The bitter cold of Bulgaria

I thought Serbia to Romania transit options would be simple. It was more of an

assumption really, as I didn’t really do the homework to see what routes existed and how they

went from one country to the other. Most of my thought process centered around the fact that

they share an extended border along the Danube River, and in most cases that is enough for

countries in Europe to have very clear cut and well defined transit options.

This wasn’t the case between the two countries. It wasn’t impossible, far from it, but how

unclear everything seemed to be from the different people I asked was enough to deter Amanda

and I from seeking out ways to get into Romania. We only had fourteen days to play with, and it

would’ve taken at least a day to get to Brasov, in Transylvania north of Bucharest, enough to

make us look at options elsewhere. We ultimately decided, with a little spontaneity, to take a

night train to Thessaloniki, Greece, ensuring we’d wake up Christmas morning on the

Mediterranean.

Thessaloniki I want to go into detail about in another post. It was the second time I’d visited the

city, and it had changed a bit from when I’d first visited two years prior. There are some

thoughts I need to attach to it, and I’ll have to do that in a later post. From Thessaloniki, Amanda

and I took another train, this one to Sofia, Bulgaria.

The eastern side of the Balkans always seemed far more mysterious to me. Much of the appeal

in visiting Romania (that will be another trip someday) had this same allure, that there seemed

to be unseen qualities I couldn’t attach to these countries as I could to others in the area. Much

of my family history comes out of the west coast of the Balkans, and I’ve done my best to

educate myself about the history of the area. What I know of the eastern side has always lacked

in what I know of the west, and being further into the interior of Europe, away from the influence

of the west and many of its ideals and history has always placed it far more heavily under the

historical regional powers of Turkey and Russia. I wanted to know if Romania or Bulgaria lived

up to the enigmatic and mysterious status I’d given it in my head.

Sofia, was first and foremost, frigid upon arrival. I can’t deny that I have mild-mannered

California blood in my veins, used to a small range of temperature variation, but Sofia was frigid

by almost any standard. The only thing that matched the bitter cold was the surprising beauty of

the mountains that surrounded the city. Sofia is a rare city, in that it has grown so big without

having been settled by any noticeable source of water. Almost all major cities throughout history

have been settled alongside the banks of the river, or the shores of a lake or ocean. Sofia,

however, sits in a small bowl surrounded by mountains in the middle of the Balkan peninsula. Of

these mountains the most impressive is Vitosha, just south of the city and more than a mile

above everything else around.

Streets of Sofia.  Vitosha Mountain in the background provided a beautiful back drop throughout much of the city
Streets of Sofia. Vitosha Mountain in the background provided a beautiful back drop throughout much of the city

Amanda and I opted to take a walking tour; neither of us knowing enough about the city to know

what sights were imperative, and also trying to maximize our outdoor time in order to get away

from the cold. Like many eastern European cities Sofia had an odd mix of nineteenth century

architecture, Soviet Bloc ugliness, and more recent attempts to give the city a new face and

feel. It was, all things considered, an appealing and endearing city, even if it had no cohesive

conscious. A statue of St. Sofia stands in the heart of the city, at odds with the Church of Hagia

Sofia a few blocks away, for which the city is named. The beautiful cathedral dedicated to

Russian saint Alexander Nevski sits in the middle of a wide parking lot and round about, almost

oddly dropped in the center of a ring of stone and pavement. But not everything reflected this

odd contrast. Like many other cities of Europe, Sofia has an interior ring of amazing architecture

and on paper the city layout is one of the most clean cut and organized as I’ve ever seen.

Alexander Nevski Cathedral in Sofia
Alexander Nevski Cathedral in Sofia

Out of Sofia we took a day trip to Rila Monastery, tucked into the Rila Mountains about a two

hours drive south of the city. Much like the Vitosha mountains looming over Sofia, the Rila

Mountains rise out of a low plain to dominate everything else around.

The Rila Mountains rising from the plains
The Rila Mountains rising from the plains

The Monastery itself has an imposing rocky exterior, meant to intimidate as a fortress rather

than a place of worship. On the inside, it has multi-layered housing for the number of monks

and religious figures that still inhabit Rila. In the center of the complex is the beautiful chapel,

completely covered and ordained in frescoes and gold.

Ceiling frescoes in the chapel at Rila Monastery
Ceiling frescoes in the chapel at Rila Monastery
Living quarters of the monks at Rila Monastery
Living quarters of the monks at Rila Monastery

After Sofia we took a night bus to small city of Veliko Tarnovo in the interior of Bulgaria. One of

the historic capitol cities of Bulgaria, Veliko is built atop a string of sharp hills that are

surrounded by a river winding its way through the low mountains. It seemed like a very unusual

place to build a city, much less an important one. Certain parts of the city seemed to drop off

into nowhere, swallowed by the bends of a river allowed to create the odd shape of the city.

From certain vantage points Veliko had a very ancient charm to it, looking like a fairy tale town,

so strange with its buildings stretching over each other and clinging to steep hill sides that no

normal city should be built upon.

Buildings and houses climb over each other in Veliko Tarnovo
Buildings and houses climb over each other in Veliko Tarnovo

Amanda and I chose to stay in Veliko a little longer than we had in Belgrade, Thessaloniki or

Sofia, so as to make the back end of our trip a little slower and more relaxing. It didn’t quite

have the desired affect, as temperatures dropped even lower than they had been in Sofia. New

Years night was the frigid peak, or trough really, of temperatures. By around midnight/New

Years, the temperature had dropped to 0 degrees Fahrenheit, and by the time we were back

inside around two in the morning the temperature had dropped a few more degrees.

New Years night in Veliko Tarnovo. The temperature hovered around 0 degrees Fahrenheit all night
New Years night in Veliko Tarnovo. The temperature hovered around 0 degrees Fahrenheit all night

The freezing air was inescapable and seemed to leech into everything, even making a

comfortable nights sleep nearly impossible. If there was any positive to it at all, the stifling

temperature made sleeping in equally impossible, and we were able to wake up early New

Years day to figure out how to make our way back towards Istanbul. We had about thirty six

hours to make it to the Turkish metropolis, and no idea how to best go about it.

And yet, somehow we did. A touch and go process that included two dropped bus tickets,

hopping on and off two different buses, back-to-back speeding taxi rides over slick icy roads,

deciphering directions and tickets from what little Bulgarian we could understand (nothing really,

I BSed my Croatian as far as I could… which doesn’t go very far in Bulgaria), arriving for a train

as it was departing, bus delays, and border stoppages somehow ended in the heart of Istanbul

fourteen hours after we started our nonsensical adventure.

I enjoyed Bulgaria a lot. Even with the biting, bitter cold and frequent communicative boundary.

Sofia was a very friendly city, and Veliko Tarnovo had a weird mix of eastern European

melancholy and whimsical Disney-esque charm. I would certainly recommend Bulgaria. Just

make sure it’s summer.

On the road to the hilltop fortress of Tsarevets in Veliko Tarnovo. Tsarevets Fortress definitely added to the Disney-like charm of Veliko.
On the road to the hilltop fortress of Tsarevets in Veliko Tarnovo. Tsarevets Fortress definitely added to the Disney-like charm of Veliko.
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