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  1. Today it was time for us to leave Veliko Tarnovo (and Bulgaria) behind as we travelled to this holiday's second country: Romania. One of the reasons that I'd planned Veliko Tarnovo as the final stop on our Bulgarian tour was that, on paper, it looked like this would be the easiest place from which to get to Bucharest by train. However, when I looked into it more thoroughly, I realised that that the trains to Bucharest don't depart from the station in Veliko Tarnovo, but from the station at Gorna Oryahovitsa where we had to change on our way from Sofia the other day. That wouldn't be a problem in and of itself, except for the fact that there are only a handful of trains between Veliko Tarnovo and Gorna Oryahovitsa each day, and they don't co-ordinate in any way with the trains to Bucharest. So if we'd wanted to travel by train, we would have had to entertain ourselves in Gorna Oryahovitsa railway station between 10.25 and 13.15 while we waited for a connection. I thought about it for a while, before deciding to book bus tickets instead I'd booked tickets online with Flixbus and our bus was departing from Veliko Tarnovo bus station at 12.45. That meant I was able to have a nice lie in this morning, after a relatively late evening last night seeing the light show and finishing the blog Our bus arrived promptly and was more comfortable than the bus on which we'd travelled from Burgas to Plovdiv earlier in the week. That was good, because the journey to Bucharest was scheduled to take around 4.5 hours. The tickets had been very reasonably priced, at around £10 each, including a seat reservation. We left Veliko Tarnovo and travelled through the rocky river valley that we'd been looking at from the fortress yesterday. From here the route led through increasingly flat countryside until, after a couple of hours, we got close to the border near the Bulgarian city of Ruse. The Bulgarian-Romanian border is marked by the Danube, and first of all our bus had to join what seemed to be a queue for permits to cross the bridge. The Danube is incredibly wide at this point. Once we'd crossed the river, we were officially in Romania Almost straightaway, a member of the border police got on board to collect up our passports. Our bus then had to pull over into a bay and wait for half an hour or so before the passports were returned to us. I never like being separated from my passport, but it was relatively painless as border crossings go. The bus was due to arrive in Bucharest at 16.10 but it was running a bit behind schedule by this point - and we got caught in some traffic trying to get into Bucharest - so it was nearer 17.00 by the time we pulled into Bucharest's Autogara Militari. This was not a terribly scenic bus station, on the outskirts of the capital. However, our research had suggested that it was going to be relatively simple to get into the centre of town from here via the metro. The only slight problem was that when we stepped out of the bus station, we couldn't see anything which looked like a metro station or indeed any signs towards one. Tim tested out his Romanian by asking a taxi driver where it was, and soon we were on our way The metro was unbelievably cheap and two tickets cost us 5 lei (95p). When the train came it was modern and spacious and we had plenty of room for our luggage. It was notably different from the metros we've used this year in Russia and Ukraine though, because the escalators were incredibly short; no sooner had we stepped onto them then it was time to get off again We got off the metro at a stop called Piața Romană, from where our apartment was only a short walk away. I'd had a message from the owner earlier in the week, explaining that it was self check-in and giving me a code for the key safe, as well as photos of what the apartment door looked like etc. We found the correct place with no problems and everything worked like clockwork. The apartment is lovely inside. We've got a living area... ....with a dining table, and a small kitchen in a separate room. The bedroom comes complete with its own air-conditioning unit, in addition to the one in the living room. Accommodation in Romania is (slightly!!) more expensive than in Bulgaria, and so this place has cost £36 per night. Once we'd unpacked a little bit we headed out to explore the neighbourhood and get some food. As we'd been walking from the metro station to our apartment, we'd passed this really beautiful building. It turns out that this is the Romanian Athenaeum, a concert hall opened in 1888. There seemed to be some sort of concert being screened in the square outside it. A little further down the road, this impressive building is the central university library. The statue outside is of King Carol 1 of Romania. Our first impressions of Bucharest are that there are some really beautiful buildings, interspersed with some really ugly ones We found this pretty yellow house, for example, overshadowed by a large communist-looking building behind... ...while this building made me feel like we were already in Transylvania We're definitely looking forward to exploring more of the city tomorrow
  2. Our two-night stay in Veliko Tarnovo coincides with Unification Day in Bulgaria, celebrating the unification of Eastern Rumelia and Bulgaria in 1885. It's a national holiday which falls on September 6 and in Veliko Tarnovo happens to feature an elaborate sound-and-light show. We set off in the evening and straightaway saw that the fountains in our nearby park were illuminated after darkness had fallen: They colours changed every few seconds: We'd soon paced through the town, past the Hanged Rebels Memorial, which looked a lot more noticeable in the dark: Within a few minutes we caught a glimpse of the fortress in the distance: We needed to get a lot closer, which meant passing the cathedral: Some of the fortress walls were extremely bright: Eventually we reached the entrance and were standing with a crowd: The lights were dimmed... ... and then various sections were lit up... ... one after the other... ... until the whole complex was glowing: We were spoilt for choice with colourschemes: Soon the fortress was shooting lasers: Until hitting the best colourscheme of all: After that, the scene turned red and the sound recording accompanying the display stopped: You can get to experience a similar display thanks to a recording which somebody uploaded: And with that, we and the thousands of other people watching dispersed. Today's been a long day but fortunately we don't have to check out until noon tomorrow for our afternoon trip to Bucharest, and the bus station is only a two-minute walk away, so we can have a lie-in in the morning to recover before heading on our first ever visit to Romania!
  3. We woke up this morning excited to explore Veliko Tarnovo. Veliko Tarnovo was the medieval capital of Bulgaria and is supposed to be one of the most picturesque towns in the country Armed with a tourist map from our apartment, we set off in the direction of the town centre. First of all we passed the military monument which we had seen last night. Unbeknown to us when we booked our trip, 6 September is a national holiday in Bulgaria. We'd noticed earlier in the week that some of the places we visited had roads called "6 September Street" and it turns out that's because 6 September is Unification Day, which commemorates the unification of Bulgaria and Eastern Rumelia in 1885. It seems to be a holiday which is taken seriously here, and we'd arrived at the monument just in time to see a Bulgarian military parade That was rather a surprise! Once it was over, we continued on our way down the main street. Lots of the buildings here were decorated with Bulgarian flags and also bright purple ones, which we assume must be the flag of Veliko Tarnovo. The guidebook said that there was some interesting architecture in Veliko Tarnovo. This house was marked on our tourist map as "The Monkey House". It's got this creature, which we assume is supposed to be a monkey on the facade, but we're not sure why! After the monkey house, we found ourselves on a street called Samovodska Charshia. This is the street where the town's market and craftsmen used to be located. Today there are lots of souvenir shops, but it's still a really pretty road to walk along. There were lots of pretty buildings back down on the main road too. As we turned a corner, we got a glimpse of what we assumed must be the town's cathedral. As we began to walk towards it, we got our first proper view towards Veliko Tarnovo's most impressive sight: the Tsarevets fortress. Veliko Tarnovo is situated on the banks of the Yantra river, and we could also see some of a rocky river gorge in the distance. From here we could look up towards the cathedral. The cathedral was initially built in 1844 but was destroyed by an earthquake in the same year and had to be rebuilt! Just past the cathedral, there was a booth to buy tickets for the castle. It cost 6 lev each (£2.76). Once we had our tickets, we were able to begin walking up towards the fortress. This big lion marked the entrance. It was impressive how intact the fortress walls are and how much of them it seemed like we were going to be able to walk along. The fortress at Tsarevets was the most important fortress of the Second Bulgarian Empire, which existed between 1185 and 1393. Veliko Tarnovo was the capital of the empire and the most prosperous city in Bulgaria during the period. Inside the fortress walls were a church, royal palace and over 400 residential buildings. The fortress was repeatedly attacked by the Ottomans and was ultimately conquered in 1393, after a long siege, marking the end of the Bulgarian empire. It was clear when walking around what a great location it would have been for a fortress. We could see down towards the town... ...including back towards the cathedral... ...and we could see along the river gorge in the other direction as well. From here we really got a feel for what an unusual town Veliko Tarnovo is, perched on the banks of the river, and why it had been so hard to figure out where to walk to get from the train station to where we're staying. The building at the very top of the fortress hill is the Ascension Cathedral. This was the home of the Bulgarian patriarch until 1393. The building was destroyed by the Ottomans and reconstructed in the twentieth century. From up by the cathedral there were some amazing views There was a bit of a breeze, but it wasn't quite windy enough to blow the huge Bulgarian flag on the top of the fortress to its full extent. Looking down from the fortress we caught sight of some churches in the lower part of the town. There was this one, which looked like it was made out of brick... ...and this one (you may only just be able to make it out, below the bridge) which looked like it had a gold-domed roof. As we climbed down from the fortress, we decided to head down to that part of town next to explore. We began to walk on a downhill road, in the shadow of the fortress walls. As we got lower we could see two bridges across the river Yantra. Before long, we came to our first church. This was the Holy Forty Martyrs Church, originally built in 1230. The church was heavily damaged by earthquakes but has been reconstructed to look how it would have done in medieval times and the remains of various Bulgarian emperors are buried here. Just behind the church, there's a big stone bridge across the river. Beyond that, we found the church with the golden roof We crossed the river on a wooden bridge, known as the Bishop's Bridge. It was built in 1774, funded by the local bishop. The wooden boards felt a bit creaky in places as we walked across, but there were some beautiful views We found a little restaurant to get some food, just below the bridge. It was one of those places where the menu was a list of all the things it might be possible to order at some point in time The waiter explained to us that our options today were grilled pork, grilled chicken, kebabs or a salad. Tim went for the chicken, while I had kebapche, which tasted very similar to Croatian ćevapi. The food was beautiful, and for pudding we both had baklava Definitely one of the best views we've had lunch to, and the entire meal cost around £17. Once we'd finished eating it was time to climb back uphill towards the town centre. On our way back to the apartment, we took a slightly different route to the one we had in the morning, and found a couple of viewing terraces we'd missed. From here we could see out across the more modern part of town and the countryside beyond. Then it was back along the colourful streets and towards our air-conditioning to cool off for a bit We were planning to go out again later in the evening, in the hope of witnessing a light display to celebrate the national holiday.
  4. Today it was time for us to leave Sofia behind and set off towards our final Bulgarian destination: Veliko Tarnovo. We were planning to travel by train, but after our experience of being stuck in a very hot and stuffy Bulgarian train carriage for the comparatively short journey between Plovdiv and Sofia on Tuesday, we were slightly apprehensive about the journey from Sofia to Veliko Tarnovo, which is about twice as long. When I was reading up on Bulgarian trains in the guidebook the other day, I'd realised that we could actually have done the Plovdiv-Sofia journey in first class for only a couple of extra lev than we paid for second, so we decided to investigate how much it would cost to buy first class tickets for today's journey. The difference between first and second class on Bulgarian trains seems to be limited to the fact that second class carriages have eight seats per compartment, whereas first class carriages only have six, but we figured the extra space might be nice. We had toyed with the idea of trying to catch the metro to the train station in Sofia this morning but the metro map seemed a bit confusing when I looked at it last night, so in the end we decided to walk. It was a nice stroll in the morning sunshine, and we arrived at the station at around 09.30 with plenty of time to buy our tickets and get to the platform before our train departed at 10am. I knew from the guidebook that Sofia station is quite regimented in terms of which sort of tickets can be bought from which desk, and that for same-day travel in Bulgaria tickets we needed to make our way to desks 1 - 13 on the lower floor. We obviously didn't look decisive enough when we walked into the station though, because no sooner had we arrived and started looking around, then we were pounced on by a man who claimed to be in charge of information. He did have a badge saying "information" around his neck, but I wasn't 100% sure whether he was a genuine employee or not, because I was sure I'd read somewhere about people trying to accost tourists in train stations and help them buy tickets, then demand money. He was quite persistent though and when we said we wanted to go to Veliko Tarnovo, he marched us downstairs to the correct ticket counter, inserted us in what to me looked like the middle of a queue rather than the end, and proceeded to help us buy the tickets. He may have thought he was scamming us when, when the ticket lady asked whether we wanted a seat, he said to her in Bulgarian "Give them first class", but given that this is what we'd already decided to ask for it worked out quite well Unbelievably, the cost of first class tickets worked out as 19 lev (£8.71) each. It costs me more than that to get to work every day! Tim gave the man some small change to say thank you/make him go away and he didn't want to accept it at first, so maybe he was a genuine customer service employee! We soon found our way to the platform and settled in to the train compartment, which was indeed a lot roomier than than the one we'd travelled in the other day There are no direct trains between Sofia and Veliko Tarnovo. Instead, trains on the Sofia line stop at a nearby station called Gorna Oryahovitsa, about 10km from Veliko Tarnovo, which seems to be a major railway junction. The journey to Gorna Oryahovitsa takes around 4 hours, and we were due to arrive there at 13.53. It turned out to be a very scenic journey as we left Sofia behind and travelled through some really pretty countryside. The hills progressed from being forested to quite rocky in places, as the train travelled along the route of the river Iskar, a tributary of the Danube. Every so often we passed through little settlements, but there weren't many large towns. We arrived in Gorna Oryahovitsa promptly at 13.53 and our second train to Veliko Tarnovo was due to depart at 14.15. It was delayed for 15 minutes or so for unspecified reasons, a bit bizarrely as it was already at the station when we arrived, but at least that meant we were able to sit on it while we waited for departure. The journey on the second train was brief - only 20 minutes or so - but I had to track where we were on my maps app because there don't seem to be any announcements at all on Bulgarian trains and the signs with station names are quite low key. Once we got to Veliko Tarnovo, we weren't entirely sure how we were going to get to our apartment. On paper it looked like it was only 2km away, but every time I looked at a map of Veliko Tarnovo I just got confused. The station is a bit outside the main town, in what seems to be an industrial zone, and it wasn't clear from the map what the best way to walk to the town centre would be. We thought we might have found a route but, when we came out of the station, we found that there were no signs and also no pavements, so we decided to admit defeat and jump in a taxi. Tim asked the taxi driver how much it was going to cost, trying to make sure that we didn't get scammed. The taxi driver seemed slightly affronted by the question and told us that he had a meter. In the end it cost a mere 3.50 lev, despite the fact that we drove around in circles for a bit trying to find the exact street that our apartment was on, and Tim gave him 5 lev (£2.30 - I'm pretty sure more than that is already on the clock before you even step into a taxi in Nuneaton!). The building which our apartment was in didn't look terribly appealing from the outside but, once we got inside, it turned out to be lovely There's a large bedroom... ...and a nice living/dining area with a kitchen. Not bad for £27.50 per night! The only slightly strange thing is that when you switch on the light in the bathroom, it starts playing what I assume is supposed to be relaxing music out of a speaker in the ceiling Once we'd settled in to the apartment, we set out to see a little bit of the town and try to find some dinner. Not far from our apartment there's a park... ...with a huge complex of fountains. Fountains seem to be big in Bulgaria! We didn't have to go much further before we found a large statue in a square. This is the Monument to Mother Bulgaria, which commemorates losses in the Russo-Turkish and First World Wars. We spotted that there was a restaurant opposite the square with a nice terrace, so we decided to go there for some dinner. We were rather hungry, having missed lunch while on the train, so had pudding as well as a main course. Despite the fact that we had wine and coffee too, we still didn't manage to spend more than £23. By the time we'd finished eating we were stuffed, so we decided to save exploring the rest of Veliko Tarnovo until tomorrow
  5. Today we had a full day to explore Sofia We had a leisurely start to the morning in our apartment and then, before heading into the main city centre, decided to explore one of Sofia's large parks, which I'd seen marked on a map of the city. Our apartment wasn't too far from Borisova gradina, Sofia's oldest park which was created in 1884. We found the park without too much difficulty and started strolling around. First impressions were that it was virtually deserted and felt more like a forest than a park. We walked for quite a long time on wooded paths which felt more like they were in the middle of the countryside than in the middle of a capital city! Eventually we reached the far end of the park and, when we started walking back along the other side, we found ourselves in a part which seemed a bit more like a conventional park. The large obelisk in the distance is a Communist monument, known as the Mound of Brotherhood. A bit further on we found this pond, whose surface was almost completely covered in water lilies. At the edge of the park there is a lake and a good view towards the mountains outside the town. We crossed over Sofia's river via Eagle's Bridge. Given how small the river is, they have put some effort into the bridges On the other side of the bridge, we found the Monument to the Soviet Army. This was erected in 1954 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the liberation of Sofia by the Soviets, but today it is a controversial monument and is periodically vandalised. The main sight we wanted to find today was the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, which is one of the biggest Orthodox cathedrals in the world. Construction on the cathedral started in 1882 and it was completed in 1912. It was named after St Alexander Nevsky, a Russian prince, to honour the Russian soldiers who died liberating Bulgaria in the Russo-Turkish war. It's definitely an enormous church. We walked all the way around it, enjoying the views. Just behind the cathedral is Sofia's art gallery, which is also an attractive building. On the other side of the road, this ornate building is the home of the patriarch of the Bulgarian Orthodox church. Meanwhile, this very unassuming church is the church of St Sophia, originally built in the 4th century, and the church which gave the city its name. There was one more church which I really wanted to see. This is Sofia's Russian Orthodox church, built as the official church of the Russian embassy in Sofia. It had a really beautiful facade. Once we'd seen the Russian church, we were almost back in the part of Sofia which we'd visited yesterday. In the main square, near to where we'd found the underpass with the archaeological remains, we caught sight of this rather unusual statue. It turns out that it's a statue of St Sofia, which was erected here in 2000, replacing a statue of Lenin which had previously stood in the same spot. Although we'd already been in this part of town yesterday, we decided to stroll around and look at some of the sights again. We realised that from this point we could see the mosque and the synagogue at the same time. We also found this little medieval church, which we'd missed yesterday. It's named after St Petka, the patron saint of saddlers, and was discovered during excavations after the Second World War. We were hungry by this point so set off down the main shopping street in search of somewhere to get lunch. We found a nice restaurant where I had pizza and Tim tried some Bulgarian sausages. Again, very good value at about £18 for the meal. It was a really hot day again in Bulgaria, so we went back to the apartment for a while to enjoy the air-conditioning, heading out again once it was a bit cooler. There was a second park marked on the map of Sofia, so we decided to explore that. The map had a "National Palace of Culture" marked on the map in the middle of the park, which sounded like it might be something impressive. It turned out to be this big concrete building The fountains were pretty though! We've had a great time in Sofia Tomorrow we're on the move again, heading towards our next destination of Veliko Tarnovo.
  6. We had a great time in Plovdiv yesterday, but we're not staying anywhere long on this holiday and today it was time to move on to our next destination: Sofia. We were travelling to the Bulgarian capital by train, so our first task was to find Plovdiv's main railway station. Tim succeeded in navigating us down a scenic route, so we were able to see Plovdiv's colourful main street one more time. The guidebook had warned that the queues to buy train tickets in Bulgaria could be enormous, so we'd arrived at the train station with plenty of time to spare. It turns out that I needn't have worried; the queues were quite small this morning and we got served within a few minutes. The train fare from Plovdiv to Sofia - a journey of around 100 miles - cost 9 lev each (£4.17). We were charged an extra half a lev each (23p!) to make a seat reservation. I wasn't sure how much to budget for travel in Bulgaria originally, because the part of the Bulgarian trains website which is supposed to show prices seems to be permanently down, but I don't think I need to worry about not having enough cash The train itself arrived promptly and the seats were reasonably comfortable, but the train was incredibly hot. There were windows which could be opened, and periodically someone would open one in the corridor, letting a nice bit of breeze into our compartment for a while, but then someone else with a fear of draughts would come along and close it and it would be very hot and stuffy again! The journey itself was scenic, taking us through some mountainous countryside towards Sofia. It took us just over 2.5 hours to get to the capital. Once we arrived, we had a walk of a couple of miles to our apartment. The area around the train station wasn't terribly scenic, but as we got closer to the centre of town, things improved. We crossed a bridge known as the Lions' Bridge, which was quite imposing. It crosses the river Vladayska, which was a bit underwhelming From here the city started to look a lot more appealing. Some of the pavements were very uneven though, which made pulling our suitcases hard work. There were also some busy main roads, which had to be crossed by going down steps into an underpass; not the most fun in the world when you've got heavy cases. We went down into what I thought looked like a particularly grotty underpass... ...and were surprised to find that it seemed to be home to some sort of archaeological remains From there it wasn't far to our apartment. The owner had sent me a message on Whatsapp to say that it was next to a bank and to text him when we were outside. I was glad for the directions because I think we would have struggled to find the correct building otherwise! Checking it was a rather surreal experience. The guy who owned the apartment communicated with us by speaking Bulgarian into Google Translate and showing us the English version! It worked remarkably well The apartment seems really good, with a comfy living area... ...a large kitchen... ...and a nice bedroom too At 88 lev per night (£41) it's more expensive than our apartment in Plovdiv, but Sofia is the capital and we are in quite a central location here. Once we'd settled in and enjoyed the air-conditioning for a bit, we set out to get some food and to explore a bit more of Sofia. Not far from our apartment is the Sveti Sedmochislenitsi Church. This is a Bulgarian Orthodox church, inside what was formerly an Ottoman mosque. We'd seen some really impressive buildings while we were walking with our cases earlier, so we wanted to try and retrace our steps to take some photos. This building seemed to be something to do with the Bulgarian president. There were uniformed guards on duty outside. We went back into the underpass to have a closer look at the remains. It turns out these are the remains of the ancient city of Serdica and were only discovered within the past few years when construction work was taking place on the Sofia metro. We saw a few bits of mosaics... not quite as impressive as the ones we'd seen in Sicily in July, but definitely the most interesting underpass I've ever been in Once we'd come up the opposite side of the underpass we caught sight of a mosque in the distance. This is the Banya Bashi Mosque, which was built in 1566. It's still a functioning mosque today and as we walked around it, we heard the call to prayer. Behind the mosque we found this beautiful yellow building. It was historically home to Sofia's public mineral baths, but is now a museum. A little further on, we found Sofia's synagogue, which is one of the largest synagogues in Europe. By this stage we were back near the Lion Bridge As we made our way back towards the apartment, we caught a glimpse of what looked like a pretty church. It really was just a glimpse, because it was surrounded by trees When we crossed the road and got around to the other side of it, we had a better view This is the church of St Nedelya. We'd almost managed to come round in a circle back to our apartment by this point. First impressions of Sofia are that it seems like a small but pleasant capital, and we're looking forward to exploring some more of it tomorrow
  7. We had a leisurely start to the day in Plovdiv this morning, before setting out to explore the town. Plovdiv is Bulgaria's second city and is European Capital of Culture for 2019. The city is situated on the Maritsa river and the apartment we are staying in is just to the north of the river, whereas the main town centre is on the south, so our first task was to locate a bridge. The guidebook says that Plovdiv is built on six hills and it felt like we had to walk up several of them to get to the old town once we'd crossed the river. It was worth it, though; the old town is home to some really unusual buildings, built in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in a style known as "national revival" architecture. Bulgaria was still ruled by the Ottomans at this time, but there was a growing national consciousness and a middle class who could afford to build some impressive houses. This bright blue one, known as the Hindliyan House, was built in 1835 by a merchant who had made his money trading in India. Lots of the houses were really colourful, with beautiful decorations on the front. Some of them are now museums, but many others are still lived in by people today. As we were walking around, I was a bit confused that several buildings seemed to be displaying what, on first glance, looked like an Argentinian flag. It turns out this is actually the flag of Plovdiv As we got towards the centre of the old town, we caught sight of one of Plovdiv's main churches, the church of St Constantine and Elena, with its pretty bell tower. Around the corner from here was the Hisar Kapia, a medieval gate into the old town, built in the 11th century. From here we followed a cobbled street uphill. It was so narrow that the houses almost touched in the middle. This took us to a place called Nebet Tepe, which is one of the hills where ancient Plovdiv was founded. We could see out across the modern part of town where we are staying... ...but the views out towards the old town and the mountains beyond were more scenic We could just make out the minaret of one of Plovdiv's Ottoman mosques. Plovdiv isn't just famous for it's more modern architecture; there are also Roman remains here. The city is home to one of the world's best preserved Roman theatres and that's where we were heading next. It cost 5 lev (£2.33) each to buy a ticket to enter the theatre, which seemed like good value. When we walked through the entrance, this was the view that greeted us. The theatre is enormous and can apparently seat over 5,000 people. It was built in the 1st century AD and lay buried for hundreds of years before finally being rediscovered following a landslide in the 1970s. Today it is used for concerts and plays, so there was a bit of sound and lighting equipment lying around. Tim climbed all the way down to the bottom but I stayed at the top, enjoying the views It really was an incredible location and definitely worth seeing. After the theatre, we made our way back down through the old town, towards the more modern city centre. On the way we passed the Church of the Assumption, which in the mid-nineteenth century was at the centre of the struggle for an independent Bulgarian Orthodox church, when the bishop of Plovdiv began to hold church services in Bulgarian. The inscription on the tower reads "In memory of the liberators" in gratitude to the Russian soldiers who liberated Plovdiv from the Ottomans in 1878. Following the treaty of San Stefano later in 1878, Plovdiv became the capital of a newly independent Bulgaria. But the treaty didn't last long and after the Congress of Berlin, the region of Eastern Rumelia was separated from the rest of Bulgaria. Plovdiv became the capital of Eastern Rumelia instead until the region was reunified with Bulgaria in 1885. By that time, however, Sofia was firmly established as the Bulgarian capital and Plovdiv has been the second city ever since. Once we were down in the town centre, we found the mosque which we had seen while up on the hill. This is the Dzhumaya Mosque, which was built in the 14th century and is believed to be one of the oldest European mosques. It's located just in front of the remains of Plovdiv's Roman stadium, built in the second century AD. It was free to climb down into the stadium and have a look around From here we walked along Plovdiv's main shopping street. Even though this was the more modern part of town, there were still some really pretty buildings, decorated in pastel colours. We found a nice restaurant to get some food; pizza for me and chicken with broccoli(!) for Tim. We finished up with tiramisu for me and cheesecake for Tim. Again it was really cheap - less than £20. After lunch we had another stroll around. We found the Roman Odeon, where it looked like renovation and excavation work was still ongoing. We also walked to Plovdiv's main park, the park of Tsar Simeon. Hopefully this is the closest we'll get to a bear during our trip The park is home to something called "The Lake of the Singing Fountains". It looked like a swimming pool with fountains in it But apparently there is a light display with classical music at weekends. By this stage we were pretty hot, so we decided to start making our way back through the town towards our apartment to cool off and blog. Plovdiv is a really beautiful city and we've had a lovely day here
  8. 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.
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