As we sit above Gabrovo, Bulgaria, on an incredible sunny day, I reflect on our past few days here in this special country. A land that, if it could speak, could tell of extreme hardships under communist rule, but also of happier days and a bright future.
Although officially part of the EU, Bulgaria is still attempting to climb to economic standards that would allow it to use the Euro. It’s currency, now the Lev (BGN), is worth roughly half a Euro and about $0.75 CAD. The prices on regular everyday items, definitely reflect this exchange difference. Bottles of lovely Bulgarian wine ring in at about $6.00 CAD, large beer bottles at $1-2.00 CAD, reasonable accommodation at $15-$20 and fancier restaurant meals $7-$11 per person including wine with the meal.
It gets me wondering; Why the push to get the Euro? I suppose to enjoy the economic benefits of neighbouring countries, they need to climb to their standards? How come how it is, isn’t enough? Why as humans are we always striving for the next level, when what we have is serving us fine? I’m sure many Bulgarians could explain the reasons behind this, but as an outsider looking in, the people seem happy. They enjoy their families, they love to dance and celebrate, they eat completely non-GMO food, and purchase their food from within the country, from the towns’ neighbouring farmers. However, their less valuable currency also means that they aren’t able to travel, and do many of the things that the western world has the luxury of doing. So, in essence, yes, I do understand the need for growth, industry and the rise of their economic standards.
The hardship of the iron curtain days are still evident in the massive Russian style apartments that we whizzed past in our taxi from the airport, and first impressions of the older generation, at least in the country capital of Sofia, show faces that have been through much pain and sorrow. As one local we met put it “Sofia isn’t exactly a sparkly shiny capital.”
Most Buildings are very old, and many in much need of major repairs. Paint and plaster fall of the sides of them like a long, slowly decaying skin, would slowly decompose off a body. The cobblestone streets are full of potholes, and sidewalks are likely to send you tripping into next week, if you aren’t paying attention to where you are stepping.
However, a brighter future is evident in the little coffee shops that have sprung up around the city, with bright and colourful signs, happy patrons lazily enjoying coffees on the verandas, modern sushi restaurants and shopping malls, and a youthful population pushing baby carriages through the many parks that dot the city. The architecture is typical for this part of the world and the buildings that were brightly painted and properly maintained, were a fabulous sight. We were also very impressed with the efforts for tourism, with English maps outlining the attractions, many signs in English, most of the population speaking at least a little English, and menus in restaurants always available in English. Clearly tourism is an industry that is being focused on.
Click here for a list of 84 reasons to love Bulgaria. Written by a local.
We spent 3 days in Sofia enjoying the sights and sounds of the city. Our welcome was wonderful as most Bulgarians have been warm and friendly, and those that could, and have felt inclined, have announced “Welcome to Bulgaria.”
We stayed in an Artist run hostel aptly named The Art Hostel. It is a large, multiple story building that featured a lively bar on the bottom floor. Throughout the day it would fill up with a vibrant cross section of youth either from Bulgaria, or travellers from distant lands, many with sketchbooks in hand.
The walls were adorned with artwork, tile mosaics, and plain old wonderful creativity! The owner, Boris, looking to be only about 30 at most, ran a tight ship, and made us feel very welcome. Unfortunately, we didn’t partake much in the rocking bar scene as we were generally in bed by 8:00 due to our nasty jet lag, of which we are still recovering.
Being 10 hours ahead of home means the clock is pretty much the opposite of what it should be. Day is night, and night is day. We found ourselves exhausted by 7:00pm, only to be wide awake at 2:00am and needing a midnight snack. Luckily we had planned for this and had purchased fruit, nuts, cheese and crackers to tide us over until morning. We would generally get another 2 hours sleep, and then would lay awake waiting for breakfast to be served at 9:00am. Though we have been on the road for roughly 6 days now, we are still adjusting and figuring out how to tackle the strange transformation of the body, as we sync with this foreign time zone. They say it takes one day per hour of change, so I guess we have a few more days to go yet.
At our hostel, we met a lovely Bulgarian women, Elena, that was very helpful and friendly. She actually took the time to walk with us to the National Art Gallery to see Picasso’s exhibition (super excited to see that!), just to make sure we found it, then pointed us in the direction of many other major icons dotting the city.
We shared our floor with 5 young Chinese students that are spending 6 months learning Bulgarian. Wow! We were astounded! They exclaimed that it was “Very Hard”, but had only been at it for 4 days so far. We will be returning to this Hostel in January before we fly home, and I assured them that they would be fluent by then. I’m not sure they believed me. Ha!
We also met a young local who stared at us wide eyed asking “Are you American?” When we corrected him and told him we were Canadian, he announced, “Okay let’s just agree on one thing right now. Canada has the most Moronic comedians don’t you agree?” Before we could say a word he said, “Okay good, I’m glad we can agree, now we can move on.” If there is one thing we have found, it’s that Bulgarians have a wonderful sense of humour! Always quick with a smile and often times very quick witted.
In fact, the man who was hired to repaint the gold on the facade of the National Theatre in Sofia, went the extra mile and painted the Penis on the little boy gold as well. Unfortunately he was fired for his rebellion, but apparently the locals loved it. This is just another example of the light hearted nature of the Bulgarian people.
We spent time eating in cafes, seeing the sights, checking out a Bulgarian market full of all sorts of trinkets, visiting a German Christmas market, and adjusting to our new reality. We had originally booked the Hostel for 4 nights, just to give ourselves time to arrive and unwind before setting out to explore the country. However, the travellers itchy feet creeped in and we decided to leave a day early.
The countryside of Bulgaria was calling us, and we longed to see a different part of the country. We left a day early, and caught the bus to Gabrovo, population 17 000, and tucked deep in the mountains. As the bus pulled out of the station, the radio was playing Sail Away, sail away, sail away by Enya. How appropriate I thought, as we glided off into the unknown……..
Next up: An incredible welcome to Gabrovo!