I had planned to spend more time in Bulgaria, but things didn’t work out that way. A combination of a delayed train from Belgrade, some awful weather and a miscalculation on my part meant that I had to miss out Sofia entirely. Instead, courtesy of an overly helpful train station attendant, I ended up jumping on a bus that took me straight to the ancient Bulgarian capital of Veliko Tărnovo, through mist-shrouded mountains and broad valleys to an ancient place of power. I’d rather have taken the train, but given that I found out next day that the local train station was kaput, this was clearly a good idea.
Not that things got any easier once I got to Veliko Tărnovo. If it reminds me of anywhere, it’s Delphi in Greece. Both towns are packed tightly onto a mountainside, using steps as much as streets to facilitate movement. Yet whereas Delphi was meant as a destination, a special place that pilgrims had to trek to reach, Veliko Tărnovo was meant as a defensive bastion, an impregnable fortress, defended by walls, rivers and high cliffs.
As culmination of my fortress-hopping on this trip go, I couldn’t have asked for more than Tsarevets Fortress. Occupying an entire bend of the local river and accessible only via a narrow bridge that still hosts a gatehouse with an impressively spiky portcullis, it’s a commanding sight, even if most of it has now decayed and crumbled. The parts of it that have been restored – the church on the highest peak and several of the outer towers – show just how imposing it must have been. It helps that one of the towers has been left stocked with (nailed down) arms and armour, so you can see how the Bulgar guards in medieval times would have been able to do their duty.
I don’t really have too much to say about the Bulgarian people, sadly, due to my limited time here, other than that they seem as friendly as any I’ve come across. Though something that is notable about Veliko Tărnovo is its cats. They’re everywhere and they’re tiny – I thought the first one I saw was a kitten, but no, they were all that size, and when I sat down to dinner that evening, there were a host of them in attendance, first yowling for scraps and later just sitting under my chair, making themselves comfortable.
I suppose that a place like Veliko Tărnovo, where the ground is as much vertical as it is horizontal, is better suited to cats than to humans. Whereas we trudge up and down or get into cars barely small enough to navigate narrow and winding streets, they can scamper this way and that, find places in the sun to rest, and disappear out of sight whenever they choose. They certainly seemed to have the run of the place – the few dogs that I saw were a cowed and defeated lot.
However, the cats couldn’t have been any happier than I was with the weather on the morning of my last day. It was pouring in a way I hadn’t seen at all on this trip, and it didn’t look inclined to let up. I was even driven so far as to have to purchase an umbrella. The rain certainly accented the Soviet tinges of the town – the gloomy ticket office where I got a train ticket for the connection at Gorno and the Gallery where I spent half an hour in the half-light perusing some weird and evocative Bulgarian art. (Eventually someone remembered to turn on the lights, which came to life with a sound like a flock of birds taking off.) Eventually though, I was washed downhill to the closed-for-repairs train station, where I was able to get a bus to Gorno. And as I write this, I’m on a train to Bucharest, awaiting the Danube and my next nation: Romania.