A Welcomed Change of Mindset

Trip Start Jul 07, 2006
Trip End Aug 16, 2006

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Saturday, August 12, 2006

When I stepped into my compartment on the train D499, it was nearly full. There were already 4 people in the 6-person compartment.

Later a small Japanese girl with a nosering came in. I found that I was the only person headed to Bulgaria. All other passengers would terminate their trip in Istanbul, Turkey. Bulgaria was a merely a transit country for them.

It takes nearly 19 hours to reach Istanbul from Bucharest, so this train wouldn't be in Istanbul until the next morning. Fortunately for me (a person no longer willing to take any overnight train in Eastern Europe), I would reach my destination, Veliko Tarnovo, by 8 pm. It should be just in time for dinner.

Except for a Turkish woman from Ankara, all other passengers in my compartment are backpackers from outside the Balkan Region. The Kiwi (New Zealand) woman sat across from me had been to Turkey before and this was her second trip. She loves Turkey quite a lot. Two British guys traveled all over Europe for their first "grand Eurotrip" like many other Western Europeans I ran into; the Japanese girl was quiet most of the time. When she spoke, we found out she actually lived in Denmark and also came down for her "grand Eurotrip." The Turkish woman did not speak much English but it was interesting to find out her mother is Romanian mother, and thus she speaks Romanian fluently and traveled between two countries regularly. Strangely, none of them really planned to spend much time in Bulgaria, a country sandwiched between Romania and Turkey.

Wow! After the unfortunate D341, at least the fun of train trip in Europe temporarily retuned (This would also be my last rain ride in this European trip): meeting fellow backpackers and exchange travel tips, talking about what we have seen in the world and what we love most. The Kiwi woman even had a bottle of red wine and a lot of vegetarian snacks (I seemed to be the only one enjoying those snacks). She talked about her experience in Eastern Turkey and Republic of Georgia (no, don't expect there is any sign in English); while one of the Brits is history-major and used to travel on an overland trip (but not with Dragoman) across Africa, all the way from London to Cape Town (something I may do in the future). This was a nice group of people to spend a night with in a tight train compartment, but I had to get off somewhere in the midway.

After crossing the Danube and entering Bulgaria, the sky seemed to be bluer. There are few houses along the rail tracks after we left Ruse. Bulgaria is a less populous country than Romania. With those Cyrillic alphabets, it feels exotic again. We passed by many sunflower fields. Like those sunflower fields I remember when traveling in Spain, I started to feel I was back to the Mediterranean region again. Indeed, compared to other Eastern European countries, Bulgaria feels more of Mediterranean than Continental.

The train was one hour late when it arrived in Veliko Tarnovo (Delay seems a norm in this part of the world and I hope they would arrive in Istanbul by lunch time.\). As I requested on Hiker's Hostel website ( http://www.hikers-hostel.org/vt/), a driver did show up at the station to pick me up. Though it took me a little while (after listening to too many scary stories in Romania) to believe in him that he was really the representative sent by the Hostel. (Since he kept saying he came to pick up a traveler from Australia, well, now even I think I look like an Aussi!)

Veliko Tarnovo ("Велико Търново" in Bulgarian) was the ancient capital of Bulgaria (from 1185 to 1393). When Bulgaria finally declared independence from Turkey in 1879, they chose to write their first constitution here. Though no longer a major city like current capital Sofia, V. Tarnovo still holds a special place in Bulgarians' heart. Perched on the slopes above the crooked Yantra River Valley, there are many winding hilly streets with hundred-years old buildings. Though not very far from the town thoroughfare, Hikers Hostel is hidden in a hilly back alley. It is very difficult to locate for a first visitor. Fortunately there was the driver taking me all the way up there from the station.

Just as what "Let's East Europe" introduces, the terrace outside has a great panoramic view of the Tsarevets Fortress across the valley and mountains nearby. By the time Andrea, the driver, and I reached the Hostel, it was almost dark.

"You are lucky today." Andrea told me, "They have a free barbecue tonight."

I was assigned to a 12-bed room on the second floor. The space is quite tight and there is no locker. But the room is clean. Again, like other youth hostels in Eastern Europe, breakfast is included and Internet is free (there are two terminals). All this cost 10 Euro, a little less than the ones in Romania. There are also local beers for sale at the reception. Each cost 0.5 Euro.

View of the nearby mountains from the second floor terrace in at Hiker's Hostel

View of Tsarrevets Fortress from Hiker's Hostel. Look closer, the building on top of the hill is the Church of the Ascension.

Just like the barbeque I had back in my first night in Krakow, the atmosphere was great. I had opportunities to sample Bulgarian sausages and meatcakes and talking to travelers from all over the world. Aside from beer we purchased, the staff also brought out some Bulgarian red wine. Again, there were four Dutch guys traveling together, though less drunk than those four I ran into in Krakow (Do Dutch guys like to travel in the group of four? A good number to Ma-Jong!). Again, there are some Australians and Brits (and one Americans). And again, I was the only "yellow" person there (though one Australian guy seems to be half Asian)...

In many ways, Bulgaria was a welcome change from Romania. The weather was nicer and the hostel more comfortable. People seem to be more polite, speak better English, and (surprisingly) things are even cheaper. Veliko Tarnovo is a small place and there may not be many things to see. However, sensing that it is difficult to find such a comfy hostel with a good view and layback atmosphere , I decided to delay my trip to Sofia and stay in Veliko for another night.

The next days, all the Aussis and Dutches were gone and the hostel became very quiet. The breakfast was amazingly sumptuous, with a lot of cold cut meats and two types of juice. I spent quite a lot of time enjoying my breakfast and did not head out until after 11am.

My first stop is the ancient Tsarevets Fortress (Хълмът Царевец, check this website if you CAN read Bulgarian...at least they have good pictures of the Fortress), former home to many former Bulgarian tsars (沙皇). Most of the citadel was destroyed in the Turkish invasion, but a long stretch of the wall survived and several towers still stand til' this day. At the top of hill stand a beautiful church, Church of the Ascension, with a lot of beautiful Orthodox style frescoes (painted in 1981 when Bulgaria celebrated its 1300th birthday). From the Church, there is a great paranomic view of Yantra River Valley down below.

Later I walked along the curved streets of Veliko and reached the National Revival Museum. I guess there were not too many visitors since the staff so happy to see me dropping in (entrance fee: 4 lv or 2 Euro). It houses items from Bulgarian National Revival Movement (in late 19th century when they fought for independence from Turkey). It even has the chamber where the first Bulgarian Parliament held it meeting and its constitution. However, with most documents only in Bulgarian, it didn't help too much for me to understand this country's struggle to gain its independence. However, pictures of some old stone houses all over Bulgaria are interesting to me.

After having a late lunch on the main street, I went to buy a new, disposable camera. After feeling miserable for more than a week after I lost my cherished camera, I finally decided I really needed to start taking pictures again. Now I am in such a lovely country, I should not leave my photo album blank.

This hilly street leads all the way up to the Hiker's Hostel. Some of the buldings look very historic.

A view from the main street.
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