream and marmalade. It was spectacular!

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We headed to Sofia the next day to be welcomed with showers. A little rain wouldn’t dampen our day. We headed to the local food hall for some lunch. It was here that we found the most delicious eclairs (They were so good that we went back for another that night).

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The eclair was filled with a custard cream and covered in milk chocolate. It was out of this world! Even now I dream about this eclair. We explored Sofia seeing the statue of goddess sofia. (The city is actually named after the Sofia church) and some of the ruins they continually find when they build new infrastructure (they discovered a lot while building their metro). There was an old church inside one of the flasher hotels in Sofia. We walked through to see the old wooden beauty. Our final stop while exploring was to see the main church. I think this may have been the most beautiful and calming church we have seen on our whole trip so far. It just had a feel about it. I could have sat in there for hours!

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We had another day of travelling. On the way we stopped at one of the first monasteries in Bulgaria. It was covered with paintings and surrounded by forest.

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After exploring the beautiful place we headed to a small bar for soup for lunch. It was delicious and just what was needed for the colds we both had. A few days later there was a rock slide and people were trapped at the monastery. We continued driving to another small town where we were the only tourists around. After having a few beverages in the local bar with the locals we went for a small explore.

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The town’s transport mainly consisted of horse and carts and motorbikes. Just like in small town Romania the sheep and cows come home at night from the fields. The area was small and beautiful. I also got to see my first stork nest. We had a delicious home cooked meal that night with hot fresh bread, bean soup and ratatouille with sausages and potatoes. The hot bread with soup was out of this world! I tried to avoid the Rakia after the Palinka experiences in Romania.. That stuff is pretty terrible! A few locals dressed in traditional Bulgarian clothes came to entertain us in the evening and dress us up also. We danced, we sung and we shelled beans. We also made gorgeous pom-poms to take home. Pom-poms are usually worn as a part of their traditional dress.

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The next day we headed to Bankso, this is a ski town and was only 20mins from where we stayed the previous night. The contrast between the two was pretty extraordinary. Being at the bottom of the mountains meant a couple of days of walking the hills to see the lakes and the wildlife. Our first day was a walk back from the top to the town following trails and ski slopes.

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The next day we used the ski lifts a bit further out to get to the top of the mountains then walked through non-existent trails to get to lakes. The views and isolation was amazing. There was a mighty frost at the top which still hadn't cleared when we left at 2pm! You could only see the hills for miles. It was a reflective experience.

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Our final stop of our Intrepid trip was Plovdiv...the saying is you haven't truly seen Bulgaria until you have been to Plovdiv. The place is built between 7 hills much like Rome. (they are more like slight slopes but that is ok). We had another lovely young local guide, Angelina who bounced around and showed us the sights of the old town. Again most of the ruins are being found under buildings when renovations are being done like the amphitheatre which has recently been restored. The local church is beautiful and interestingly the cross on the gate is thought to have a resemblance to the devils face.
Old Roman ruins were scattered around the city.

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We also had amazing views of the city from the old fortress at the top of one of the seven hills. One of the churches was painted over (all the masterpieces) by the Greeks. It has since been restored. Angelina was great at telling us about a few of Bulgaria's traditions like wearing red and white bands in March and when you see a stork you hang it on the closest tree to bring luck and fortune to your family.
We discovered delicious iced chocolate but the ice cream shop's cookie ice cream was a huge let down compared to Vienna. We also had pretty amazing stuffed potato and burger!

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After a final farewell dinner with the group we jumped on an overnight bus to Istanbul. Basically this meant hardly any sleep and a big rigmarole at the border. New Zealand is one of the few countries that doesn't require a tourist visa for Turkey (we were surprised too). The border required everyone’s bags to be taken off the bus and to be scanned before being but pack on the bus to leave. The great thing about the bus was that we arrived at Istanbul at 5am to watch the sunrise and hear the call to prayer. It was amazing!

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Bulgaria sadly didn’t have the same impact that Romania had on me. It may have been because I was sick through most of it or it may have been just that it was a different experience. The small towns were yet again my favourites. The nature on our hikes was out of this world and rivalled some of our natural beauty in New Zealand. Fruit and vegetable weren’t as rare to find. I guess Bulgaria was more Western than Romania due to most places we went being larger and so there was more money.

Overall our Intrepid was different than what we were expecting (considering we weren't expecting to be the youngest by miles) but it was an amazing experience and I would do the same tour again in a heartbeat. Tomi, our guide was amazing! There is no way we would have found these spectacular places in Romania and Bulgaria without our guide and Intrepid. It was the off the beaten track out of the way places that made the trip unforgettable.
Hopefully Intrepid can get a few of their booking support policies and applications better and then I wouldn’t be able to fault them.

Posted by chellebelle 07:29 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged mountains ruins intrepid frost bulgaria hikes potatoes

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