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
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.