Phil and I said goodbye to Bucharest and boarded the seven-hour train to Veliko Tarnovo, our first stop in Bulgaria. We shared a four-person coach with two German travelers (not traveling together) who were both heading to Istanbul. Compared to their eighteen-hour train ride, seven seemed like a breeze.
Over the trip, while we didn’t exchange names, we did share travel stories and recommendations. One of the Germans was a young man traveling to Turkey to meet up with his Russian girlfriend. The war in Ukraine limits Russians’ ability to travel widely and she is unable to travel to Germany currently.
The other traveler, a woman in her mid-thirties, has been working for a European politician in Brussels for the last couple of years and was extremely burnt out from her demanding job. She was taking her month’s vacation time to travel around Eastern Europe before returning to her job and giving her resignation notice. She indicated she had plenty of savings from her job and intended to take a year off of work to recharge. I hear you, sister. She had also traveled throughout the US for a three month period a few years ago, filming a [as of yet unfinished] documentary about “real” Americans. In an era when Americans are seemingly more divided than ever, she found that, regardless of political affiliation, people are just people and are often willing to help others, individually, even if they differ in political ideology.
I really enjoyed both of our long-term train riding experiences. We lucked out to have interesting coach-mates who spoke English and were keen to discuss travel and life experiences with us. I highly recommend taking a long-distance train when traveling if you’re not in too much of a hurry to get to your destination. Share a coach and who knows, you might luck out too and have some informative conversations and even if you don’t, and have less than ideal coach-mates, at the very least it will make for an interesting story.
We arrived at Veliko Tarnovo on time. The train station was quite small and I believe we may have been the only travelers to exit the train at the destination. We walked out front to see the only visible taxi pulling away. It was a thirty minute walk to our rental and we didn’t want to have to carry our heavy bags for the that long, so we opted to hang out in front of the taxi area, and hoped another would be along shortly.
After a while, we began to doubt that another would, in fact, be along so I went inside in the hopes of the ticket agent calling us a taxi. The ticket agent spoke no English and although I thought I communicated what I wanted pretty well, she handed me a phone number, presumably for a taxi company. I thanked her and went outside. We tried the number, without success, and started to think we might have to walk, when we saw a taxi pull in.
He stopped in front of two women who had been sitting on the curb near the station entrance. We thought they had called him and he was there to pick them up. After an exchange between the women and driver, it appeared as though they decided not to take the taxi or the driver kicked them out of the car, either way we flagged him down and got in. Score! On the way out of the parking lot, the driver stopped the car and had a loud verbal exchange with one of the women and then drove on. It was slightly unsettling but we didn’t have to schlep our bags all the way to the rental in the hot hot so we were grateful.
We arrived at our spacious rental and were happy to see that there was a full grocery store just downstairs from it. We like to be able to cook while traveling though, often due to the type and location of the accommodation, it is difficult or impossible. We unpacked, purchased supplies at the store, and relaxed for the evening after our long travel day.
Around midnight, just was we were drifting off to sleep, we were startled by very loud pops. The sound took me back to our St. Louis days when we would play “gun shots of fireworks?” to determine the source of loud pops. We almost immediately saw the bright light reflecting off of the sliding glass door and went to go check it out. We were delighted to have front row seats to a spectacular fireworks display, and these were no half-assed fireworks, we’re talking professional grade. We couldn’t exactly determine where they were coming from due to it being dark and the town being quite hilly but we assumed it must be a wedding or other special celebration to warrant such a grand show.
The next morning we had a walking tour with a local guide, Iva, who brought along her daughter, Tiana, to show us around the city and tell us a bit about the history. She also made some recommendations for places to eat and things to do.
We met Iva and Tiana in front of the Monument of Mother Bulgaria near the center of town. We walked on, over the Stambolov Bridge, high above the Yantra River and took in some great views of the old town. We also saw the large and impressive monument to the Assen Dynasty in the near distance. The Assen dynasty rose as the leaders of Bulgaria after a rebellion against the Byzantine Empire in 1185 and ruled Bulgaria until 1280. We stopped at the monument and snapped a few photos. It was nice to have someone else who could take photos of Phil and I together. We have a LOT of selfies from our travels and while I love each one of them, it’s nice to have a few us-ies as well.
We entered the old town via Gurko Street, named for Yoseph Vladimir Gurko, a Russian general who was instrumental in helping the Russians free the Bulgarians from Ottoman Turkish rule, Iva informed us. The street is famous for its historical white homes you can see in the picture below.
We stopped at a cafe on Gurko street as it was a very hot day and a break from walking and a cold beverage sounded delightful. Phil and I ordered sparkling water and Iva a coffee. I was amazed that a hot coffee sounded good to her on the 90 degree morning. I love coffee but I guess not as much as Iva does. Tiana ordered a snack and as we talked with them we learned that young Tiana (I would guess she was around eight or nine years old) already knew three languages; Norwegian (she was born in Norway as her father is Norwegian and the family lived there until 2020), Bulgarian, and English and she is learning Spanish currently!
After our pit stop, we walked to The Nativity of the Virgin Mary Cathedral which was quite impressive from the outside. There is a place near the Cathedral that, every weekend, has two sound and light shows. They light up the Trapezitsa Fortress, which was a huge walled fortress across the Yantra river, and provide headphones that play music along with the lights. She said it was kind of like a laser light show. She told us the show often sells out but even if we could not get tickets, we could enjoy the light show for free from an area nearby. She showed us where she thought the best spot would be.
Next we walked through the heart of old town, which is lined with little shops some of which are simply tourist shops selling typical souvenirs; t-shirts, shot glasses, postcards, and snow globes but others were real artisan workshops selling woodwork, lace, and other fine products. We said goodbye to Iva and Tiana at the end of the street.
We enjoyed a slow walk back to the rental where we relaxed for a bit. Later we enjoyed dinner at a traditional Bulgarian restaurant right across the street from our apartment. After dinner, we headed back to old town to catch the light show. We could not get a ticket but found a nice spot, atop a large stone wall, to see the show. It was hard to capture via photo the grandiosity of the light show but it was truly something to see. They turn off the lights in that area of town to help the lights from across the river at the fortress really pop.
The next day we visited the Boris Denev State Art Gallery. Boris Denev was an important Bulgarian painter from Veliko Tarnovo, and the museum was a two floor exhibit to Bulgarian painters. This is where we first learned about and saw works by Vladimir Dimitrov, known as The Master. He is perhaps the most famous Bulgarian painter and this would not be the last time we saw his paintings. He is right in my sweet spot of modern art (1882-1960) and I really enjoyed his paintings.
The next morning we were off (via a relatively short train ride) to our next Bulgarian city, Plovdiv. Stay tuned!