Bulgarian vignette and border crossing
The Negru Voda border was one of the few Bulgaria-Romania border crossings I hadn’t been through and it also suited us because it avoided the busy coastal route from Constanta to Mangalia. Dobrich is a dry city on the Bulgarian side, it has a huge ring road and was always an awkward place to hitch-hike. Hitch-hiking, as frustrating and rewarding as it is, generally comes without the complications of having to tax your car. Bulgaria has a vignette system as well, in this case, you buy the vignette at the border. There’s a vignette window immediately after the border. I did not have a lot of cash on me and they did not accept cards. I handed over my car documents and said, “vignette,” and when the guy came back to me with the price, I was surprised to find that it was 15 Bulgarian lev or 40 Romanian lei. I only had 33 lei but it was too late, he had already printed off the vignette with our registration details. When I explained this, he shrugged his shoulders as if to say, “tough shit,” and pointed to the exchange office.
The currencies I carried were of no importance at that particular border. They were 200 PLN and some remnants of Moldovan lei and Ukrainian hryvnia. I didn’t really expect the office to change them but went over there as a token gesture. I decided my last resort was to explain the situation to another driver and thankfully, a generous Romanian guy stumped up the missing 7 Lei. The grumpy vignette guy reluctantly handed back my documents and the vignette with a face liked a chafed thigh.
The drive from the Danube delta was our longest throughout the trip, it totalled 487 kilometres and whilst most of it was on fairly good roads, the stretch from Dobrich to Shumen had quite a lot of misleading signposts and a road that started out with the look of a trunk road deteriorated into a small country lane, which was bumpy and windy. It took forever. The road from Varna to Veliko Tarnovo is a pretty good one but you will often encounter what look like large chunks of meat on the road, unfortunately, carcasses of dogs that have been run over. It’s not ideal for those with a queasy stomach, nor is it the most pleasant sight for kids to see.
Our accommodation was in Arbanasi, which is a couple of kilometres up the hillside from Veliko Tarnovo. After a long day on the road, we wanted to settle down and have a beer but unfortunately, there had been something like a landslide on the road and the road was closed. The detour signs took us back in a circle to Veliko Tarnovo and no one seemed to know an alternative. My phone battery had died so I was unable to check the map. Finally, a woman in a jewellery store managed to give us the correct directions.
Arbanasi is incredibly posh by Bulgarian village standards, villas and hotels abound but they are made very tastefully with nice gardens. Our hotel was really nice, although by having the swimming pool in the centre of the restaurant, it did feel a bit as though our noisy children were the centrepiece!
Veliko Tarnovo has an impressive fortress ‘Tsarevets’ and numerous churches and monasteries nearby. It’s well established on the tourist trail and was probably one of the more commercial places we visited on the trip, but it was still relatively quiet by summer standards.
A change of plan
Our initial plan would have seen us spend two nights in Borovets where I was planning to climb up to the peak of Musala, but the guesthouse there contacted us to say that several guests had contracted measles. Although our kids have been vaccinated, we were not totally sure if Sylwia had been, so we decided to give it a wide berth. We looked for alternatives but they were all a bit resort-like and eventually, we made a total change of direction by heading to Petrevene.
Petrevene is a Bulgarian village, 70 or 80 km north of Sofia. It is not a tourist destination, in fact, it has little going for it at all. Our reason for staying there was that it was close to a very interesting cave called Prohodna and we found some accommodation there with a big swimming pool and our own kitchen. Parts of the village were in abject poverty, a gypsy shanty town where people looked down and out. The hotel, ironically named Kontrasti, was quite plush. We arrived in the mid-afternoon, did our shopping in nearby Lukovit and spent the evening swimming.
The next morning, we headed to Prohodna, which was signposted as ‘God’s Eyes,’ it’s a spectacular cave with two holes in the top that look like eyes. There is no entry fee and the caves are part of an extended walking trail connecting it to the Iskar-Panega Geopark. The kids loved exploring the caves, in fact, Alex said he would like to live there!
Vazov Eco Trail in Gara Bov
We then made our way along small roads through the towns of Roman and Mezdra to the Iskar gorge, an impressive river canyon where we stopped off in Gara Bov to hike up the mountain following the Vazov Eco Trail. The trail loops around between the villages of Zasele and Gara Bov. It is well marked and a fairly easy hike.
It was perhaps a bit stupid of us not to realise that the Skaklya waterfall would be dry considering that there was no snow on the mountain peak and it had not rained recently. It was a nice walk all the same and we found a nice picnic spot.
Who was Ivan Vazov?
Ivan Vazov is one of Bulgaria’s most well-known poets and novelists, he is closely linked to the Bulgarian movement for independence against Ottoman rule and was in exile both in Romania and later Odessa. He was said to have visited the area near Zasele several times and mentions parts of the area in some of his literature.
A town called Thompson
Following the gorge towards Sofia, we passed through the town of Thompson, an agglomeration of several villages. It takes its name from a young British army officer. Major Thompson was a member of the communist party but did not support neutrality. He saw action in England, Serbia, Italy, North Africa, Syria, and Iraq before working as a liaison between the British Army and the Bulgarian partisans. He took part in a skirmish between Bulgarian Gendarmerie and the Second Sofia Brigade of National Liberation and was wounded and captured by the Bulgarian Gendarmerie and later executed by a firing squad. After the war, the village was named after him.
His grave can be seen in the Sofia War Cemetery.
Our final stop in Bulgaria was the small spa town of Sapareva Banya, located in the foothills of the Rila Monastery, it makes a pleasant alternative to Borovets. As we entered the town, we saw a rare sight. The fields were on fire, I’m not sure whether this was intentional or not. Several people were stood around watching, while an old fire engine tried to put it out. What was weird, though, was that lots of storks were descending upon the newly burnt ground and were attracted to it like magnets. We thought that they’d burn their talons but having read about it, it seems common practice among storks as they try to catch insects and small animals fleeing from the fire. Grilled worm, is a delicacy worth burning your feathers for apparently.
We had chosen accommodation (Guest House Simona) that fitted the profile we were looking for, an apartment with a kitchen and a swimming pool and it was in our price bracket at 70 lev. The only problem was finding it. As usual, our batteries were running low, so low that I could not make out the display nor find my way to the settings to turn the brightness on. Sylwia’s phone has been playing up throughout the trip anyway, so we’ve been relying on mine. The street we were looking for was not on a map in the centre of the town and so rather befuddled, we parked up at a petrol station on the outskirts of town and I asked a mechanic if he knew where it was. To my surprise, he got someone in the garage to make a call to a person who lived on that street, who told Simona and her grandmother to come down to the garage and within a couple of minutes, they were there to lead the way in their old Opel.
The following day was Alex’s birthday and we were keen to get him a birthday cake and some candles. Not knowing our way around Sapareva Banya, we asked Simona if there was somewhere that sold cake. This helpful young girl went out of her way to accommodate us, phoning a local cake shop and then travelling with me in the car to show me where it was and help me choose it. We then hid it in the family’s fridge. It turned out to be the yummiest birthday cake, we’d ever eaten.
Their generosity knew no boundaries as they also gave him a present – a Batman type action figure. That evening, we had a walk around Sapareva Banya and visited what is probably its biggest attraction – the geyser in the central park.
Sapareva Banya is close to the Rila mountains and there is a lift that leads up towards the Seven Lakes. We thought that the lift might be an interesting attraction for Alex but the walking would have been too much, so we passed on it this time. I’d love to visit the Seven Lakes and Musala on a future trip and plan to go back to Guest House Simona.
To stump up – to provide the necessary money
Chafed – skin made sore through rubbing, particularly at the top of the legs
Thigh – the part of the leg between hip and knee
Stretch – here: section, part
Trunk road – a main road between large towns, suitable for heavy traffic
Carcass – the dead body of an animal
Queasy – feeling nauseous and sick, easily feeling sick through the sight of something unpleasant
Abound – are plentiful
Abject – extreme, absolute
Down and out – without money or home
Plush – luxurious, very well appointed
Liaison – here: a go-between, intermediary
Skirmish – fight, hostile exchange
To flee – to run away, to escape from
Befuddled – confused