If you know me, then you know that there are few things in this life I find more fun than cheesy hair-band rock from the 80s and 90s. Traveling throughout the former Eastern Bloc of Communist countries was, in some way, traveling back to a time when this music was popular, and judging from our music selection on the radio, we often felt as if we were in a time warp. After traveling in Bulgaria for about a week, Scorpions’ 1990 hit song “Winds of Change” seemed to us an appropriate anthem to sum up the rapid changes that have “rocked” and, simultaneously liberated this region of the world over the last thee decades.
Our entrance into Bulgaria, or rather, I should say, our exit out of Romania was without a doubt, the most uncomfortable 10 hours of the trip. That’s right, I said 10 hours! When we hopped on our train at the Bucharest station, we discovered that Michelle and I did not have seats in the same berth because, actually, the seat I was ticketed for did not exist. Fortunately, there were other travelers with the same problem, so we all worked out who would sit where and finally got settled with all our bags and snacks when we realized there was no air conditioning! It was easily already 95 degrees out and it was only noon. With 6 of us jammed into a compartment for hours on end, and the sun rising and shining onto our side of the train, I immediately regretted my decision to take the train. As the train began to roll out of the station, the window in our compartment began to slide up. I suggested Michelle use her laundry cord to tie it down for the duration of the ride as we all thought to our selves, “how can this possibly be the EU?” Fortunatel for us, our fellow berth mates were friendly and nice, and so know one really cared when we all stunk of body odor less than an hour into the ride.
When we finally arrived in Sofia around 11pm, we emerged into a soviet-styled train station with virtually no one around other than our fellow train passengers. During the Cold War, Bulgaria was a sovereign nation, but very much in a love affair with the Soviet Union. The architecture of much of the city could be categorized as Socialist Classicism and was a stark difference from the beautiful countryside we had seen on our train ride in. Over the next few days, as we zipped around Bulgaria in our rented Suzuki Swift, we would learn a lot about how Bulgaria fell under communist control, and how it has rapidly, if at times recklessly emerged into a capitalist society.
Our first day in Sofia was rather a blur. With the winds of travel catching up with both of us, we plowed through some obligatory sightseeing as we slowly acquired a lay of the land. Our first and most important stop was visiting the Alexander Nevsky Orthodox Catehdral, which is the biggest in Bulgaria. The church was built in 1912 to honor those soldiers who had lost their lives defeating the Ottoman Empire between 1877 and 1878. It is named after Alexander Nevsky who was actually a Russian soldier, and so began the love affair between these two countries.
The rest of the day we spent roaming around, strolling through parks with interesting Soviet-era monuments, and grabbing a bite to eat in a little Bulgarian restuarant where my obsession with Shopska Salad began.
In the early evening, we hopped on a Free Walking Tour of the city, which if you are ever in a city where these are offered, I highly recommend you do them. Our guide gave us a good overview of the city and things we were assuming on our own were clarified. For example, being the history and political nerds that we are, we kept assuming that the graffiti of “1914” and “1946” we saw all over the city, as well as in Romania were political statements. When we asked the guide, he looked at us in a rather whimsical way, then explained to us that those were the years Bulgarians’ favorite Futbal team was founded. Oops!
We would clearly need to learn more about the city, but first, we wanted to escape it. We knew we had about 3 days where we could go visit the mountains and hike, but weren’t sure how to get there. The transfers and public transport in Bulgaria make it somewhat difficult to get around if you are on limited time, so we decided, with the help of absinthe, to rent a car again. After our experience in Romania, we were a little hesitant, but this turned out to be the best idea, and driving in Bulgaria was nothing like Romania, with people actually being friendly and helpful.
Before heading to the mountains, we decided to drive a couple of hours to visit the medieval city of Veliko Tarnova. Located within the hills of eastern Bulgaria, we were originally going to skip this city, but after everyone mentioned it as a “must see” we decided to drive there and spend a night before heading back to the Rila mountains to hike and visit the famous Rila Monastery.
As we exited Sofia, we were thrilled to see the beautiful country side of Bulgraria, with green mountains and limestone cliffs surrounding us before we decided to take a mini detour to a small monastery along the way.
The Troyan Monastery is located a few kilometer outside of the small village of Troyan and there were very few tourists there, even though this is the second largest monastery in Bulgaria. Much like the other orthodox cathedrals we visited, the monastery was filled with colorful frescoes of icons such as Mary, Jesus, and St. Nicolas. We briefly toured the monastery and cathedral before heading back to the car.
As we headed back to the car, a giant windstorm began blowing sand everywhere, and dark ominous clouds began to roll in. We hopped in the car and drove through small villages as we switchbacked or way back onto the main road to Veliko Tarnova.
Arriving in Veliko Tarnova around 3:30, we found our hotel, figured out where and how to park the car, and then headed to the older section of the city where we visited the Tsarevets fortress. This place is incredible! Arriving in late afternoon, there very few visitors to interfere with our exploration of this HUGE medieval fortress, that serves as the highlight of visiting this small city. The fortress stretches out for at least a mile and there are remnants of an ancient cathedral, fortified walls, dwellings, and a watchtower which you can climb. The fact that we could walk around this fortress virtually on our own, as those late afternoon clouds we saw earlier suddenly approached the city, gave us a sense of what Bulgaria must have been like at the height of the Middle Ages. Like most other countries in the Balkans and Eastern Europe, Bulgaria was a prime battle ground between the Ottomans (Turks) and Christian Europe. The city of Veliko Tarnova is one of the best preserved medieval cities that was affected by this contestant back and forth turmoil, and consequently, has one of the best preserved medieval fortresses as its claim to fame in being a UNESCO Worldl Heritage Site.
Just as we walked back into the town, those clouds began to open up and next thing I knew, a woman from a balcony yelled at us to take shelter in the covered entrance of the church. The church appeared closed, but we stood underneath its front awning, outside the entrance deciding what would be our plan of attack to make it either to a restuarant to eat or back to the hotel without getting soaked. After about 10 minutes, the front door opened and out came two men; an orthodox priest and the church’s caretaker. Once the priest existed the church, the caretaker invited us in to get out of the rain and asked us if we liked music to which we replied yes. He motioned for us to sit down on the wooden pews that sit along the side of the church and went behind the iconoclastic altar to turn on the music as we found ourselves starring upwards at the beutifiul orthodox frescos on the ceiling listening to the enchanting hymns of monks echo throughout the church with the rain falling down outside. We sat there for what seemed like an eternity before we heard a reprieve in the rain and decided to take our leave from the church.
As we walked through Veliko Tarnova, the drizzle began to pick up again so we ducked into the Artchitect Tavern just off the main road. We entered through the back where they have a small covered terrace overlooking the river and a cathedral where a handful of other travelers were also seeking respite from the downpour. When we were handed the menu, I smiled at the theme of the bar, which situated inside a giant rock, went for the Hard Rock theme, with beers named after Iron Maiden and AC DC.
After we ordered two beers accompanied by salads, we thanked the owner and her son and ventured back out into the drizzling night. As we walked through these ancient streets, we came across modern street art depicting scenes of Tetonic Knights battling for the city.
We walked about a half mile up the road before we came to Shtastivesta, recommended as the best Bulgarian restuarant in the city. Overlooking the river, and overly busy, this place was not nearly as welcoming as the Architect Club, but the food made up for the less than friendly wait staff.
We drove out of Veliko Tarnova early the next morning, making our way back towards Sofia to visit the Rila Monastery and figure out the best way to go hiking in the Rila mountains. We made it to the monastery around 2 in the afternoon, and was expecting it to be jammed pack with tour buses and day trippers from Sofia, as this is the most significant sight in Sofia. Much like the fortess in Veliko Tarnova, we had much of this place to ourselves, even climbing up the watchtower with not another sole in the building.
Situated at the footsteps of the Rila mountains is Bulgaria’s biggest and most famous monastery which dates back to 927 and we learned later on that hikers begining on the otherside of the mountain can hike to the monastery and spend the night there. We contemplated spending the night, and begining our hike here, but ultimately decided we wanted to hike near the Rila lakes and weren’t sure we would be able to do so from here. Finding out information in Bulgaria was slightly better than Romania, but still somewhat difficult to understand. At least this confusion came with a smile.
The monastery and the church that sits in its center is a highlight of visitng Bulgaria and did not dissapoint.
After our visit, we hopped back in the car and drove straight to the otherside of the mountains, looking for a place called Panichishte, which we were told would give us access to a few mountain huts via a ski lift, and lead us to the Rila Lakes hike. By the time we arrived in the area, our gps was giving us whacky directions where we found ourselves driving up a dirt road filled with rocks. When I got out to ask directions, all I found was a man who spoke Italian and believed he would be able to communicate with Michelle because she spoke Spanish. After much enthusiastic gesturing, we found ourselves in the center of some village, where 4 old ladies waved to us from a bench. When we circled past them about 30 minutes later, still lost, they waved and chuckled. Finally, we drove to the adjacent town of Sapareva Banya where a woman informed us we needed to drive about 15 minutes up into the mountain before we would reach the hotels and ski lift located in Panichishte. Once we reached Panichishte, another young women directed us the skil lift. By the time we arrived, we had about 10 minutes before it shut down. Not sure whether or not we would be able to secure a mountain hut, we decided to stay at the Siberian looking hotel that sits at the base of the lift. Again, the skies opened up and the rain fell. As we mimicked sleeping and paying to the man at the bar of the hotel, it began to pour outside. He acknowledge we could rent a room there fora about $20 a night, and showed us to our barren accomodations before cooking us dinner in the dark and dreary cafeteria. As the only Americans, and likely the only non-Bulgarian tourists staying at the hotel, we felt a bit out of place, but knew this would give us the fastest access to the mountain the next morning.
After a fitful night of sleep, where I awoke to accordion hip-hop and a slew of men laughing from the bar below our room at around 2am, we awoke early, hung the key in the closet and walked up the hill to grab the ski lift. After about 30 minutes above the tree canopy, we arrived at the Rilsky Mountain Lodge, secured a room for the night, grabbed some coffee, then ventured out to hike the gorgeous Seven Lakes trail. Winding up a ridge, we came across one stunning lake after another, before we reached the top peak.
As we sat at the top, I pulled out the information packet given to us by the Tourist information office back in Sofia and began reading about the town of Sapareva Banya, which the evening earlier we had drive around looking for the lift. As I began to read aloud, we realized that Sapareva Banya was a spa town because of its natural healing waters and springs. The town also houses Europe’s largest Geysir, which they have built a rather tacky fountain around to serve as the center and symbol of the town. Once I read this, Michelle suggested that if we finished the hike back quick enough, perhaps we didn’t need to spend another night in a cold and barren mountain hut, and could instead, explore this seemingly charming town and enjoy the natural spa baths. Hesitant at first, once the skies opened on us yet again, only this tie hail fell as well as rain, we agreed that we would take the lift down that afternoon and drive to Sapareva Banya. First though, we had to get back to the hut, which was not easy as the temperature dropped to below 50F, and the rocky pathway became a slippery and muddy mess. We eventually made it to a smaller hut, about a 40 minutes hike away from ours, and decided to duck in for some food and to dry off.
As the storm seemed to venture off, we made a run for it back to the main hut, hoping the skies would stay friendly. After dipping down into an alpine valley, we climbed our way back up until we finally saw signs for the Rilksi Hut, arriving around 4 in the afternoon.
That evening, we had a pleasant and much needed stay in Sapareva Banya, where we found a hotel with a thermal pool, and a quiant little place for dinner. Here too, I am certain we were the only Americans in the entire town, which could best be described as a Bulgarian version of Lake George.
Our last day in Bulgaria we spent in Sofia. After shipping some stuff home, dropping off the rental car, and checking into our hotel for the night, we hopped the metro into the city center just in time to hop on the Communist Tour. Similar to Romania, Bulgaria’s communist government was greatly weakened after the Berlin Wall went down in 1989. During World War II, Bulgaria started to negotiate with the U.S. and the U.K., hoping to switchs sides. In order for this to happen, Bulgaria had to prove its loyalty by rounding up the Germans and handing them over to the Allies. Unfortunately, this message arrived thee days late because one of the ministers in government was secretly in cahoots with the Soviets. This delay was just enough time for the red army to invade Bulgaria through Romania, which essentially sealed Bulgaria’s fate as a post-war communist country. To be clear however, many Bulgarians were enthusiastica about this new prospect of government, with many Bulgarians cheering the red army as they crossed the border from Romania. On November 9th, techincally Bulgaria was at war with everyone, and the communists in power used this confused movement to conduct a coup de ta, which led to anarchy for about two months before 2,700 people went on trial and were put to death for crimes committed in World War II. Over 300 were imprisoned.
The first stop our tour guide, Danielle took us to was an old “Princess Kopecom” store, which during the time of communist rule was the only store in all of Bulgaria where one could buy any luxury items like televisions, etc. In order to be able to be these goods, you needed to use U.S. dollars. In order to be able to have U.S. Dollars, you needed permission from the government. Consequently, there was an exceptional black market for US dollars during the 1970s and 80s. These stores no longer exist, but this one particular building kept up the sign of communis nostalgia, which you see a lot of throughout the Balkans.
Next we stopped off at a small, very basic white church in down a not so busy road. Danielle explained that after World War II, the Communists decided to rebuild the churches, which had been bombed out by the Allies, in an effort to not make it so prohibited, that way people wouldn’t resist. During the years of communism, people were afraid to go tot church because there would be secret police there who would put people’s names on a list which could prevent them from going to university, which consequently, could damage thier entire life. Also, during big religious celebrations like Easter and Christmas, the government would play on television Oscar winning movies. This was likely the only time Bulgarians would be able to see these movies, so they would opt to stay home from church and watch them. The other thing the communist party did was to hide temples so it would be hard for people to find them should they want to attend a service. Our guide pointed out one building with a cross on it, explaining there was a hidden church inside there. Across the street, behind 3 gigantic buildings, there was another church, barely noticeable. Essentially, the government didn’t want to banish and destroy the church out of fear of the forbidden fruit factor, so rather, they made it quite difficult and less appealing to attend.
As the tour continued, Danielle took us up a stairway and stopped in front of a bar with a Jagermeister logo on the front. Behind that door used to be the secret police’s interrogation room where if you did things like, go to church for example, you would be brought in for questioning. If you worked for the secret police it often meant big promotions in your job. For example, you would be promoted in an industry before others. It also meant however, spying on your family and friends.
One of our last stops was at a park where we were privied to numerous monuments that memorialized the red army communist fighters. Many of these have since been defaced, but there is a “local” organization called Friends of Russia who are quick to clean the graffiti or other defacement, and have also funded the installation of security cameras in the area. Although communism no longer exists in Bulgaria, there are certainty those who are nostalgic about it, and indeed, protective of its memory.
The one above basically says “Go F&^* yourself!:
One of our last stops was at a memorial to commemorate those who were persecuted and killed by the communists. The biggest group of victims was Muslims, who were told they had to change their names to Slavic and Bulgarian names. Mosques were closed down as well. In May of 1989, for a brief period, the Bulgarian government opened the border to Turkey and told Muslims if they didn’t like these new policies, they could leave. Over 300,000 Muslims migrated out of Bulgaria, leaving behind a very small muslim population today.
The very last thing we saw on the tour was a piece of the Berlin Wall which was given as a gift from Germany. When the wall fell on November 9, 1989, the fate of these eastern bloc countries was changed forever. While it might seem like this was an obvious step towards progress and democracy, for many living in these countries today, there has not necessarily been an improvement. Health care, education, and other basic services were all taken care of under the communist regime, yet there was no freedom of speech and corruption in government ran rampant. Although the Cold War may seem like ancient history to some, the effects of that conflict and the rise of communism in Europe are still reverberating today. On the other end of the spectrum, we saw many graffitied walls that indicated they rise of an ultra-nationalist, right wing movement in Bulgaria, as well as Romania.
Although the winds of change continue to blow across Eastern Europe and the Balkans, much like the rest of the world right now, it is not yet clear which whey they will turn.