Missing the Kiwi Christmas once again, this time for a big Orphans Christmas in Bansko, Bulgaria leaving behind London. We headed to Stanstead with an early 4am start with friends from home; Larissa, Leights, Briar and their friends Katie, Amanda and Jane.
Once we arrived to Sofia and out of the airport, we made our way past the taxi drivers and into our rental car. Karen, our trusty GPS, didn’t recognise anything in the area apart from one pink line shown on the map, making it a difficult exit from Sofia. The driving laws state you need to drive with lights on, probably due to the smoky haze everywhere. Luckily Mitch researched this, but the girls in the other car didn’t and got pulled over. “Money or Fine” enquired the officer with his hand out. After avoiding the bribe, the officer decided it wasn’t worth his effort to write a ticket and gave up. We took 2 hours to get through the town and onto the main highway avoiding a few horse and carts and having our first experience of Bulgarian drivers. Eventually we found a supermarket, at this stage being completely hungry and grumpy at each other because we had taken a wrong turn. Inside we found everything ridiculously cheap, although nothing familiar, and all with cryllic labelling, nonetheless we managed to make a sandwich which hit the spot before we were chased out of the carpark by a homeless man. Making it back to the turnoff we then found the road to Bansko, reading cryllic signs meant we had to look for Банско… a few signs with Latin characters helped us later on.
Bansko was a ski town, built in the style of the Apres French Alps. However, with a few old places run down and in a half destroyed state of disrepair. Bansko has grown in popularity over the past 20 years since the fall of communism and the Soviet Empire. This influx hit its peak leading up to the recession and now a few projects remain, half built and now falling into a similar state of half completed disrepair. Our apartment was directly across from the Ski lift, a literal 100m walk to snow and perfect for those inclined to get some days on the slopes in. The rate was 110 Bulgarian Lev ($100NZD) per person for the week (not per night, for the week!). The elevator inside had just been repaired and we didn’t have much trust in it after the first ride. We opted for the stairs, but the automatic lights kept going out, making for a few hazards. Tim our host let us know all the best areas in Bansko, with personal recommendations all within walking distance. He even invited us first to the one out back, the ”Log House” a hunters lodge with bear skins, stuffed birds and foxes on the walls. Scanning through the menu we settled on the ones that had pictures, settling on the “bundle” (gherkin, capsicum, onion tomato, chicken and pork in a cob loaf) with a side of mishmash (egg, flour and capsicum), all garnished with dill (Leight’s favourite). Tim sent us a Bulgarian brandy at 45%. We also sent him a few things back too! Eventually we finished up with a Bulgarian Homemade Cake for dessert and finished off the day very tired and keen for the days ahead.
A few girls managed to make it up for a snowboard on the slopes, but the icy slopes didn’t make a great day for it. The rest of us decided to have a mission down the road to the Old Town. There we found a few beggars, obituaries on every town door and a big bird nest at the top of the church. We were the only tourist (English speaking) looking people around. The markets were full of bunches of dill, vegetables and St Johns’ Wort. We found one girl in a tracksuit top, sneakers and jeans set up her own mobile hip-hop busking on the pavement. Later in the day we took the car and went up the hill to find a Xmas pine. With a few on the lookout we wrenched it a 4ft sapling out of the ground and a few rocks to hold it in place. Tam was also going to steal a few Christmas decorations from a local tree, but chickened out when she got shooed away by the bouncer at the local strippers, we settled for a few decorations from home.
Our dinner at a local restaurant up in the forest with famously rude waiters didn’t disappoint. We enjoyed our Bulgarian Sache of grilled meat with capsicum, onion and gherkins as they looked into space and drank the odd beer behind the bar. We probably were rude customers too, but had learned a few basic Bulgarian sayings; hello = zdravei, thank you = mersi (like French), and cheers = nazdrave. A couple of kids loaded up the fireplace with pinecones and bark from outside.
Today the weather was much better for skiing, Tam opted not to rent a snowboard, joining Mitch on the ski’s. We found the rental again, much cheaper than back home. On the gondala we shared ours with a ski instructor from the coastal city of Varna. He shared his home brewed rose wine and apricot brandy with us. Apparently, every Bulgarian has a homebrew distillery in his basement and likes to brew up their own potent mix. The ski lifts and bars pumped out the hits of the 80’s and 90’s – Bryan Adams and Rod Stewart a favourite. We guessed that after communism, they were still playing catch up. On the slopes, Mitch, only on his second ever day of skiing, had a few hard falls coming down one of the more advanced slopes the steepest part brought back memories of his last trip with Tamson and her sister Rach, where all his skiing confidence was practically ruined. Larissa had a hard day on the slopes too with a bruised tailbone. Tam got up to a bit of mischief with Briar going cross country and into some closed runs. She also found a little dog on the snow, dancing up and down like a bear on hot plate. Even though that practice was popular in Bulgaria, it was outlawed about 20 years ago. We were hoping to actually go see the former dancing bears, but they were hibernating for the winter.
On Christmas Eve, we took a drive to Melnik, partly to see the old medieval town and monastery and also to get some Secret Santa gifts. We got a good view of the sand pyramids, local features of erosion and the Rozah Monastery. Melnik itself is a popular tourist spot, famous for its wines – the red being one of Winston Churchill’s favourites. After a bit of competition between the local restaurants, we settled on one with a barbecue being attacked by the local cats. We had a good sausage and a milk salad (garlic, gherkins and yoghurt) with fries (all covered in dill of course), then bought a few bottles of red and raspberry wine, tasting a bit of fig wine along the way. Back in Bansko we honoured the 40 day pre-Christmas tradition of the Bulgarians and went vegetarian (one night only) cooking a vege curry. Tam skyped her family for their Christmas morning get together and we had a big night out on the town at the tourist bars and the more local cheaper places. Drinking at home is pretty good, just $3 NZD for a 2L bottle of beer, made for a good night!
To start Christmas day we were persuaded to join a morning run and were lucky enough to find a local street party, all dancing in their goatskin costumes, designed to scare children to home. Men danced with large bells attached. A real authentic experience. Back at the flat, we skyped Mitch’s Mum and Dad, who were bunched up in the ute outside the Four Square Whitianga, using the Wi-Fi. We also skyped his brother Cam, who was having pretty bad weather conditions back in the UK.
To make the day extra Christmassy, we (the girls) made a snowman while the boys threw a few snowballs and spent most of the time going down hill on a plough (bum sliding). That night we had dinner at Baryakova Tavern, the best restuarant by far, complete with dancing, live music and a lamb shoulder that melted off the bone. Bulgarian cuisine in our eyes had really outdone itself.
For boxing day we took a 4 hour trip to Buzludzha, a massive communist monument on the ridge of a mountain in the centre of Bulgaria. Once there, as we made our way up the switchbacks of the mountain, we found more and more ice. We found a spot to park and walked on foot through the snow covered forest (rumoured to contain bears, wolves and cross country skiers). The skier gave directions up the hill, which followed large statues. Buzludzha cost the Bulgarian Soviet State $7 million US to build in 1981, which was a fair sum for the state. The operation of the place used to cut power to nearby villages and the crimson star beacon could be seen for miles. Since 1989 and the fall of the Soviet Empire the site has been neglected and left in a state of disrepair, popular for urban explorers. The main door is welded shut, but a small door in the side you apparently can crawl in. We got close, within a couple hundred metres, but turned back as conditions got quite bad on the ridge –with high winds and thick fog limiting visibility. Mitch was disappointed, but was best to turn back with the elements. Will have to make it back here someday.
In Plovdiv, on the road back, we took the time to see a few Roman ruins and have probably the greasiest kebab of our lives stuffed with chips. Compared to other areas we had been in, this was a bit run down with not much to see, being closed for Boxing Day. The driving if we haven’t already mentioned it, was crazy. The drivers were really quick to overtake, tailgated, passed with almost no space. After an 8 hour return trip, Mitch was a bit stressed out cheating death on Bulgarian roads. Some were still transitioning from horse and cart.
The last full day in Bansko was full of rain, right up to the high altitudes, putting a stop to our skiing ambitions, so we decided to have a bit of a relax and a shop. We again made our way down through Pirin Street, past the tens of Bulgarians marketing their own wares, avoiding those encouraging us into their restaurants. Most shops sported some of the less seen trinkets; pots, bells, glass lanterns, hip flasks and Soviet/Nazi memorabilia. Eventually we settled on some Slavic artwork at a local studio (it took a while too).
On return to Sofia we passed through the Rila Monastery, high in the Rila Mountains. The main church well decorated in paintings of heaven and angels descending to hell and demons. The major hall was well decorated too and in the high mountains was very cold inside.
Sofia was a really surprising city, following an afternoon walking food tour we got to sample a lot of the already sampled Bulgarian foods and a few new dishes too. The Bulgarian yoghurt is renowned as one of the best in the world – the Japanese pay top dollar for their cultures. Also, many of the dishes are similar to that of the Greek, being Baltic countries, the use of tomatoes, yogurt, and cucumbers are present in most cooking. We found that there are no fashion crimes in Bulgaria, sneakers and jeans being very popular and women dressing their dogs like people. One dog looked very ridiculous going for a leak, especially when it pissed inside its pants and its owner had to pick it up, to shield it from the paparazzi tourist (Tam).
Later that night we followed Martin, our expressive and quirky guide for a free tour around the city. Sofia is a city of layers, with the Antiquity, Medieval, Ottoman and Modern buildings either still in use or just simply, built upon. At the top of the hill we visited the church which lends its name to the city and the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, outside was the famous 100 yr old beggar who recently donated all of his earnings to the church, a sum of about €20,000, living on only his benefit. Tam gave him a few Lev, starting a bit of a homeless donating trend with her (more likely if they have dogs). We found a craft beer bar where you poured from your own taps, it took a few goes, but by the end and a few harsh lessons in froth, we were pretty much pro’s!
Leaving Sofia the next day after another stroll through the city we heaved onto the flight back to London. With one day of work before we are off again to Scotland, we had better get a lot of sleep in. In all the trip was great and Bulgaria was something completely unexpected, the food was amazing and the experience was great. Would thoroughly recommend it to anyone wanting to see something off the usual tourist destinations – particularly if you want a cheap skiing holiday.