Rila Monastery, Plovdiv & The Black Sea, Bulgaria
We escaped the horrible caravan park and drove to Rila Monastery, tucked away deep in the mountains. The scenery on our drive was beautiful, although the twisting and potholed roads tested our patience. The detour was worth it though - Rila Monastery was nothing short of amazing. Outside the gates it looked boring, just a plain, square building that made up the residences, but inside was a different story. It was colourful, full of life, and contained an odd but fascinating church in the middle. The outer surface of the church was painted with horizontal stripes that reminded me of candy canes, almost like it was designed by Willy Wonka. Every square inch of the interior was filled with murals – it was unbelievable how many they could fit into such a small space. We both rated Rila as probably the top monastery we had ever visited.
Another highlight was the the number of water taps around the site, which provided water that tasted a thousand times better than what was on offer at the caravan park. We sneakily filled up all of our water bottles before leaving.
We fought the winding roads again to make our way to Plovdiv, arriving as the sun was setting. Danny cooked up a chicken pesto risotto for dinner (chicken! We don't eat chicken very often), which we devoured with a local white wine that was unexpectedly good. After dinner we took a quick walk around town, sticking to one main street full of cafes. The centre square contained an excavation site with Roman ruins, but they were surrounded by fences so we didn't see much. The weather (and our van) stayed hot and humid all night, meaning neither of us slept a great deal. Only one month of summer to go...
The traffic outside our van in the morning also added to our lack of sleep. It took a while before we could drag ourselves out of bed to go and explore Plovidv. After finding a map we set of for the Roman Amphitheatre, the highlight of the Roman ruins in town. It had been kept in a remarkable condition, and was used almost nightly to hold various performances. The few remaining pillars provided the backdrop for the stage, allowing those sitting higher up to see through the gaps and across the town and hills beyond.
From the Amphitheatre we wandered past the unique architecture on the cobbled streets of the old town, surrounded by trees and souvenir stores but few tourists. Danny managed to restrict his purchases to a t-shirt and a bottle opener. We visited a church that was full of murals, inside and out, as was the museum next door. The Museum of Fine Arts happened to be free on Thursdays (today), so we walked through two floors of 19-20th century Bulgarian art. It was just as impressive as Western European art. We found a hill overlooking part of Plovdiv but it was the ugly side of town, mostly factories and high rises. Overall Plovdiv was a great place to visit, even though it was stinking hot.
We wanted to visit the Black Sea, so we picked a town from the guidebook with a small population and headed for it. The drive was mostly boring until we could see the sea, at which point Danny became disappointed because it wasn't black. It didn't stop him running straight for the beach as soon as we arrived though. The water turned out to be surprisingly warm, possibly the warmest sea I had ever experienced. It was bliss - I wish all beaches were like this.
After dinner we walked into town to see what was happening, and although Sozopol only has 4,000 people, it was incredibly busy (the population must double in summer). All of the restaurants were still full at 11 p.m., as well as the retail shops, food stalls and carnival rides. We couldn't resist the smell of the barbecued meat, so we bought a sausage (known as a rissole), a rissole (known as a flat hamburger) and a pork skewer (known as a pork skewer). The scene brought back memories of our times in Asia, our holiday there feeling like a lifetime ago. It was another hot night, but we were parked right near the beach and the gentle breeze cooled the van down slightly.
We woke up to very different weather the next morning – overcast, cool, breezy, choppy waters. No swimming for Danny today. We walked into town again, but this time it was much more subdued. There were still a few people on the beach and in the water, but I think the weather kept most people away.
The Black Sea marked the end of our journey through Bulgaria, and now it was time to head to Turkey. On the way to the border we had about 60 km of one of the worst “paved” roads we had driven along. The speed limit was 90 kph, yet we barely made it above 40 kph. Narrow lanes, potholes, never-ending hills and tight bends made it frustratingly slow.
Things didn't speed up when we hit the border. There were no signs telling us what we needed to do, or in what order, so we just hopped in a random line and waited to be told. First we had go to the Bulgarian exit line, then the Turkish visa line, the Turkish passport line, the vehicle registration line, have our vehicle inspected, then find a man at the end who checked we had completed everything. In the end it wasn't a difficult process, but some sort of rundown of the steps would have been handy.