Getting to Bulgaria from Istanbul involved potentially the most feral train ride I’ve ever experienced. The cabin wasn’t all that bad, it was just grossly hot and opening a window only force fed the joint with diesel fumes. On top of this the toilet was a good old squatter and naturally everybody who tried to use it while the train was hooting along the track managed to ‘spread the love’… so to speak. Border control is also a bit of fun, at least you get off the train and do it yourself rather than some dodgy looking official taking your passport away for hours (long enough to make a few copies I suppose) but between these guys and customs there’s very little sleep going on.
All whining aside it’s a great way to move around Europe and I’d much prefer the train that a bus for a 12ish hour trip. You get a bed, a chance to see everything along the way and an opportunity to meet some interesting fellow travellers.
So we arrived in Sofia (the capital of Bulgaria) pretty early one morning and wandered along to the hotel. Turns out we’d booked a place in the red light district so there were plenty of hot looking dudes sauntering around with double D’s selling their… wares. It was pretty funny trying to deal with being surrounded by bulk prostitutes and transvestites after an epically long night on the train when our brains were at about 5% functionality. This was a poor intro to Sofia because it’s actually a wonderful city with a rich history, incredible architecture and heaps of new stuff to see. We spent a few nights here and enjoyed it immensely before driving the pride of Romania – a Dacia Sandero – around the country for a couple of weeks.
Next up on the hit list was my birthday, Loz had been organising a surprise day full of extreme activities with a rather strange guy and I had no idea what was going on. We drove to a little place called Trud which is essentially in the middle of nowhere just North of Plovdiv. As we’re driving through town Loz gets a message saying something like “Go over the train tracks and keep driving, I’m on the side of the road in a Subaru.” Ooooook.
Off we go and sure enough there’s our new best mate Atanas Koev sitting on the side of the road in his Suby waiting for us. After a brief intro where we find out he’s a former fighter pilot from the Bulgarian Air Force (who incidentally taught Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden to fly a Mig-21) and we follow him through the bush in the sturdy old Dacia to an airstrip where a semi-naked 50 something fat guy is rigging up an ultralight for a flight. Following a reasonably safe session in the ultralight we headed back into Trud for lunch. On the way we drove past a clay shooting range and Atanas nonchalantly tells me that if I want to go back and shoot some stuff then that’s cool. Okie doke, we hook a U-Turn and head back and fire off a couple of boxes of shells with a giant called George before lunch.
After an overdose of pork we head back out in the deadly Dacia and turn up at another airstrip where an even older (but fully clothed at least) gentleman is waiting for us next to what I can only describe as the most un-intimidating aeroplane I’ve ever seen. What a gross misconception. Turns out this thing had won awards from NASA as the most agile motorised hang glider in the world, it also turns out that our elderly pilot was a Chief of the Bulgarian Air Force for 53 years and had been flying some of the fastest fighter jets in the world since Jesus was knee high to a grasshopper.
What followed was a series of aerial acrobatics with enough G-Force to make Rambo’s eyes bleed and then something that’ll likely never happen to me again. As we finish punching out loops, barrel rolls and dangerously low flybys, we level out before old mate hands me the controls and tells me to fly the plane for a while so he can have a smoke. So not only am I flying a plane but I’m also in the smallest dutch oven in the world. Safety first! Loz wasn’t going to go for a fly but after seeing me fang around she couldn’t help herself and went up for a quick run. She did 5 loop the loops in a row, mental. Lucky the pilot was probably already deaf from old age because he certainly would have been after that little joyride.
The rest of the day got a little weird. We ended up at Atanas’ house drinking tea, playing guitar and some old school traditional Bulgarian flutes before driving around the local villages to sample the healing springs and see some of the ancient Roman ruins. That was fine but he’d been telling us all day about the amazing hot spring shower that he goes to and that the day wouldn’t be over until we’d finished up there. Problem was it was already about 11pm and we were totally spent, but we followed him out there anyway to a scene straight out of Wolf Creek where he rigged up a home made “shower” in this old water tank with a natural spring plumbed into it (there’s a pic below), stripped off and told us we could join him in there if we want to. “Errrrr, no thanks mate. We’ll wait until you’re done.” And that was that, he did his thing, buggered off to the bush to camp by a river for the night. I’ll give him credit where credit’s due though, that hot spring was something else end was the most refreshing 50deg C water I’ve ever been in contact with. Still weird as hell though.
Needless to day – best… birthday… ever. Even if it was a bit out there at times.
So that’s my most memorable story of Bulgaria. We spent the next 12 days driving all over the gorgeous countryside starting with a wine region called Melnik, some incredible painted monasteries, a bit of beach time on the Black Sea at Sinamorets before working our way back along the Northern ranges back toward Sofia stopping at a bunch of great little spots along the way. One thing that made Bulgaria memorable was the novelty of picking apples, grapes, plums, figs and whatever else you feel like eating off the trees all over the place. We spent more than a couple of nights eating fresh honey figs straight off the tree with a nice blue cheese and crackers.
Bulgaria threw a few surprises in our direction and although our first couple of experiences made us take a bit of a step back the whole time was nothing short of sensational. There’s so much unique natural beauty that’s far more impressive than any man made stuff you see in the cities.