Nessebar to Veliko Tarnovo By Way of Buzludzha (and 50 Billion Wrong Turns)

It was not an easy day, one of those where I found myself wondering multiple times why the hell I can’t just be content living a “normal” sedentary life. And then, I remembered a tee-shirt I saw last night that said, “No growth ever came from a comfort zone.” I’m starting to understand that a large part of this urge of mine to go and to do new things has to do with the angry, timid, fearful thing I used to be, that it’s a way of distancing myself from someone I loathed and had no patience for. Heavy stuff, I know, and probably not what you come here for, but it was a day for reflection.

I was up fairly early and went down to the lobby to use the hotel wifi since I’d used up all my free Telenor credit and was burning really fast through my balance. It was too early for breakfast, but the hotel clerk slipped me a coffee, with just the right amount of milk. What service!

Last night, I’d almost booked accommodation in Veliko Tarnovo, but I couldn’t commit to anything. It was the same thing this morning. It was just going to have to be one of those days where I landed where I landed, even if the thought of looking for a hotel “cold” in a country where I don’t speak the language filled me with dread. To be honest, I had a very strong suspicion that I would sleep at “home” tonight in Maluk Izvor.

Breakfast came, the same as yesterday, but with a red juice and pears for a change. I was asked where I was headed today and when I replied, the clerk was taken aback and said it was in the middle of nowhere, so she’d pack me a lunch! And she did! Talk about five-star service at a one star price!

I headed out around 8:30, with the plan being to get another top up at the Telenor store in Nessebar, just in case. Well… There is almost no street signage in Nessebar and what should have been a 10-minute trip took me about an hour, including a detour into Sunny Beach against my will! It was so ridiculous I had to laugh! But as it turned out, the Telenor store wouldn’t didn’t open until 9:30 anyway, so I would have had to wait or leave without a top up. Things work out!

This wound up being the Telenor store visit I wish I’d had when I first landed in Bulgaria. Sunny Beach is a Brit resort town, so there is English everywhere and this was the first time I encountered a Telenor store employee who spoke absolutely fluent English and could give me some tips. He was appalled that I’ve been paying for my data piecemeal rather than getting a plan and pointed out that I went from a 26BGN to a 0.10BGN balance in about 10 minutes of surfing last night. Woah!!! I’ve only ever used my phone for the odd surfing before, never for anything as intensive as the last couple of days, and had no idea I was paying so much for my bandwidth. The clerk added 20BGN to my account and then walked me through buying a 1GB plan for one week for just 4BGN. Better late than never! But, really, this was the first time since I got here that I felt that I got “taken” for bandwidth and I can’t be too upset since Telenor gave me 1GB of data with my last top up, in addition to tons of other gifts of bandwidth since I got here.

That done, it was finally time to hit the open road. I wanted to get to Buzludzha Monument and after that decide if I was going home or to Veliko Tarnovo to see the Tsaravets fortress.

I was stuck in a traffic jam just outside of Burgas when I realised I’d left my camera at the hotel! DANG. The battery went dead mid-day yesterday and I’d set the camera aside after transferring the photos to my computer, then forgotten to put it somewhere that I’d see it. I got through Burgas (much more easily this time) and pulled over to call and email the hotel. Long story short on that, they found it and I’m reasonably sure I will get it back. I love my camera and felt no need to replace it, but it is seven years old and starting to get spots in the lens if the sun hits it the wrong way. I will be happy to get it back, but am ready to accept its loss if it doesn’t get back to me.

But that leaves me with my phone for a camera, a phone with super crappy battery life. I’ve been using it as a GPS, which really sucks the life out of it. So I knew that if I only had my phone for a GPS and camera this week, I really needed a way to charge it on the road. Spoiler on that, I bought FOUR different car chargers today and not one of them worked with my iPhone. *expletive deleted* Apple. I might get it if they had a car charger of their own, but they don’t! I have to say that my day would have been much less stressful and exhausting if I’d been able to charge my phone and use the GPS as much as needed. I was able to return three of the chargers, so I’m only out about 7CAD, thankfully. When I get to Sofia on Saturday, I’ll go to an Apple Store and ask about a secondary power source for the phone. I’d like to once again point out that I only have an iPhone because it was free! Yes, I am a Mac and iPad geek, but, really, the iPhone is a huge disappointment all around. Aaaaaaaanyway.

I retraced part of my Saturday route to Plovdiv before swinging north at Yambol and then west at Sliven:


I got turned around at Sliven because of a badly marked roundabout and was getting really frustrated with the lack of signage as well as on the verge of heat stroke despite the AC in the car. I was really tempted to just give up and go home. But Buzludzha was the one thing I really wanted to see in Bulgaria before I knew anything about Bulgaria, that unique gem off the beaten path that embodies the spirit of an era. I made it to Kazanluk and, to my immense surprise, came across two signs directing me to Buzludzha! That was not expected. The signs had a different transliteration, but I could recognise the name for what it was in Cyrillic. I was down to about 5% battery power at this point and really grateful to have made it, even if I had no idea how I’d get anywhere from there. I pulled over and had my very nice lunch. What a gift.

A few more turns and then, nothing mattered anymore because I had finally found Buzludzha. I pulled over and just stared:


My phone died just after I took the above picture and I was devastated to have come all this way and have no camera to record my adventure. Then, I remembered that my computer has a camera. It would be clumsy, but better than nothing. Then, I laughed at myself when I remembered that I also had my iPad, with its own camera! Rather funny for someone who traveled for many years without a camera that I now have all these gadgets with cameras!

So Buzludzha… It is a monument to socialist communism, the construction of which began in 1974. The building was abandoned and left to vandals after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989. It is crumbling and after tourists were injured a few years back, the interior has been blocked from access, but there are now plans to possibly revive this building before it is completely irreparable. My best friend Bast sent me a video about Buzludzha just before I went to Bulgaria and I knew that if I could only get away from Malak Izvor for a day, I would have to find my way to this monument.

To get there, I had to follow a very long and meandering road up that reminded me of the Devil’s Backbone. At the end of it was a place to park, with a very long climb ahead of me. I didn’t realise the climb was that long and felt rather unprepared, with not enough water, but there was a lovely cool breeze at that altitude, so I decided I would start and see how far I got. I have to admit that I asked myself multiple times on the climb if I really needed to get to the top, it was that difficult of a hike!

I have to say I’m rather pleased with how my iPad photos came out!

IMG_0417Starting off:





I look so close here, but it was still so far! My heart was pounding and I had to remind myself that I didn’t need to break any speed records to get to the top!







I was done the worst of the climb up at this point, but still wasn’t there. I took a breather as I laughed at just how much it looks like a Starfleet vessel!



I am convinced the architect was a Star Trek fan!



I was shocked when I actually made it to the top! There appeared to be a spectator facility in front of the monument:


As I saw the monument from the front, I was really pleased I’d made it all the way up. There was something so spooky about it that I had not felt from further away.




Transferring a little of my energy to this place of immense power…







It was incredibly creepy and I heard weird noises, so imagine my surprise when I rounded the building and found workers! I wonder how they got their vehicles up there!








I got my fill of Buzludzha and the view and then headed back down to my car. There was a group at the the trailhead who asked me if the climb up was as hard as it looked. I replied that I’ve been hiking up a mountain twice daily for two months and found it tough, but it was worth it. At last view, the group was heading up. I wonder if they got there.

It was rather a fun descent back to a “main” road. I turned north towards Gabrovo, where I would have to decide if I was going west to Malak Izvor or east to Veliko Tarnovo. This wound up being a sinewy mountain drive, the kind I love in a zippy manual transmission car!

I was feeling very parched by this point and hoped to pass a store soon to get more water when I rounded a corner where there were a bunch of cars parked and people milling about. I knew I’d started to understand some things about Bulgaria when my first thought at the sight was WATER.


There are so many fountains and mountain springs scattered all over this country, and sometimes in the most random places! I buy water when I really need to, but I’m learning to look for the fountains. I haven’t had bad tasting water yet nor any that played havoc with my fragile digestion. I filled up my water bottle, drank deeply, and then filled it again. I’m actually finishing off that water tonight, as I’m writing this post.

At Gabrovo, it was time to make my decision. Home or the unknown? It felt very important to me that I pick the latter option, that I was at one of those watershed moments of my life. I could seek the easy path or push forward through my fear. I’d successfully landed somewhere good and safe in Mexico after going off script on my first drive down to Mazatlán. And, really, nothing tonight could be as bad as landing in Edinburgh with a 20 quid a day budget to find all the hostels full. I chose the easterly route. Veliko Tarnovo or bust!

There was decent-ish signage for me to follow, but at one point, I saw signs for the town that pointed in different directions! I stopped for fuel and asked the attendant if he spoke English. He had just enough to tell me to, “Go that way and if you get to Romania, you go too far.” LOL LOL LOL That was my favourite moment of the day! I couldn’t believe I was less than 120KM from the Romanian border, just a bit further than Assiniboia is from the US border.

I made it into Veliko Tarnovo, a medieval city with narrow winding streets, occasionally pausing to take in the majestic view of the fortress of Tsaravets. Sorry, there was no chance to pull over and get a better shot than this:


I drove aimlessly, trying to find a hotel with parking. I finally passed a hotel with a parking spot right in front of it and wondered if I could really be that lucky….



Parking spot, hotel with English speaking clerk, and even at a whopping 80BGN per night (by far my most expensive hotel stay so far), very reasonable by Canadian standards. I also get breakfast and a discount at local restaurants. Fortune favoured the bold!

Not to get too graphic, I really needed a shower after marinating in the car all day and climbing up to Buzludzha, so I did that, changed, and headed out to find some dinner.


IMG_1415It began to POUR as I got close to the restaurant the hotel clerk had highly recommended, Shtastlivetsa, so I was quite wet when I arrived. They were super busy as it’s apparently the most popular place in town and has an amazing view. I somehow managed to get a seat with a bit of a view (too many people in front of me to make it worth taking a picture) and ordered a glass of white wine to sip while I perused the menu. Everything was super fancy and there were ingredients like spelt and quinoa. Prices seemed suspiciously low, especially the main that most appealed to me, what sounded like a pork schnitzel with roasted potatoes, for just 8.60BGN (6.50CAD).

Well, this is what came:


A green veggie would have been nice, but, wow! It was so good! The white thing was cream cheese with dill, which was yummy with the potatoes.

I wasn’t ready to call it a night, so I ordered a second glass of wine and asked for a dessert recommendation. They brought me “biscuit cake” which was three small balls of chocolately something (no pic because my phone was dead again). It was really good! Dinner would have been a real bargain if I’d just stuck to the main and wine, but even with more wine and dessert, I came out at 17CAD! I got a hotel discount of 10%, so I gave a slightly better tip than I normally give. 10% is actually a good tip in Bulgaria, but I sometimes give 15% if I felt service was particularly attentive. Food was was slow to come tonight because the restaurant was very crowded, but I didn’t have to wait long to be seated, order, get wine, etc. It was excellent service by Bulgarian standards!

I got very lost on the way back to the hotel. It was dark, pouring rain (so I couldn’t wear my glasses), and my phone was dead again. I ended up going around in circles twice before I finding a familiar landmark. Rae’s travel tip of the day: have just one glass of wine before going out into a dark rainy medieval fortress city with no street signs and a bunch of narrow streets that all look the same!

Well, it’s been another long one. Lots of good, some bad, plenty of character growth. I have the room till noon, so the plan is to have breakfast at 8:00 when it starts, then spend the morning at the Tsaravets fortress before vacating my parking spot and heading home. But my adventures are not over. I have the car till Friday and a laundry list of things I still want to see on day trips!

Plovdiv to Nessebar… In a Chevy

I managed a good night of sleep and woke up around 6:30 this morning. There was no work waiting for me, so I rolled over and went back to sleep for another two hours. I needed it! When I was finally up, I made my decision to head straight for the coast and booked a hotel for two nights. Even though Bulgaria is tiny, there really is no way I can see everything this week and I didn’t want to put extra pressure on myself my first day of driving in this country.

I took my time dressing and packing before leaving the hostel around 9:30. I stopped at the café next door and decided to try their “brioche” as it appeared to be savoury. Sure enough, it was a pastry filled with sirene cheese, the salty and lemony flavour a nice contrast to my coffee. So a successful final breakfast in Plovdiv!

I then headed to the car rental place, a few blocks across the Maritsa River and a straight shot from the pedestrian streets, so very easy to find. I needed a top up for my phone, but the Telenor store en route was closed. I didn’t have any luck yesterday either — the first store only had 40BGN cards and the second store was closed by the time I got there.

I reached the rental company office around 10:15 and my car wasn’t back yet. The clerk barely spoke any English (he said I had more Bulgarian!), but his English speaking colleague had briefed me on everything last night, so the paperwork process went smoothly enough since I was able to use my phone for translations as needed. What did we ever do before Google Translate? I was annoyed with myself for not having foreseen that I’d be asked to prepay in cash, so I had to go to an ATM and use my main debit card since it would take too long to transfer funds to the secondary account. I did have the deposit, though, thank goodness.

10:30 rolled around and the car still wasn’t back. I’d actually expected this and wasn’t irked. I spent time reading a (French!) brochure about the coast and memorising the directions for getting out of Plovdiv. At one point, the clerk passed me his phone to talk with his English speaking colleague, who admitted that he was concerned because he could not reach the folks with my car. I said that I was absolutely fine for the moment and took the opportunity to ask him where I could buy a road map of Bulgaria. He said that if I didn’t mind one in Cyrillic only, he’d ask his colleague to lend me one. So glad I didn’t shell out for one!

I suddenly remembered that I needed a phone card, so I did a search and found a Telenor store nearby. I told the clerk I was going there and would be back in about 20 minutes. This store only had 25BGN cards, which was fine since I knew I’d be going through a lot of bandwidth with Google Maps this week!

I got back and within minutes, the car showed up. Woohoo! The clerk settled with the driver and then took me out to inspect the car. I was happy to see that it was full of dings and scratches… and amused that it’s a Chevrolet. There went my dreams of having a really European car, like a Peugeot or Citroen! The clerk was very thorough explaining everything about the car and was very relieved when he started on the spiel about the reverse (with lots of miming) and I was able to cut him off and explain that I had the same type in my last car (where you have to pull up a ring and move the gear stick into first). I hate that type of reverse, but at least I have a lot of experience with it!

Reader Dee had some comments about driving in Bulgaria, including whether they drive on the right (yes) and if we can get automatic transmission cars. As long-time readers know, I hate driving automatics, so I wasn’t looking for them, but I did find one company whose Varna office had a few automatics… for twice the cost of the equivalent manual transmission model!

Here’s my car (parked in Nessebar):



With the paperwork all signed, it was time to take a deep breath and hit the open road! To make things easy for myself, I decided to just follow the signs for Burgas and once there, use Google Maps on my phone to get me to the hotel. Here’s a visual of where I started on Wednesday and where I am tonight:


Getting out of Plovdiv was easy enough. Most of the signage was in both Cyrillic and Latin letters, but often, an exit was announced head of time in Cyrillic, with the Latin being right at the exit. I was once again very glad I can read the signs!

The drive to Burgas was unexpected. There was just a whole lot of nothing. It was like driving to Moose Jaw or across northern Ontario! No towns, few services, just a lot of empty space bordered by mountains. Bulgarians either drove like they were wading through molasses or like the devil was at their bumper. It reminded me of Mexico in that I couldn’t just settle into a speed, but would often find myself having to break or accelerate hard. I was glad I’d refused the radio since I wouldn’t have used it because driving required such concentration and I’d been under strict orders to take it out of the car at every single stop (even just for fueling).


I stopped for fuel twice, the first to get an idea of how much a fill would be and the second to actually fill completely. The fuel I had to use was about 2BGN/L (1.52CAD/L or 4.5USD/gallon). The service stations were just like back home (in fact, the second was a Shell), with modern pumps and a convenience store. I was pleased that there was service! I showed the attendant the paper explaining what fuel to put in (A95H gasoline) and held up bills to show the amount. I’d then be told my pump number and be directed to go inside to pay, where I did so with my Visa. Paying took a lot of time because the cashiers were also short order cooks! Bulgarian “efficiency” reminds me of that in Mexico. 🙂

Finally, Burgas was upon me:


I used my Mexican city driving experience to get through — ie. do whatever I need to to not get hit (or hit someone else) and not worry about going around in circles. I made a couple of wrong turns, but eventually got through. I wish I had my GPS and regret not leaving out a pair of underwear to make room for it in my baggage. 😀

After Burgas, I pulled over to capture my first view of the Green, I mean, Black Sea!


And then, Nessebar!


I made about 50 billion wrong turns getting to the hotel and once I found it, I couldn’t find so much as a place to drop the car for five minutes to go in to ask where parking was. I was caught in a warren of super narrow streets and had to do some crazy manoeuvres to get through. It was too much after the end of a stressful day. After going around three times, I decided to just block traffic and run into the hotel, what I should have done the first time. The clerk immediately ran out to remove a bollard that magically opened up a nice wide space for me to slip into! There is no way I’m getting out of that stop tomorrow. I’m staying parked till Monday!

The hotel clerk greeted me in good English and asked for payment in cash. Doh. Off to the bank I go again tomorrow! I was surprised when she asked me to pick a breakfast from a list of choices. I asked how much breakfast is and she said it’s included. Oh! I asked for a traditional Bulgarian breakfast, which, if memory serves, is just a pastry with jam, cheese, and coffee… I was also told I was being upgraded to a different room than what I’d booked. Hmm…

I went up to my room and discovered something that made me really glad that I watch so many travel shows. I had no power in the room, but I didn’t have to go ask at the front desk about that. I have no idea where I saw or read about this, but I knew there was a place into which I’d have to slide my room key to get the lights. I was right! This is an energy-saving thing, but it’s a pain because it means I can’t charge anything while I’m out and the fridge is pretty much useless.


I’d booked their cheapest room, which I’d read would be really small with no ocean view. The bathroom turned out to be humongous, and a wet room again.


After my Plovdiv dormer room, this room seemed very spacious!


SURPRISE. Sea view with balcony! WOW. Guess where I’m sitting to write this post. 😀


I took advantage of the drying rack to hand wash a few things!

It was past four by this point and I hadn’t eaten since my pastry this morning. I went out in search of food and idiotically didn’t realise that the food would be along the beach! So I walked up and down a condominium-lined boulevard for almost an hour for nothing. Thankfully, I found a beach access and from there, a bunch of restaurants. I wanted to save a pricy seafood meal for Old Town tomorrow, so I just went with a pizza and beer for 11BGN with a tip (8.36CAD). I’m apparently in the expensive part of Bulgaria… By the way, Bulgarians know how to make pizza!

The beer really did me in, but I found the strength to go to a store across from the hotel to get water and ice cream. I was so hot and sticky and miserable by this point (even though the car did have AC) that a cool shower wasn’t going to be enough. I didn’t have a bathing suit with me, but figured my boy shorts and sports bra were bathing suitish enough. So I went back to my room to drop my valuables, stripped to my undies, wrapped a towel around my waist, pulled on a tee-shirt and went down to the beach for a swim! Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaah. The water was cool, very shallow (too much to properly swim), and saltier than expected. I just bobbed there for a good 30 minutes before pushing out a bit further to get in a few strokes. The water never got deeper than my waist. Swim in the Black Sea was never on my bucket list, but it should have been. 😀

The plan for tomorrow is to explore Old Nessebar. It’s about 3KM to get there, so I’ll probably walk to it and then pay for a taxi to come back. It just doesn’t make sense to stress about getting the car out and finding parking there, then hoping I still have my spot when I get back here.

Parking nightmare notwithstanding, this was a pretty good day! It’s rather exciting to have a car and to know I’ll be able to visit a bunch of things this week. My budget is taking a beating, but with July having been so inexpensive, I’m not feeling a pinch. Besides, what else am I going to do with my money if not spend it on wonderful experiences like these?! Thankfully, hotels have so far being super inexpensive and I have to eat anyway, so, really, the car and fuel is the real splurge.

By the way, my hotel is 125BGN (95CAD). For the two nights!