Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria: Go There

7 Jul

The train from Bucharest to Veliko Tarnovo. Sunflowers galore!

Some of the view from Veliko Tarnovo

I arrived in Veliko Tarnovo (pop 68,000) on a cold and cloudy early evening. After being crammed on a mini-bus next to a friendly Brazilian guy and his Polish wife, I was happy to be let out in town, even if I had no idea where I was. I called my hostel, Hostel Mostel, to request their free pick-up service:

Just get a taxi to the hostel and we will pay for it. Don’t worry yourself!” a friendly male voice instructed me over the phone.

Chello, English…..haha!”greeted the high-spirited cab-driver as Balkan pop tunes bounced out of the sound system. 

My travel literature had described Veliko Tarnovo as a picturesque village with traditional Bulgarian homes hanging over the hillsides. I guess I was thinking something along the lines of Positano or Sorrento on the Amalfi Coast. This was not quite so. While it was still a nice town, this had seemed more like the Eastern Europe that I had imagined. Things were in a more extreme state of disarray than in central Bucharest or Brasov; fading signs hung haphazardly from paint-chipped brown and white houses.

I think the fact that everything was in Cyrillic helped to add to the foreignness of it all. At this point, I was thankful that I had made and used those Cyrillic flashcards.

Keeping the streets clean


Hostel Mostel was really the highlight of my experience in VT.  I was greeted by a friendly young Bulgarian man who introduced himself simply as Todd.

Todd, I questioned him. “That’s it?”

“Well it’s Tadavorolajlhbg but don’t worry about that, just keep it at Todd, like in English!”

He had the most professional of manners, as if he were introducing me to a 4-star accommodation. I liked that, and I let him go ahead and carry my bag.

“Ladies first, always!” he said happily as a recently arrived male traveler struggled under the weight of his pack. The hostel was a beautiful traditional Bulgarian home which had been renovated two years ago. It was comfortable, clean and had a very zen-like vibe, plus a great terrace.

The common area in Hostel Mostel

For 7 euro a night this really couldn’t be beat; they even had two hostel mascots—fancy pigeons with fanned tails! I had arrived just in time for dinner and joined the rest of the hostelers for some potato and cabbage soup. I was surprised to find that out of the 20 people staying, several were American. One of whom, travel extraordinaire nomadic Matt  ended up being a good buddy of my friend Maneesh. Small world!!

Later, we were informed that the light show would be taking place at the nearby Tsavarets Fortress, the pride and joy of Veliko Tarnovo. I couldn’t believe my luck, as I had been reading about this multicolored spectacle.

The foggy fortress, pre-light show

It was interesting to get to know my fellow Hostel Mostel companions. Many were traveling on similar routes—Sofia-Plovdiv-Veliko-Varna—everyone weaving in and out of the Balkans in their own manners. It seemed that I would see some of these people again. I got along quite well with a Quebecois girl traveling alone, Amelie, she jammed out on her harmonica as a group of 7 young Mexicans chattered loudly while taking photos on the bridge. After waiting for nearly a half hour without seeing any signs of the show,  we gave up and went back to the hostel. Sure enough, 15 minutes later, lights were illuminating the skies in the direction that we had just returned from. Amelie and I ran outside screaming and running up the hill as fast as our legs would carry us

C’est la! The light show, the light show!”

Neon streams and white explosions lit up the night just outside of view. We managed to see the fortress glowing in red and blue before being illuminated in the normal manner. Bummer! At least we saw it for a second.

I Invited Amelie to join me in me in meeting a couchsurfer, Emilie, at the bar she worked at downtown. I felt very cool being able to say I had a “friend” working at a bar after having just arrived in an unfamiliar Bulgarian village! The bar she worked at, Malkia Inter (The Old Inn), was not only quite close to our hostel, but really antiquey and cute, with myriad accordions and fiddles decorating the walls.

Emilie at Malkia Inter

Emilie studied graphic design at the university in town. She was incredibly kind but kept responding to my conversation by shaking her head from left to right, in what I perceived to be disagreement. After a few minutes of confusion, I remembered that I had been told that Bulgarians indicate agreement by shaking their heads from left to right, while nodding indicates disagreement. Now it all made sense! Later, I joined Emilie and some friends at a nearby Irish pub, which confirmed my theory that such pubs don’t vary a whole lot regardless of where they are on the globe. Surprisingly, given the size of this town, this bar was owned by a real-live Irishman. Apparently a lot of foreigners from the UK and western Europe have been taking advantage of cheap real estate prices in Veliko over the last few years.

The next day I met Emilie and her friend Mary promptly at 10 am. They showed me around the city, first taking me to the most famous little historical street, pointing out “the monkey house” designed by the famous Veliko Tarnovo architect Koljo Fichev.

The Monkey House

The main street in VT

Although a bit touristy, the street was full of little artisan shops- everyone was there, from the knife maker to a herb preparer. I fell in love with the traditional Bulgarian textiles and ceramics. A woman putting her loom to use in Emilie’s favorite shop as we walked in “I buy so many things here!” she told me, encouraging me to take my time looking at some beautiful scarves and bags.

Working with metal

The mask maker

 The three of us sat a little traditional cafe that Emilie told me (with a slight laugh) was called ‘The Sugar Cock.’

“In English I think that is not right?” she asked. Inside we ordered coffee which was very similar to Turkish coffee but prepared in a slightly different manner: over hot sand.

Coffee on sand

I loved the traditionally low-to-the-ground Bulgarian tables, although I felt a bit like Alice in Wonderland.

At the Sugar Cock with coffee

It was interesting to talk to the girls about politics, in particular, why so many Bulgarians miss communism. Bulgarian history is somewhat hard to follow; even the last 10 years would take a good hour of clarification. After being under the thumb of the Turks and the Russians, Bulgarians are finally taking a stab at democracy. The girls told me that joining the EU in 2007 hasn’t affected most citizens yet, since there is still quite a bit of corruption in the country’s leadership.

As I sat there happily getting my history lesson for the day, a group of elderly American tourists walked by. What were they doing in Veliko? One lady took her time to squint at the English translation on the cafe’s sign.

John, JOHN, come get a look at this. I don’t think the translation is right. They got it wrong, didn’t they?  It says ‘coffee on sand’. Coffee on sand? That’s just not right, is it?!”

John came over with his buddy, laughing and patting his wife on the back. “That’s like Sex on the beach isn’t it. Coffee on sand, sex on the beach! Haha” he chuckled, proud of himself.

Oh America….

The rest of the day was great. They showed me “Mother Bulgaria,” a monument and not a figure of speech, as I originally assumed. We took a walk around the park, through the main streets and across the river to the statue of the four Bulgarian kings who founded the city.

The Old church in the middle of the village

The girls were really funny, and as we walked around the park, they laughed about what they were going to do with me. “Boil you in a carrot soup!” said Mary, probably referring to a travel story I had recently read and told them about, one where an American journalist was unknowingly held hostage in Prague until his ‘guide’ handed him a fat bill for his expenses while discreetly flashing a handgun as he dropped him off at the airport.

This is the street to the dormitory” said Mary as we walked back over the bridge towards the main road. “There was a problem with a man who would stand here and expose himself” she said chuckling. “He would make bird calls and then girls turned to look at him” That’s terrible!” I said. Mary just kept chuckling.

This artist was a friend of the girls’ from school

We then headed over to experience the day’s highlight—lunch at a traditional little place called The Quiet Nook (English translation, of course) we had a big discussion about what a small hidden place in a house was, but I decided it was probably a nook….The food was cheap and the chairs were plastic and colorful. Russian disco music played quietly in the background as we ordered.

At the Quiet Nook

He is usually drunk…but very nice” said Emilie, smiling as the waiter walked towards us. “It’s just his wife and daughter who work here.” A true Bulgarian family restaurant. I liked that.

She asked me if I liked strong drinks, because if so, I should have a traditional Bulgarian liquor with lunch, either Mastika, an anise flavored liquor, or Rakia, which tastes a lot like the Italian grappa. Soon, the owner was filling up my 2 oz shot glass generously with Mastika.

I ordered the Shopska salad: goat cheese, chopped tomatoes and cucumbers, all for the low price of 3 leva, or $2. I also ordered something that Emilie said “all the tourists like.”  It was Kvarma, pork with sauteed tomatoes, garlic, and onion and served in some sort of viking ship saucer. I also tried the girls’ food: Mary’s white bean soup and whatever was in Emilie’s ceramic pot: an egg, tomato sauce, and a thick layer of cheese. I was definitely a fan of Bulgarian food.

A lunch time visitor; one of VT’s many stray kittens

The Mastika had my head spinning as we walked back up to the hostel a couple of hours later, petting some stray kittens on the way. Emilie had to go to work but she promised she would come visit me in New York some day. She was pretty into hitchiking and assured me that she would find a way to do so across the ocean. 

“Why not?’ she said.


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