Our entrance to Bulgaria was quite unique compared to other border crossings. Both Romania & Bulgaria are not full EU members, so the crossing requires a short immigration/customs checkpoint. Our friends (Calin & Mihai) drove us down the Black Sea coast to Cape Kaliakra for fresh mussels and a dip in the lagoon. They were kind enough to then drop us off in Varna to catch a bus to the 13th century capital city of Veliko Tarnovo.
We randomly met Neda & Jeff Fields back in January as our world adventure began. It was at a time when extended world travel was simultaneously new, super exciting and a bit scary. The only thing missing was close friendship and a deep connection to “home”. We stopped at a hotel for a potty break and suddenly found ourselves talking with our new friends. Jeff is from a town very close to ours and Neda partly grew up in Springfield, Missouri. We quickly learned that Neda was originally from Stara Zagora, Bulgaria and still had deep ties to her homeland. That day was one of our most memorable as we walked the local street markets around Chumpon, Thailand. Most notably, we enjoyed their adventurous spirit as we watched hacky-sack handball and tried fried grasshopper snacks.
We later hung out salsa dancing with the Fields in March during our Muy Thai Boxing stint in Chiang Mai. They were attending the Baan Hom Thai Massage School. Chiang Mai is where we talked more about history, spirituality, and life. Fast forward four months and we were greeted with local Bulgarian beers at the Veliko Tarnovo bus station. Neda & Jeff arranged eight days of pure culture and adventure around Bulgaria. To start, they booked a two-bedroom apartment downtown close to the action. We immediately caught up about recent travel stories and future plans to see our families.
Veliko Tarnovo was Bulgaria’s capital during the 2nd empire between the 12th and 14th centuries. This was a glorious time as a bustling economic, cultural and religious hub. The old city walls and structures (Tzarevetz) are well preserved for tourism. Shockingly, it seemed like we were the only tourists around town. We had been running around for weeks, so a few relaxing days shopping and gazing at the amazing city viewpoints while eating fit the bill perfectly. One day, we decided to book the Don Quixote ballet at the beautiful theatre built into the old city ruins. That night, it rained for the first time in months leaving us to scramble for ponchos and an alternative plan. Luckily, we were able to recoup our ticket money and enjoy a night out with “live beer” and shisha. It has been very difficult to find authentic artwork during our travels. We committed to finding original pieces for our future home to help remember our special year. Veliko Tarnovo finally offered the opportunity to purchase durable pottery modeled from a recent archaeological dig in the old city. Hopefully, our box will arrive safely in California!
And finally, we reached Neda’s 8,000 year old hometown at Stara Zagora. Her family greeted us with home cooked food, ice cream and honey from their bee-hive. Most importantly, they greeted us with warmth and comfort. Stara Zagora has an interesting past as it sits between several historical civilizations including the Thracians, Ottomans,ancient Greeks, Romans & Bulgarians. We found ancient Roman ruins in the downtown after touring the Zagorka Brewery. “Live Beer” must exist somewhere else in the world, but we couldn’t identify where. Zagorka serves up this delicious (and nutritious) beer unfiltered, unpasteurized and with a bit of hazy yeast. The beer can only last for a few weeks, hence why it is not suitable for mass production. On the same theme, we tasted Rakia for the first time with our dinner salad. Stara Zagora is where we tasted the Mavrud varietal and started our search for good Bulgarian wine.
Bulgaria (with Russia) defeated the Ottoman Turks in 1878 after The Battles of Shipka Pass. We visited the war memorial commemorating the prideful victory showcasing memorabilia and pictorials about the famous battles for independence. Across the Balkan mountains was Buzludzha, the 1980’s communist relic. There we latched onto an adventurous crew who would repel down into the abandoned building. Neda and Jeff were brave enough to follow the tour and document their unique experience on their blog – Breaking Into Bulgaria’s Past: The Monument at Buzludja.
For the next leg of our journey, Petko (Neda’s father) was our guide. He first drove us to the old Russian Orthodox Church in the Balkans. Along the road we could see ancient Thracian tombs. At Pirin Mountain, we trekked along the river and stopped for a brief swim. We then found a more strenuous path (with our trusty guide dog) and climbed for a few hours. Next, we stopped at a beautiful placed where the spiritual healer “Baba Vang” lived and is buried. She was (and is) an important and controversial spiritual leader in Bulgaria. Baba is known for healing many of the sick and left her property as a museum of Christian spirituality for all peoples. It was here that we setup a small picnic and showcased our slack-lining capabilities.
Melnik is a quaint little town near the Greek border in the Southwest. It is known for its wine making and sand pyramid mountains. We awoke early to hike around incredible pyramid shaped dune mountains to Rohsen Monastery. A stray dog named “Black” guided us from the town a few hours up to our destination. Christie setup a tasting with Villa Melnik winery the next day. Their wine production and tasting facility was in the final stages of construction. Nikola (owner) & Didier (French winemaker) picked us up in the town and walked us through their work in progress. We immediately learned that Didier is originally from France and was brought to Melnik for his diverse expertise in viticulture. For example, he has worked all over the world in places like Uruguay, Russia, France, Romania and Turkmenistan.
One of their vineyards sits directly behind the facility where we were offered bushels (straight off the vine) of Melnik, Melnik 55 and other varietals. Their exuberance for the project was unlike any other we’ve experienced while tasting wine. As an added bonus, we stopped at a Rakia distillery on the way to Nikola’s home for the official tasting. The distillery was in some guy’s backyard and consisted of a furnace and distiller. The room was like 150 fahrenheit and the man had burns all over his back. Curiously, we tasted Rakia fresh from small Coca Cola bottles… just enough to give your chest hairs’ a perm (ref. Method Man). The actual wine tasting took place at Nikola’s kitchen table. We engaged in deep conversations about the wines, geology and Didier’s plans to improve each product.
The Melnik grape is unique to Bulgaria and this region of the country. It is known for its broad leaves and affinity to oak. Its taste is uniquely reminiscent with tobacco. We loved our experience so much that we all pitched in for a variety of bottles. Our favorites were the Syrah, Syrah/Merlot & Melnik 55.
Our Bulgarian adventure ended with an epic funicular ride and eight hour hike up Rila Mountain to the Seven Lakes. The lakes are shaped like organs of the body and are said to have healing powers as they are connected (Tear, Eye, Kidney). Early on, someone spotted the “Supreme Cosmic Dance” in the distance. Groups of spiritual teacher Peter Deunov’s followers camp out in the mountains and do circular ritual dances wearing all white costumes. They are called the “White Brotherhood“. Exhausted and exhilarated, we finished our trek with a cold Stolichno beer. Then, we drove to the legendary Rila Monastery for some rest. The Monastery dates back to the 10th century when Ivan of Rila practiced Christianity from his cave in the woods. One of the towers is original and restored for tourism. Inside the church, Petko asked the Priest to see the hand of Saint Ivan. After some time, the Priest appeared and allowed only the Eastern Orthodox viewers to step forward and see the fossilized hand. We later visited a cave dwelling where Saint Ivan lived the last 20 years of his life. Tons of tourists were lined up to see the tiny church, cave and water spring nearby.
It’s hard to believe we packed so much action into nine days. We left feeling super productive and tired at the same time. Neda’s family was amazing and our friends constantly wanted to ensure that we had a good time. I’m still struggling to remember every little detail of the trip. For example, we learned that Bulgarians are super sensitive to their hygiene. They brush their teeth in the kitchen to avoid bad bathroom bacteria. Bulgarian cuisine is second to none. We came away with a few packets of Sharena sol (spicy seasoning) and cravings for Arion (yogurt drink), tarator (yogurt, garlic, cucumber soup), Lutenitza (roasted pepper dip), Shopska salad, Gyuvech (clay pot), Banitsa (funnel cake), Shopska salad, Bob (bean soup), Snejanka (yogurt salad with walnuts), Katuk (yogurt salad with feta and roasted red peppers), Purlenka (yummy bread), Surmi (cabbage rolls), Katmi (crepes). The group questioned if there are any Bulgarian restaurants in the states? Why not?
We kept saying, “wait until you visit San Francisco”….. but honestly, I’m not sure how we can top their hospitality (and food!). Well, we could pick up some dungeonous crab off the boats at Half Moon Bay, tour wine country, see Point Reyes, camp at Yosemite, walk the glass beaches near Mendocino, ski Lake Tahoe, slack-line in Golden Gate Park and check out the local music scene. What do you think?
Ahhhh…. there is no place like home…. except Bulgaria!
See our Photo Albums:
Rila Monastery, Bulgaria
Seven Rila Lakes, Bulgaria
Pirin Mountains, Bulgaria
Shipka Pass, Bulgaria
Stara Zagora, Bulgaria
Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria