So we have arrived! Flight was easy, direct from Luton, passport control a breeze. On to Europcar to collect the wheels we will need.
Some ‘minor’ issue arose around the hire car being able to transit the countries we want – explicitly “DO NOT TAKE THIS CAR TO TURKEY, no, no, no.” And “Kosovo? Where is that? You cannot go into Serbia!” Bah! I’m not worried. Kosovo isn’t in Serbia after all and Turkey is just a skip and a hop away, surely?
Tiny airport, hot and humid but not bad for 32c, we venture outside. We discover a free Aviation museum lurking behind some trees behind where we were told to collect the car.
Old fighter planes and passenger planes of soviet era litter the park and unlike the UK they don’t give a monkeys – we climbed in them, on them, and around them. Posing for silly picture after silly picture, Kat sat in a very unsafe and wobbly cockpit and no one cared.
Finally we had the keys so I tapped the address “near as damn it”, and pointing my car in the direction of Burgas. First thing to note? All signs are in Bulgarian/Cyrillic. Second thing to note? We have literally no clue what is going on.
Thanks to a variety of Bulgarians who I can only assume to be driving instructors – given their assured and extensive knowledge of intersection rights of way – I learned my first Bulgarian words: kopele (those of shy dispositions look away) = ‘motherfucker’.
It becomes apparent that we are not supposed to know what is going on. If you fancy stopping to chat to your mate, do it. See a bagel you want to eat as you are hungry? Stop your car and leave engine running, simples. Drive wrong way down one way street? Pah, you were in a hurry, I get it. I’m learning.
From the hotel we have an amazing view – to the right is the port, dead ahead the sea and to the left and below is the city stretching out from worn boulevards and main streets littered with shops to tower blocks and housing.
We bought some essentials, learned a handful of Bulgarian phrases, and walked out into the main streets of the city.
I don’t think we were ready for what we were to see. I don’t think I can even explain it now, but the typical flashing Cyrillic signs and beat up buildings took on a charm that was mesmerising. It felt normal, homely, friendly.
Beautiful old buildings – some pristine, some completely wrecked, many painted in vibrant pastel colours – really added character and brightened up the surroundings.
Around the corner from the hotel was the 18th Century Armenian church. We walked around in silence and enjoyed it’s simplicity. It was not until later we found out it pays tribute to every Armenian massacred – whole congregations gone.
After a breather to collect ourselves we headed out. Saw statues, some bars, and headed to the beach. The seafront is stunning, very quiet and typical welcoming Black Sea sand lashing the coast. The sea was so crystal clear blue you could see to the bottom. From the famous pier you could walk out hundreds of metres and even at depths well over head height we could see deep down – then it struck us….
As far as the eye could see, thousands of White Spotted Jellyfish floating around. We were led to believe that they are ‘like a bee sting, harmless’ – we don’t like bees, so don’t think we want to meet these fellas either!
How to follow up jellyfish-infested waters? Relax! We walked along the front to the well-known sea gardens. Nice shady spots and a lovely well looked after example of a city park running alongside Demokratsia boulevard.
We happen upon a small bar near the top of the park playing loud music. Sounded Balkan-orientated and we were hungry. We note how we are not exactly dressed the same or look the same as 99% of the people inside but hey – we were hungry (see above note, if hungry you can just stop and barge in).
Kat was desperate to join in the dancing and I managed to persuade her to allow us to eat first. We selected the most amazing traditional Bulgarian cheesy-chips (aka Feta on sautéed potato), and super creamy mushroom things (aka Tarakatski potatoes – rich white cheese sauce, thin sliced cucumber, bacon, mushroom, and peppers) and consumed the ever traditional “Somersby” cider (aka not traditional, nor Bulgarian, but a relief in the heat all the same).
Our meal was amazing and we laughed and talked for an hour or more before we got around to asking what the music was all about. Turns out we had gate crashed a Turkish wedding – thank God we didn’t dance!
Walking back we took the side roads and saw the “real Bulgaria”. It was tempting to take photos but felt very ‘inapprop’s’. To help explain, we say tower blocks rising up from the tiny strips of green, cars parked all over. At first it looked sad and tired and defeated – but within seconds the eyes adjust and see the community playgrounds, chalk drawn animals on pavements, well kept flower boxes in windows and under cover areas with seats for all the community to gather under and catch up after a hard day work.
The flats come each complete with their own ‘convenience stores’ – small shacks with watermelon and grapes and nuts for sale. Communities gather here for plentiful talking and we were widely accepted. It felt real, crazy, and alive all at the same time.
Okay so yes there were hundreds of cheap shops, the odd seedy bars, and about a million ‘doner kebap koce’ – Kebab and coffee joints – but that didn’t take away from a really humorous vibe. The whole place was just insanely barmy.
As if on cue, Bulgaria came alive; walking back from the local areas we had just seen we come across hundreds of men, women, boys and girls all ages and races dressed up in all manner of traditional clothing. I recognised Georgian, Austrian, Polish, Serbian, and many other flags flapping in the wind. What is this?!
Why it’s the International Folklore Festival – showing off their national dress and dances. No Morris dancing but we did see India and Sudan take things in a whole other direction! Love it! Singing and dancing in traditional garb.
Without missing a beat we go for dinner in the restaurant at the hotel. I felt like we might have accidentally interrupted the Bates family dinner night at the Motel; I have seen more life in a mortuary. The decor looking like it came right from ‘The Shining’ – 1970s overload. The menu? Uninspiring.
So we awkwardly deploy British retreat tactics: “Yes, I’m terribly sorry, but we have just realised the time and we have to go somewhere first, and my aunt is sick, so yes, um …” and then went to “BeHappy” a Bulgarian chain restaurant next door.
The food was cheap, service quick and portions generous. Surprisingly good food and very impressed. But this is where Bulgaria just goes bonkers again. I mean it’s not like I didn’t notice the staff all happened to be young, female and very nicely dressed – but neither of us expected what happened next. The lights dim, music pounds – clubbing track in full swing like a frantic uphill segment at your local spin class. On cue, rehearsed for our pleasure, the staff drop what they were doing and assemble by the bar.
They proceeded to undertake the most bizarre and poorly choreographed sexy dance routine we ever saw, and repeated it at all 4 corners of the restaurant. A big round of applause follows, lights back up, and music changes to normal background music and the waitresses return to their stations.
It was as if NOTHING EVER HAPPENED. Literally we are still in shock and surprise but this was just par for the course at this point. We realise that Bulgaria is barmy and we love it!
That concludes our day (yes all in one day) so next morning we wake and head for breakfast. I admit to looking forward to it – the allure of a good Bulgarian banger and some eggs and bacon is just too much – so off we go.
We get to the restaurant and it is official – nothing can save the decor nor the vibe – but at least the sunlight made it look less miserable.
My eggs were somewhat ruined by having loud piped music playing round the clock of what I can only assume was the last remaining CD of “Obscure and Depressing Power Ballads – 1980-1990 vol 2” in all of the country.
Off to the car for the next instalment – to the border, Turkey and the next episode.