Although the Black Sea is very cold this time of year (yes, us crazy Canadians dipped our feet in it), the warmth of the people along it, cannot be over stated.
The morning we left Gabrovo started out as many do, when you are travelling to a distant land, and don’t speak the language. Our new friend Ahmed had told us the night before to call him in the morning when we were ready to go to the bus station, and he would call a cab to pick us up. He said he started work at nine, and that’s when we wanted to go to the station, so it would work out perfectly. However, the next morning came and went, and Ahmed was incommunicado. (We found out later that his phone battery died during the night, and he slept in until 9:30. Oops!!)
We decided to head out to the street and hail down a cab ourselves. We were able to wave one down, (even though Ahmed told us they likely wouldn’t stop,) but the driver didn’t speak English, and he had no idea where we wanted to go. We got in and he drove off slowly while dialing a number on his cell phone. He said a few words, pulled over to the side of the road, and handed me his phone.
A very sleepy, broken English, female voice said, “Hello. Where do you go?” I told her we wanted to go to the bus station. “Okay.”
I handed the phone back.
The driver drove a block and pulled over again, handing me the phone again. “Hello. Where do you want to go?” I told her again that we wanted to go to the bus station. “Which bus?” She asked.
I told her we wanted to go to Burgas. “Okay.” She said again.
After I thanked her for her help, I handed the phone back to the driver. He sat there and talked with her for another couple minutes and then handed me the phone again. “There is no bus to Burgas right now.” I told her as simply as I could, that the bus was leaving at 10:00. It was now 9:30. “Okay.” She said. I handed back the phone, and he drove us into the station. He laughed, and we laughed, the three of us satisfied that the mission was accomplished, but it just took a little longer than usual.
All told, we went about 5 blocks. The irony was not lost on us that we probably could have walked their faster, had we known where to go. We had a good chuckle at that, and were again just thankful for yet another experience.
Our bus pulled out of Gabrovo and immediately started ascending a narrow, steep mountain road. We mosied along at a steady pace, the driver clearly skilled at navigating the tight curves. Up, up, up we went, until finally we felt like we had emerged from the mountains, and a lush green landscape appeared below, spread out before us like an Emerald blanket.
We had driven over the Shipka Pass. Apparently battles during the Ottoman Empire were fought on this pass, and it’s steep terrain would make for an interesting battleground to say the least.
It was about a 5 hour journey down to the coastal city of Burgas, and the landscape was a varied mix of green fields, forested road sides and vineyard after vineyard after vineyard. Somewhere in my Bulgarian research, I had learned that Bulgaria makes a ton of wine. Finally, I could see where it was all coming from.
As we pulled into Burgas, I was struck with how modern it is. Although it isn’t the major summer destination that the rest of the coast line is, it clearly is benefitting from more industrious activities than the country capital of Sofia. Being a major shipping port, the most important in Bulgaria, likely gives it the boost in economy that it needs to give it that little bit of polish. We had to change buses here to get to our final destination of the day, Sozopol.
I had read that Sozopol was the oldest settlement along the Black Sea coast, and it’s ancient village was still very much intact. It’s also a very modern tourist destination in its summer months, as throngs of European tourists flock there for its quaintness and beautiful beaches.
Our accommodation in Sozopol was with Air BnB. Again, this is an online membership data base where you link with people who are either renting out their entire houses, condos, or apartments, or are just renting a room. The prices are generally cheaper than a hotel, and the chance to meet locals, tends to enhance the experience.
I had communicated via online messaging with our hosts that we would call them from my cell phone when we left Burgas, and that he would not answer (therefore avoiding large usage charges), but would see the number and know that we were on our way.
We boarded the bus and I tried to call the number provided, but the call would not complete. I tried many different combinations, realizing that the country code may not be necessary from within the country, but to no avail. Nothing worked. I wasn’t really concerned, we were arriving early enough that I knew we would figure out a way to contact them by nightfall. I knew it was a small town that we were going to, and a pretty major European tourism destination to boot. I told Chris that SOMEBODY had to speak English when we got there, we would sort it all out then.
Driving to Sozopol was an exciting trip. Our bus almost immediately hugged the rugged coast line, providing us beautiful views of the Black Sea, the beaches and the jagged cliff sides spilling into the water.
True to form, we got off the bus, and I went into the nearest store to the station. It happened to be a lovely flower shop, and the smell inside was divine. I asked if she spoke English, which she did, and I told her the situation.
I showed her the number, She phoned our hosts and told them that we were already in Sozopol, and within 10 minutes they were picking us up.
Our accommodations were owned by a Russian brother and Sister from Moscow (who also lived with their 90 year old Dad,) who had only just started renting on Air BnB, to raise a bit more money for their monthly rent. They were very nice people, and she worked tirelessly to try and make sure we were as comfortable as possible. She fussed and fussed asking us (in very broken English,) if we needed anything, making sure we knew all of our available options. She must have heard us stirring first thing in the morning as she sleepily shoved a blow dryer through the door, apologizing profusely for not thinking of it the night before. We laughed and assured her that we did not need a blow dryer. We had our own room with a bathroom, and we came and went as we pleased for the next couple days.
Sozopols charm lies mostly in its old quarters, and it’s people. We had many lovely exchanges with business owners who were thrilled that we were there during, what seemed to be, a quite depressing off season. I can imagine, coming from a similar type of town in Canada, that the winter months seem incredibly long, compared to the fast paced summer that is bustling with activity.
Many establishments were borded up and the streets were full of leaves and debris. Buildings had construction projects going on, and I’m sure that this is a yearly routine, that comes with the eager anticipation of another busy season, just around the corner.
However, for all that was lacking for this time of year, the charm was still immeasurable. We were still able to find restaurants with happy owners willing to give us a good meal, and a few small artist run shops were overjoyed to have us pop in and look around. Not to mention that the quaintness of the old town, kept us occupied enough, as we meandered up and down the tiny cobble stone streets snapping pictures and marvelling at the cuteness of the architecture, until our legs were weary with exhaustion.
We spent 2 nights here, but knew that we needed to get to Varna, as our flights were booked to fly from there to Athens in a couple days.
Varna is another major city, located along the north Bulgaria coast of the Black Sea, close-ish to the Romanian border. I had read that it is a lovely city to explore, so we tried to make the best of it by extending our stay as long as we could.
We left Sozopol by 7:30am (our jet lag was still getting us to bed early, and up at the crack of dawn), and consequently caught the bus from Burgas at 8:30.We arrived in Varna at 11:30am. Unfortunately, we had had a miscommunication with a lady we were meant to couch surf with, so we were left to our own devices to find accommodation when we arrived. We stumbled upon a great little Hostel, shortly after lunch, and got ourselves settled. The hostel staff at Yo Ho Hostel were extremely friendly and helpful. They gave us a map and pointed is in the direction of interesting things to see and do for the day. We thanked them and then set out to explore. We both immediately fell in love with Varna’s charm, and realized a strong desire to return for longer. For a city of roughly 300 000 people, it somehow manages to maintain a small town feel, even though it is a bustling port city, and a naval base. Again, as with most of the Black Sea coast, it is a huge tourist destination in the summer, and it’s beach is fantastic. We meandered down the winding pedestrian walkways that flow through the city, and filter out onto the beach side. Along the waterfront, we again found many bars and clubs that likely are thumping during the summer months, but were boarded up for the winter. However, the odd one was open, and we were able to have an afternoon beverage and dip our feet in the Black Sea while enjoying the huge beach.
I was told by our bartender, in no uncertain terms, that my double Gin and Tonic was small, compared to Bulgarian standards. His name was Nicolai, and he was born and raised in Varna. His opinion was the same as many we had talked to before him, that we should come back in the summer.
In the summer, the Black Sea is not just warmed by its people, but the hot, hot sun brings out another entirely awesome dimension to this fabulous coast line. Yes, we thought, perhaps, just perhaps, we will return in the summer. Maybe not this summer, but some summer in the not so distant future.
Next up we fly to Athens!
**if you have any questions with regards to traveling in Bulgaria, please message me below and I will be happy to help if I can.