Where in the World is Veliko Tarnovo?
Veliko Tarnovo is in the North of Bulgaria, and famous (in Bulgaria anyway) for being the historic capital of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire.
I’d chosen to come here not because of the town itself, but because I wanted to break up the long train journey between Bucharest and Sofia, and Veliko had been a medium-sized dot on the map roughly midway; it seemed big enough to have a hostel, but small enough to be easily navigable.
Lost at the station
For a city that was once the capital of an empire, Veliko Tarnovo has a pretty disappointing train station. My train had pulled in late in the evening, and I was surprised to find myself in a very basic, isolated and quite empty station.
This was a little bit of a problem; having just come from Romania, which had a different currency, I had absolutely no cash on me – I’d just assumed I could withdraw some from an ATM when I arrived.
There were no ATMs at the station. There was no wifi either, or anyone who could speak English, or a map. Google Maps hadn’t yet mapped Veliko (my hostel had said it was too far to walk anyway), the taxi outside didn’t take card, and the train station seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. And it was dark. What was I to do?!
I picked a direction and started walking. Thankfully, a few hundred meters up the road I came across a large homemaker center, with – to my immense relief – a whole host of ATMs.
Newly cashed up, I asked a sweet old security guard where I could catch a taxi from, and he called over someone who could actually speak English to translate my question for him, then bid me wait, pulled out his phone, and called me a taxi himself. What a sweetheart.
This was what I would come to love about VT over the next few days – the incredibly friendly, helpful people, and the peculiarity of the place: a cross between a rural village and an edgy student town with a few historical monuments strewn casually around.
I’d made the fantastic choice of staying at Hostel Mostel, which was essentially a large home converted into a hostel and was super cosy. Best of all, they not only had lovely breakfast spreads – which included Bulgarian yoghurt and local sirene cheese, which I fell absolutely in love with – but also free dinners and a glass of beer every night (which I couldn’t drink, but appreciated the gesture of anyway)
I met some interesting people there. An English guy named Mark told me that you could buy meth from Thai pharmacies by telling them that you were getting fat and needed diet pills; I thanked him for the tip but politely demured that meth wasn’t really my thing.
Another night, a bunch of Spaniards whose names all coincidentally started with A were playing some kind of drinking game that involved either doing shots of raki or taking off your clothes. They managed to convince me and Tom to join in and given the cold I chose to drink rather than take off my clothes. If you’ve ever had to shot raki before – it’s meant to be sipped slowly, as a digestive – you’ll understand why I only lasted a few rounds.
And of course the aforementioned Tom, who was my brilliant partner in crime. Tom was a redheaded hipster from NY and a paid travel blogger. Tom, in his suede shoes and jeans that were rolled up at the ankles, was wonderfully liberal minded and bohemian. We got along like a house on fire and would spend the day making sarcastic jokes, discussing philosophy and politics, and singing Blink 182 songs at the top of our voices.
Hostel Mostel was a great base to explore the city from. Right next door was Tsaravets, the castle of the Old Bulgarian capital, which is a gorgeous set of ruins. Exploring Tsaravets felt like being kids in a giant, magnificent playground. It’s beautiful and grand, and, as sacrilegious as the thought may be, I thought it would be the most amazing place to have a music festival.
The cool thing about Eastern Europe is that most countries aren’t Nanny States the way a lot of Western countries are. They had very clear instructions in Tsaravets that it was dangerous to climb on the walls and that you should watch your step, and then there were absolutely no barriers and nobody and nothing to stop you going anywhere you wanted.
Old staircases with no rails and a large drop were left as they were, and it was up to you to climb them carefully. I loved it, it left Tsaravets so much prettier and more poignant than if they’d put up safety barriers and handrails everywhere.
Percy, Nivena, Freddie and Rambo
A little further away was the Old Town, with cobbled pathways and pretty little houses all on a hill with charming, nartow stairs winding daintily between them. As we wandered through, we acquired a canine friend, who I dubbed Percy, despite Tom’s objections that that was a cat name.
Percy followed us for ages, until we ran into a girl playing fetch with a hyperenergetic little dog at the top of the hill. Percy got very intimidated and left with his tail between his legs, poor thing.
The girl was named Nivena, and she ended up joining us and taking us on a very entertaining walk around her neighbourhood and through the forest, including pointing out the dwellings of mad man who called himself Rambo and liked to run around with a stick. Despite Nivena’s assurances that he was completely harmless I was more than happy not to run into him.
Elena, Kali and their friends
Nivena wasn’t the only local we met; I’d messaged Elena on Couchsurfing and she and her housemate Kali had invited us over to dinner with their friends Gabi, Desi and Emmo.
Dinner was a merry affair – the girls made a delicious creamy brocolli spaghetti, Tom and I had bought over a huge bottle of vodka and cake to share, and we were introduced to Bulgarian beer nuts, which were insanely delicious and addictive and which we would end up buying copious amounts of over the next few days.
The girls were incredibly well travelled themselves, and we had a great time sharing funny stories and pet peeves. They also, upon learning of our love of food, made a list for us of the Bulgarian specialties we had to try, and Elena very generously presented us with a jar of plum and walnut jam that her grandmother had made.
I’m a little ashamed to admit that I finished the whole jar within two days, just going at it with a spoon, but it was so good and I comforted myself with the thought that I was saving on packing.
On my first night at Hostel Mostel, just as I was about to go to bed, a guy named Tim stumbled in with a rather captivating tale. He’d spent the day visiting Buzludzha, a strange ruin from the Soviet regime that looked, from the photos he showed us, like some kind of haunted UFO.
He assured us that it was the best thing he’d done in Bulgaria, but also that it had been an adventure getting there and back, the deep snow necessitating lots of off road driving and trying to find alternate paths through rough terrain. Apparently it had been fairly scary and dangerous in some parts, and he was still buzzing with the thrill of it all.
So of course, I had to visit Buzludzha too.
Getting there not a problem; it was a gorgeous cloudless day, and the Bulgarian countryside looked eerily like a scene from Lord of the Rings.
Buzludzha itself was creepy. It’s on a mountain top with nothing around for miles, and just the wind howling through deafeningly. We had to climb in through a window, careful to avoid the jagged glass and broken bars still in it.
On the inside, the stairs were slippery with ice, and there was broken glass mixed with swathes of red velvet and broken pieces of the roof everywhere. Bits of the roof were still coming down, blown free by the wind whipping through the structure.
The auditorium, despite the state of disrepair, was still awe inspiring. The walls were covered in mosaics of Marx, Engels and Lenin on one side, and Bulgarian communists who I didn’t recognise, on the other. (I did Google it later and learned that they were Todor Zhivkov, Dimitar Blagoev and Georgi Dimitrov)
The bowels of Buzludzha were far more intimidating. Flooded in places, and in complete ruin – and pitch black but for our two torches – they looked like something out of a post-apocalyptic movie, and as if that wasn’t bad enough, we came across a little memorial for two French urban explorers who were murdered there.
When I got back to the hostel I googled it and found out that it was just a hoax, but in the darkness, with the wind making everything shake and rattle, it was enough to set me looking over my shoulder every few seconds.
We also climbed up the tower, which consisted of some 20 flights of stairs and ladders, rusty and broken in parts, and icy in others. It was worth it for the view up the top though.
On the way back we tried off-roading it for a while, on a path that was really too narrow for our four wheel drive. We had no seatbelts up the back either, and I was holding on tightly to avoid getting thrown through the windscreen. I wasn’t worried, even when we were sliding on the ice and hitting bushes and small plants – until Andy, our driver, started worrying about us rolling.
Eventually we managed to pick out a way back to the road, and were fine for a whle – until Andy decided to take what he thought was a shortcut through the woods.
If you’ve ever tried driving through the woods, you’ll know that trees can be a bit of a problem. We managed to go for a decent distance before realising that our path was blocked and we’d have to head back.
Which was of course the moment that we realised the snow was too deep, and we were stuck. We got out with some shovels and started to dig.
“It’s okay,” Andy assured us, “if we can’t get out we’ll call Randy and he can pick us up after work. We just have to watch out for bears till then.”
Understandably, I was not keen on spending the rest of the day stuck in a forest in the cold, without food or water or a bathroom and with the possible danger of bears.
Digging through the snow was slow work, until we thought of a better idea and gathered sticks and leaves to throw on top of the snow to give the wheels more traction. It worked, and we slowly made our way out, creating a foresty carpet for the car as it reversed back until we hit the road.
The rest of the evening was so uneventful in comparison. We went to a monastery, ate a rich dinner of large pork chops and stuffed cabbabe rolls followed by a dessert of creme caramel at a restaurant nearby, and headed back to the hostel.
Bowling, Ice Skating, Eating, Dancing
Buzludzha had been incredible, but part of the allure of being in VT was also just the regular things. Food was good and cheap; I got addicted to ayran, a yoghurt drink that Bulgarians had with their meals, and I could afford opulent desserts like quinoa with white chocolate and mascarpone.
We went bowling one night, which Tom dominated, and ice skating with Elena and Kali another day. We went to a club called Melon, bought 6 shots for the equivalent of about $4 and danced to a ska band called Pizza, including jumping into a circle pit while some German girls who’d come with us watched on in horror.
It was just such a peaceful, easygoing place, the kind of town you’d run away to when you want a reprieve from the rest of the world and want to have a really easy time without stress or planning, without having a list of places that you have to visit or things you have to do.
Veliko Tarnovo just sucked you in. Instead of spending one or two nights there I kept extending my stay until I really had to go to Sofia, where I was flying to Thailand from.
Who knew that picking a destination by the size of it’s dot on a map would work out so well?