Returning the Car to Plovdiv and a Friday Evening in Sofia

It’s funny how work is sometimes. It was pretty slow this past week I was traveling (minus the rush work due while I was in Plovdiv). But now that I’m ready to get back to it, projects are pouring in and I am booked through next weekend! Needless to say, I need to get back to my routine. But, first, I had to return the car.

So I woke up at 6:30 this morning with either an easy two-hour drive to Plovdiv ahead of me, or a four-hour technical drive through a windy mountain pass. Even though I was tired and knew I’d have to work whenever I landed in Sofia tonight, there was no question of taking the easy road. The whole point of having the car is to see parts of the country I wouldn’t from a bus seat! I did a bit of today’s drive yesterday, but once I got south of Troyan, it would be a new adventure and one last time to indulge in the sheer pleasure of driving.

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I walked the dogs, had breakfast, responded to a few clients, packed, and hit the road around 7:20, with my ETA in Plovdiv being around 11:30, the car being due at noon.

So I drove… Past Troyan, as I went through the Beklemeto Pass, I did a double take when I could have sworn I saw a large stone arch rising above the treetops. It disappeared, so I figured I was imagining things. No! Some time later, I saw it again and a sign saying it was the Arch of Freedom and I could access it by driving 2KM straight up the mountain.

I turned. Up and up and up and up and up I climbed a super narrow and scary one-lane road with increasingly bad pavement.

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The final bit was the worst because I had no idea if there would be a place to turn around at the top and I was inching my way through potholes the size of Bulgaria with a sheer drop on my driver’s side and an uncomfortably steep slope ahead of me. The only reason I kept going was because I didn’t want to back down that road unless I absolutely needed to! But I made it, and there was room to turn around!

This arch commemorates the Liberation of Bulgaria in 1878.

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It was freezing up there and very windy, but the view!

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The drive down was no less terrifying. Here, I’m not even halfway back to the main road!

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By the time I got over the pass, I still had about 70KM to Plovdiv. I reached the end of the road and saw signs that said Sofia to the right and Burgas to the right. I am going to do a post about driving in Bulgaria, but let me give you a spoiler: the signage will drive you bonkers. It is either over the top or completely inadequate. I was pretty sure I had to go left, but I called an old man over to confirm. I just said, “Please, Plovdiv?” and he pointed left, then right, exactly what I thought. I thanked him and turned. Yes, I had a map, but this was more efficient!

I pulled over just outside of Plovdiv to top up the fuel (ended up putting in a tad more than I needed to) and to ask Google Maps for directions to the Tany 97 car rental office. I knew it shouldn’t be too hard to get there as it’s right off a main boulevard, with just a couple of blocks to do in streets that are much too narrow to offer both parking and travel in both directions — and yet do!

Sure enough, I got there without incident around 11:15 (it helps that I had walked to the Telenor office on that boulevard and so had more solid landmarks than what I remembered from driving out). Alex, the English speaking clerk I hadn’t met, but chatted extensively on the phone with, greeted me with, “Hi, Rae!” Guess they were expecting me. 😀 He gave the car a once over, I handed him the documents (registration, etc.), and he gave me back my 300BGN deposit without my having to ask for it. Yay! Tany 97 is in both Sofia and Plovdiv and I highly recommend them for car rentals in Bulgaria as they have some of the best prices I saw, they have staff that speak good English, and, perhaps most importantly, their cars are in good shape!

Alex offered to call me a taxi, but I wanted to walk to the bus station (3KM away) so I could get a light lunch and an ice cream en route, so I declined. I headed straight for the donair place I ate at my first night in Plovdiv and got a small donair that was just as good as the first time. Next stop was a Raffy stand for gelato. They didn’t have chocolate hazelnut so I tried chocolate cherry… and have a new favourite. Dang!

I made it most of the way back to the bus station without needing navigation, but I did check the map quickly when I got to the Singing Fountains.

The Plovdiv bus station is a mess. It’s just a collection of stands and buildings with no central office or departures/arrivals board. I walked around a bit and could only see booths selling tickets to Athens, Istanbul, and a few points in Western Europe. Finally, I spotted a bus marked Sofia that appeared to be ready to pull away, so I ran to it, hoping I could get a ticket on board. Nope. The bus driver slammed the door in my face and drove off. That was fine. I would have been upset if I had been walking around for an hour and not received any help, but I knew there were lots of buses to Sofia and I would not have been comfortable on a 2.5 hour bus ride without using the bathroom first! I found a bathroom and then wandered around some more when I saw this sign:

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I was pretty sure it says “Tickets for the Plovdiv-Sofia line sold here.” Okay. The arrow is pointing down. Does that mean someone shows up before the bus leaves to sell tickets? That did not seem implausible. But since there was no one around, I went back into the larger building, the one that appears to be the official departure lounge, to again look for any sort of departures board with Sofia on it. Instead, I found that same sign, but with an arrow pointing to the right. Huh? I stared at it for a full minute when someone tapped on my shoulder. I looked up to find a woman smiling at me kindly. “Do?” she asked (“To?”). “Sofia,” I replied. She laughed and pointed to the door right in front of me that was plastered with information on all the tickets I could buy to various places in Greece. She shrugged in solidarity at my confusion. I thanked her and went into the ticket office.

There was a short lineup, so I had just enough time to find the schedule for the Plovdiv-Sofia trips. There was going to be one at 1:00! Perfect! By this point, that meant only 20 minutes to kill. It was my turn to be served when a woman cut in front of me and started talking to the clerk. What the clerk told her was so clear it was like she was speaking English, “I’m working here and will serve the next customer. Get to the back of the line!” It’s sort of like when I had my breakthrough with oral Spanish and realised that I only need to understand a few words to get what is being said. Wow!

I stepped up to the counter and said, “To Sofia, please.” The woman replied in perfect English, “One o’clock?” “Yes.” “14 leva, please.” What service! I’ll take the Plovdiv mess of a station over the Sofia Centralna Avtogara any day!

It was only when I stepped outside that I realised I’d forgotten to ask her what sector to go to. But I figured it would be the same one that I had seen the last Sofia bus at. So now, I had 15 minutes to kill and I realised that what I wanted was a coffee. I’ve somehow managed to avoid getting coffee from the myriads of little stands all over Bulgaria, where you get a shot of espresso in a tiny open cup. The sight of Bulgarians with such a cup is so ubiquitous that it’s almost like the cup of coffee is a mandatory Bulgarian national accessory. Now was the time to join their ranks!

There were several coffee stands at the bus station and I picked one that had a menu with prices. I ordered a coffee with milk and handed over my 60 stotinki. The woman started to yell at me (which I know is just a Bulgarian being a Bulgarian, nothing to take personally) that milk costs extra. Hey, I was just reading your menu, lady! I passed her a 1BGN coin and she slapped change down while still yelling at me. Being in possession of my mandatory Bulgarian national accessory, I yelled back at the same volume, “It’s okay. Thank you very much!” and headed for a bench!

Question: why does “I would like a coffee with very little milk” in my terrible Bulgarian get me a perfect coffee every time while it gets me a cup of milk with a drop of coffee at chains like McDonald’s and Tim Horton’s?!

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My coffee hit the spot. When I was done, it was just past 12:50, so I went to see if the bus had arrived it had! We left right on schedule.

I was really tired, but didn’t want to nap and couldn’t focus on a book or magazine. So I just played a word game on my iPad for 2.5 hours straight. It was the perfect way to pass the time, engaging enough to keep me awake, but not too mentally taxing. I was surprised by how quickly the drive passed!

We hit traffic coming into Sofia and the bus suddenly pulled over onto the shoulder. I understood why when I realised there was a metro stop right there. Fully half the bus got off! I was tempted as I knew what stop to get off at for my hotel (NDK), but by the time I realised that I was about to miss an opportunity to try the Sofia Metro… I missed my opportunity to try the Sofia Metro. 🙂

Thankfully, traffic picked up quickly and before we knew it, we were at my least favourite place in Bulgaria:

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The only thing I like about it is the bathroom. 😀 Okay, and the croissants, but I didn’t get one this time.

It was 3KM to my hotel so of course I wanted to walk after that long bus ride. My donair and ice cream already felt far away, so I followed my nose to a pizza place and paid a whopping 1BGN for a slice with ham and cheese. 0.76CAD or about 0.50USD, and it was good pizza! I’ve been going to mid-range priced sit down places all week, but if you stick to fast food (which is not all crap), you can eat very cheaply in Bulgaria.

It felt really nice to be able to get to the hotel without needing navigation help. I’d booked at the Hotel Zenith again because I really couldn’t see a point of looking for something else as the price to amenities and location ratio was perfect. I’d asked for the same room as last time, but it was booked, so they gave me the one under it, saying it is identical. It is!

I sat at the desk for an hour and did some work. I should have done more, but I’d reached my limit for the day. The plan was to get a not too late dinner, turn in fairly early, sleep in tomorrow, then work until about 11:00, have a late breakfast/brunch, and grab the 12:30 bus to Teteven. I shouldn’t have to work when I get home, but I’ll need to get cracking, and then some, on Sunday!

By 6:30 this evening, I got the tummy growls, so I headed to the Happy Bar & Grill in front of the Sveta Nedelya Church for sushi. I took a different, more meandering route, than I would have taken in my first days in Sofia, but got there without an extra step. I ordered the same thing I’d ordered in Plovdiv, but remembered it wouldn’t be quite enough, so I decided to add one more roll. I was really curious about the pale pink wrapper used instead of nori on some rolls, so I decided to order a roll with it, realising only when it came that it’s very likely rice paper. This roll was about as unJapanese as you can get, but so yummy, and the first roll with cream cheese that I like. The creaminess of the cheese is cut with the orange and grapefruit. I could see myself eating a roll like this for a brunch! I don’t think there was any fish in it, now that I think about it. I had shrimp (cooked) in one of the rolls and raw fish in the other. Very good dinner! I can’t believe I prefer sushi in Bulgaria than on the coast in Mexico!

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When I was done with my meal, I noticed this little device on the side of my table. Ready to order the peach cheesecake (back to my normal diet tomorrow, LOL), I experimentally pressed the “call” button and my server appeared so quickly it was like she was beamed to me! The cheesecake was okay (not as good as their Oreo one), but went down well with the rest of my beer. 🙂 Done, I pressed the “bill” button, and, boom, there’s the server again. I approve of these gadgets! 🙂

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It was about 8:00 when I came out of the restaurant and I toyed with the idea of going to a bar for a glass of wine, but I was really done in. It’s been a really full week! I’m off to spending as much time as I can in the comfy bed here. 🙂

A Scenic Drive, Etropole Waterfall (and Monastery), and Glozhene Monastery

My plans for today fell through in a big way. I had hoped to travel to Belogradchik Fortress in northwestern Bulgaria near the Serbian border. It’s only about 400KM, so easily doable in a round trip, right? Well, not so fast. I thought that travel was slow going in Mexico, but it borders on the ridiculous in Bulgaria. In just a few days on the road here, I’ve learned that 400KM is a really full driving day here and would take seven to eight hours. Add in the time to view the fortress and it just didn’t make sense. My host strongly recommended that I not attempt the trip, especially since I need to be in Plovdiv tomorrow to return the car.

Moreover, work is picking up, so I had to work this morning and will have to work again this evening. Finally, I am exhausted. Vacationing is hard work!

I had a talk with Max last night and he suggested a driving loop and a few sites I could see in a full afternoon. The drive in particular appealed to me, just a chance to enjoy the car and put it through its paces on twisty mountain roads. He also vetoed my planned route to Plovdiv tomorrow, saying that there is a very long rough stretch that I shouldn’t attempt in a rental vehicle. Good thing I asked! He traced out another route that will go through a bit of what I’ve already done and then take me straight to Plovdiv. He said to plan a full four hours of driving time for that. The car is due back at noon, so I plan to be out the door by seven.

Here’s my route today. I went from Malak Izvor through Glozhene and Teteven on through Ribaritsa and Shipkovo to Troyan, then headed towards Yablanitsa along “the reservoir.” Then on to Etropole by way of Pravets (because Google Maps was being stupid), then back to Malak Izvor and up to the Glozhene Monastery.

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I stopped at the fountain in Glozhene for cold water:

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And then,  I drove. There wasn’t really anything extraordinary or landscapes I hadn’t seen before, so it was a bit of a meditative drive to clear my head, much needed after so much people time in the last week! I stopped for more water here. What a pretty spot and there’s even a picnic table!

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Shipkovo is a spa town, but there was literally nothing of interest to me. Same thing with Troyan, which I’ll be going back through tomorrow.

After Troyan, I turned onto the road Max had told me to take and was surprised to see poplars!

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And a beautiful willow!

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I could quickly see why he sent me this way!

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Here’s the reservoir.

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I emerged onto the main road I had taken from Veliko Tarnovo and reached the turnoff for Glozhene that would take me straight to Malak Izvor or I could continue on to Yablanitsa. It was only about two, so I decided to keep going to Etropole Monastery to see the waterfall near it. The road up there was very narrow and single lane. I had to pull over twice to let someone pass. Good thing there was room to do that!

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Bulgaria has so many monasteries and churches. The one at Etropole isn’t that interesting, architecturally speaking. People mostly come for the waterfall.

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The waterfall is really hard to find. There is a path, but it leads in many directions, with no signage. There was no one around for me to ask either. My word of the day is водoĞ¿Ğ°Ğ´ (vodopad — waterfall).

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After walking around the area for a bit and almost ready to give up, knowing the waterfall would be nearly dry anyway, I had the bright idea to ask Google Maps (yes, the same Google Maps that routed me through Pravets). It seemed to know where the waterfall was, so I took a path in the direction it was telling me to go. A couple of groups of tourists joined me as I appeared to know where I was going and followed me like a flock of Bulgarian ducks. We took a path that ended abruptly with a washout:

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After doubling back, we tried another path and tah-dah! I’m glad I was expecting it to be quite dry or I would have been disappointed. Instead, I was delighted by the cool mossy cave!

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The path back up was fun…

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I wandered around for a couple more minutes, at the back of the monastery.

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A real flock of Bulgarian ducks.

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And here’s the only sign for the waterfall. It’s useless! I guess that the waterfall is loud in the springtime and findable by sound, but at this time of year, another sign or two would have been welcome!

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I made a new friend!

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It was past four at this point and I was hungry and tired, so it was time to head home. Coming back into Etropole:

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Back in Malak Izvor, I finally took the road up to the monastery. Max told me I could walk it, but he underestimated how far Yablanitsa is, so I didn’t trust that it would be “only” six kilometres straight up the mountain. This road was also very narrow, very twisty, and had scary drop offs. I had a couple of moments where the only reason I didn’t turn around is there was no place to turn around! The climb was worth it! This monastery dates back to 1224!

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The views up there were the best I’ve seen yet, and that’s saying something!

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The father of the church came out to greet me. I am only going to share my first impression of him because Max knows him and said that he’s pretty sure this is the look the father is going for: Rasputin! I didn’t know until departure, when I ran into him again, that he is the father of the monastery. He was very hospitable and spoke good English. Max calls him “quite a character.”

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I’ve been assured that I have seen a very good representation of Bulgaria even not having gone into the northwest and southwest parts of it. I have seen the coast, the mountains, and the plains. I have had a good sample of churches and monasteries and seen a fortress. I have been through villages, towns, and big cities. The villages and towns all look identical, with the same style of construction. To be honest, it’s been enough and I’m ready to move on. Max confirmed my departure date (the 22nd of September) so we’re on the same page. I will have a couple of days before I absolutely need to be out of Bulgaria, so I’m hoping that my routing there will take me through Belogradchik, but if doesn’t, so be it. You really can’t see everything!

It’s been wonderful having the car and I don’t regret the experience. Now, to get it back to downtown Plovdiv!