A glimpse of a beach - Varna

Trip Start Feb 04, 2011
Trip End Nov 04, 2011

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Where I stayed
Graffit Gallery Hotel

Flag of Bulgaria  , Varna,
Sunday, June 5, 2011

My wonderful weekend in Sofia had come to an end and I said goodbye to Richard at the bus station which was conveniently located right next to the train station (take note - Turkey!) only this time I wasn't heading off to another international destination. No - today's destination was domestic although it was a strenuous seven hours from Sofia and still in Bulgaria. I was on my way to the seaside city of Varna, famous for being a tourist destination on the Black Sea.

The bus was completely full but I had a window seat and it was comfortable enough. It's made me change my mind about Turkish buses and I now no longer agree with anyone who thinks buses in Turkey are the best in the world. After having travelled on several buses throughout Turkey I've come to the conclusion that while most people who work in the markets and restaurants of Turkish cities have a pretty good ability at communicating in a few different languages, the employees of Turkey's trains and buses simply can't be bothered. It's obviously a low paid job but if those guys in the Turkish bazaars can communicate in Japanese, what's stopping these lazy buggars from making an effort? The difference is economic. The guys in the bazaars need to communicate to make money whereas the surly staff on the buses have already made their money from us. Enough said.

The great thing about the buses in Bulgaria is that there's no bus attendant. Who needs someone grunting and throwing plastic cups at me any way? If I want a drink I'll bring it with me. Also, the bus stops in the centre of cities - not in some outer suburb which defies the purpose of taking public transport. If I want to be dropped off outside the city, I'll use an airport and pay a few extra dollars to get there faster. These buses in Bulgaria were no frills and straight to the point. Going from A to B, just like they should be. Although the trip to Varna was a bit long and I was already a bit tired of the trip by the sixth hour, it eventually arrived at Varna at about 10pm and I took a taxi straight to the hotel. I should also add that my fear of taxi drivers in Bulgaria was dispelled when I noticed they all use taxi meters in Sofia. How civilised is that! The same for Varna. And the drivers are always polite. I need to find these friends of mine who painted such an ugly picture of Bulgaria. 

The hotel in Varna definitely deserves a mention. I'd read good things about it in the reviews on Trip Advisor, or was it Bookings.com? I forget. Any way, the pictures on the website looked good and I was looking forward to checking into a decent hotel not far from the beach, even if I hadn't allowed any time to enjoy the beach. The taxi driver knew exactly where the hotel was and when I arrived to check in I was pleasantly surprised. This hotel would have to be the best on the trip so far, although I still have dreams about the hotel in Boracay which was like an absolute paradise within walking distance of one of the world's best beaches. OK, so Varna's beach cannot compare to those in the Philippines but that next morning I was in for another surprise. Too bad I'd only booked for one night and my first mission the next morning was to find a way to get to Bucharest. Without knowing anything about the bus or train schedules, it was hard to relax, knowing that the following morning I'd have to check out of the hotel and leave Varna.

The design of the hotel was very modern and totally different from those stuffy five star hotels that seem to be stuck in another era. The bathroom was completely open and the floor was covered in large pebbles. The showerhead was enormous and could easily fit two people under it. The toilet was see-through so perhaps no room for privacy if you're sharing but I guess that was the whole idea. An ideal honeymoon retreat and with a view of the whole city from its two balconies. Apparently, there's a swimming pool which I didn't have time to see. Unfortunately, by the time I arrived at the hotel there was only enough time to eat at their amazingly first class restaurant (mushroom sautee roast pork belly with bacon mash and an incredible caraffe of merlot). I was kicking myself that I couldn't stay at this hotel an extra night. Why do I always push myself on these itineraries? It's because of Russia. I need to be there by a specific date so I have to make a lot of ground through these countries. No time to stop.

That next morning I woke up at 6:30am without an alarm clock but I guess my body clock wanted to get up and see something before leaving. So I went straight to the beach which was literally a five minute walk a few blocks away, down a cute little street with old houses. The beach was very quiet as it was still early but it didn't seem at all tacky. I must admit, when I think of a tourist resort that attracts a lot of Russians, I think of strip clubs and casinos along the beach and lots of middle aged (or older) people wearing lots of bling. So that was my other pleasant surprise. Then on the way back to the hotel, and without any fear of Bulgaria's taxis, I had yet another very friendly driver take me straight to the hotel. The two main expenses that rip through my wallet on this trip - transport and food - are extremely cheap in Bulgaria and it's so refreshing to be somewhere where my jaw drops every time I see the price of something - because it's so damned cheap. Taxi fares generally cost about one or two dollars and a meal in a restaurant is about ten dollars. Did I mention it was a first class restaurant? 

My walk along the beach was intentional. I was on my way to the old station to check the timetable for trains going to Bucharest. The only convenient train was leaving at 9:10am which gave me time to head back to the hotel, have some breakfast and be back at the station in time to board the train. It was all too easy. A first class ticket from Varna to the border town of Ruse (four hours) cost me five dollars and I had the whole cabin to myself. It was warm, I had the window open and the countryside kept me occupied. The train staff were also polite and within a few hours we'd arrived at Ruse. Now, here was the ordeal.

I knew that the train would arrive at about 1pm and there would be a train to Bucharest from this station at 4pm so I had a few hours to wait at this rather small station with all my luggage. Not to worry - I have things to do. I'll just look for somewhere to sit down with a drink and maybe a meal. When I got to the station ticket counter I was informed that the train to Bucharest was running about an hour late so that meant it would arrive at 5pm. The journey was about two hours so I'd get there at 7pm. No problem. At that moment an older guy saw me looking at the train timetable and asked me if I was going to Bucharest. Immediately I became a little stand-offish as I don't like being approached in stations or airports and like most travellers, it makes me feel a little vulnerable and targeted. I told him I didn't mind waiting for the train. He then explained his situation to me.

This guy was a driver who regularly made the brief trip from the border town of Ruse to Bucharest's airport which only takes about forty minutes by car. He showed me his itinerary which involved a 4pm pick up at Bucharest airport so he had to leave Ruse empty handed with no passengers. He offered to take me to Bucharest for fifteen euros as it would pay for his fuel to get there and he'd return to Ruse with his passengers from the airport, so it was kind of win-win for both of us. It was very tempting as I didn't really want to be waiting at this station for over four hours and it would take only forty minutes by car. I told him I needed to think about it for a few minutes and he agreed.

I decided to go with him and before you start to think I was a little too hasty and naive, this is why I made this decision. I asked to see his business card and I also wrote down the agreed price on the card. I also told him that I need to send a message to a friend who was waiting in Bucharest (not true) as I would no longer be arriving at Bucharest's main station. This showed the guy that I had someone waiting for me - so no funny business! I also had good feelings about this person and after being in his car for a few minutes I realised I had nothing to worry about. Obviously, this type of arrangement is not for anyone and if in doubt, wait for the train! I did it because I thought of the consequences. If I was somehow robbed, I had exactly fifteen euros in my wallet. I could cancel credit cards. I could report my passport stolen. Also, if I was really in doubt, I could have easily messaged someone to let them know of my whereabouts. In those circumstances, it was very unlikely that something bad would happen. 

The result? I enjoyed a forty minute chat with a guy who spoke excellent English and has a 25 year old daughter who studied in the States. I found out that in his town (Ruse) many people had emigrated to New Zealand, and he often travels to Spain with his family on summer breaks. The border crossing was a breeze and he took me right to the door of the hotel in Bucharest. I apologised to him for suspecting him of trying to rip me off and he told me not to worry about it as it's to be expected. After all, it is a little unorthodox to be approached at a station and he's aware that this is not common in the West. It really was a win-win situation as I arrived in Bucharest hours earlier than I'd anticipated and it meant I had the whole evening to enjoy the city. Thanks to Valentin (the driver) for being a genuinely nice guy and dispelling yet another myth about dodgy taxi drivers at railway stations.

Kids - don't try this at home! I'm a bit of a reckless traveller and I sometimes get into all sorts of tricky situations but I'm experienced enough to get myself out of them. I wouldn't advise doing this if it doesn't feel right but in this case I had a gut feeling that this guy simply wanted to get to Bucharest and make a bit of extra cash. It's called a business. It's called his job. I have to respect him for that. If someone is up front about their intentions and it seems above board, make a rational decision. A decent person will stick to their agreed price and for that reason I always write down the price, just in case I'm not dealing with someone decent. In most situations, it's too much of an effort for someone to try to rip you off once you're firm about a fixed price and I'm really stingy with my money so they'd need to take off my right arm before they get to my wallet. Seriously - I know that sounds naive but I've never been robbed or mugged. It's just not worth the effort. There's usually a way to negotiate your way out of a sticky situation and I've had to do it several times. I always come out on top though. 

On a final note - don't forget. We're robbed all the time! I haven't been in Australia for over four months but I was penalised by my phone company for not using my phone often enough (it was turned off while I was in Lebanon) and I had to pay an extra thirty dollars. The quote Valentin gave me (fifteen euros) might possibly be a high price for some of the locals but I was spending only a few dollars on meals! Local taxi fares were costing me two dollars at the most. We win some, we lose some. If Valentin had turned out to be a real crook and taken more than my fifteen euros, it's just one of those things we have to brush off and weigh up our gains and losses. My few days in Bulgaria has nothing but gains. I'll definitely be back! 

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