Chapter 6: Vampires and Gypsies

Trip Start May 10, 2006
Trip End Dec 17, 2006

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Wednesday, July 19, 2006

This entry is going to be for both Bulgaria and Romania as I zigzagged through them. Hopefully I won't get tired of writing by the end 'cuz there are at least a couple good stories (these updates take a LONG time so sometimes by the end I just summarize quick to get it over and done with).

Bulgaria is just north of Turkey and has the Black Sea to the east. Civilization in this area dates back as far back as 6000 BC to the Thracians. Since then the Greeks, Romans, Goths, Huns, Ottomans and others have invaded. The Turks weren't overthrown until the late 1800s. After WWII, Russia invaded and Bulgaria was under communist control. It's one of the Balkan States and has the honor of being the only country since the 1989 communist fall to re-elect the communists back into power. Maybe the elections were rigged, who knows. Bulgaria uses the cyrillic alphabet, so reading anything is difficult. Adds to the fun when traveling and figuring out which bus to take or trying to read a menu in a restaurant.

It seems ages since I first arrived in Bulgaria (June 29). Guess it was only three weeks ago, but I've been several places and met a lot of people since then. As you may remember, I took an overnight bus from Istanbul north into Bulgaria. Had some middle of the night border crossings and made it into Burgas about 3am (arrival time was scheduled for 6am). The bus dropped me off next to the bus carrier's office rather than an actual bus station. A local girl who got off the bus with me warned me of gypsies in the area and that it would be best if I take a taxi to a hotel. Another option would be to hang out at a 24 hour restaurant, but even that probably wouldn't be such a good idea. After talking a while with a couple taxi drivers, she got me a reasonable deal for a taxi to Sozopol (about 30km south). The taxi driver didn't speak much English but was nice and made sure I got right to a hotel (I just picked one from Lonely Planet) and that I got checked in ok (it was now 4am). The sun was just beginning to rise over the Black Sea so I stayed up a little longer to watch that then crashed. Eventually I woke up and took a look around town. Sozopol has an old town area that's kind of cute. There are a couple nice beaches separated by a peninsula. Both have all kinds of restaurants/bars setup along the beach.

I spent the afternoon just laying in the sun on the beaches. That night I went out to one of the many bars on the beach for drinks. There I met a couple Slovakians that were friendly. The girl was quite drunk and flirty so I felt bad for the guy with her and did my best to keep him in the conversation. About 12:30am we were going to move on to another bar, but as soon as the guy got off the barstool to stand up it became apparent that he was very drunk. I helped the girl walk him back to their hotel (he was stumbling all over). So no more bars that night but it was still a good night out.
Another day laying around on the beach. It's tough but I did my best given the difficult circumstances. ;) In the evening I watched World Cup then went bar-hopping along the beach. Nothing eventful tonight.

The next day I caught a morning bus to Burgas and from there another bus to Varna. The hostel I was going to stay at picked me up nearby. It's owned by an English couple and located about 10km outside of town in the village of Zvevditsa (though village makes it sound cute and quaint - it was really just a small suburb). On the drive there it poured down rain and the road looked like a river. Both the people running the hostel were very nice and showed me around the place. I took the bus from the village back into the city. Went by the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin then along the pedestrian mall area to the beach. The pedestrian mall area wasn't anything special...just typical area with shops and restaurants. The beach was nasty. There are restaurants/bars squeezed in all over this beach with no room between them, and the buildings themselves look old and run-down. On either side of the beach are port areas so not a nice view. The beach was dirty with pipes draining into it and even an abandoned pier. The water felt slimey. Still, there were people all over the beach and even a few in the water. There's a big park just above the beach so I went for a stroll through there. Later in the afternoon I met up with the gang from the hostel at an English pub in town to watch England in the World Cup game. The pub was packed full of people. England got beat by Portugal so no one was too happy. Got a ride back to the hostel and went to the bar there where I met some Swedish girls and a guy from Spain. Just hung out and had a couple beers.
I don't know that I would say I felt pressured to stay at the hostel in Varna, but the owners made it sound like everyone stays several days. An older kiwi guy was going off on how he can't understand why people only stay in a town one or two days 'cuz they can't possibly get to know it in that time (he was staying 10). I should've pointed out to him that you can't possibly get to know a town in two weeks or a month either, but I kept my mouth shut (I've lived in Portland 7 years and there's still lots I haven't seen and done). And the fact that he was spending the majority of his time in a hostel full of English speakers doesn't exactly support his point-of-view. But it all comes down to what I want to do, and I didn't feel much like staying in Varna. If it was a nice place, I would've stayed longer. I'd rather continue on my way than spend a couple extra days sitting around a hostel in a dirty city.

The owners took me to the bus station later in the morning and I caught a bus to a town near the border. Because of the late start, I missed the last bus to the border so had to take a taxi (though it wasn't too expensive). Drove by some lovely sunflower fields to the border with Romania.

Got stamped out of Bulgaria, walked across the border and got stamped into Romania. There were several cars at the border but no bus or a hint of a bus station. I asked a security guy at the border about buses and he pointed at his watch as if saying "soon" and gestured for me to wait. I waited about a half hour with no sign of any bus and a taxi arrived so took that to the closest town, Mangalia. From there I got a bus to Constanta. Romania uses the western alphabet so it was easier for me to figure things out again. While waiting at the bus stop outside the station, I noticed a huge (as in excessively overweight) guy standing around. When I tried to get on the bus, he stood in the doorway blocking it so I couldn't get all the way in. He moved slow and seemed slow in the head too so I pushed around him. Punched my ticket and was in the middle of the bus on the side and once again blocked in by the fat guy. This time there was a guy next to him and a guy behind next to me. It just felt wrong so I pushed and pushed 'til I got out of there and sat down. The three of them all got off at the next stop and the fat guy was suddenly moving quickly - pickpockets. Good thing I lock up my bags and have zippers on my pants. The only things they could steal from the big bag on my back are dumb things I don't think anyone would really want. I got off in the center of town and proceeded to walk to the area on my Lonely Planet map that showed had hotels. The old town area looked run down with many places closed down and not many people around. The hotel LP recommended was also closed down. (I would later hear of another guy that went to this area looking for a hotel and was swarmed by kids trying to pick his pockets. He had to push them off him to get away. Guess it was lucky I was there on a Sunday as it was quiet and people probably home with families.) I went back to the main part of town and eventually found a hotel that was open. They were fully booked and when I asked the lady if there were any cheap hotels she could recommend, she said my best bet would be to go north to Mamaia. So I took the bus there (it's only 7km). It's a tourist/resort area with lots of hotels. I wandered all over checking prices and eventually went back to one that was euro26 per night (still pricey but the cheapest). All in all it was over 2 hours walking around with my bags on. Ugh. The girls at the reception at the hotel were checking out my passport and what I wrote on the check-in form, looked at me, smiled and laughed. I smiled 'cuz of their laughing and they looked up again and laughed. ??? I asked them why they were laughing but they just smiled at me. Have no idea what that was about. Got checked in and wandered along the promenade through strong winds blowing sand all over. It was actually kind of cold out too. Went to the restaurant area and had some dinner. Their meals are interesting in that you have to order each side item too - so even though the picture shows a pork steak with mashed potatoes, you don't get the mashed potatoes unless you order them. Prices add up a bit when doing that, but it was still cheap. I walked back along the promenade getting sand blown all over me when some crazy, homeless teenage kid decided to follow me around. He kept talking to me in Romanian despite me telling him I don't understand. He was nuts. I ditched him and wandered more finding some carnival thing going on. Checked that out and went back to the hotel.

Romania's early history is similar to that of Bulgaria - the Thracians were the earliest people in the area and various others invaded. The Transylvania area has been a disputed region for quite some time as the Hungarian empire took it in 13th century. It wasn't until after WWI that the region was given back to Romania. It was taken away again by the Germans in WWII, but the region was returned after the war. Politics have been a bit chaotic since then with dictatorships and corruption. Both Romania and Bulgaria are trying to get into the EU and are scheduled for 2007, but they have yellow and red flags against them. One of the issues is human rights since neither country treats the gypsies very well. There's definately a prejudice towards gypsies wherever you go, and they're all considered bums and thieves. Unfortunately, the only time I ever saw them was at the train/bus stations or around town asking for money. Would've been nice to see them back at their village. (**Danny added a comment with some interesting info about the gypsies should anyone want to learn more.)

In the morning I went to the Constanta train station and found out there wouldn't be a train to Bucharest/Brasov for 8 hours. D'oh! I went outside and found a bus to Bucharest. The roads in Romania aren't in very good shape so lots of bumps and swerving to avoid potholes. The bus ride took me somewhat near the train station but I still had to walk several blocks to get there. Got my train ticket (avoiding the guy trying to convince me to buy a ticket from him), had some lunch in the station and rode the train north to Brasov. There was some lovely mountain scenery on the way. It was nice to be riding a train again (I like them much better than buses). From the Brasov train station, I got the bus through old town to Piata Unirii right by the hostel. During the drive we passed the cute main square and I knew I was in a good place. The old town is surrounded by medieval walls and has several old buildings.

On the way I met a couple Americans on the bus who were going to the same hostel. The hostels in this area give lots of freebies - one free beer per day, free breakfast, free laundry, free internet (though only one computer) so it's quite cool. After checking in, I went to look around town. Biserica Ortodoxa St Nicolae in Piata Unirii is cool looking - kind of medieval/bavarian looking. There's another church, Biserica Neagra, that dominates the old town skyline and is right by the main square, Piata Statului. It was damaged by a fire in 1689. I ran into the Americans again at a cafe where they were eating lunch. The waitresses there looked at me and were snickering to each other. What's with the laughing!?! Piata Statului has mostly cafes and shops with a couple pedestrian shopping streets coming off of it. At least these pedestrian streets had some cute buildings. In the evening I went looking for some nightlife, but only found the cafes with people sitting around tables (the couple bars were near empty). So I went back to the hostel and watched a movie with Dave, an American who's been working at the hostel for a year.
Kismet Dao, the hostel I stayed in, had daytrips to the area castles so I did that the next day. Our first stop was Rasnov Castle a bit to the south. An English family has bought the castle and has been restoring it the last few years. They're doing a good job and the inside has been recreated like it may have been back in the 13th century. The castle has good views out over the area. There were also some of the cheesey things where you stick your head through a hole for a picture - Spanky and I each got our picture in one of those. We were on our own to tour this castle so all of us just wandered around checking it out. Dave was along for the trip (it was his day off) and proving himself to be rather nutty. He bought a bottle of scotch and was drinking at 9am. Next stop was Bran Castle, the one referred to as "Dracula's Castle", though Vlad Tepes only stayed there one night.

Surrounding the castle are all kinds of souvenir stands. I was looking for a vampire outfit for Spanky but didn't have any luck finding one in his size. We went on a tour of that castle. A royal family had moved in in the early 1900s and redone the place so nothing was old looking. It was too cheery with too many flowers to be Dracula's Castle (plus there needed to be a crypt with a coffin. they should just add one of those for the tourists.). Continued south to the town of Sinaia and Peles Castle. This one is very ornate both inside and out. The inside was done in various styles (Italian, French, Turkish, etc...) and incredibly lavish. Someone had lots of money to spend. Near the end of the tour I was beginning to feel a cold coming on (ugh!). Had an hour drive back to Brasov and I got some "airborne" in me. It didn't help. Rested and had dinner later. Went to watch World Cup at one of the pubs, but it was just too smokey so I went back to the hostel to watch.
Since I had a cold, I thought it best to rest. Slept in and later took the cable-car up Mt Tampa. Looked around there just a little but I was already feeling drained so took the cable-car down and went back to the hostel for a nap. When I could breathe, the air smelled so much sweeter than usual...maybe it's just an affect of having a cold. The weather has been weird since being in this area - clear in the morning, clouds roll in, afternoon thunderstorm, clears off a little for the evening. Been like that nearly every day. Had dinner and watched World Cup at the hostel again. Talked to Mari from Finland for a while. Also hung out with Dave and others. Dave is crazy and seems to enjoy harassing me, though it's all in good fun. He harasses most everyone else too. The rest of the staff at the hostel are very nice and helpful.
I was originally going to stay in Sighisoara for a couple days but heard there wasn't much to see, so decided on doing a daytrip instead. The train ride up there took a couple hours but there was some really pretty scenery on the way. I hung out by the window for most of the ride looking outside. The old town is situated on a hill and is surrounded by walls. It's cute inside, but is rather small and I was able to see it in an hour. There's a neat clock tower, cobblestoned streets, a couple churches and some towers.

Still had some time to kill after wandering town so went across town to a field with a good view of the town. The train ride back was uneventful and I pretty much just sat there. Back at the hostel, I hung out with Mari and crazy Dave. There were some new people at the hostel that wanted to be the center of attention. Rather than learn everyone's names, we started calling each other by where we were from (e.g., Oregon, New York, Finland). I was surprised there were so many Americans at the hostel. A group of 10 Mormon girls were there for a couple days before returning to their volunteer mission at an orphanage. I thought it funny to watch New York and the other guys trying to hit on them. Actually, New York was trying to hit on every single girl in the hostel. Later that evening we went out to the Irish pub for drinks with the gang. It was kind of cold out so I wore shoes for the first time in over a month (they felt too small). At the pub poor Mari was busy trying to fend off the advances of Dave and NY. Seeing as I was still sick with a red, runny nose, I knew I had no mojo and there was no point flirting with anyone. Plus Mari had already mentioned her boyfriend arriving the next day. We met a couple Irish travelers at the pub and they joined our group and came back with us to the hostel at the end of the evening for more drinks. The night ended with me, Mari and the Irish sitting around the downstairs bar and Dave sulking in the corner. I thought it was a fun night.
The group convinced me to stay another day which wasn't hard since I like Brasov and I thought I could use another day of recovery from my cold (one of the benefits of traveling alone is I can do whatever I want). Slept in again before being woken up by NY and Sheffield. I decided to go hiking in the hills behind town so started up a road then along a path to a spot high above town. From there I found a path through the forest back into town. I ran into Dave and Mari having lunch in Piata Unirii so I sat with them. Mari was waiting for her boyfriend to arrive. He got there about 10 minutes after me. He's got the Scandinavian look - light blonde hair and blue eyes. He also mentioned having girls laugh when they saw him. Maybe it's the blonde hair and blue eyes. Women in Romania are weird. Back to the hostel for me to nap. I hung out in Piata Statului for a little while just people watching. There's are A LOT of beautiful women in both Romania and Bulgaria so people watching is an enjoyable pasttime. ;) New York had promised to make dinner that evening, but 7pm came and went and there was no sign of him (he was playing tour guide to a new girl that arrived). Dave started getting us all chopping stuff and was pretty much in charge of cooking. NY would pop in now and then and act like he was helping but disappear just as quickly leaving whatever task he was supposed to be doing untended. Eventually our spaghetti dinner was ready and quite good. There was a German couple who kept talking about wanting to go see the "beers" (bears) - it would be a taxi ride in the middle of the night to a garbage dump where they scrounge for food. We never did it though. Just watched a movie in the evening.

Mari and Oscar were thinking of going south to Sinaia for hiking in the mountains so I asked if I could come along too. They slept in so we got off to a late start. We caught the train from Brasov but didn't arrive 'til 2pm. As we went searching for a place to stay, it started to rain. The hostel we were going to stay at was closed (and apparently never really a hostel). A lady renting a room found us so we followed her. The place was alright so we took it. By this point it was after 3pm. Cleaned up a bit and went to lunch. Now it's 5pm so the castle is already closed. Mari wanted to hike up the hill (it's not raining any more), which I thought meant a short hike part way, but she wanted to go way up the hill. We kept going up and up until reaching Cota 1400, the spot where the first cable-car stops. Phew! We had a beer up there and saw the sun start to set.

Started on our way down the hill when people in front of us came racing back saying they were attacked by wolves (it was actually just wild dogs). That was reason enough for us to turn around to the hotel at Cota 1400 and call for a taxi. While waiting for the taxi, we saw some bears cross the road. On the taxi ride down we saw the bears again (and got pictures). The taxi driver said he once saw a total of 20 bears on a drive down the mountain. Good thing we didn't walk! Had a late dinner and a quiet night.

I felt like a bit of a third wheel with Mari's boyfriend now around so said goodbye to them in Sinaia and took the train to Bucharest. Got the local bus from the station out to the hostel and checked-in. Back into town to check it out. I hadn't heard anything positive from other travelers who passed through Bucharest but wanted to see it for myself. It was ok - lots of communist era drab buildings. There's a nice theater and art museum. Cismigiu Gardens in the center of town was a good place for a wander and had some cute cafes by the lake. As I started toward the Palace of Parliament, but the afternoon thunderstorm poured down rain so I found shelter. That passed after about 20 min so I could walk around again. Checked out more of the town but there wasn't much exciting to see. A lot of people in these countries wear "Iron Maiden" and other hard rock band shirts. I saw posters for live shows by Whitesnake, Twisted Sister and other bands I thought faded away 10-15 years ago. Butt-rock lives in Eastern Europe! Watched the World Cup final back at the hostel with the people there. I survived Bucharest without getting attacked by any stray dogs! (there are supposed to be lots of stray dogs in Bucharest)

(July 10) Had an extra long train ride from Bucharest back into Bulgaria. We went for about 45 min then the train stopped for an hour. Got to the border and it stopped for an hour. Crossed into Bulgaria and it stopped for an hour (another immigration check). So after over 4 hours we'd gone a total of about 80km (~53 miles). After about 7 hours I made it to Gorna Oryahovitsa nearby to my destination. From there I caught a bus to Veliko Turnovo. Walked around lost for a little while but eventually found the hostel. The people running it are very friendly. What I read about VT made me envision a town like Cesky Krumlov - old town with a river running through it. Well, VT didn't have much of an old town and the river was just ok. I guess trying to compare any place to Cesky Krumlov is silly. Had dinner and went back to the hostel to see the sound and light show on Tsarevets Fortress (free from the hostel). I met a bunch of English at the hostel so went out on the town with them. After a few drinks at a few different bars, I had to call it a night as I was falling asleep.

The next morning I toured around the fortress. There was a guy by the entrance gate that had these animatronic puppet things that would talk and sing. They were spooky. The church atop the citadel had some cool religious modern art inside. They charged to take pictures though. Walked along the river a short ways then back to town for lunch and a nap. Wandered around town more and had dinner. Hung out back at the hostel again and saw the sound and light show once more. The people at the hostel tonight were kind of asses though so I didn't feel much like joining them.

The owner of the hostel was driving to Plovdiv and offered to give me a ride for 10 leka. I told him I'd be ready to go in the morning so was out and ready at 9am. Waited. One of the guys working at the hostel called the owner who said he'd be there in a half hour. Waited, waited (an hour has passed). Guy calls again - owner now says one hour. Walk around town a bit and back to wait again. Owner doesn't show up 'til noon, but I guess he's the one with the car so he's in control. Soon into our drive we saw a backpacker hitching on the side of the ride so we pullover to pick him up. He's from Czech and going somewhat near Plovdiv. Czech guy isn't sure of best place to get let out, but the owner driving goes out of his way to drop him off at a good spot. He takes me right to the Hiker's Hostel in Plovdiv (he owns this one too). The people working here, Stefan and Toni, are also both very nice and helpful. The hostel is in the old town area of Plovdiv so I went wandering around there first thing then to the pedestrian street. Artists had stands setup in an area of the ped street so it was ok. Back at the hostel I ran into Kat who I met up in Brasov. Hung out with her for a while and also started talking with Jon (Irish) and Julia (French). We all went out to dinner at a place recommended by Toni that evening.
In the morning Stefan took us (me, Kat, Jon, Julia, Stephanie) on a daytrip to the Dachkovo Monastery. I was stuck riding in the back of the car on the fold-out seats (very uncomfortable). Stefan was an excellent guide and new all the info. After seeing the monastery, we went hiking in the mountains to a nice waterfall and a couple other monasteries.

Around these mountains are lots of natural springs so you can just fill-up your waterbottle at one of the spigots along the way. Had lunch then to Arren's Fortress (with yet another monastery up top) and stopped by a trout farm to get some fish for dinner. I took a nap when we were back in Plovdiv. Met some of the Czech people that had moved into the dorm. Sat around talking to them while waiting for the fish to cook (it ended up taking forever). Also chatted with Kat and a couple new people that had shown up. Unfortunately, a couple of the not so nice people from Veliko Turnovo had made it here too.
The following day was another daytrip, this one further south to the recently discovered site of Perperikon. I got to ride upfront for the trip down there. This time it was me, Kat, Stephanie, Matt, Mark and Amber. Amber and Mark were both in VT and so-so friendly (definately not warm and welcoming but not mean either). Matt is an American studying in England who likes to talk about himself all the time. Stephanie was on the trip the day before and very nice, a bit quiet, but has a ditzy voice (so unfortunately that makes you assume she doesn't know anything). Stefan was also an expert on Perperikon and gave us the lowdown on it while we hiked around the site. It may be up to 8000 years old from during the Thracian times. There were some stairs, tombs, walls and other remnants still left. It was only recently discovered because it was all buried under dirt. What's kinda cool is that they're still excavating so new stuff is being discovered every day. The Romans built some fortresses up in the area too but no one thought there was anything else. Had a quick lunch after exploring the site then went to the Kardjali rock formations. They looked a little like Cappadocia in Turkey. Just a quick visit there then off to the museum in town for a rushed tour. Long drive back to Plovdiv and I was stuck in back again. Kat, Stephanie, Matt and I went into town and got some ice cream and went for a wander. Had dinner and ran into Amber, Mark and others at a cafe along the ped street. The others being the Australian asses from VT. In the brief time we sat with them, even Kat and Stephanie didn't like them (and I thought they were on good behavior compared to VT). Back to the hostel and I hung out with Stefan, Toni and Paiitr at a park across the street. The Australians proved themselves to be asses again that night by yelling at Stefan and Toni.
While hanging around the Hiker's Hostel in the morning, Stephanie mentioned wanting to go to the Rila Mountains and asked if I'd like to go along. I like hiking and wasn't in a big hurry to get to Sofia so said I'd go (or it could just be that Stephanie is really pretty and that decided it for me). Stefan helped us with travel plans. There wouldn't be a bus to Rila 'til the evening so we had the afternoon to waste. We wandered around Plovdiv seeing some more sights and had lunch.

Stephanie and I caught the afternoon bus from Plovdiv to Sofia. The buses are a little slow-going here as well as roads aren't so good (plus I think they have a maximum speed limit they're allowed to go). From the main bus station we had to take a taxi to another bus station, but it was only 4 leva (about $3). Had a beer there while waiting for the bus to Rila. Got it and arrived into Rila about 8:30pm. We weren't sure where we were going to stay (LP had no info on Rila village) so were happy to find a guy offering a room when we got off the bus. He told us his name is Wasko and that he is a music teacher and currently has the summer off. At his place he showed us the room then proceeded to want to show us everything in the house. "Thomas, Thomas. This is the kitchen." "Stephanie, Stephanie. This is the bathroom." This went on for a while and he also played us some music on the piano and guitar. We were trying to escape to get some dinner when he stopped us again to write down suggestions for food. Eventually we made it out and once out of earshot were laughing and doing Wasko impressions. There were a few cafes in town only serving drinks then we found a place with food. The guy running it was friendly and we ordered the usual - greasey Bulgarian food. After dinner we tried to sneak back into Wasko's but he heard us. He didn't talk too long. Just a quiet night.
At 7am in the morning, Wasko was knocking on the door "Thomas, Thomas!" "ugh" was my response as I rolled over in bed. Five minutes later he was knocking again - "Thomas, Thomas! Cafe?" "No, thank you." I figured there was no point laying in bed longer so got up and got ready. Stephanie was just a little behind me. Quick breakfast as I saw that the bus would be coming soon. I rushed Steph in her breakfast and we grabbed our stuff to get out. Wasko was chasing after us down the stairs and telling us to wait but we were worried about being late for the bus. He stopped us at the gate just to shake our hands goodbye. We raced down the road and around the corner to see the bus just as it pulled away. D'oh! We ran after it but it didn't stop. Sh*t! There wouldn't be another bus to the monastery for hours (it's 20km from Rila village to the monastery). Went around the corner but there were no taxis this early in the morning. *$#@! We decided we'd just start walking along the road and see if anyone going up that way would pick us up. While still in town, we picked up two friends - a black lab and a German shepherd. I named them Buddy1 and Buddy2.

They followed us for a ways as we walked along the road. There were next to no cars going up the road so I had my doubts that we'd get anywhere. But soon a van/truck picked us up and we got in back amongst a bunch of tree-cutting tools for a ride of about 5km (but we deserted our buddies). The guy reached his stop and let us out. We continued up the road without anyone stopping for us. I told Stephanie she needed to stick her leg out. A bit later a covered truck stopped for us with some hillbilly-looking guys in back (there was an old lady in back with them too). Steph was reluctant to get in but when I said we don't have to she said it was ok. They had a case of beer and asked us if we wanted any. I said "no" but shook my head while saying it (the head shaking thing is opposite in Bulgaria, so me shaking me head no would mean yes). One of the guys handed me a beer. Steph was asked the same thing and got a beer and a cigarette (she doesn't smoke). So there we were in the back of this truck with Bulgarian hillbillies drinking beer about 8:30am. We were toasting them repeatedly and it was fun. They dropped us off before they turned onto a side road. Steph and I proceeded to get pictures of ourselves drinking beer on the road at 8:30am for a while before continuing on.

We were pretending to be drunk and generally being silly. On and on we walked with no one stopping for us (maybe it was the beer in our hands). Even vans with plenty of room wouldn't stop. Eventually a taxi came up the road and said it was another 8km to the monastery - he charged us 5 leva for the remainder of the trip. Rila Monastery was very beautiful inside and the mountain surroundings made for nice scenery.

We found out the monastery charged 50 leva per nights so walked through the back gate another 1.5km to a campground with bungalows. Had another breakfast, relaxed by the river and settled in at the bungalow. We went hiking up the mountain through some lovely meadows, a "magical" forest and to some churches. We continued on up the hill and ended at a place with a nice view. Hung out there a short while before going down and back to the river to soak our feet (though the water was icy cold). Stephanie was trying to rest back at the bungalow, but I wouldn't let her and dragged her out of bed to go back to Rila Monastery. Looked around there and got more pictures. There was a service going on in the church part of it. Just outside the monastery, we had some donuts at a little bakery. Walked back to camp and napped. Had a big dinner at the campground's restaurant and a good conversation. Stephanie ordered mixed salad for us to share (pointing at it on the menu) and the waiter repeated "spopska", but out came soup. We think it was tripe soup...yum. Steph tried it and said she didn't think it was chicken (the only soups were tripe, chicken and vegetable). She made me try it despite my protests. Definately not chicken. Blecgh! Again had some problems with the nodding of the head for "yes" when the waiter would come to clear our plates and ask if we were done, we'd say "yes" and unconsciously nod our heads at the same time which the waiter took to mean "no" (since nodding means no here). Wacky. Went for a stroll to walk off some of the dinner and saw lots of fireflies along the road (some glowing red, some green). That was cool. Watched some Grosse Point Blank back in the bungalow then bedtime.

Up early for walk to monastery and bus. That took us about halfway to Sofia where we had to switch to another bus. When we arrived into Sofia I took a look out the window and thought I saw that all the taxis were "OK Taxis". I read that there are disreputable taxis and knew OK Taxi was a good company. We got out and went to the first taxi but I didn't look closely enough to see that it actually wasn't an OK Taxi. As we started off the guy was completely covering the meter and we looked around and saw that the fare was going up way too fast. I said "stop" and pointed at the meter. He replied "no meter. five" as in it would cost 5 leva to be taken to the central bus station. I was worried during that entire taxi ride and sure enough when we got there he wanted 60 leva (about $55). He printed out the receipt and pointed at the meter as we were yelling at him that he was ripping us off. The doors were child-proof so we couldn't get out, but he let me out just a short while later. Couldn't get our bags out of the trunk and continued to argue with the guy. The police came over to try to help settle the dispute but didn't speak English. They called in for backup (an English speaker). The police were very friendly and helpful but since the guy had a receipt from the meter, it was all legal (despite him telling us "no meter. 5"). The police said he thought the guy was a crook too and doesn't think they should be able to do that. Just taught me I need to be extra aware with taxis. We did at least get the fare reduced by a little. After that mess, we went into the central bus station and got Stephanie a ticket to Veliko Turnovo. I sat and had lunch with her while she waited for her bus. Said "goodbye" to her and got an OK Taxi to my hostel. The hostel was alright - kind of cramped. Wandered around town checking it out. There are some nice churches and a couple other cool landmarks. Nothing remarkable though. In the evening I went to the theatre and watched Pirates of the Caribbean 2 since movies are cheap here. Movie was ok - just a filler until part 3. Back at the hostel I found a bunch of people up playing drinking games and they were being loud so I figured there was no point going to bed and stayed up with them (Mark and Helen from VT and Plovdiv were there).
Moved out of Hostel Sofia to Hostel Mostel which was much nicer. Apparently it's booked up for the next month. It worries me that a Sofia hostel is booked for the next month 'cuz that probably means hostels in Croatia will be booked. Might be time for me to start planning... I wandered around more seeing some of the parks in town then met up with Alison (from USA) back at the hostel. Had lunch with her and chatted for a while. I went and got my bus ticket for the next day, took a nap then up to the lounge for free dinner and beer. Another movie night - this time I saw Superman Returns. I liked Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor.

Several people during this part of the trip...all women actually...asked if I get lonely traveling by myself. Yes and no. I've been meeting lots of people at the hostels so it's not so bad. I don't mind a couple days here and there being by myself. The times it's probably worst is just after hanging out with some cool people then being stuck by myself. For example, after leaving the gang in Olympos, Turkey. Every day was great fun then I went to just me being bored. But the good thing is I know I'll always be meeting more people somewhere along the way. That's one of the cool parts about traveling - the opportunity to meet so many people.

Bulgaria and Romania were both excellent value travel destinations with much to see. Looking at the map, it looks like I hardly went anywhere in Romania. The beer is good, the food ok (a lot of greasey stuff) and the women beautiful. The locals I met running the hostels were all very friendly and helpful...some of the friendliest I've ever met running hostels. Hope that gives you reason enough to visit the countries.

Next up I'll be breezing through (well, I hope it goes smoothly) Macedonia, Albania and Montenegro enroute to Croatia. Wish me luck!

"it's thoughts like this that catch
my troubled head when you're away
when I am missing you to death
when you are out there on the road
for several weeks of shows
and when you scan the radio
I hope this song will guide you home
they will see us waving from such great heights,
'come down now', they'll say
but everything looks perfect from far away,
'come down now', but we'll stay..."

---"such great heights", The Postal Service


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