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Europe Notes, Part 4: Bulgaria

Plovdiv, Bulgaria. Photo by Clay Duda.

What follows is part four of a four-part series of journal entries I typed on my iPhone during a month-long trip across Europe. Read more about our itinerary here, or just read on and learn as you go. That’s kind of what I did.(Also see part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4) 

Europe Day 21, July 1, 2015:

We survived the night in our six-person sleeper cabin. It wasn’t bad considering we’re the only people in the six-person sleeper, but if this compartment were full it would have been a hard night. In fact, we’re the only passengers in this whole train car. There was another American kid, Mitchell, who got on in Budapest. We asked him why he was going to Sofia and he said, “why the hell not? Who do you know that’s been to Sofia?” That’s as good a reason as any I guess. But turns out Mitch done lost his wallet before jumping on the train back in Budapest, so we got to witness his freak-out sesh as he came to the realization, called his mom to have some money wired to him, called the banks to have his credit card cancelled, then called his friend back in Budapest to go check the train station where he last had his dear wallet. But there it was at the train station where he last bought something. Even the $8 U.S. in cash was still in there, he said. Of all the cities for that to happen in he should be glad it was Budapest. There are some good, honest people there… At least by what I can tell from their accents.

Anyways, Mitch was the only other passenger in this train car, but we did some quick route navigating and he hoped off in Bekescaba, Hungary to catch an early morning train back to Budapest. A two-hour train ride back seemed to make a lot more sense then trying to have a wallet mailed to a hostel in Sofia. And here we are, all alone and happy about it. We’re over half way there, we’re on schedule, and we have the place to ourselves. Other people could get on of course, but it’s morning now, so I’m hoping not too many people will opt for a sleeper cabin.

We had a mighty long train out of Budapest, but now, I just realized, there are just two cars and an engine bound for Sofia. We’re the only passengers in this car, but I wonder about the other. Maybe this whole train is just for us, and maybe that’s why we couldn’t make reservations for a private sleeper — because there isn’t one on this two-car train. The other compartments disembarked at Loekoeshaza, Hungary, only a few hours into our trip, those bound for Bucharest. I know in part because we sat next to this retired couple from Mexico in the bar, and they were going to Bucharest, and they were just as confused as we were about the train configuration and different numbers and arrival times. Then I asked the information desk and got treated like an idiot for the ump-teenth time on this trip.

The train out of Budapest. Photo by Clay Duda.

Sunflower fields in the south of Romania. Photo by Clay Duda.

We’re in the south of Romania now, due to enter Bulgaria in another 1.5 hours or so. It’s 9:24 a.m. I may be writing a lot today because, well, there’s not much else to do besides read and watch the sunflowers pass by.

The trees reach over the tracks in some sections here, racking down the side of our car as we pass. There’s a lot of trash and debris that line the railway in these hard-scrabble, one-horse towns. Actually, most probably have more horses than people. Each of the small outposts has some for of train station, even if it’s just a platform and brick building. We’re not stopping at most of them, but there are a lot of stops on this trip.

Bulgaria the Beautiful. We spent most of our trip rolling through farmland and low-lying hills, but now, less than two hours from Sofia, we’re cutting through mountainous ravines along a river canyon. It’s beautiful. Crags and river and trees and towns and crags. Bulgaria the Beautiful.

Talk about a warm welcome. Our friends Daniel and Koko met us at the train station in Sofia. Daniel already prepared our first taste of traditional Bulgarian food, a tasty dish called musaka. It basically consists of meat, potatoes, and veggies baked under a crust made from yogurt and egg, from what I understand. With a side of bread and fresh apricot, plus a shower to wash of 20-hours of train, we’re ready for our first night in Bulgaria.

On the train to Sofia, Bulgaria. Photo by Clay Duda.

South Park in Sofia, Bulgaria. Photo by Clay Duda.

Euro Trip Day 22, July 2, 2015:

We spent the evening hanging in the South Park next to Daniel and Mila’s flat last night with some of their friends and droning some traditional Bulgarian beers, which is a type made without yeast but I can’t remember the name now. Good people. Good times.

This morning we had Banitsa, a very Bulgarian pastry filled with cheese and eggs and sometimes yogurt. It’s noon now and we’re just getting going for the day..

Sofia, Bulgaria. Photo by Clay Duda.

Euro Trip Day 23, July 3, 2015:

Koko toured us around the city center yesterday and showed us more building and landmarks than I can remember at this point, but I at least know a few. We saw the Bulgarian parliament, the university, an old Roman church from the fourth century, a convention center and Central Park. Sofia is much less tourist oriented than any of the other cities we’ve been to in Europe, which is nice, but I’m afraid without some guidance it would be hard to navigate without knowing much of the language.

On that note, I now know how to say about six words in Bulgarian.

Last night we went to Маймунарника, an outdoor concert venue in the park whose name means ‘monkey house,’ to see Jaya the Cat. The show was good but without any opening band the fogies were done playing by 11 p.m. Otherwise it was great to jump in the mosh pit and blow off some steam. Interesting enough, the Bulgarian kids hung around after the band and kept dancing and jamming out to the sound system. The DJ sucked though. But I probably didn’t like him for other reasons besides my friends. Definitely a distinct flavor here and I can start to see more overlap in our cultures on a larger scale.

Jaya the Cat flier for a show in Sofia, Bulgaria. Photo by Clay Duda.

For dinner we had Taratrator, a mixture of dill cucumber yogurt salt sunflower oil water, and some tomato salad topped with this amazing kind of cheese (like feta) I keep forgetting the name for. The Taratrator was a completely new kind of flavor for me, but I liked the whole meal and it goes good with ouzo, a licorice-tasting liquor best served on the rocks.

We went with Daniel for a night hike through the park with his dog, Bitey. We got back shortly before 3 a.m. and a water pipe under he sink randomly busted and soak the living room. The hose became frayed under the faucet, but there was no shit off valve for just the sink, so it took a few minutes and we ended the night soaking up water off the floor with mops and towels. Shit happens.

The lack of sleep has started to catch up with me now late in the afternoon. We’re on our way to the Wake Up Bulgaria festival in the mountains near Plovdiv, the country’s second largest city. The countryside is absolutely beautiful. Rolling hills and fields of sunflowers sit in front of a seemingly endless crest of blue-Hurd mountains in the distance. I don’t think I’ll write much more now, just enjoy the ride.

Bitey on the trail near Sofia, Bulgaria, Vitosha Mountain. Photo by Clay Duda.

Wake Up Fest 2015 near Plovdiv, Bulgaria. Photo by Clay Duda.

Europe Day 24, July 4, 2015:

This tent is big enough for eight people. The frogs sound different. Nice view of the valley from here. Cow shit.

We spent last night bouncing between stages at the Wake Up Fest and camped out in a cow field. Reggae, hip-hop, trance.

This morning we woke up smoked a joint and hung around the little magic forest area at the concert playing hacky sack and lounging in hammocks. Now we’re on the road to Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second largest city just down the hill.

This place is full of history. The city center is built right on top of and really intertwines with its Roman past. The sidewalks give away to an ancient amphitheater right there in the middle of town, and pretty much everywhere you look, signs of the past peak through.

He had a bit of an interesting lunch experience. Our waiter struggled first with bringing us water, then lemon, then entrees, then bread, then a to-go bag. When he finally arrived with the plastic bag for our food or was wet and smelled a little like fish. That’s about the time we all busted laughing. I don’t think anything else could have gone wrong. We’ll see how the food sits.

There’s a lot of traditional Bulgarian architecture in town, which broadly is identifiable by the ornate overhung second stories, cobblestone streets and narrow passes. It’s really neat to feel a part of history just walking down the streets. In a lot of ways the town has more character than Sofia, though it seems most of these capital cities are their own unique thing and don’t always reflect the rest of the country. So it is in big cities around the world, it seems.

Stocked up on food and booze, we’re heading back for our second night at the festival. We had plans to go to the sea tomorrow, but calculating the time and energy it would take, I think those plans have been scrubbed. We’ll head back to Sofia and then hopefully a village in the mountains nearby tomorrow.

Plovdiv, Bulgaria. Photo by Clay Duda.

Roman ruins in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. Photo by Clay Duda.

Wake Up Festival in Bulgaria. Photo by Clay Duda.

Europe Day 25, July 5, 2015:

The fucking sun is oppressive, but the festival has been fun. We just packed up and made the trek back to the car. I love camping and such, but I’m glad to leave the cow shit and festival ‘outhouses’ behind.

Last night was an odd one. In fact pretty much everything is odd to me because it’s all new, but it was quite a treat to see some traditional Bulgarian folklore dancers and music. The dancers, all guys, came out wearing ornate masks over their faces with fluorescent flowers and other decorations. Big bells that resembled cowbells hung around there waists. There was about a dozen of them dancing around a guy banging a drum in the middle. Then a somewhat traditional band with a didgeridoo (um, not Bulgarian) took the stage.

This group of guys sitting at a table in the magic forest started talking to me this morning. I don’t understand much of anything so I didn’t realize he was talking to me, so when I turned he was gesturing waiting for an answer. “Oh, I don’t speak Bulgarian.” Is all I said and the whole table let out a big “ohhh.” We talked for a little bit and turns out they lived in the countryside nearby and don’t see many folks from abroad.

We’re flying down bumpy village roads on the side of a mountain trying to drink scalding hot coffee. Good times. I’ve got some kind of green apple juice in a glass bottle. All I can read is “Cappy,” the rest is in Bulgarian.

I got drunk last night and bought a bright green festival t-shirt. This morning I was looking at the lollipop-themed shirt and started really regretting have bought the thing. So I convinced Daniel to see if they would exchange it for a white one. I should have at least folded it back up nicelu to turn it in, but I forgot until we passed he booth on the way out. I yanked the shirt out all wrinkled, without its original bag, and asked. It took a little convincing, but I like my new white shirt.

The Snail House in Sofia, Bulgaria. Photo by Clay Duda.

Europe Day 26, July 6, 2015:

It’s been another nice, relaxing morning. It’s going to be tough waking up to an alarm again, but I am ready to get back and get to work on the home front.

We got back into Sofia around 7 p.m. last night, took showers, and met friends at the park to catch the tail end of a free jazz festival that’s been playing all weekend. I think there were more people there then at Wake Up.

We drove out this afternoon and tried to eat some soup at this restaurant in the village of Zheleznicka that Daniel knew of, but when we got there and after much to-do at the restaurant the old guy running the place told us the kitchen was closed. So we went up this hill to this villa and ate beans and belly soups and kelbatcka from a trailer kitchen with a patio on the hillside. Then we drove on the Yarlovo, a surprisingly large village off the main road on the hillside of Vitosha. In that town there were a number of these traditional house with walls made out of sticks covered in “a mixture of mud and horse shit and I don’t know what else,” according to our buddy Daniel.

Traditional Bulgarian house construction in Yarlovo village near Sofia, Bulgaria. Photo by Clay Duda.

We didn’t know what was in Yarlovo, of course, so we scoped for a trail there but couldn’t find much of anything. We asked a young lady with a heard of kids and she didn’t know either. So we went back to Zheleznicka and hiked up the dirt road next to our lunch spot and stopped in a meadow overlooking the valley below.

On the way up we got a little turned around on the streets of Sofia trying to leave town. Melissa asked If Daniel knew of this Snail House — a two-story dwelling done up to look like a giant snail — and he had no clue what she was talking about. Only 10 minutes later and we take the corner and the magical snail comes into view. We wished it true.

Now we’re barreling back down the mountainside in a mad dash to get Lia from kindergarten on time.

Vitosha Mountain in Bulgaria. Photo by Clay Duda.

Europe Day 27, July 7, 2015:

Welp, I just got us checked in for our flight back to Atlanta. We leave in 22 hours. It’s going to be another hard goodbye to some great people, but it’ll also be nice to sleep in my own bed again.

This morning we got up and set off across the city on our own for the first time since we’ve been in Bulgaria. Daniel and Mila both had to work today, so we went to the Palace of Justice and linked up with a group for the Free Sofia Tour, a two-hour guided tour by 365 that hits the highlights in the city center.

The short version: there’s a ton of history in Sofia from the Thracian settlers to Romans and Ottoman empires to World War II bombings to the fall of communism and a bunch of other stuff. I’ll let me picture show a few more specifics.

After the tour we fiddled around at a flea market near the Cathedral Church Sveta Nedelya and bought a few knickknacks, some rose oil for 1 lev, and a fancy hand-carved pipe for 2 lev. We took the metro downtown this morning, but we decided to walk back home along Vitosha Blvd, a pedestrian-only street for a good stretch that leads pretty much directly back to South Park and the Lozenets neighborhood where we’re staying.

Now we’re just back at the apartment and will head to the mountain Vitosha for the afternoon, the Raketa Rakia Bar tonight.

The skyline of Sofia, Bulgaria as seen from Vitosha Mountain. Photo by Clay Duda.

Europe Day 28, July 8, 2015:

Sofia is now behind us. We’re in the air bound for Frankfurt, then Washington D.C., and finally Atlanta. It’s going to be a long day, but it’s been a great trip.

We spent our last night emptying glasses of Rakia, basically Bulgarian moonshine, at the Raketa Rakia Bar. It was decked out in pop-soviet garb. Our Bulgarian friends said the nostalgic items like radios, skates, skies, and a hundred other things brought back memories of childhood in the eastern block. But for us it was a staunchly foreign experience. In the end our close friends said they enjoyed the drinks and food — both of which were top notch — but they weren’t too taken with the highbrow atmosphere, pop-culture communist remakes, and the general atmosphere of the place.

We also stopped in the Central Park after to say goodbye to a few other friends, some new and old. We climbed on statues and talked nonsense. We saw a hedgehog. We said goodbyes. We walked home.

Now we’re really going home, one jet plane at a time. We only have 16 hours to go, but once we touch down the adventure won’t stop there. We have four days to get moved into an apartment in Knoxville, TN and start acting like adults again. I start work on Monday. I can’t wait.

Sofia, BG. Photo by Clay Duda.

Retro beer. Sofia, Bulgaria. Photo by Clay Duda.

Donkey thorn in the hills near Plovdiv, Bulgaria. Photo by Clay Duda.

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Clay Duda is a freelance journalist specializing in investigative reporting, feature writing, editorial photography, and digital media.