BULGARIA: Just a fast ride through.

Click on images to enlarge them.

Click to enlarge: New and old wheels in lower Bulgaria.
Check out the size of the wagon wheels.


Click here for a Google Maps route of our Bulgarian trip,
from Bucharest Romania to the Turkey border [link.]



Quick trip through: We didn't really explore Bulgaria extensively – mainly because we were pressed to get to Turkey and eastwards. We took a detour westwards to see an old friend in Sofia, but other than that, we made tracks, so this is not a comprehensive report.


Border: Ruse [map link] was a memorably horrid border crossing. No customs issues at all, no visas or fees, guards are fine – it's just really run-down, no maintenance. Wild dog packs barked, chased and nipped aggressively at our heels, right after the gates. We kicked them off and outran them. No road markings, confusing, riding in circles, we had to get directions from guards on how to get out of the border area. But we made it into Bulgaria at perhaps 7 PM, in the dark.


Travels: In the teensy town of Polik, too small for Google maps, perhaps an hour later down E85, in the dark, with no map, only cryllic signage – we needed to sleep somewhere. Were directed to the highly memorable Hotel Esperanza, perhaps the worst quality we have ever stayed in. Such a dump! The front desk guy looked like a tired old wino. The place was run down, dirty but it had a bed, a joke of a shower and TV with Law & Order in English! – all for about ten bucks [sic]. Who could possibly argue?

Across the street there was an outdoor place, the only thing evidently open so late, where the woman sold beer and pita-like pocket sandwiches with cheese and spam-ish meat, from a stand for perhaps $3. We shared one to tide us over and went to bed, after making sign language friends with a group of local beer consumers.

In the morning a crowd gathered as we packed Black Bike, we were evidently the popular curiosity of the town in quite a while. The hotel owner showed up in his jacket and tie, spoke some English and led us out of town on his old bicycle as simultaneously our guide and our honor guard, pedaling like crazy to assure he led his esteemed foreign guests properly. What a nice guy he was, we were touched.

It was altogether charming – actually touching, memorably so. Another serendipity experience among different-slice folks, the kind of thing that rewards one for traveling this way. Had we been in a car or even on a more common-looking bike, the attention would likely have diminished considerably; Black Bike makes a lot of friends, everywhere we go.


Veliko Tarnovo ("Велико Търново" if you're Bulgarian), is nice university town with a long proud history.


Cryllic alphabet handicap: It is a beautiful, reasonably-priced country. Good roads. Lovely mountains to drive. It also has an important history, situated as it is, as a gateway between Europe and the East.

Without a Bulgarian guide or at least a rudimentary knowledge of the cryllic alphabet, though, it's difficult to get around. When we tried to see reputably nice surrounding things, it was so hard to find our way due to the cryllic writing. Here's an alphabet translator [link], worth printing out and carrying if you travel there.

Bulgarians know signage is an issue and in some places are gradually adding Roman alphabet signs. Business would boom if they re-did all, now-now, in two alphabets.


Travels (cont'd): Shipka Pass, [map link] is an important former Russo-Turkish battleground [information link]; we twisty-rode high up a cold winding windy mountain road, puffed up a high monument [photos info link], 890 steps ... for a spectacular mountain view.

What a place to have a war, getting those guns and supplies up there with horses; worse if you are the enemy at bottom of the hill ... lotsa guys died for this mountain, and neither team now owns it; trite but occasional reminders do happen.


In Karlovo [map link] that night, a charming town to stop in. A very friendly English-speaking guy we met in a coffee shop, led us by car a few km to a very nice place, Hotel Sherev [link] a winner with wi-fi, a trendy bar, restaurant, nice lobby, night club, do not recall price but it was reasonable. Highly recommended, maybe 4-star. Lonely Planet panned it but that must be an outdated, it's an inaccurate review.


Then to Sofia, [map route link] we stayed in Scotty’s Boutique Hotel – here's a New York Times review [link]. Rooms vary between big-small, wireless internet vs none, balcony or not – but they provide free condoms in the room (!) so damn the cost. It's around the corner from the city's two markets, we walked/drove around and enjoyed the town.

And speaking of sex, Bulgarian women are in large percentage especially gorgeous, not that I noticed of course.

Sofia is not likely a big tourist destination city. Mostly we went to spend a few days with business friend Vasko Minev, who had proposed to build my Cape Horn yachts in Bulgaria. He had flown to New Brunswick for a boat launch, me to Bulgaria to see the proposed boat yard. We were close to doing it but shipyard-related issues caused us to pass. Too bad, would have been fun, but at least we remain good friends.

Vasko owns a very professional and seemingly substantial signage-supplies business, has a good portion of the Bulgarian market, a bright, entrepreneurial, charming guy. We had a few fine meals together, had a good time with his bright and English-speaking son Philip (below), then parted for a few more years – but we'll see one another again.

Black Sea Coast: On my previous business visit, Vasko drove me to Varna [map link] on the Black Sea[photos link]. A major resort town was at the time starting to happen. Not sure if it has happened since, but it's only about 125 sea miles from the Bosporus and Istanbul; the Med coast is mostly over-packed; the Bulgarian coast is stunning ... so Europeans ought to flock here with their yachts and money.

That was and remains my theory anyhow. Except for alphabet and language issues, but those will eventually be overcome.

As a great resort area, less expensive and quite different than the quite trendy-upscale Med – the Black Sea coast is superb.


Food: Big on superb salads, various flame-cooked meats, un-fancy veggies, good bread, good local wines. They have their own spices which are great. Uncomplicated good food, one eats well there. We love it.


Travels (cont'd): A nice ride south-east out of Bulgaria, via Stara Planina Mountain [photos info link] range, very pretty.

Last night was in Plovdiv [map link] the second-largest Bulgarian city, beautifully restored, excellent walking streets with Roman ruins creatively incorporated into the shopping area. We liked it. The Plovdiv Hotel Bulgaria is a very good upscale Best Western [link], the rare chain hotel so far. Great.


Romani or Gypsies: However here was the only time we encountered extremely pesky, on the verge of a bit nervous-making 'Gypsy' or Romani street people [background link]: their 'aggressive begging' tactics, if you are not used to them, let's say, push the envelope.
An aside: University of Texas at Austin (America's largest university, 2nd in continental size to University of Toronto) has the only Romani Studies Program in the world; at a dinner there last year honoring dear friend Pebbles Wadsworth, I sat beside the Romani gentleman Dr. Ian Hancock who heads it, a very open friendly guy. If interested – and the Roma/Romani are interesting!, here's a [link] and another [link.] Did you know the Gypsies originally hail from the Punjab region of India for example? But I digress ...

Drove out from Plovdiv, nice scenery en route to Turkey – we were dying to see it, it was one of our main trip destinations.

We were excited but admittedly a tad apprehensive – not knowing what lay ahead, very foreign culture, the end of Europe for a while.


Economy: Bulgaria's GDP per capita (PPP) is $11,800 [source link] which is not great, almost tied with Romania. It is the poorest country in the EU with a small 7.5 million population.

To exacerbate the small population issue, an estimated 25% of the population has emigrated since the 1990's, an eloquent no-confidence vote by its own people.

Corruption is a big problem [Corruption/Freedom list link] as is pretty tough organized crime apparently very tough and ruthless guys, which feeds into the corruption. Romania and Bulgaria are the most corrupt countries in Europe.

Here's an article [link] in The Economist on both Romania and Bulgaria. They have a lot of basic work to do. On the one hand a great business opportunity, on the other a good chance to lose your investment – I was after all studying it seriously as a businessman not so long ago ...

Personally I like Bulgaria very much, its geography and so far the Bulgarians I have met.

My biggest business reluctance was/is the organized crime and corruption; the sincere hope is that Bulgaria gets a handle on these things, attracts back its emigrants and thrives. It seems to be sitting on the brink to this outsider and needs a push. EU membership could and hopefully will be the carrot and the stick.

The cryllic issue also has to be solved expeditiously; they want more than just Russian tourists and investors there, or so one would think.


Proud History: Bulgaria conducted itself most honorably during WWII on evidently purely human moral grounds: Bulgaria and Denmark were the two sole Nazi-occupied nations that defied the Nazis in refusing to hand over their Jews for extermination [academic link].

48,000 Bulgarian Jewish citizens were saved deportation to extermination camps by ordinary citizens, government and church officials. They showed decency, courage, honor and cohones. Their Jews mostly moved to Israel after the war, and it has not forgotten. On a previous trip I encountered many Israelis there on beach holidays and on business.

If you are considering going there, here's an overview in Lonely Planet [link] to supplement what's above.

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