I’m going at blogging a slightly different way in my Bulgaria posts. This one is the touristic post, which I hope will be useful for non-cycling and cycling folks. My next one will be about the route we’ve cycled through the country, which will mainly be for the cyclists, or really good unicyclists.
The first major town we got to was Plovdiv – which is apparently the oldest continuously inhabited city in Europe and, like Rome, is nestled in seven hills. So far, so intriguing. And I’m happy to say it’s pretty incredible! Not least because beer there is as cheap as water…
One day in Plovdiv
We arrived in Plovdiv at around 4pm, and decided to jump right in with a free walking tour at 6pm. They take place twice a day, every day, and our tour guide Sveta was absolutely fantastic! And there is absolutely no way I’ve spelt her name correctly.
We started with a history of Bulgaria and a focus on Plovdiv. It was inhabited by the Thracians first – who were heavily into wine making – so it seems that Plovdiv’s inhabitants have been making wine for six centuries! Which explains a few things.
Then the Romans took over in 1st century AD, and when the Roman Empire split in two, both Plovdiv and Sofia were within the Eastern bloc – ie Byzantium. There’s loads of Roman remains throughout the city – including the amazing Amphitheatre built in the 2nd-century AD, which incredibly still hosts concerts today.
Then the proto-Bulgarians came. For a long time, Plovdiv was a border town changing hands between Byzantium and Bulgarians. During this time – in the 9th century – Christianity was adopted as the official religion, and the Cyrillic alphabet was perfected by a Bulgarian soon afterwards.
Then, the good ole Ottomans came along with their Empire. It’s worth mentioning that weirdly enough, the best preserved Ottoman architecture we’ve seen on this trip was in Plovdiv – and not Turkey. The whole area known as ‘the Old Town’ is cobbled streets lined with hundreds of perfectly preserved and restored Ottoman houses – some of them housing art galleries, museums, or preserved with the contents of their owners. We actually stayed in a hostel in one of them, Hostel Old Plovdiv. It’s won loads of awards, it was pretty amazing to stay in one of those places with antique furniture to match, and the breakfast was decent! (However no shout outs to the lad who fell asleep before 9pm so we couldn’t put the light on to sort ourselves out. And he kept saying he was a metal-head!)
After five centuries the Bulgarians gained their freedom, but strayed onto the wrong side in the Balkan War, and both world wars – before becoming part of the Soviet regime until the fall of the Berlin Wall.
After 1989, free of the shackles of Russia, it seems Plovdiv and Bulgaria as a whole have gone from strength to strength. Our tour guide was passionately pleased at the country’s joining of the EU, and squealed with pride when she mentioned Plovdiv was to be the European City of Culture 2019. Always nice to have an enthusiastic one!
The tour ended at the aforementioned Roman Amphitheatre. A massive Bulgarian pop star was playing that night so we couldn’t go in, but you can still take snaps from the outside. Needless to say, it’s a bit more impressive than the O2!
We had dinner in Rahat Tepe in the Old Town. This was very nice and a great atmosphere, however! A word of warning. If you order a clay dish in Bulgaria make sure you order some bread or other such sides. As I ordered a traditional Bulgarian meat stew, and a clay pot the size of a vinyl was presented to me which was overflowing with meat and about half a diced carrot thrown in. I definitely got my protein quota filled that day. You’ve been warned!
The next day after a decent hotel brekkie we explored until around 3pm, before setting off cycling again. This time, I really was in the city for the amount of time I’m stating in the title!
We first visited the somewhat basically named Regional Ethnographic Museum Plovdiv. It costs about £4 to get in and showcases the history of Bulgaria’s people – with a focus on livelihoods and fashion. Its definitely worth a peruse if you’re in the area!
We then visited the St Konstantin and Elena Church – which you can look inside for free, before heading to Balabanov Kashta, one of the restored houses in the Old Town area, with the added bonus of hosting an art gallery downstairs full of the work of local artists
We then headed into Kapana – ie ‘the Trap’ – as there was a three-day festival going on. Our tour guide the day before had mentioned this was one of the success stories of Plovdiv’s European City of Culture win. The area used to be a bit dodgy, apparently, but after gaining the win, the local government pumped money into the area and it’s now a hub of cool clothes shops, cafes, restaurants and the like. We ate at Pavaj – which I’ve just seen is the number one restaurant in the city on TripAdvisor – and yeah it was pretty good!!
Our last positive Plovdiv experience was bike-based, when Sean managed to stop the clicking of my bike pedals with a liberal application of lube. Hero. And now, onto Sofia!
48 hours in Sofia
Sofia is a lovely city, and for a big city, it’s an absolute pleasure to cycle into!
On the day we arrived, we planned to go on another evening free walking tour, but as the weather was shitty we stayed in and Netflixed the hell out of the Wi-Fi, before enjoying the included dinner at the Hostel Mostel.
We’d booked the hostel based on other blog’s ravings – one blogger wrote that this hostel was so good, some people decided to travel around Bulgaria to cities where sister branches were located to try them out – and it was pretty damn good!
We had our own room (after ‘9pm-gate’ in Plovdiv), and the unexpected perk of having dinner included as well as breakfast means that you’re able to save quite a lot of money. And beer is included! Only at dinner time though, not with brekkie. Bulgaria isn’t that mad.
The tour ends at the city’s most famous landmark – Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, which is pretty impressive. Afterwards, we wanted to go to the Museum of Socialist Art – however it was closed on Mondays! Which meant the only sane option was going to meet David who we’d met the day before, and who had just text regarding some bevs in the park. When a round of massive beer bottles costs £2.50, you know you’re in for a great afternoon.
Sofia day two – heading south
On the second day, we headed out of the city to explore Rila, which houses two spots we wanted to get involved with – the Seven Rila Lakes and the Rila Monastery, the latter being a UNESCO World Heritage Site (which I’m very keen on).
We’d spent ages researching ways to do both of these spots, and based on David’s recommendation we planned to hike the lakes, stay in one of the huts nestled in the area, then hike to the monastery the next day. This would have been awesome! However nature intervened, in the form of a massive thunderstorm forecast for the second day. I’m adventurous, but I’m not hike-up-to-a-monastery-during-a-thunderstorm adventurous.
Instead, Sean found a shuttle that allows you to do both in one day. This turned out to be a good shout, especially as the public transport to the lakes required two public buses, a taxi and a chairlift.
I won’t spend too long on these, and let the pictures do the talking. It sounds sacrilegious, but I will say the Rila Monastery didn’t blow me away, and unless you’re monastery-inclined, I’d suggest saving the money and just opting to see the lakes instead and spending more time there. They are spectacular! As I’ve tried to capture in the below photos…
We followed the red route up to the top where there’s a vantage point that takes in all seven lakes. It was supremely well signposted – you’d have to give it some serious effort to get lost – but it was quite strenuous, especially as we had to trudge through snow at some points.
In fact, we almost gave up near the summit as the snow was too deep, until a couple came along with a paid tour guide who showed them a route clambering across some rocks. This is not how it would go down in the Lake District. I was sure we were about to start a rock avalanche! But it did the trick and I thank that couple for coughing up the dough for a guide.
Lonely Planet states ‘some Bulgarians would say you haven’t visited Bulgaria unless you’ve visited the Rila Monastery’. That’s the kind of hyperbole that gets me hook, line and sinker. It was interesting, but I’m not sure if I’d give it another visit.
There’s a church inside the monastery, a museum which houses some of the religious paraphernalia, and a tower and an icon gallery (which were both closed).
And that’s your lot! The bus back to Sofia took about an hour and a half, getting us back at 7.30pm, just in time to have a KFC dinner before they closed.
In short, we’ve had a good time in Bulgaria so far. Night night people!