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Sunday, 16 January 2011

Ah, you are going to Bulgaristan?

We crossed the Bulgarian border around 1am. On the night bus from Istanbul pretty much everyone was from Bulgaria on that bus, except for Katrina and I and a Korean couple with two young boys that sat next to us in the back row. They were a very nice couple, English teachers in Sofia, and one of their boys screamed as if possessed for the first several hours of trip. I not so affectionately dubbed him demon baby. We went through various checkpoints at a snail's pace at the massive complex of a "border." Apparently drugs and weapons make their way into Europe over this border so getting through is a process. Around 2:30am we shuffled out into the cold with our passports in hand and we looked even more foreign as we the only ones not lighting up. Entereding the small trailer with a Bulgarian passport agent dressed in light green fatigues, he looked at us crookedly and asked "you are traveling through Bulgaria?" Katrina answered, "We're flying back out of Istanbul in a couple of days." He stared at us again over our passports and said curiously "And you decided to come to Bulgaria!?" He stamped, we slid out of the trailer and back onto the bus with the screaming child. Welcome to Bulgaria!




In Istanbul we learned that the Turks call Bulgaria, Bulgaristan, so we obviously started calling it Bulgaristan.

We spent a day and a half in the capital city of Sofia which was mix of massive soviet era government buildings, beautiful orthodox churches, open air markets, modern commercial districts,  track suits & crimped hair, cobblestone walkways, and panel block apartment buildings. Bulgaristan was blanketed behind the Iron Curtain for a half century and Sofia was a closed city for decades with a large KGB presence and an infamous secret police. We stayed in a great spot called Hostel Mostel with an extremely helpful staff that guided us mapping out a route back towards the Turkish border through some of the highlights of Bulgaria's beautiful countryside. Though the city was intriguing the main reason I wanted go to Bulgaria was after months in the desert I was ready to see mountains and trees again. 


After a day and night in the Sofia we headed South towards Rila and Pirin Mountain Ranges. The tourism industry is still developing therefore station agents don't necessarily speak anything but Bulgarian and signs and buses are sometimes only written in the Cryillic Alphabet. Therefore whatever bus or train we hopped on there was always some level doubt about whether or not we were on the right bus or if that stop we just passed was ours. When we missed a stop we hitchhiked and most of the time we would meet locals that would go out of their way to help us.


Rila Monestary



After spending several quiet hours at the Rila Monastery watching long bearded monks in flowing black robes glide across the grounds of the picturesque monastery we piled back onto the bus and descended back into the forest. The quiet solitude of the monastery nestled in the forested mountains had the feel of a peaceful University Campus and it occurred to me that that campus feel was born out of places like this that have been centers of study for hundreds of years.

Several hours, a couple of buses, and one round of hitchhiking brought us into the ski town of Bankso at the foot of the Pirin Mountain Range. There was a light drizzle and for the first time in months it actually felt as if Winter was approaching. The map and businesses in our book didn't  match the quiet streets we were roaming so we decided chuck the book and head down cobblestone street with dim lights down the way. It turned out to be a restaurant and as we looked around  we were waved in by a middle aged man. We dropped our bags in the cozy chalet style restaurant with a few patrons sitting quietly in booths. We entered looking for directions to a hotel and left with full stomachs and place to stay, a room that one of the patrons sitting at a nearby table rented out to skiiers in the winter was offered up and we accepted. 


We also accepted any and everything our kind Bulgarian host Mother Lily at the Chalet restaurant offered us. We tried to order soup, salad, and beers but Lily waved us off saying "I bring you good Bulgarian dish with some different meats and vegetables." How could I refuse? Katrina chuckled and said "I'm pretty sure you're going to get the largest plate of meat you've ever seen." Fifteen minutes later her prediction materialized on a sizzling platter. I did my best to get through the massive skillet, taking down beer and wine as I went, but probably only managed a third. After the marathon eating session Lily informed us "I give you good traditional Bulgarian dessert." which consisted of ice cream and fruit.


Thumbs up for Bulgarian sizzling meat platter

Excitement fading, food coma imminent


View from our room in Bansko

We woke up ready to take a walk through the mountains and arrived at the Bankso tourist office at 9:00am when it was supposed to open. The sign on the door read "Tourist office will be on 23rd" It was the 18th so I inquired about a missing phrase to a shopkeeper next door but she did not speak English and kept pointing me to the sign. We walked through the town and resisted a couple of hard sells on expensive tours and finally made our way out of town to the foot of the mountains. We hiked through the woods occasionally wandering onto a ski resort that was still about a month away from opening. We hiked through thick groups of conifers, shadowed dirt trails with sun rays, and amongst little red shingled houses with smoking chimneys. 





Plovdiv

Overlooking Plovdiv

After exploring the beautiful, colorful, Bohemian University town of Plovdiv for a day and a night we returned to Istanbul on a night bus. While waiting for our bus, which arrived three hours late, I decided to get rid of my remaining lev so I looked through the impulse item gems in the glass cases. In the end I decided on a blue fanny pack with neon writing, a car air freshener with a picture of a tennis player on it, and what I thought was chocolate milk. I took a sniff and realized this was definitely not what I bargained for-- when I took a swig it tasted like a cold beans with hint of sweet fruit and pedialite. I almost gagged on the Bulgaristani Eipecac. I went back and bought a beer with my remaining lev and watched Katrina laugh.


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