Like John Denver sang, we are on the road again.

This time we are travelling from Bansko to Plovdiv.

Situated on the Maritsa River, Plovdiv was once the meeting point of two ancient transportation routes.  The old town features lots of 18th and 19th century baroque houses, which sit alongside museums, mosques, galleries and Byzantine ruins.  It’s one of Bulgaria’s wealthiest and most cosmopolitan cities.  It’s a student town loaded with great restaurants, galleries, bars and a thriving cultural scene.

No sooner do we arrive, than we meet our guide for the afternoon.  Like Sofia, Plovdiv is home to the most incredible Roman ruins.  Amongst them is the magnificent ancient Roman stadium, built during the 2nd century BC and the location for many a gladiator match.

There is a cool 3D movie about the arena, but there’s no time for that today – perhaps tomorrow morning.

The heat is unbearable this afternoon, which makes the guides job hard because I’m not sure how many of us are actually  thinking about sitting in the shade with a cool drink or icecream rather than listening to her tell us about Plovdiv.  Which is a shame, because she knows her stuff.

Trudging further up the street, we come to the next reminder of Roman civilisation – an amphitheatre.  Built some time in the second century AD, it was only rediscovered after a freak landslide.  The amphitheatre would have held around 6,000 people and it still plays host to special events today.  Overlooking the city, I couldn’t think of a more spectacular setting.

We follow a cobblestone street to the site of Nebet Tepe – a former hilltop fortress with excellent views of the city before heading down hill to the 15th century Dzhumaya Mosque which is still in use today.

Plovdiv is home to many workshops of the traditional masters of old Bulgarian arts and crafts.  Along Strumna Street, you’ll find coppersmiths, farriers and potters.


And again in the same vein as Sofia, Plovdiv also has a long shopping street which runs down the centre of it.  Most interesting is its McDonalds restaurant — because despite the number of different countries I’ve visited I can’t remember seeing any other store with the McDonalds logo translated into the subject language.  I wonder how they swung that!

We then had the afternoon to ourselves and I’d love to tel you I made the most of my limited sightseeing time in Plovdiv, but it was just too damn hot and I was feeling a little tired from all the travel of the last couple of weeks.  And theres oony one thing you can do when you feel like that – a nice shower followed by a nanna nap.

I still have tomorrow morning.

Dancing Bears

Gorno Draglishte in the early morning is magical.  The light dawns on it just so that it gives everything a golden glow.  One more day here to explore and take in the charm of the village would be perfect, but we are moving on yet again, so we say goodbye to another wonderful host and hop back in the van.

We are heading to Bansko, but along the way we stop in Belitsa to visit the Dancing Bear Sanctuary.  The sanctuary houses 24 former dancing bears which were captured by volunteers from a life of captivity and cruelty.  Opened in the year 2000 with support from Four Paws and the Brigitte Bardot Foundation, it covers 120,000m² of natural territory where the bears can roam in as close to a natural environment as they will ever be able to get.  These bears will never be able to be realised into the wild as they have never learnt to look out for themselves.


Most of the bears were owned by the Roma people (or gypsies) who taught the bears to ‘dance’ by making them walk on hot coals whilst their owners played musical instruments.  We’ve all seen the photos (they were probably the image you even associated with Bulgaria when it was mentioned) and probably many a tourist snapped a photo of these clever dancing bears without giving it a second thought.  But life for these bears was anything but fun.  Having been separated from their mothers at a very early age, the bears were mistreated – pierced noses, declawing and leg chains have left everlasting scars on these bears.

The practice of keeping dancing bears was prohibited in 1998, but as with anything there are always people who continue to test the limits.  Volunteers worked hard and as of 2008 it is believed that there are no longer any dancing bears in Bulgaria.

More driving and we finally arrive in Bansko.  Bansko is set at the bottom of the majestic Pirin Mountains and is home to more than 150 cultural monuments.  Many of its stone houses have been transformed into gorgeous little ‘mehanes’ or taverns.  We are staying at another guesthouse – something I have come to look forward to – no longer anxiously wondering how I would cope, I now embrace these places as a chance to live more like a local.


I have scored the ‘penthouse’ (the room that is under the eaves with the long wooden railing in the photo above) and my massive room has a big balcony, which despite looking out over a tyre yard, affords me a spectacular view of the mountains.


Every inch of road in Bansko seems to be in the process of being dug up and if I don’t trip at some point I’ll be surprised.  The footpaths in Sofia were the same, so badly in disrepair that at times if you weren’t looking where you were going, you would end up down a drain in no time.


We head into town for some lunch and a bit of a walk around.  Bansko is a ski-town in the winter but people still flock in other seasons cause it’s cute.  It’s also a great opportunity for hikers and mountain bikers.

Tonight the opera is in town.  They are playing The Czardas Queen which I’ve never heard of, but here’s a run down of Act 1 – Night at the music-hall, Ferribachi addresses the guests and tells them that Silva’s variety actress success s so big she received an invitation to Paris.  Silva wants to go but Edwin is in love with her and craves to marry her.  His mother Silica is against her son’s involvement with the variety acrtress.  She herself was a variety actress, but keeps it a deep secret.  To stop her son’s plans she arrives at the music hall with a general, who has to take Edwin to the barrack.  But this is not all – she organizes the engagement between Edwin and her neice – countess Stasi, as she even gives out invitations behind his back.  Edwin doesn’t want to let SIlva go to Paris and says that he is ready to marry her right away.  They contract the marriage.  Silva is happy, but no for log.  Soon she reliases that Edwin is engaging count Stasi and there are people invited.  Silva tears the marriage contract apart and decides to go to Paris with Boni.


Six of us decide to take our chances on the show but I’m sad to say that none of us lasted past the first act.

Meeting Baba Lina

Leaving Sofia behind, we are on the road again.  We have a new driver, who doesn’t speak a word of English – except perhaps ‘Rock On’ cause he’s wearing an ACDC shirt and apparently loves Led Zeppelin.  He and Marco are best friends, Marco tells us, even though neither can speak the other’s language.

Rila Monastery was the most important orthodox monasteries in Bulgaria.  World Heritage listed, it’s the largest, holiest and most impressive of Bulgaria’s monasteries, housed in a narrow and forested valley.  It was founded in 927 by Ivan Rilski – known as Ivan the Hermit.  The monastery was responsible for keeping Bulgarian spiritual and social life alive during its centuries of Turkish rule.  It’s most treasured historic and artistic monuments include the 14th century Hrelyo Tower, the fire-domed Blessed Virgin Church and the original monastery kitchen from the 19th century.


The monastery is very interesting and definitely worth a visit.

There was also a really cool museum showcasing implements from the Monastery Farm in the 19th century.

Walking across the monastery grounds, for some reason I look down and realise I have just walked across a grave.


Leaving Rila, the landscape becomes decidedly more Mediterranean in appearance.  It’s still a fair drive through the hills – another couple of hours – before we reach Gorno Draglishte.

Gorno Draglishte is a small mountain village, home to a delightful community of warm and welcoming people, a rich cultural heritage and delicious home-cooked food.  We are staying at a local guesthouse – Guesthouse Deshka and you are made to feel welcome from the minute you walk in the door.  ‘Please – eat the fruit off the trees’ the host gestures.  Like Romania, fruit grows alongside the road and it’s a simple thrill being able to pick it fresh and eat it.

Marco takes us on a walk through the town, which due to its size, doesn’t take very long.  It’s washing day and household rugs are hung to dry after being beaten clean in the large outdoor tub.

But the size of the town certainly has no bearing on how many local pubs there are in town.  With several to choose from, we pick the quietest and fill up the seats, relaxing in the late afternoon sun.


On the way back from the pub, a small old lady comes up beside me, loops her arm through mine and starts talking to me.  Again I am reminded how easy it is to communicate even though you don’t speak the same language and we work out between us our names – hers is Baba Lina – and that she lives here and I am staying at the guesthouse – all the things you find out about a person from a first conversation.  We bid each other goodbye outside the guesthouse, me smiling away at the unexpected little encounter.

Arriving in the main room of the guesthouse for dinner a little while later, we are re-introduced to our host and take our seats at a long, u-shaped table.  In the door come two old ladies – one of which is my new friend Baba Lina.

They are here to perform for us tonight, but first they serve up our delicious meal.  Neither can speak a word of English but that doesn’t mean there is no life in the room.  There is chatter and laughter filling the room.

Then the babas sit down to sing a few songs for us.  Their voices, though not what most would call beautiful singing voices, were nonetheless clear and loud.  Then it was time for dress-ups.  Amanda, Susan and I were first to be bundled into beautiful traditional costumes and led back into the main room to dance in a circle for the others.

No matter the clothing though – we were still bogans through and through….


Another unexpectedly glorious day filled with the unexpected.  Who knows what tomorrow will bring but I’ve never looked forward to the next day more.


Sofia Shows Us Her Stuff

Sofia is the cosmopolitan capital of Bulgaria.  It was founded by a Thracian – Indo-European tribe which inhabited a large area in South East Europe sometime around the 8th century BC.  Elaborate tombs are the most obvious reminders of the Thracian culture and they have been unearthed across southern and central Bulgaria.  But it was the Romans who settled the city that you can see today, after conquering the region in 29 AD.  It was also held by the Ottomans for about 500 years and it was during this period that it became a regional capital.

Sofia became the official capital of Bulgaria in 1879 after the city was liberated from Turkish Rule in 1878.

She picked the “wrong side” during WWII and as a result lost much of her heritage to bombing raids.  Liberated by the Russians in 1944, a people’s republic was created and socialist architects rebuilt the city.

As the day dawns, Marco leads us on a introductory walking tour of the town centre.  The first thing we notice this morning is pizza.  Everyone is eating big slices of pizza!  That certainly must go on the list of things to do today.  When you’re in Rome (or Sofia)….

In front of us is the Lion’s Bridge.  At each corner of the bridge are four massive bronze lions as if standing guard to the old city.

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The second thing we notice is the ruins.  Everywhere.

Beside the Lions Bridge…

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Even just walking through the metro station!  As mentioned at the beginning of this post, the Romans built much of the city of Sofia and it seems that workmen these days can barely put a shovel in the ground without coming across Roman remains of some kind.

And just outside the metro station?…More ruins of course.


Out the back of the imposing Presidency building is the St George Rotunda and the remains of the ancient city of Serdica.  The Rotunda now forms part of the St George Church and is part of a complex of architectural monuments consisting of the remains of a large basilica.  The floor of this basilica shows evidence of a heating system and the stone pavement of one of the main streets of Serdica complete with drainage.

It’s absolutely fascinating to see ruins like this just in the middle of the city.  A definite first for me and in a country I didn’t expect to see them in.

The day was very warm and the one of the guards in front of the Presidential building looked as though he was fit to keel over at any moment, profusely sweating.  The poor chaps had to stand there without any hint of shade.

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We stop at an outdoor café but we are brusquely notified by the waitress that there is no water, so that means no coffee or other hot drinks.  Her offhand manner offends most of us and instead of settling in for lunch, we order only Cokes before heading on our way, leaving the waitress to tend to her other non-existent customers.

Leaving behind the rude waitress, Marco stops in front of a tree and points out some little red and white strings and decorations on the branches of a tree.  They are Martenitsi and this is what they are about.  On the first of March each year, Bulgarian’s leave the house were little red and white strings tied around their wrists or necks or adorned on their clothes until the wearer sees a stork or swallow returning from migration – or a blossoming tree – and then removes the Martenitsa.  The Martenitsi are never bought for yourself, only as gifts for loved ones or friends. DSC05773 DSC05772

There are different rituals for removing the Martenitsa – some people tie them on the branch of a fruit tree (as we saw), others put it under a stone with the idea that the kind of creature closest to it the next day will determine the person’s heath for the remainder of the year.  If that creature is a worm you are in luck – the year ahead should be healthy and successful.  Ants are also good.  Spiders?  Not so much – these mean that you’re in trouble and may not be enjoying luck, health or personal success.

No points for guessing where I’d be putting mine!

Another interesting Bulgarian tradition is remembrance of the dearly departed – pieces of paper, photographs included, stuck to homes, doorways, trees in memory of those who have passed on.  These are called ‘Necrologs’ and if you would like to read more on this very interesting topic, please refer to this great article.


Despite the work of the Soviet architects, there are a lot of gorgeous buildings lining the streets of Sofia and it’s a lovely place to walk around and explore.

Marco leaves us outside the Alexander Nevsky church, where we all scatter in different directions depending on what we want to see for the rest of our free day.


Across the road from the church, there was a small antiques market which disappointingly sold a lot of Russian made goods and also a lot of icons.


Moving along from the market, we headed to the King’s Garden, where stands the Monument to the Soviet Army.  Depicting a Soviet Soldier surrounded by a Bulgarian male worker and female peasant, it was built in 1954 as a symbol of gratitude for the Soviet Red Army for helping Bulgaria on their war efforts during the second World War.  The monument has been the centre of controversy since Bulgaria transitioned from communism to democracy as many aren’t too happy about the presence of this behemoth, which daunts the country’s national symbols.


So it probably wasn’t much of a surprise when, in June 2011, an unknown street artist gave the old Soviet fighters a makeover, repainting them as modern day heroes – Superman, Santa Claus, Ronald McDonald.  This wasn’t to be the last time the monument’s stars were given a good ‘zhooshing’.  In August 2013, the monument was painted a vivid shade of pink on the anniversary of the invasion of Czechoslavakia in 1968.  And in the same month, the monument was again re-dressed in support of the members of the Russian anti-Putin band Pussy Riot, each character now sporting a brightly coloured balaclava.  Russia has kindly asked that people stop vandalising the monument, but we’ll have to wait and see how long it is before that request gets ignored.

In the commercial heart of the city is the monument of St Sofia, who was the city’s patron and namesake.  Erected in 2001 she replaced Lenin’s monument.  Some of Sofia’s residents were not happy as she was considered too erotic and pagan to be referred to as St Sofia.


Markets stalls selling fruits and vegetables are set up alongside the street and further down is a book market where you can find all sorts of books, some even in English, and records too.  It’s time to stop for a bight to eat and spying a pizza shop, that’s where I head.  The shop attendant hands over a nice big slice of pizza and shock horror – it’s cold!  Oh well, that’s not going to stop me from enjoying it!

Vitoshka Street is a fully pedestrianized shopping mall selling just about everything you can get anywhere else in the world.  Once upon a time it was the only place to shop in Sofia but shopping malls changed all that and in deed nearly ended things for Vitoshka but once the area was redeveloped, the people came back.  Cute cafes line both sides of the stretch and provide welcome relief from the heat when we stop for a drink and some icecream.

The last stop on our sightseeing trail today is the Ladies Market.  There are all the usual homewares for sale here as well as jars and jars of different kinds of honey.


Bulgaria has a chain of dine in restaurants called Happy.  Marco mentioned this to us and made the point of saying they are a good dining option and that he regularly eats there.  Normally, I would steer clear of these types of restaurants (Hard Rock excepted of course – for the rock memorabilia and broccoli), but today I decide to give it a go.  Marg is up for the challenge and comes along with me.

Opened in 1994, there are now 22 Happy’s around Bulgaria, the largest and fastest growing restaurant chain in the country.

Staring at the menu, which all looks very appetising as Marco promised, we notice a strange ingredient mentioned frequently – boletus.  Trying to eliminate the ingredients by looking at the pictures, and at first think it must be mushrooms, until we notice there are dishes that have mushrooms and boletus.  Google comes to the rescue and find it is indeed a genus of mushroom-producing fungi.  I’ve never heard this word before in my life, but happily order the Chicken Alfredo with Boletus.

Half way through eating, a countdown begins.  Marg and I look at each other wondering what’s going on.  Some of the staff begin to meet in the middle of the restaurant and next minute Pharrell’s song “Happy” bursts forth from the speakers and the staff begin dancing to it.  The dancing ends with the smashing of plates on the floor and everything returns to normal.  I wasn’t expecting that but what a nice way to end the day!

I also notice the staff uniforms have the Unicef symbol on them and ask one of the waitresses what it means but perhaps she doesn’t know enough English to respond to me because she says she doesn’t know about it.  Once more Google comes to the rescue and I find out that there is indeed a relationship of some kind but that until I learn to read Bulgarian I would not be enlightened as to what it was!  Anyone who can translate the link would be much appreciated!

I couldn’t resist dessert, merely for the fact that I just had to try this taste combination when I saw it on the menu – miso-mascarpone homemade cake with blueberries.  And the result – it’s a very soft cake ball, surrounded and mixed in with the mascarpone and covered in blueberry compote.  It’s a very different taste, perhaps an acquired taste to some, but as a frequent traveller to Asia, it wasn’t unexpected and I quite enjoyed it.


After such a full day, I am more than ready to hit the sack.  We are off again early tomorrow morning to travel to Gorno Draglishte (Where?  I’ve never heard of it either!) via Rila.  Seems another long day of travel is on the cards.

Off to Find Sofia

With a late start and a last glimpse of Bucharest, we are on the road yet again.  Today we head into new territory – Bulgaria.  If I had no idea what to expect of Romania, I have even less idea what to expect from Bulgaria.  But I have a day’s worth of travel before I find out.


Marco is unsure how our border crossing into Bulgaria will go because they have been working on the bridge between for some time and traffic delays have been horrendous.  But apart from a false start where the road had temporarily been altered, luck was on our side.  We were straight over the bridge, albeit slowly.

The line of traffic waiting in the other direction was not quite so lucky….


Before much longer, we are at the border and the formalities are taking place.  As we wave goodbye to the ‘assports’ office (the sign was missing a letter), our heads start swivelling ready to check out our new surroundings.

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But our day of travelling is far from over.  We now have another bus to board, a public one this time.  The ticket windows are odd and purchasers are forced to bend over to buy their tickets.


We head off in different directions to find lunch and snacks for the journey ahead, absorbing enquiring stares from the locals.  I bought these biscuits to share, which were incredibly yummy, despite having what looked like birdseed on top!


The first thing we notice about Bulgaria, is that no matter how hard we try – we will not be able to try and pronounce any signage, as it is Cyrillic.  This should be fun!

Cyrillic Alphabet

Finally our bus is ready to board and off we go.  Our driver is grumpy and despite the bus being advertised as airconditioned, it is really hot because the driver has his window open the whole journey to accommodate his chain smoking.  After what seems an eternity, we finally pull into the bus station at Sofia, where we lug our bags onto our shoulders and start walking to our hotel, arriving just in time to head out for dinner.

Marco leads us not far away to a cute little folk restaurant where we were are treated to some fantastic singing and amazing food and wine.  I get my first opportunity to have a good chat to the Japanese couple who joined the tour in Bucharest – Aki and Kazuo.  They are the cutest couple – Kaz speaks more English than his wife, and they have their trusty travel guide with them, flipping through the pages keen to try the local food which their guidebook recommends.  I know very little Japanese, but Kaz assures me I’m saying it right and he seems very impressed.  Who would have thought that a little language I picked up to get me through my trip to Japan several years ago would now serve me well in Bulgaria!

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I wonder what Sofia has in store for us tomorrow?