We've been contemplating the idea of travelling to Romania for several years but, as it felt like it could be a potentially difficult place to travel, decided that it was contingent on Tim learning to speak some Romanian. Having dabbled with the language a bit over the past couple of years, he decided that 2019 was going to be the year he committed to studying it seriously, and so at the start of this year we decided it was finally time to book a trip to Romania. After our really positive experiences in Macedonia a few years ago, I was also keen to see some of Bulgaria, and so we decided to combine visiting the two countries for the first time into one two-week holiday this summer.
Our trip got off to a very early start, with a 07.15 flight from Gatwick to the Bulgarian city of Burgas. Burgas, which is situated on Bulgaria's Black Sea coast, is not somewhere which we particularly wanted to put on our itinerary when we were initially planning the trip. But, when we were researching flights at the start of the year, we found that flights to Bulgaria were much more limited than flights to Romania, and we found really cheap flights to Burgas with Thomas Cook. I was a little bit apprehensive about flying to the Bulgarian coast, having heard a lot of stories from people who have visited the notorious Bulgarian resort of Sunny Beach (which seems to cater to people who aren't classy enough for Magaluf!) but in the end the price of the flights made the decision for us and we decided to give Burgas a go. It would definitely be exciting to see the Black Sea if nothing else
It turns out that the sort of people who go partying in Sunny Beach don't fly with Thomas Cook, and our flight turned out to be made up of a fairly sedate group of mostly older people. But, after our experience of checking in, I don't think either of us would ever fly with Thomas Cook again! Having left home shortly after 2am and deposited the car at the airport parking, we arrived at Gatwick's South terminal around 04.50 and joined the Thomas Cook queue. Along with everyone else in the queue, we'd already checked in on line and were just queuing for baggage drop. How long could that take?!
It turns out that it could take 1 hour 25 minutes There were several Thomas Cook counters open for baggage drop but they were serving multiple flights, and so there was an enormous queue of people which snaked around six times before getting to the desks. It was like queuing for a roller-coaster, except there weren't those helpful signs telling you that you were 30 minutes away from the front at this point. There were several members of Thomas Cook staff organising the queue, and every so often one of them would shout out to ask whether there was anyone queuing for a flight to Majorca, which was obviously just about to start boarding, and then a handful of people would put their hands up and go to the front of the queue.
This wasn't a problem and over the course of the next hour we made our way towards the front of the queue, until we were in a position where we only had one more loop of the queue left to do before depositing our baggage. Unfortunately, at this point the staff member called out to ask whether there was anyone waiting for a flight to Antalya in Turkey. It turns out that there were in excess of a hundred people in the queue waiting for that flight, most of whom were after us. We were held back while the barriers were opened up and anyone who claimed to be flying to Antalya was allowed to push ahead of us. "Claimed" to be going to Antalya is the key phrase, because no one actually looked at anyone's boarding passes before allowing them to push in, and I later saw at least two people who had pushed ahead of us on our flight to Burgas!
To say we were annoyed would be an understatement Never mind the fact that our hopes of a Wetherspoons breakfast before the flight were gradually slipping away, our boarding passes said that our flight was supposed to start boarding at 06.15 and there didn't seem to be much hope of us depositing our baggage before then. We essentially had to wait until all the Antalya people had checked in, before the staff member decided that Burgas was the next most urgent flight and allowed us to go to a desk. It was after 06.15 by the time we finally checked our bags in and were able to progress to security. By the time we'd got through that, our flight was showing as boarding and we had to go straight to the gate
The flight itself was delayed by air traffic control congestion at Gatwick, so it was around 07.35 before we started taxiing out to the runway. We were absolutely starving by this point - and hadn't had any coffee yet - so couldn't wait for the in-flight food service to begin. Our tickets said that we were entitled to a "standard meal", whatever that meant, which I hadn't booked deliberately but had a vague recollection of acquiring as a result of booking checked baggage. Once we'd finally taken off and the cabin crew started making announcements about food, there was no mention of meals though. Instead there was an extremely limited catalogue of snacks to order from the trolley.
In desperation, we bought some shortbread biscuits and a bag of chocolate fingers to eat for breakfast (this was honestly the best choice from the menu ), as well as a cup of coffee each. We'd just finished eating those - and were flying somewhere over the middle of Germany - when a flight attendant suddenly popped up and handed us a meal It turned out that we were getting an entire breakfast, which included sausage, bacon and scrambled eggs, as well as yoghurt and an apple and cinnamon muffin. I didn't exactly feel like a cooked breakfast after chocolate fingers, but now that we'd been handed it we kinda had to eat it and it was actually quite nice. Plus we got a free coffee
Having flown over France, Belgium and Germany, the flight proceeded across the Czech Republic, Hungary and Romania, before finally reaching Bulgaria. I fell asleep somewhere over Hungary, only waking up again when we were close to landing in Burgas. Bulgaria is two hours ahead of the UK, so despite the very early start it was after 1pm local time when we landed.
I'd struggled a bit with researching how to get from Burgas airport to Burgas. There didn't seem to be a lot of information online and everything I did find linked to the website of Burgas airport, which seems to be permanently down. I've come to the conclusion that there probably isn't much demand for this kind of information, because virtually everybody who was on our flight either got into a taxi or a Thomas Cook coach. When we found the public bus stop outside the terminal, there was literally no one else there (which is pretty unusual for an airport bus stop!).
Bus number 15 runs between the airport and Burgas and tickets cost 1.50 lev each, which equates to 69p. It was like St Petersburg, in that we had to purchase the tickets from a lady walking up and down the bus. What I hadn't realised was that buses going in both directions stop at the same airport bus stop and, oblivious to this, we'd got on a bus heading in the wrong direction. After 10 minutes or so it reached its terminus, turned around and proceeded to drive back to the airport to pick up more people. From there, the journey took another 20 minutes or so to reach the main bus station in Burgas.
The hotel we are staying in tonight is about 2.5 miles from the bus station and we'd decided to walk. We should perhaps have taken a taxi, but with it being our first day in a new country we didn't really know how much anything should cost, and it was a nice sunny day so we didn't really mind walking. Our first impressions of Burgas was that it seemed pleasant, although Bulgaria doesn't seem to go in for street signs in a big way, which made navigating slightly more difficult. We found our hotel without too much trouble though and have got a nice room, for which we paid 71 lev (£33) for the night; a bargain, which includes breakfast!
By the time we got the hotel, we were exhausted after the early start and needed a nap. My nap went on slightly longer than intended, and so it was early evening by the time we set out again in search of food. From the hotel we walked through a shady park towards the coast. There were various seaside attractions in the park; ice-cream stalls, people selling religious icons, and an exhibition of enormous sand sculptures
From there we weren't far from the coast, and a few minutes later we got our first view of the Black Sea
Although it was a warm day, it was quite breezy by this stage and we could see a pair of enormous Bulgarian and EU flags blowing in the wind.
The beach itself seemed really sandy
A little further along there was a pier, which we walked out onto to get a few back down towards where we had been.
We weren't far away from the centre of town now, which was pretty busy as it was Saturday night.
We managed to track down a restaurant where the menu had pictures and English translations. The waitress explained that the restaurant had two menus - one for sushi and one for Greek food - so we decided to go with Greek Tim ordered beef with Greek vegetables (Greek vegetables turned out to be potato and spring onion)...
...while I had strips of beef in a tomato sauce.
Both were really nice. We also had a large bottle of water, two beers and 375ml of Bulgarian wine, which in total came to around 48 lev (£22). I think Bulgaria is going to turn out to be good value for money!
By the time we'd finished eating, darkness had fallen.
The park was well lit at night, so we walked back through it towards the hotel.
We passed a small church...
...a musical performance...
...and a colourful fountain display
...before making it back to the hotel
I started the holiday with low expectations for Burgas, but it's actually been really pleasant and our first impressions of Bulgaria so far are really positive Tomorrow we'll be leaving the coast behind and travelling onwards to our next destination: Plovdiv.