Road Trip through Croatia and Bulgaria

August 2011

By the time we’d reached Varna, I was fed-up. We were in our fourth week of traveling through Croatia and Bulgaria, and I was tired of everything associated with a long road trip in countries with unfamiliar languages. It was hot, and my knees were in pain. Adding to my irritation, our hotel was in a seedy part of town. After misreading the listing outside the Opera House and waiting in line at the box office, we learned that we’d missed the performance of “Rigoletto” by a month. The final irritant was coming across an event sponsored by women-targeted cigarette, razor, and magazine companies – short foot races of models wearing tight clothes and high, high heels.

Fortunately, Eric quickly agreed to simply sit on a park bench with me and watch the passersby. We’d found our way to Varna’s famous Sea Gardens, and spent the next hour watching folks walking home from the beach and vendors packing up their wares. It was sad how so many old women were trying to sell hand-made lace tablecloths. My attention was focused on a young man with inflatable beach toys for sale; his method of packing them up for the day was time-consuming and precise. Even if I’d felt ready to move on, I couldn’t until I saw how he was going to accomplish it all. Eventually he left, looking like an enormous walking beach toy himself with the stringed-together inflated items covering his arms and back.

Varna - Calling It A Day
Calling It a Day

The reason for taking this trip in July and August, a time of year we don’t like to travel, was to attend a two-week literary conference in Lovran, Croatia. We had a terrific time, meeting interesting people from many countries and immersing ourselves in presentations and conversations about contemporary literature and theatre. On top of all the intellectual stimulation, we discovered a beautiful part of Croatia. Actually, we were knocked out throughout Croatia by the beauty of the landscape as we drove through dramatic mountains, forests, and expanses of farm land.

Lovran is part of the Opatija Riviera, on the eastern coast of the Istrian peninsula. This area was a fashionable seaside resort during the last days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that ended with World War I. As we walked along the Lungomare, a 12 km promenade in a wooded area on the Gulf of Kvarner, we felt apart from the 21st century as we gazed at the fin-de-siècle villas and gardens facing the water. On various excursions, we explored nearby islands and ancient towns. Two warnings about this area:  The beaches are made of concrete (doesn’t seem to bother the vacationers), and the weather while we were in Lovran was often rainy (but the weather was always beautiful for our excursions).

Sunbathing on the Rocks Near Lovran
Sunbathing on the Lungomare

On a tip from one of our new friends, when the conference ended, we headed to Croatia’s Plitvice Lakes National Park. We’ve never experienced anything quite like it – virgin forests, waterfalls of all sorts, rushing streams, clear lakes of green and blue. Much of the time, we walked along wooden paths, often over water. For the five hours of our hike, we were in another world. I can see why it’s been named a World Heritage site. If we were serious hikers, we could have spent days exploring the area. Instead, after our full day at Plitvice, we started back east, driving to Ilok, near Croatia’s border with Serbia.

Plitvice Lakes National Park 16
Plitvice Lakes National Park

There, we stayed in the lovely Dunav Hotel on the Dunav River (we know it as the Danube) and ate a delicious meal of fresh water fish with some very good local wine. The only strange thing – the Dunav felt like a ghost hotel; there were hardly any staff or guests. Even so we had a luxurious, restful time. This hotel was such a contrast to House Prica, a simple pension near Plitvice where we had stayed the two nights before. Those accommodations were clean and pleasant, but very basic – and we shared our room both nights with a three-inch-long, bright green grasshopper walking around our ceiling.

Evening on the Danube at Ilok
The Danube at Ilok

After a long day’s drive through Serbia into Bulgaria, and a frustrating hour tangled up in the capital city of Sofia, searching for the right road out of town to get to Veliko Tarnovo, we made it to our destination before dark. We’d chosen the mountain town of Tarnovo at the strong recommendation of two friends, one an Australian, the other a Turk. There, we registered at the Tsarevets Hotel, named after the nearby hilltop castle.  Our timing that first night was accidentally perfect: As we sat at an outdoor café sipping a good local beer, we were at just the right spot to take in an impressive sound and light show at the castle above us.

Cramped, and with a stench rising from its bathroom drain, our first-night room at the Tsarevets Hotel was less than perfect. After we complained the next day, the staff moved our luggage to a much nicer and larger room on the third floor. When we decided to stay a third night, we were moved again, to the “apartment,” a palatial room with a king-size bed and twin leather sofas. Having that room for our final night was a joy. After attending a stellar production of the opera, “Lakme,” inside the ruins of the Tsarevets castle, we stayed up late sipping whiskey and talking until 2 a.m. We can see why our friends recommended Veliko Tarnovo: we enjoyed the architecture of the old town, as well as the work of local artisans. We also enjoyed seeing paintings by Bulgarian artists new to us at the local art museum. Boris Denev was a particular favorite.

V. Tornovo Off Gurko Street
Veliko Tarnovo off Gurko Street

During a previous summer, we had traveled along Turkey’s Black Sea coast and wanted to see Bulgaria’s on this trip. We were struck by the beauty of Bulgaria’s coast, as well as its mountain landscape. After a drive of a few hours, we arrived at the sea-side city of Varna, Bulgaria’s third-largest. I’ve already given you a taste of our stay there.  I’m sure Varna has a lot to offer, but by this time I was travel-weary. After a night’s sleep, we took a drive first to the Stone Forest (only 10 miles from Varna, but more difficult to find than we’d expected). Although we’ve seen strange landscapes – in Southern Utah and Cappadocia, for example – we’d never seen anything quite like this area. These oddly shaped, tree-like stones scattered across in a barren landscape are 50 million years old. Geologists have concocted various theories of their formation, but all agree they are unique on the planet.

Our next stop near Balchik, further up the coast, was a striking contrast. The Botanical Gardens and Palace of Queen Marie are splendidly artificial, a self-contained world of landscaped grounds and lovely buildings with spectacular views overlooking the Black Sea. King Ferdinand of Romania built this royal retreat in the 1920s for his consort, Marie, one of Queen Victoria’s granddaughters. If we’d known about this before we happened upon it, I would have loved to have stayed in the area and spent at least two days roaming around. But such is the way it works on our improvised journeys.

At this point, we were winding down and pining for home and Istanbul. We had certainly seen some remarkable sites, including the lovely, old peninsula town of Nesebar whose 13th and 14th century churches are unlike any we’d seen before. It was there by the Black Sea that we enjoyed an alfresco seafood lunch with local wine overlooking the ruins of a medieval basilica. And it was there, also, that we had one of the worst dinners of the entire trip. So it goes.

Nesebar Crowded Main Street
Nesebar’s Main Street

On our way to Sozopol, another peninsula town, for our final night on the road, we stopped in the city of Burgas, once again at our Australian friend’s suggestion. He had urged us to visit the Art Gallery there, located in a former synagogue. From our guidebook, I knew the address, and I had a map, but maps are only useful if the city’s streets are properly signed. I navigated us to the general area, but finding the gallery took asking directions of three different people and finally simply walking around.  Fortunately, we were happy with what we found, an exhibit with the theme of artists and their studios. It featured paintings and photographs of many Bulgarian artists.

I won’t say much about Sozopol, or the nearby Relax Hotel, except to say it’s where we spent my birthday. Eric did a fine job of finding a lovely, lunch-time restaurant designed as a series of balconies cantilevered over the Black Sea’s rocky shore. Off the tourist track, in the old part of town, the Art Hotel and its restaurant would have been a great place to have spent our final night of the journey. Instead, that evening we had our second worst meal in the vicinity of the Relax, whose own empty restaurant was too depressing to even consider.

I have to say a few words about the large outdoor garden where we did eat. It wouldn’t have been too bad if only the traditional Bulgarian music hadn’t been so ear-splittingly loud. We’d stumbled into a hot spot for Bulgarian tourist families. There was a stage show of folk dancing replete with the miming of fights and courtships. The tourists joined in the dancing with the littlest kids happily jumping up and down to the music. The show finally concluded with one of the performers, carrying an icon, leading everyone except us to a distant corner where the singing and dancing continued.  Our heads hurt from the blasting music, and the terrible food repelled our palates.  It was time to head home.

We drove through a number of poor villages, all in need of serious street repair, and then along a poor, narrow road through a forest. We reentered Turkey at a little-used border crossing, friendlier and more efficient than the one where we had begun our trip. That first time, both the Turkish and Bulgarian border guards were troubled by Eric’s thick passport. He’s had extra pages added twice, and neither of these guards could understand such a thing, so it was slow going. Crossing the border, we were struck immediately by how much richer Turkey is than Bulgaria. Instead of the narrow pot-holed road we had left behind, we were now on a smooth six-lane highway. The drive home went quickly and easily. Even Istanbul’s traffic didn’t seem as bad as usual.  It’s great to be home!