After 5 weeks in Sunny Beach, Bulgaria we decided we really should see the rest of the country. We had heard so much about several other beautiful destinations within Bulgaria that we knew we needed to set aside at least a few days to see them.
Hiring a car in Sunny Beach was not as easy as the €8/day signboards would have you believe. The majority of the cheap companies don’t allow one-way travel, which we needed. We ended up finding the best rate online using carrentals.co.uk and hiring through Europcar from Bourgas Airport. I organised a shuttle to pick me up from our resort and dropped me off at the airport for 14 lev (€7). One-way car rental fees are quite expensive, but we were flying out of Sofia to Poland afterwards so we bit the bullet and went with the one-way option.
We booked a 2-bedroom apartment in Varna from Booking.com for our first evening. The building looked ancient from the exterior and the wooden elevator reminded me of the Tower of Terror from California Adventure Park rather than a modern operational elevator. It seemed like an archetypal communist-era construction that caused us to give each other silent sideways glances wondering what we had got ourselves into.
Opening the apartment door, we breathed a sigh of relief. The interior of the apartment was completely renovated and very comfortable. It was like stepping into another world.
Our first road trip leg from Sunny Beach to Varna had been fairly easy, but quite windy.
When we arrived at our apartment we realised street parking was going to be difficult so we merely dropped off our bags and decided to explore more of Varna.
We took a wonderfully scenic drive along the beach before parking at the southern end and taking a spontaneous swim.
The clouds continued to darken and soon the spit spot of rain had us running to a giant ship sitting on the beach. The ship turned out to be a restaurant called Mr Baba and we spent a fun rainy evening listening to the guests sing karaoke and eating delicious cuisine. Shock horror… could Bulgaria actually have yummy restaurants?
The next day we woke early to visit the gold-domed Cathedral in the middle of town, which was a short walk from our apartment. We then endeavoured to find the archaeological museum, which houses the world’s oldest golden treasure, but had no luck. Google Map fail. We finally gave up and starting our next road trip leg to Veliko Tarnavo.
The downpour had been substantial while we were in Varna and we came across a couple hairy moments, driving through flooded roads. But it wasn’t until afterwards that we realised the scale of the flooding.
But finally we arrived in the original capital of Bulgaria, Veliko Tarnovo.
We had decided to spoil ourselves with a VIP luxury 2-bedroom apartment at Yantra Grand Hotel (Гранд Хотел Янтра). The views were phenomenal and my dreams of having carpet again in the house came true. The kids’ luxury wishes were fulfilled with a massive bubble bath hot tub.
I did some quick research on best places to eat in town and then we walked to a nearby restaurant, Shtastliveca, for dinner.
In Australia we would call it fine dining, but at a total price tag of AUD$40 it was hardly priced that way. We ordered a lot of food and it was good food. Really good. I could have almost cried over my simple delicious salad or squealed in ecstasy thanks to my creamy mushroom chicken. Hallelujah! We had found good food in Bulgaria. *Insert angelic choir music here*
I slept well in my plush super king bed that night. The bed was the softest I’d had in 5 weeks.
The next morning we suffered through the average buffet breakfast before packing our bags and heading to the nearby Tsarevets Fortress.
We drove our car down a random back alley street and parked in front of a mini mart with 3 older gentlemen casually sitting at the front. It looked like they hadn’t moved from their spots for at least a decade or two.
It was a quick walk to the fortress. You can pay for tickets on the opposite side of the road. A family ticket was 6 lev (€3) which was the same price as 1 adult ticket. That didn’t make much sense, but why complain?
We didn’t have as much time as we would have liked, since the dark clouds encircled us ominously, but we did cover a lot of ground visiting the ancient walls and admiring the church at the peak. Even though it looks very old from the outside, the interior is oddly laden with modern frescos.
When we got back to our car we bought the kids an ice cream at the mini mart. The gentlemen were still sitting outside and in broken English one asked us where we were from.
“Australia,” Mia said.
The man jumped up animatedly and started re-enacting the only thing I can describe as playing a didgeridoo and making strange noises. Perhaps he thought we were Aboriginal. I dunno.
“Wow, Australia,” he said. It gave us all a good giggle, though not surprising since our 5 weeks in Sunny Beach we had heard more than once, “I’ve never met an Australian.”
Our journey to Plovdiv was much longer since several of the roads had detours and we also made a few unplanned detours of our own and the occasional nature stop.
We finally arrived at our hotel, Hotel Noviz (Хотел Новиз), late in the afternoon. Our Booking.com room was advertised as a “Triple” which, from the photos, looked like a 2-bedroom apartment. So taking a chance we booked it. Scored! It was a 2-bedroom apartment.
That evening we took a walk to a small plaza in front of the Municipality Plovdiv building and enjoyed more delicious food at Hemingway Restaurant (just because it was rated #1 on TripAdvisor in town) - also a fine dining restaurant. Why the heck did we stay in Sunny Beach so long?
That night we had heard that fellow bloggers Notes of Nomads were also in Plovdiv and so the next morning we organised to meet them. Later that morning we met up at the old Roman Theatre in Old Town.
We sat talking for quite awhile before deciding on a spontaneous mini road trip to the nearby 11th century Bachkovo monastery.
When we arrived we shared a decent lunch at the restaurant outside the complex and then walked the hill to the monastery. It was quite simple, but we just enjoyed being there with fellow Australians and sharing a new experience.
It was late afternoon when we finally dropped our new friends back in Plovdiv with promises to see them next time in Athens for the TBEX conference in October (previously we had bumped into them in Dublin and London).
Despite the lateness we really enjoyed our drive to Govedartsi. The vistas were stunning and we wound up and down the Bulgarian mountains.
Josh wanted to stop at Iskar Lake Reservoir for photos and an impromptu game of ball started with kids and parents alike, chasing a $2 ball we had purchased in Sunny Beach.
I will never forget that day.
My kids looked so wild and carefree running through mud and tall blades of grass. Their tinkling laughter carried through the fresh, still, clean country air. The scenic mountain backdrops mesmerised me. I remember filling my lungs deeply and just laughing.
How sweet travel is.
We all tumbled back into the car laughing and heading for our new home for the next two nights, Guest House Kalina in Govedartsi.
We had heard of this spot from blogging friends and it sounded like a relaxing place to stay.
The location was exactly what we wanted. There was nothing around and it was just a small guesthouse in the middle of the mountainous region. To go with the small house were small beds, where even my feet touched the end – poor Joshy.
But we had to admit it was a lovely, quiet place. No noisy traffic, just the gentle sounds of horses walking past the front door every so often.
We enjoyed dinner before heading up to bed for the evening.
After a discussion with the owner of our guesthouse we knew we had a big day ahead of us so we went on our way.
This ended up being one of my most favourite days in Bulgaria. We drove through Sapareva Banya to reach Panichishte and rode the Pionerska chair lift through the Rila National Park.
At the top we hiked to the top of a mountain (see below where the snow is) just to see one of the famous Seven Rila Lakes and the most amazing views we'd seen in Bulgaria to date.
Afterwards we drove to the world famous Rila Monastery.
It was a gorgeous complex filled with a very rich history, dating back to the 10th century.
The Rila Monastery is a peaceful place, where one can meditate and enjoy the views. Recommended great day out that you can read in more detail here.
Despite my baby bear bed, I slept well that night. It must have been all that clean mountain air and strenuous hiking.
The next morning we packed our belongings and headed back through the mountains to the capital, Sofia.
We dropped our car off at the airport at Terminal 2 (Terminal 1 was impossible!) and checked into our flight to Warsaw, Poland.
I mention Sofia here, because we actually did visit Sofia the first two nights we were in Bulgaria, after arriving from Athens.
We had stayed in Hotel Sofia Plaza via a deal on TravelPony. When we arrived our room was already taken and after making an objection to the front desk staff, a lovely lady made a phonecall to the hotel manager and then let me know they would move us to the manager’s apartment on the top floor. It was spacious and a great deal.
During our 2 nights in Sofia we realised that it also runs on seasons and not many tourist operations were running in May. Apparently there was a hop-on-hop-off bus, but it was not running yet. Instead we just walked around the city enjoying the sights and smells.
Our favourite find was stumbling on a large park, "Gradska" Gradina (near the National Theatre Ivan Vazov), watching old men playing chess. The kids were fascinated. That is until the playground stole their attention.
We felt 2 nights seemed perfectly adequate for Sofia, but I could have done more nights in Plovdiv and Veliko Tarnarvo. Both towns were cobblestone-clad winners in my eyes.
Is it easy to get around?
Driving around Bulgaria seemed pretty simple. The signs all generally had an English translation and Europcar offered us a free map with the car hire. Mind you, we still relied heavily on our GPS.
The biggest problem was that roads didn’t seem to hold any type of speed limit, except for the small towns. At first I found myself going quite slow down the scenic back streets and one-lane highways, but soon found everyone was overtaking me at break necking speeds - 160km/hour or more.
The Bulgarians also seem to find overtaking is ok regardless of any type of white line down the middle of the road – dotted or solid, even pink with polka dots, it doesn’t matter. In oncoming traffic or around dangerous blind beds, still didn’t matter. It certainly was harrowing at times.
So other than all that, and other than driving on the right side of the road, it was relatively easy. I’d still highly recommend a road trip around Bulgaria. The scenery was so absolutely riveting that it would seem a crime to me just to take a bus. We stopped so many times to play on lakes, or walk through muddy fields to photograph sunflowers or just to bear witness to the majestic creation, that no matter the expense of hiring a car, we unanimously agreed it was well worth it.