That’s my takeaway from a recent family road trip around Bulgaria. We left on Thursday from Sofia and hit Belogradchik (famous rocks,) Vidin (famous river,) Ruse (gorgeous city on famous river,) Veliko Tarnovo (favorite town in mountains) and back to Sofia by Sunday. Google Maps calls it 873 kilometers, but I think we can safely push that up to 1,000 or so. There were a few wrong turns up there by the Danube.
Belogradchik stood out for its elderly people, in a good way. First we saw this charming trio out for a morning stroll in the town square. I’m sorry I didn’t have the chance to chat with them; I suspect they’ve seen quite a lot of history pass through their mountain town.
We took a hike up to the famous Belogradchik Fortress, originally built by the Romans in the first century A.D., and encountered busloads of elderly Americans. They were huffing and puffing their way up the mushroom-shaped rocks, and then running back to their bus. A few seemed a bit disoriented regarding the whole Americans-living-abroad thing. (“Do we have an embassy here in Bulgaria?” one asked. Yes sir, we sure do.)
Up in Vidin we tramped through another castle, this one magnificently situated above the Danube River overlooking Romania. And we paid another visit to the crumbling synagogue, which appears to be no closer to being restored.
But in the mind’s eye, it’s this fisherman who looms large in my memory — can you see him in the photo at right? — trying to catch dinner in a small patch of water between his homeland and a barge hailing from who knows where.
A bit further down the river in Botevo, I stop to take a photo of trees reflected in the water. There I meet Kevin, a British pensioner. He came down from Northampton with his wife in search of a vacation home. They liked Bulgaria so much they stayed.
He pointed out the tree where storks nest every spring, and the fish shop where his Bulgarian friend plies his trade. Not so much of a fish man himself, Kevin. But he was excited to tune in a big football match later that day between Chelsea and his beloved Tottenham Hotspur.
We drove and drove that afternoon. At first we tried to follow the Danube down the country roads past flood walls and tidy gardens. But we were soon reminded of a truism in Bulgarian road-tripping: the town roads are worse than the country roads. Every village we passed through brought potholes and dead-ends, and before long we had given up on the scenic route and made for the highway near Pleven.
That, it must be said, was easier said than done. Our GPS navigatrice, in her annoyingly posh British accent, argued constantly with my copilot and her impossibly detailed map. Once I nearly mistook Oriahovo for Orehovitsa, and Lord knows you don’t want to do that.
In the remote town of Iskar we stumbled upon a grand square, complete with sparkling water fountains, families playing badminton and a chunky, Soviet-era statue urging the workers of north-central Bulgaria to unite. And why not? While the central government has finally begun inching towards a national conversation on its socialist past, every small town still seems to hold its relics from pre-1989 days.
Halfway across the Danubian plain I stopped our Subaru at a tranquil little train station. There were no trains, cars, people or animals in sight. For a moment I just stood and breathed in the crisp autumn air. Then I jumped back in the car and pressed on for Pleven.
Have I told you about those Bulgarian drivers in their Mercedes with the tinted windows, and how they like to pass cars on blind curves in defiance of all possible moral and legal codes, scaring hell out of locals and foreigners alike? My daughter learned some spicy new words that day.
Finally, just as the sun tipped below the horizon, we arrived at our destination of Ruse. The hotel was beautiful — curved walls, quiet street, soft beds. We walked down the street onto what might be Bulgaria’s most regal square, composed of three parts Vienna and one part Soviet modernism circa 1976. And down there on the left in glowing neon red was our favorite Balkan comfort food spot, home of Happy Pork Loins and Yellow Cheese Bits Wrapped In Ham. It must be true: at the end of every long journey in Bulgaria lies a Happy Bar and Grill.