Tag Archives: Bulgaria

Veliko Tārnovo: Ancient and Mighty


I miss Terry Pratchett.
There’s a lot of flat ground in Veliko Tarnovo: most of it vertical.
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.


...not far from the
The old royal palace at Veliko Tarnovo
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.


On the bright side, it was easy to walk/swim downhill.
I left town along with several thousand gallons of water.
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.

Eastern European Odyssey

I do like the idea that on reaching Bucharest, I'll be able to divide into three...
Follow the Lime Green Railroad to the Wonderful Wizard of Uncertain Destinations…

So, I’m doing it again. One year after Greece, four years after the Trans-Siberian and six years after Norway, I’m once more taking an August-September travelling holiday, hitting a bunch of new (to me) locations. Once again, rail is the medium for my peregrinations, and this time the locale is as much of the former Soviet Bloc as I can fit into three weeks. (No, I’m not visiting Belarus as part of this trip, and as much as I’d like to drop in on Ukraine, it might be better to leave that for later too.)

That map above gives the general outline of the trip: Krakow, Poznan (briefly), Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Bratislava (briefly), Budapest, Belgrade, Sofia, Veliko Tarnovo, Bucharest, and then … options. This is one of those trips where the early stages have been nailed down and booked, whereas the latter ones are more reliant on train availability and everything that goes before. Which, even though it might rub my obsessive compulsive tendencies the wrong way, is still appealing. Not knowing exactly where I’m going to wind up probably won’t do my mother’s blood pressure any favours, but I’m happy enough to keep a loose leash on the days ahead.

One of the nicest of things about this trip is that I’ve never been to most of the countries I’ll be visiting—the only ones I’ll be returning to are Germany and Austria, and even there, Berlin or Vienna will be entirely new. In fact, once this trip is over, the only European nations remaining unchecked will be fall into three groups: the Russian fringe (Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, and maybe Moldova), the Balkans (Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, Kosovo, and Macedonia), and a scattering of others (Switzerland, Portugal and most of the microstates—Andorra, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, San Marino, and Monaco). Which brings me close enough to a complete collection to prompt a few more holiday ideas at least.

For now though, an Eastern European Odyssey is the order of the day. Preparations have been made, maps have been consulted, and tickets have been booked where possible. And as many considerations as I can consider have been considered.

Rail Travel: As mentioned, rail is the way to go here, and the resource worth relying on is The Man in Seat 61. It’s served me well in the past and it did here too, though booking tickets beyond Vienna has proved less useful than just showing up at the station in person. Sleeper services will be taken of wherever possible, and there might be a brief river trip between Vienna and Bratislava if the Danube isn’t too drought-stricken. When I get to Bulgaria and Romania though, my timetable will be at its most flexible. It’s just a pleasant coincidence that my options will be opening up as Europe reaches its most alluring.

Accommodation: The open nature of the latter end of my travels means that I can’t book too far ahead, but even if I could, I’m going to be taking a leaf out of my Greek odyssey: stick to booking a day or two ahead of time, using the Booking.com and AirB&B apps on my phone. Sleeper services are to be preferred, but hostels and B&Bs are just as valuable, mostly for their showers and laundry facilities. If I’m travelling light, cleaning my clothes will be a necessity at some stage.

Flights: Normally, the two things I’d book first would be my flights there and back. Well, I’m flying into Kraków to kick things off, but where I’ll be flying back from? That’s still undecided. I’d like to visit Moldova (because why not, when you have the chance?) but flights back from there are at least twice as expensive as from neighbouring Romania. So we’ll see. I have a ticket tracker running using the Kayak app, and the sudden availability of a cheap option may well determine how and where my journey ends.

Technology: Technology-light is the rule of the day. As in Greece, nothing more than my phone is to be brought. Even my new Pebble Time is getting dropped in favour of a Timex Weekender with a battery that lasts five years instead of five days. This will make it a little tricky to update the Travel section of this site as I go, but I’ll do my best. Those long train journeys will definitely give me time, at the very least. Still, my poor old iPhone 5S is suffering from geriatric battery syndrome these days, so one more piece of tech is needed. I’ve bought myself an Anker Astro E7 external battery, and having tested it for the past week, I’ve deemed it good. At the cost of a little extra weight to my backpack, I should be able to keep my loyal iPhone, and more importantly its camera and booking capabilities, running for as long as I need them.

Reading Material: This is an issue. Travelling light rules out carrying more than two books, and with one of those slots taken up by a Lonely Planet guidebook, that leaves little wiggle room. A friend has loaned me an ageing Sony eReader, but that runs up against both the low-tech rule and my personal preferences. I might rely on second-hand bookstores instead, or just read on my iPhone. (The latter option might seem a poor one, but I’ve read the Bible and War and Peace on my phone before, so it is an option. Maybe Moby Dick this time…)

Writing Material: Of course, without reading to take up my travelling time, and assuming that staring out the window can only occupy one for so long, writing will have the field to itself. So pens, some ink refills, and a notepad or two will be packed. How much I’ll get to write (beyond the requisite journal of my travels) remains uncertain, but the idea of letting my brain wander on the Danube plain is a huge draw. Even when I’m not strolling the city streets, there’s be imaginative highways and byways to explore.

Missing: What will I be missing while I’m gone? Well, not a huge amount. As the next category shows, the timing of this trip has worked out rather well. The start of the Pro12 rugby season and a few pre-World Cup friendlies is about the height of my sporting interests. Missing the Irish Craft Beer Festival stings a bit though. As for work, it’s been packed away for the next few weeks, and when it comes to keeping an eye on the state of the Internet, that’s something I could do with less of.

Returning: On the other hand, within a week of my return, I’ll have the return of Doctor Who, the start of the Rugby World Cup, a new niece to be a godfather to, and one of those birthdays with a “0” at the end of it. So I’d better be well rested when I take off from somewhere near the Black Sea (presumably). Because I’ll be hitting the ground running.