In the summer following my fresher year at University, myself and two friends decided to backpack through Eastern Europe. Having originally met them while in Thailand a year previously, I already knew that they were great backpacking companions and therefore jumped at the chance for another adventure with two of my favourite girls.
We spent the first week of our trip in Sunny Beach; what is to Bulgaria what Magaluf is to Majorca and Kavos to Corfu. Staying in a lovely four bedroomed Villa, a mere 10 minute taxi journey from the main strip and owned by a lovely couple named Lesley & Jimmy who lived next door (you can see and book the Villa here), we indulged in a week of bliss in the Bulgarian sunshine. This was the perfect start to our trip – a little bit of luxury and privacy before we headed off on our trail from Bulgaria to eventually Austria.
On the last day of our holiday, we bade goodbye to the 5 others that we had spent the week in the Villa with and while they got a taxi to the airport, we caught one to the local bus station. It was here that we encountered our first issue – we did not speak one word of Bulgarian and the ticket man did not speak English either. We therefore blindly bought a ticket to where we thought we needed to go and hung around the bus station on the floor for hours, checking each bus as it came rumbling into the sparse concrete forecourt. Eventually we were on our way, squished between strangers ready for the 5 and a half hour journey to the capital Sofia. The journey was slow but relatively comfortable with full air-conditioning, and the bus took regular break stops at service stations so that we could all refresh ourselves. I personally love taking train and bus journeys across foreign lands as it really allows you to take in the country’s landscape and culture – why get a plane and miss it all?! Especially in this day and age, most buses and trains in Europe are relatively comfortable (I’ll come to the exception to this in a later post), easy to find, are very cheap and also more environmentally friendly than flying.
We arrived in Sofia early that evening and caught a taxi straight to our hostel as our map told us we had a rather long trek on foot. Set in an quaint private courtyard, the reception of HostelMostel is a cosy but modern lounge with sofas, tables and computers. This was the perfect hangout for us and once we had checked in, we spent a few hours here taking in our surroundings and making plans for the next of day; as we had limited time in Bulgaria’s capital. We then retired to our room (which was actually a five minute walk away and part of a huge shared apartment) to shower and change before heading out in search of dinner.
Using a map that was given to us at the reception, we set off in search of a restaurant that was recommended by the hostel. Using locals for knowledge of eateries is one of the best things you can do while backpacking, allowing you to make sure that you are eating with those that call your destination home; they also tend to serve the best local cuisine too!
On this occasion our source did not disappoint and even now three years later, I can remember this meal as if it were yesterday. The restaurant itself was rustic and traditional, with live folk music playing in the background as we ate. For our main course we tried a traditional dish of Kavarma – a stew like meal served in a hot clay pot. Let me just say it was unmissable. I would go back to Bulgaria in a heartbeat just to taste it one more time. We had a chicken version however famous combinations also include pork and vegetarian options.
After a few drinks and feeling very lethargic after eating so well, we attempted to find our way back to the apartment through the mind-boggling city side streets. Once we had made the mistake of trying to let ourselves into an identical apartment three blocks from where we were meant to be, we finally found our way back to our beds and collapsed ready for a busy day the following morning.
Waking up bright and early at around 9am, we showered and grabbed a quick breakfast before checking out of the hostel; storing our bags behind the desk for a day. Our first port of call was to go to the train station and book our overnight journey to Belgrade for later that day. We then went on a wander around the city, visiting the Cathedral which is absolutely gorgeous, and finally ended up in Sophia’s ethnographic museum. Here we were given a guided tour by a wonderful gentleman who explained to us the rich history and symbolism behind every embroidered tapestry, blanket and piece of clothing. This really allowed us to understand traditional Bulgarian history and culture and I would recommend the museum to everyone visiting Sofia with a cultural-rich visit in mind.
We had a late alfresco lunch in the centre of the city, watching stylish chic business people going about their everyday lives, wandered around the shops and finally made our way back to the hostel where we grabbed our bags, ready to get a taxi back to the station. At 8.30pm we boarded the sleeper train, settling ourselves into a compartment that was very reminiscent of the Hogwarts Express. We shared our journey with an Australian traveller and two Italian friends, talking late into the evening about our travelling experiences. Meeting other backpackers is one of my favourite things – you hear so many amazing stories! Once we had exhausted all conversation, we then finally flipped down our beds and fell asleep to the rhythmic clicking of train on tracks.
The first country of our travels was complete – next stop…Serbia!