From Grey to Green.

Trip Start Jun 25, 2006
Trip End Aug 01, 2007

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Flag of Bulgaria  ,
Saturday, August 12, 2006

He Said:

We headed out of Sofia yesterday morning to visit the town of Veliko Tarnovo. Thankfully the rain had stopped and the sun was shining brightly. The bus journey was quite beautiful. Our ride through verdant rolling hills reminded me a lot of my childhood home in the Rogue Valley in Southern Oregon. Of course the occasional horse-drawn cart trotting down the shoulder of the highway would punctuate that Bulgaria isn't Oregon. Unfortunately for Katie, she missed a few of the beautiful views since she was entranced watching "Pretty Woman" played on the motor coach A/V system! I never though I'd see that movie while rolling down a Bulgaria highway...

Anyway, we journeyed to Veliko Tarnovo because it was highly recommended by our resident Bulgaria experts, Kate & Brian. The town has a lot of history since it was the original capital of Bulgaria up until the late 1300's. In the intervening 700 years or so it has turned into quite the charming tourist-friendly town of Central Bulgaria. Much of the village sits along a steep ridge that drops down into a sharp bend in the Tantra River. There is also an impressive ruined castle on the outskirts of town. The views from almost anyplace in the village are stunning and there is quite a good selection of cute restaurants and bars selling locally brewed beers and Bulgarian wines. It would be an easy place to get "stuck" in for a week or two!

Although there have been a number of tourists we have encountered here, the place is far from being overrun. Locals still make up a bulk of the people on the streets and restaurants and there are only a handful of postcard vendors and souvenir dealers. Looking at all the great things about this place, I have a feeling that in less than a decade Veliko Tarnovo will be a big stop on the Eastern Europe tour circuit. Luckily for us it looks like we happened upon here just before mass tourism and all the tacky gift shops, sightseeing busses, and hoards of package tourists arrive. (See my comments after Katie's "She Said" for more on this) I just hope it is touristy enough now so we can find a Bulgaria refrigerator magnet for our collection!

We spent a relaxing day today wandering around town, exploring the castle and enjoying the local cuisine. We went to the railway ticketing office and purchased seats for our journey to Bucharest, Romania tomorrow.

She Said:

What do Paris Hilton, Nick Lachey, Nellie Furtado and Shakira have in common besides the fact that they are all guaranteed to be in the next 10 issues of US Weekly and People magazine? Apparently they are the only "artists" that have ever released a song in the history of the world. We have heard song by those four in every country we have visited, and nearly every single day. The influence that US pop culture has on the rest of the world is amazing and seems pervasive, and really makes you wonder about the stereotypes that people from other countries have of Americans (some true, some not true). For example - everyone lives in a "crib" with Cristal in the fridge, drives a tricked out Mercedes, knows someone on TV, is scantily clad and hopelessly impatient, and dances up and down the street wearing an iPod. Regardless, the Shakira song (don't know the name, but it's the one with the "Oh baby when you dance like this" lyric) is starting to grow on me, and I have contemplated downloading it to my iPod (what can I say, I am American).

Veliko Tarnovo is a really cute town and I wish we could spend a bit more time here. Due to train schedules, we have to leave tomorrow or spend another 3 nights here, so we opted to move along. One of the best things about this place (besides of course the pretty hillside houses, cobblestone streets, and amazing gorge) is recognizable food!! We actually had salad with real lettuce and fresh veggies yesterday. My body practically went into shock from all the nutrition.

Now before you think that this town is on a heath kick, I feel I should mention the smoking situation. Smoking indoors is the standard in all of the countries we have visited thus far, but it seems much more pervasive here. Practically everyone over the age of 12 is smoking and it is difficult to get away from. Last night (at the yummy salad restaurant) we sat next to a table of 4 Bulgarian women having dinner. Over the course of 1.5 hours, they each lit up over 10 cigarettes (I counted once I realized the chain smoking nature), stopping in-between to have little bites of food, for a grand table total of 40+ cigarettes. Our table was on a breezy outside deck, so it was bearable, but I definitely feel like Todd and I have a pack-a-day second-hand habit at this point.

Additional Comments from Todd:

On the topic of mass tourism, I've made a few observations so far and thought I'd write a bit about some of my experiences, questions, and conclusions.

In most of the countries we have visited thus far on this trip, we have encountered substantial numbers of package tourists on bus tours. Having been on a few of them when I took students around Europe, I can say that they definitely have their merits for a traveler. You never get lost, no arguments over where to eat or stay, consistency is pretty good, there are lots of fellow travelers with you to talk about your experiences, you are guaranteed to have a knowledgeable guide and see every highlight the city to region has to offer, and of course they are often very competitively priced.

In a way though I'm starting to find that mass group tourism can really spoil a lot of what makes places special. Any sites we have been to which cater to package tours tend to share a few commonalities: store upon store of souvenir stands selling pretty much the same items with aggressive sales pitches, very few local people (non-vending) or street life in the vicinity, and tourists who at times are blatantly insensitive to local culture and customs. In our experiences, there is often a sharp contrast between the package tourist and the independent tourist (such as us) although independent tourists are far from angelic either! Generally though, when we see a bus unloading we try to get into the place before the herds or else sit down a while until the wave has passed. We have found it is just too frustrating to fight the crowd or be lumped in with people who do things like climb into the ritual washing fountain at a mosque to cool off (we actually observed a woman do this in Morocco.)

I guess it's more about the effect the huge numbers of people that bus tours bring will have upon a place. As an economics teacher, I know that is unreasonable to think that vendors will not be drawn to places where they can both sell and get the highest prices for their wares. The very places that people want to see because they are beautiful, quaint, charming, authentic, or original are also the sites that mass tourism makes the most lucrative places to set up shop. So that's the quandary, how do you preserve a place so it doesn't get "ruined by all the tourists" and yet still allow people to see it?

Any ideas? Fellow independent and package tourists please free to give me some comments!
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skulemarm1 on

Good answer other than Mark and I agree with you. We did the packaged to Greece last summer and it was great for the reasons you mentioned, and in light of the fact we had all the kids and family with us there would have been no way we could have been the tour guides for such a group. However, we too run into the independent bumps you mentioned when we are 'do it ourselvers.' But, our trip to Spain two summers ago, and our month in Italy was quite rewarding and we felt very accomplished as our own planners and seekers! So, we will probably continue to travel fact, we tried to get some help from a travel agent for the Italy trip and found we were much better at it! We did take tours once we were in big cities and were glad of it since neither of us have the background you do. Anyway, we love reading of your adventures and as the good travel students we are, we are taking notes for the future! Cindy and Mark

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