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Summer Stage III: Backpacking in the Balkans – Bulgaria (by way of Bucharest)

The night bus from Chisinau to Bucharest was a beautiful new small bus, but traveling on potholed country roads, it was not a restful ride. At the border, we had to stop and wait for an hour for no apparent reason – we were the only travelers there. We stayed at the spare apartment of a young Romanian lawyer met through couchsurfing. He was a gracious guide and host, generous to a fault with his time. Having seen much of the city the day we arrived in Romania, we spent the evening with good food and inexpensive beer on the university campus looking at the stars.

Our Romanian couchsurfer host, Eugen

Our Romanian couchsurfer host, Eugen

A slow train took us the next morning to Veliko Tarnovo, a hidden jewel of a town in central Bulgaria. Our hosts there were Anita and Stanislava, the two Bulgarian students who had participated in Lingua Franca in Romania, who were studying at university in Veliko.

“Hidden valley fortress town” is the phrase that came to mind to first describe it. This ‘city of the Tsars’ was the capital of the second Bulgarian Empire (12th-14th century), and the remains of the imperial fortress sit like a crown atop one of the three ridgelines, the patriarchal cathedral of the Nativity of the Theotokos as the crown jewel. We stayed at the most comfortable hostel I have ever encountered,  a few minutes walk from the  Tsaravets fortress, which, by the way, lights up at night in a (normally) music-synched light and laser show.

Veliko Tarnovo

Veliko Tarnovo

Anita and Stanislava outdid themselves as hosts, starting with a massive meat-filled dinner on the first evening (after 10 days of vegetarianism at Lingua Franca). Walking around town and up to the university for a starry overview of the town at night. Visits to Preobrajensky monastery, tucked up on the ridgeline across from its brother monastery – in view but so far away!

When I first came to Europe, Prague was the place to go for cheap beer. Now they tell me the Czechs come to Bulgaria for the same reason. Throw in some shopska salad, cheese-covered French fries, and all manner of grilled treats, and it is hard not to like the fare here.

I would go back to Veliko in a heartbeat, maybe stay a long stretch enjoying the quiet, the greenery, and the monasteries. Having a couple new friends there certainly does not hurt either!

Anita and Stanislava

Anita and Stanislava

As the four of us were getting on a train to Burgas and the Black Sea, Anita’s phone was stolen. Sometime in between getting out of the cab and buying the tickets, it disappeared. The police response was impressive, though. Not only did they send officers right away to take a statement, they actually came and looked around, asked questions – I do not think you would see this in Italy or the U.S. for a missing mobile!

While she dealt with the insurance, the remaining three of us plugged on, taking perhaps the slowest train ride I have experienced since a childhood trip on the Snoqualmie-North Bend local line. The buses make the same trip in half the time, we were told! But Burgas is worth it, a port city on the Black Sea (second largest on the Bulgarian coast) with a friendly pedestrian down-town and sprawling sea garden, it is busier than Veliko, but has its own charm. Beach fare included sprat, fries and cheese, local beer and the ubiquitous rekjia (not in that order).

The most luxurious travel of the entire summer was the night train from Burgas to Sofia. I slept as comfortably on that train as I have in any hostel, and better than some. The room was big enough to do morning calisthenics in, even… if I had any such discipline.

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