When we took our first pass at an itinerary last March, Tom decided he wanted to spend at least a few weeks in Eastern Europe. In our minds, the recently liberated Communist block countries would be a bargain and, as relative newcomers on the tourist track, unspoiled by tour busses and souvenir shops. Where had we been living for the past 10 years? As it turns out, it’s not 1992, many of the former Warsaw Pact countries are so rife with consumer goods they could easily be confused with Austria or Italy, and our puny dollars don’t get us much more here than they do west of the Danube.
Brilliant planners that we are, we didn’t realize any of this until Tom’s parents showed up in Turkey with our Eastern Europe guidebooks, fresh off the American printing presses. As soon as we cracked the bindings, we learned that our intended destinations of Croatia and Slovenia have been branded the “New Riviera.” Uh oh. There’s no room for rivieras of any kind in our budget, so we changed gears and set our sights further eastward. We weren’t sure the path we would take, but we knew we had to end up in Prague in mid-May for our flight to Tunisia.
After putting Grandma and Grandpa on a plane back to Salt Lake City, the first step for the Six was to exit Turkey. Two trains make the nightly run northward–the Balkan and the Bosfor Expresses. The Balkan ends up in Budapest, Hungary, while the Bosfor terminates in Bucharest, Romania. We hoped to do a little service time in Romania, so we opted for the Bosfor. Tom thought we would make a beeline for Bucharest, but I had another idea. Why not hop off the train in Bulgaria, and see what this completely unknown country had to offer?
We boarded the Bosfor Express at 10:30pm after a full day of packing and visiting the American consulate for more passport pages. Our second class car, a hand-me-down from the Germans, was the Ritz compared to our previous sleeper trains in China, Vietnam (remember the roaches), and India, and we were delighted. A guy who had traveled by train from London to Istanbul said the quality of the trains deteriorated the closer he got to Turkey, but we were in heaven.
We had been warned about the border crossing, and sure enough, at 3:30 am were awakened by the conductor and herded out onto the platform and into a border control office. Fortunately, an attendant pushed us to the front of the line so we were back in our beds with Turkish exit stamps by 4:15. About 45 minutes later we were awakened again, but this time the passport stamping man came onto the train, took our passports, called out our names, and counted heads like in an early morning school roll call. He rewarded us with another boring EU stamp in our newly thickened passports and thankfully let us return to sleep.
Her predecessors having checked, punched, and scrawled on our tickets no less than six times over the course of the night, the current conductor was nowhere to be found when it came time for us to exit the train. We knew what time we were supposed to arrive at the small town of Veliko Turnovo, but we had a feeling the train was behind schedule. Sure enough, half an hour after the scheduled arrival time, a new conductor appeared and looked up from her newspaper long enough to tell us we had 5 more stops and 40 more minutes to go. As we rolled through the Bulgarian countryside, we noticed a few distinct phenomena: the dogs all had two or three legs and the men had few teeth. Both were almost certainly the result of proximity to train tracks as later specimens of both species suffered no such deficiencies.
At long last our train pulled in to Veliko Turnovo. The station sits at the bottom of a formidable hill, but given our usual distrust of station-dwelling taxi drivers, we opted to hike up the hill into town. Before we reached the top to begin our usual search for hotels, a little old woman accompanied by her husband appeared at our side promising two rooms in her home for a decent price. This is a common practice in Bulgaria and a few other Eastern European countries and we decided it was worth a shot. Tom and the kids camped out at the Mustang Cafe for a good old American breakfast while I went to check out the rooms with Gingka. Just in case Tom tried to flee, Gingka’s husband kept a close watch from the park across the street. We walked through the center of town, and just as Gingka had promised, her apartment boasted spectacular views of the river gorge hundreds of feet below. Inside it was like a time warp, something right out of 1962–faux wood paneled cabinetry, vintage upholstered furniture, and ceramic figurines lining the glass shelves on the wall. Upon closer examination and remembering that Bulgaria had limited access to consumer goods before 1990, I realized it was more akin to 1982–long lines of VHS tapes, a turntable hi/fi system, inexplicable collections of utilitarian products such as plastic straws and bar soaps, and best of all posters of female pop goddesses Nena (of 99 Red Balloons fame) and Madonna.
I wasn’t sure Tom’s big frame would do well on Gingka’s sofa bed, but since we had less than 24 hours in Veliko Turnovo, we decided it was a risk worth taking. We trudged back up the hill from the Mustang Cafe accompanied by Gingka and Ivan, dropped our bags, and headed off to the city’s premier attraction, Tsarevets Fortress, a formidable 5th-12th century bastion intended to protect residents from their Serb, Hungarian, and eventually Ottoman invaders.
Along the way we tried to get a read on Bulgarians. The first thing we noticed was a distinct fashion sense. 2-piece nylon sweatsuits complete with zipper jackets and elasticized pants and reminiscent of NBA warm up gear seemed the favorite choice for the middle-aged set. The town’s prominent and lively youth preferred a blend of music video styles, the men leaning toward a rap aesthetic and the women preferring a modern interpretation of 1980’s heavy metal hair band chic.
The town itself was a traveler’s haven brimming with cheap restaurants, rustic cobblestone streets, and all the modern amenities, including ATMs, Diesel jeans, and gelato stands. The fortress was a bit of a disappointment for the kids, since all that remains of the original structures are the outlines of stone foundations, but I was fascinated by the reconstructed Patriarchs’ Church of the Ascension. Completed in 1986, during the reign of the Bulgarian Communist government, the chapel walls and ceiling are covered in frenetic, violently emotive religious images. It was not the quality of the art that impressed me, but the fact that it even existed. Why had an officially atheist and oppressive regime condoned the painting, and why, in a land where Orthodox Christians were historically conservative, was it completed in such a modern, iconoclastic style? The answers to both questions probably reside in the fact that the building functions as a monument to Bulgarian history rather than a house of worship.
While my pictures of the church’s interior were interesting, the best photos of the day came from Kieran’s encounter with a paper mache horse and set of tin armor.
After our romp through the fortress, we had dinner with a couple from Seattle who just recently embarked on their own RTW adventure. They gave us the heads up that the laser light show was supposed be on that night, so after scarfing the best pizza of the trip, we headed back toward the eastern end of town. The show is an oddity, an elaborate display of lights, lasers, and music, set against the backdrop of the crumbling medieval fortress. On nights where at least 30 tourists are willing to pay a $8 fee, the show goes off and everybody else, tourists and residents alike, watch for free. We guessed it was the two tour busloads of Koreans who had coughed up the dough, and we were glad they did. I could have done without the green “beam me up, Scotty” lasers, but the brilliant lights and new age music were mesmerizing.
We followed up the light show with some well deserved, heaping $0.50 ice cream cones and a decent night’s sleep at Gingka’s apartment (though we avoided the bathroom—what a smell!). When we descended the hill to the train station the next morning, we couldn’t believe what a happy surprise Veliko Turnovo had turned out to be. It’s never fair to judge a country in a day, but if this is what Bulgaria is like, sign us up for the fan club.