Veliko Tarnovo & Sofia, Bulgaria
From Romania to Bulgaria, where the roads aren't much better but at least there are hills and mountains to make the scenery a little more interesting. We also noticed that the population of stray dogs and cats has increased exponentially.
Our first stop was the town of Veliko Tarnovo, small enough that we could park right in the centre and begin our exploration of both the new town and old town. It was surprisingly touristy, with the cobbled streets lined with locals selling handicrafts. As part of the town was located on a hill, there were views over the countryside at almost every turn.
It was boiling hot in the van so we chose to chill out at an outdoor cafe, planning to buy just one drink. When we saw the menu, that plan went out the window. Everything was ridiculously cheap. All cocktails and pizzas were under €2.50 - where can you get those prices in Australia? In the end we downed three cocktails, one beer, two snacks and a pizza and it came to €9. We love Eastern Europe.
The major attraction in Veliko Tarnovo is the fortress, which was way bigger than we were expecting. We walked around most of the lengthy outer walls, until they crumbled into non-existence. Most of the site consisted of foundations of prior buildings, a large watchtower/church in the middle, and a stage with seating area for a sound and light show at night. There were terrific views in all directions, particularly from the top of the watchtower. The church was small but the interior but fascinating – instead of the typical Renaissance-style paintings on the walls, the surfaces were covered with abstract murals in grey and brown tones. The patterned lighting from the chandeliers and windows gave the place an eerie feel, which also made it the coolest thing we saw in the entire town.
From Veliko Tarnovo we drove to the capital, Sofia. It was a refreshing change to have an uninterrupted drive on two lane roads with zero roadworks. In the whole three hours I think we only drove through five towns – most of the country appeared to be empty land. Once we arrived in Sofia we discovered that nearly all the street parking had to be paid for by SMS, which wasn't going to work for us. We tried to find another way to pay but no one could help us. In the end we drove around in circles until we found a car park with an attendant that we could pay in cash. It turned out to be a great park, right near the centre of the city.
The tourist office was not helpful. We enquired about campsites, and the lady serving us gave a vague answer about somewhere on the main road 10 km out of town. She didn't know where it was on a map. Surely we aren't the only people who are looking for a campsite. We also asked about walks in a national park a few kilometres south of the city. She gave us a typed handout with bus numbers to get there and a description of the chairlifts, which only operated on weekends. There was nothing about hiking. We didn't bother with any further questions.
Without much direction we wandered around the streets, past a couple of churches, an impressive Palace of Justice building and a few parks. We were on the lookout for a Bulgarian restaurant for dinner, but the city seemed to be full of retail stores and tourist attractions rather than eateries. After one hour of searching we had only found three Italian restaurants and a sushi joint. I'm not sure where the foodie area was, but it wasn't near us. In the end we settled for Italian, which was quick and average. Danny's pizza was cold, intentionally apparently, and my minced meat pasta was just bits of chopped up pork. Bulgaria is apparently famous for its yoghurt and they are deeply proud of it, so we ordered a serving for dessert. It came topped with fruit and was easily the highlight of the meal.
Our exploration of Sofia continued the next day, although there really wasn't much to explore. There was one main street paved with yellow bricks that contained most of the sights, and a secondary street lined with retail shops. Most of our time was spent on the main street, as we have little need to go shopping. The most impressive sight was the enormous Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, which architecturally was stunning. Oddly, there were no pews at all in the sections we saw - I wonder what they did during service. We also walked past a few government buildings which all looked the same, the tiny Russian Church, the Mosque, the Synagogue, and the grand-looking Mineral Baths (we didn't go in). Danny found taps behind the baths where he could fill his bottle with hot, fresh mineral water. It tasted like regular drinking water to us.
Danny of course had to check out the markets, so off he went while I visited an exhibition at the City Art Gallery. The curator had asked 43 Bulgarian artists to choose a piece of art by any other Bulgarian artist to display in the exhibition, and explain why they chose it. It resulted in a collection covering multiple styles and time periods, without being overwhelmingly big. Some of the pieces were exceptional – not bad for a free museum.
We searched endlessly for a souvenir shop but we both came up empty. The closest we came was a bookstore with postcards out the front. It's hard to believe there isn't a demand for souvenirs in a capital city.
As we needed food for dinner we stopped in at a supermarket, which turned out to be an all-in-one supermarket/hardware/department store - one where you were supposed to buy in bulk. We don't have the luxury of buying in bulk (we either have no room for it or it will go rancid), so we had to comb through the aisles for single servings of food. The alcohol section made this easy for us.
The caravan park we ended up at was possibly the worst caravan park in Europe, but it was the only one in Sofia. The whole place was completely overgrown, almost to jungle-status. At most I think it would have held a dozen campervans. Several of the electricity outlets didn't work, so we had to play "find the power" for a while. There was no toilet/shower block. On site were four run-down, unlivable cabins that we could use, but two of the toilets didn't work and the other two didn't flush properly. None of the showers had shower heads, there was just open pipes that ran straight down from the ceiling. They weren't closed off showers either, but instead an open bathroom with no divisions between anything. I was surprised to find that there was hot water. There was no washing machine, so I ended up washing clothes by hand. There was no store, no other amenities, nothing nearby. Also the "drinking" water didn't taste very drinkable. I guess Bulgaria isn't a hot spot for campervaning. Thankfully we leave tomorrow.