Day Trip into Bulgaria

Published: January 1st 2018
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We were in Romania for almost 12 hours now and we were already heading out of the country, albeit for quick day tour into northern Bulgaria. Being this close to the border with Bulgaria, Shea and I decided that we should arrive a day before our tour started in order to tick off another country on our list. When our guide Alexander picked us up in the hotel lobby, we were under the impression that he would be taking us to meet up with the rest of our group for the day. I was surprised to learn that today's tour would consist of just us. A private tour of Bulgaria! Driving south from Bucharest towards the Bulgarian border, we made a quick stop to pick up some snacks and water, and also to use the restroom as our guide had advised us that the opportunities for this may be scarce once we enter Bulgaria. I must admist that crossing the Danube River into Bulgaria was a little nerve racking. I had all these false impressions of Bulgaria being some backwards former Soviet Bloc country that was falling apart. The first 30 minutes of driving through Bulgaria did little to help dispel my pre-conceived perceptions as we drove by abandoned factories and decrepit communist era apartment block buildings. Not being able to read the road signs as the alphabet had now transitioned to the Cyrillic alphabet wasn't setting my mind at ease. Our first stop of the day was the Rock-hewn churchs of Ivanovo, a group of churches and monasteries carved high into the rock and designated a UNESCO world heritage site. We pulled into the parking lot where we were the first visitors of the day. Our guide did not join us in the hike to the churches as he wanted to stay behind with the vehicle. Apparently, vehicles here have been known to get broken into when unattended. The hike to the church was easy and while hiking up we heard a large tour bus of Chinese tourists pull into the parking lot. We hurried to the church as we wanted to enjoy the site to ourselves without the huge crush of visitors from this arriving tour bus. Once at the church, I was a bit surprised to see that there was an attendant there collecting the entrance fee as well as someone who gave a quick and brief explanation of the site. Thankfully, he was able to speak English. The church itself was quite small but contained some amazing frescoes depicted Biblical scenes. It was surprising to see how well preserved they were considering the exposure to the outside elements. Once the other people from the tour bus arrived, we decided to leave and quickly hike around and check out the views of the surrounding area before hiking back down to the parking lot.

As we headed towards Veliko Turnovo, our next stop was the town of Arbanasi to check out the Church of the Nativity of Christ. Arbanasi is a small clifftop town popular with Bulgarian tourists. When we arrived at the church, there wasn't anything that struck me as impressive. However, upon entering I was amazed at the wealth of Eastern Orthodox paintings and frescoes inside depicting various scenes from the Bible. Almost every inch of the interior of this church was covered with these paintings and frescoes. Unfortunately, we weren't allowed to take photos but thankfully due to our early arrival, we had the place all to ourselves. While exploring, I had a peak behind one of the curtains covering an indoor window. Our guide Alexander informed me that this could be considered blasphemous but since I didn't know, I need not worry. Once done checking out the church, we headed to the city of Veliko Turnovo.

We arrived in Veliko Tarnovo, a lively Bulgarian university city with one of the most impressive fortresses in Europe. set amongst a dramatic setting straddling the gorge of the Yantra River. Our guide Alexander dropped us off just outside the main entrance to Tsaravets Fortress and after he obtained our ticekts, we were left to explore on our own for a few hours. Shea and I began the uphill climb and were impressed by the great views of the surrounding hills and the river below. Due to it's strategic location, Tsaravets Hill which contains the fortress has been settled for quite some time. Outside of the fortress walls, not much remains of the former monasteries, churches, and even the Royal Palace where former kings used to rule Bulgaria from. Information signs here were only in Bulgarian, Russian, and German so it was rather difficult to know what we were looking at. Shea and I were just content with walking around the site, enjoying the sunny afternoon, and admiring the surrounding hills. Eventually, we made it to the highest point of the hill at the Church of the Blessed Saviour. The views from the church were amazing and surprisingly, the inside of the church was adorned with modern murals. Slowly, we made our way back down the hill towards the main entrance with the goal of finding somewhere to have a late lunch. With just a few options in the immediate area, we settled on this place called the Green Restaurant where we enjoyed some pizza, a Bulgarian dish similar to an omelette known as mish-mash, and all washed down with some Bulgarian beer. We attempted to pay our bill using our credit card however the internet connection went down and I had to go on a wild hunt to find a nearby ATM as we didn't have any Bulgarian Leva to pay with. Having to walk about half a mile up hill, I finally found an ATM and rushed back down to the restaurant in order to pay and meet back up with Alexander at 4:00. The drive back to Bucharest was quiet and uneventful and we spent that evening relaxing back at the hotel after a long day.

Additional photos below
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Rock Churches of Ivanovo

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