5 Cities In 4 Days: Bulgaria By Rental Car (Guest Blog)
Bulgaria may be one of the poorest country in the EU, but it is rich with beautiful scenery, friendly locals and scorching summers. I was fortunate enough to spend a week enjoying their wonderful country and I write this to inspire more people to follow in my footsteps.
This isn’t my first experience with Bulgaria. I journeyed to the capital, Sofia, in 2016. So when asked if I would like to do a road trip of some of the country’s main and lesser known cities, I let out a cheerful exclamation, by way of the traditional Bulgarian folk dancers song that I learnt the year prior. I must have not remembered the song correctly, as my friend gave me a vacant facial expression that is usually reserved for bartenders who ask for a tip. Embarrassed, I climbed down from the table, regained my composure and accepted the invitation with a straightforward “Da” (translation: yes).
Varna was our home base for the trip, due to it being my friends’ hometown. The most surprising thing I noticed as we were driven from the airport, was the lack of houses. High-rise apartments littered the immediate area, separated by large gulfs of empty land, exaggerating each buildings size. They were all identical in appearance; sun-kissed, run-down, no style and a completely unnatural juxtaposition to the mountainous backdrop. I liked it though. A sense of equality that I fathomed was attributed to the communistic days.
My uneducated musings came to an end once we arrived at the centre, at which point the third largest city in the country began to unveil its luxurious side. The wide concrete walkway that divided the mixture of high-end eateries, branded shops and popular local independents gently ushered us towards the promenade. Upon reaching the steps that descend towards the multitude of beach bars, the view was no longer obscured by the plethora of lusciously thick trees that watched us as we sauntered through the centre. The low dusk sun took the opportunity to show off the beautiful curved beach-line and the sparkling water that continued outwards until it fell off the horizon. Colour me impressed.
After a couple of days catching up with friends and family, it was time to embark on our journey. We rented a 2017 Renault Cleo. This “eco-friendly” motor had gadgets that made the Bat-mobile look minimalist and more buttons than a busy tailors’, which is exactly what you want when driving on the right (wrong) side of the road for the first time. I would harmlessly push the hazard lights to begin reversing, only to find my friend has been launched out of the passenger seat and is gracefully parachuting down onto a tree that I recently felled with the in-built grappling hook disguised as windscreen wipers. I must be more careful.
The Krushuna Waterfalls were our first stop. There is something spellbinding about watching this natural phenomenon. I find it humbling. It evokes a sense of humility; knowing that all my trials and tribulations, every experience I share, feelings I hold, actions I take, mistakes I make, are all finite. It’s simple and powerful, with no sense of time. Literally going with the flow and washing around all that it meets. The only attribute I share with this waterfall, is that I’m a bit wet; as seen from this paragraph.
The national park which held the waterfalls was home to a few cave formations that we didn’t have time to visit. Too much travel time. At the parks entrance was a swimming pool area full of locals having fun. Some of whom were standing triumphantly around the edge in their very European budgie smugglers, accompanied by the thudding techno duf duf (translation: club) music blasting from a powerful sound system. Good on them! Not my cup of tea though.
We drove into the setting sun to reach our home for the night, the Chateau Montagne hotel in Troyan. This city is famous for its production of premium Bulgarian speciality plum brandy, Rakia. Staying here was no coincidence. My friend knew too well about my love affair with Rakia that blossomed in Sofia, which is why she chose this mountain engulfed city to rest our heads.
For dinner, we turned up without a reservation to “The Old House”, which was recommended to us by the reception staff as being authentic and delicious. The garden was packed. Patrons of all ages unhurriedly indulging in wonderful smelling dishes and various drink combinations.
The Slovak languages are very alien to my ears. It has none of the common ground that we share with say our German or French friends, which allows me to interpret their conversations as wildly inaccurately as I desire; much to my friend’s amusement.
Due to there being no room outside on this warm night, we are shown to a private room which reminded me of a Tudor dining room. Fortunately, the bathroom was not built into the window sill. Sitting down reminded me that I hadn’t eaten anything all day, so I hastily order us two of the legendary Troyan Rakia’s to switch off the brains notifications that my batteries are low. Delicious.
The walk home from the restaurant was challenging. The food was incredible and I had overzealously consumed too much of the wide selection of new recipes that my friend had ordered on my behalf. Once I learnt how to walk in such a way that my body moved gyroscopically around my bloated belly, I could enjoy the peaceful nights walk through the intimate city. Roses sprouted from most of the roadside gardens, but we resisted (well, I physically couldn't lift my arms) from picking any.
Roses are a big industry in Bulgaria. The rose oil they produce en masse is referred to as “Liquid Gold”. Why? It can take 3,000 to 5,000 kilograms of flowers (more than one million flowers!) to produce 1 kilogram of rose oil. That comes to 9,000 Euro per kilogram. The majority of this process happens in the rose valley city of Kazanlak, which happens to be just on the other side of the Troyan mountains.
The morning arrives and we set car sail, in search of the annual rose festival held in Kazanlak so we can see the momentous harvesting at work. Fate had other ideas. First of all, the only bridge that led out of town was being repaired. So instead of a quick and breezy drive, I had to navigate the windy, dangerous mountain route. The jokes on you fate; I absolutely loved it. I caught glimpses of huge panoramic views of endless land before returning my intense gaze to the twisting narrow lanes and gaggles of confident boy-racers that would overtake me at blistering speeds on blind corners.
Fate won in the end. We were two weeks late for the Festival, which was at the beginning of June. A quick oops and a sigh later, we hit the road again to reach Plovdiv, the country’s second largest city and definitely the most cathartic to say out loud.
What can I say about this city that can’t be found on your average holidaying review sites? Old Town is interesting to look at, but it had nothing truly novel to offer if you’ve visited historical town areas before. However, at the peak of Old Town was a cliff edge which overlooked the north side of the city. I honestly could have sat there for hours and watched the sun dip below the skyline, but time was limited. We walk up to the other high point of Old Town. Hidden away by all the old creamy coloured buildings is the cities impressive amphitheatre, complete with orchestra playing to the sparse crowd. Another place I could have sat for hours. Writing this, it has dawned upon me that I need to go back here and enjoy these sights more.
We finished the evening sat outside a bar, drinking strong beers, chatting about this and that, all while fighting off mosquitoes. Bring spray or long light clothes during the summer.
Our final destination was Sozopol. Varna, give me that beach award back; you didn’t tell me about this stunning locale! A miniature cove of pristine sea with multicoloured homes of all shapes and sizes sitting casually on the calm waters edge. I plunged my face in the sand and snoozed for a couple of hours.
The evening we strolled through the promenade looking for a restaurant which was recommended by our delightful hosts. We passed all the beach bars and restaurants which illuminated the beach with their strobes and beach torches until we reached our destination “Kirik Restaurant”. Although not a scratch on The Old House’s authentic atmosphere, the view of the harbour and some sort of abandoned lighthouse, accompanied by a warm sea breeze gave me a lasting impression which I will find hard to shake.
So that’s it! We returned to Varna to process the whirlwind trip before flying back to the UK. Across 4 days we travelled 870 kilometres (540 miles). Flights were £60 each from Gatwick to Varna, accommodation was £75 (split between two people) and the car for five days with an unlimited WiFi dongle was £130 (again split between two). We overstretched ourselves a bit. I think to fully appreciate each location, 6 to 8 days would be more appropriate, but you live and learn!
If you enjoyed reading this blog, you should try my blog post which talks about Nature Shop and how some of the products I bought held up to my first impressions and in Bulgaria.
Also, if you have any questions about the trip, feel free to contact me on any of the normal Nature Shop channels!