After our considerable time in Romania, we were eager to see our next country on the trip, Bulgaria, starting with the village of Veliko Tarnovo in the morning, and then on to Plovdiv in the afternoon. Breakfast was early and we somewhat forced ourselves to eat, not knowing what lunch might hold (more meat stew and polenta?). For the travel days, we had to set our luggage outside our door usually 1.5 hours in advance of departure, which made more mornings much earlier than we would have liked. But it did force us to get up, face the day, have some coffee at a leisurely pace, and then have some time to spare to read email and enjoy our daily cat sitter digest of the escapades of Chaucer, Freya, and Newton, our 3 cats at home.
I also started to look forward to examining the breakfast offerings with more casualness and more intent than I normally would (usually being in a rush), and came to enjoy one particular breakfast features this trip – fresh honey straight from a honeycomb – an offering we had never seen before in the US.
We piled in the bus after meeting the group in the lobby (this group was much better with punctuality than the Moroccan tour group had been – not only was it a smaller group but also did not have any cultures who often consider punctuality a suggestion not a rule). This group consisted of Americans and Canadians only, all of whom were seasoned travelers in general and seasoned Gate 1 travelers in particular. Today was one of our longest driving days, taking several hours to reach Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria from Bucharest (it felt like it took an hour just to get out of Bucharest traffic), and then another 3 hours to reach Plovdiv where we would overnight 1 night.
Every 90 minutes or so on our route to Veliko Tarnovo we would stop at a gas station rest stop, which were always clean, pleasant, and offered a selection of snacks, beverages, and shopping opportunities – much nicer than the American style gas stations, which were usually small and dirty. The facilities appeared to be free to use by anyone, purchase or not, with the thinking that enough people stopped in and did eventually make a purchase. This is something we will definitely miss back home.
We arrived at Veliko Tarnovo a little before lunch and met Maya, our guide for the day, who began with a walking tour of the old town. It was a charming little city that reminded us of Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina, with cobbled streets decorated with Ottoman empire architecture coupled with a bazaar feel.
Veliko Tarnovo is referred to as the “City of the Tsars” and is historical capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire (12th-14th century AD). This capital city was considered a “New Constantinople” and became Bulgaria’s cultural hub and Eastern Orthodox center for Bulgarians. It’s also located on the Yanta River, making it accessible for trade.
Like most of the cities in this region, the history of Veliko Tarnovo was pretty similar to what we had already heard – Roman civilizations following by Christianity infused kingdoms, and in this case Bulgarian Tsars (kings) through the 14th century when the Ottomans rolled in, sticking around until the late 19th century until the countries gained independence, again followed by the World War periods then ushering in a local variety of communism, then the fall of communism in the 1990s, leading to democratic, capitalist, mostly pro-western regimes. Bulgaria was only different in that there was no violence as it threw off the yoke of communism, leading to a stance that was perhaps even more pro-western (it was part of the EU like Romania). This history was told over and over throughout our trip, and Nida, our lovely guide, called the Balkans the “sweetest, bloody land” because of the civilization east meets west clash that caused conflict after conflict throughout the region’s history. Sweet also in that the natural beauty and landscape was incredible, and the people with big hearts, always willing to help a man who needs help.
Our guide Maya was a little monotonous, although extremely informative, in that she ended every sentence with a downward inflection, leading us to compare her to Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh (“Oh bother….”).
We had some free time in the bazaar in Veliko Tarnovo, and we bought some hand painted artwork from an elderly painter who allowed us to take pictures of him in his gallery, as well as a smattering of other art from stalls we found along the way.
The highlight though turned out to be the Mr. Lapa Lapa 2024 cat calendar I spotted, which portrayed Mr. Lapa Lapa (lapa means “paw” in English”) and his cat friends in human scenes that also represented a Bulgarian slice of life (eating lavish meals with wine and cheese with tiny mice also partaking in the same, celebrating the winter holidays, enjoying the beach in the summer etc.). Mr. Lapa Lapa turned out to be a huge hit with everyone on the tour, the guides, and all the hotel workers we shared it with in Plovdiv as well.
After seeing the old city of Veliko Tarnovo, we made our way down to the gate of the fortress drawbridge which contained a gorgeous fort and castle perched upon a hill in the nearby village of Arbanasi, which of course served to protect the city in medieval times. As we walked down from the old town we saw the parliament building, a statue in an interesting square, and a cute little restaurant with dining al fresco.
Along the way we stopped at a church, the Nativity of Mary Cathedral, to take in the view of the fortress and the surrounding hills from an overlook point.
Because of its extremely defensive position, this fortress protected the city from the Ottomans much longer than those in other cities, and the Bulgarian kings protected it and held their position under siege until 10 years after the death of their strongest Tsar.
From there, we drove up onto the hill and into the fortress town of Arbanasi where we had lunch in the garden of a Bulgarian estate. The lunch was lovely (I was finally able to get a vegetarian option, which was rarely offered to the meat eaters, of red peppers stuffed with beans), but the mood was hampered by the oddest children’s birthday party taking place just next to us, with a combination of children’s music (the hokey pokey) coupled with straight up club tracks (presumably for the parents?), blaring into our serene garden party.
Lunch was followed by a hike further up the mountain to a church that was disguised to not look like a church to hide it from the Ottomans. Sidenote: while the Ottomans did allow Christianity to be practiced, it was best kept in private, and there were various incentives in place to help facilitate conversion to Islam, such as tax breaks and the like. I would have rather lived in the Ottoman times than the Christian times, as the Christians were far bloodier and far less tolerant than the Ottoman Muslims were. Not to mention that knowledge and science thrived within the Ottoman Empire, whereas it was pretty much eradicated on purpose by the Christian rulers.
In the church, we were serenaded with chants / singing by some of the monks (a money maker for the church to be sure) while we enjoyed the peaceful scenery.
We wrapped up with a brief walk to the bus, said goodbye to our guide Maya and Veliko Tarnovo, and we were once more on the road again to our next stop, Plovdiv, Bulgaria. Our Plovdiv tour wasn’t until the next day, and since we got in quite late, we had a quiet night. After check-in at the Radisson, we freshened up before dinner and lounged around in the room for a short time. We enjoyed the hotel in Plovdiv, finding it to be quite modern with good AC, and the cool weather and rain also helped.
The dinner at the hotel Gate 1 had arranged was the best we had eaten so far, consisting of a beet salad followed by a pork schnitzel, something again different than meat stew with polenta. I also enjoyed an Aperol Spritz, which became my go-to not beer drink once again in the Balkans. We found the food in Bulgaria quite good!
It was also a pleasure to sit with Kathy and Jeff, the Canadian couple who had relocated to Brisbane, and learn about their entrepreneurial endeavors in hoteling, manufacturing, and franchises (Subway, and then later an Asian noodle venture). All our fellow Gate 1 travelers were interesting and accomplished, having led very full lives, and reminded us of some of our friendships from our Antarctic expedition. We turned in for the night since it was a travel day the next day to Sofia, Bulgaria.