My apologies in advance for a long post, but the story of my ‘day trip’ to Bulgaria with Caitlin over the holidays is too complex for a short post. Bulgaria turned out to be much like being trapped inside the script of the classic movie Eurotrip. The prime scenes being the part where the main character tries to see if a truck driver is going to Berlin and because of the language barrier, he thinks that the driver is going to Berlin because he keeps saying the word Berlin. He doesn’t realize that the driver is in fact saying he is going ‘Nowhere near Berlin’ and cannot in fact because he committed a crime there and cannot return. The other scene is when the group is on a train and a very strange and creepy Italian man keeps entering their compartment and touching them. They get frightened when long tunnels come up because articles of clothing are always missing afterward, as the stranger keeps repeating “Mi scuzi”
It started as a simple dream. Caitlin and I thought it would be nice to see one other country besides Turkey on our trip. I had done the research for the excursion and saw that one could do a day trip to one of the beautiful Black Sea towns about 4-5 hours away from Istanbul. We thought we would leave late in the night and get back in the evening. I could not get that much detail online, however, and came across the suggestion to buy tickets and decide times when one gets to their location. So that’s what I thought we should do.
When we got to our first hostel in Istanbul, we decided to use their service to book the bus tickets. They told us they found a ticket which would get us there at about 5am, and we would only have to wait an hour for things to start running and we could wait in the bus station, which according to them would be open. I thought to myself that it sounded strange that a 5 hour journey would take so long, as the bus said it left at 8pm, but I didn’t know what the road conditions were or the border crossing. It was even more suspicious when the price they told us to pay them was much higher than I had read anywhere online bus prices were. But we decided to trust them. That’s where we went wrong.
We were moving along well through the Turkish and Bulgarian scenery on our fancy bus. Our bus even had a ‘bus attendant,’ which was like a flight attendant, as he walked around giving us water and snacks. We even had televisions on the back of our seats. However, at about 2:30am a man who spoke perfect English and had helped us with the bus earlier came up to ask and asked us did we not want to get off at Bourgas. Bourgas was in fact the big city we wanted to get off at in order to reach our smaller destination, Sozopol. When we said yes, he said that the bus had passed Bourgas already. This shocked us because the end destination on our ticket said Bourgas, but apparently the end destination of the bus was Varna, a city much farther north. So the bus attendant and the kind English speaker had us get off the bus and called us a taxi to take us back to Bourgas. The taxi driver offered to take us all the way to Sozopol, but we decided a small town would be much worse to be in during the middle of the night and we decided to go wait at the bus and train station. We got to the bus/train station and discover two things. The first was that the price quoted by the taxi driver was actually per person and that the bus/train station was not open but closed. We were at a loss for what to do. After talking it through, Caitlin and I decided we would go to a hotel and sleep for awhile, so we would know we would be safe. So we checked in at a charming looking hotel, heavily decorated for Christmas, and felt much better. That is, we did until we realized that anytime we turned the lights off in the room the radiator also came off. So we had to sleep with the lights on, but the radiator also went off suddenly and we were left to cover with three blankets each, which still did nothing to cut into the freezing Bulgarian night.
In the morning, a wonderful breakfast turned our spirits upwards and we proceeded to easily find a minibus to take us to Sozopol. It was indeed a beautiful Black Sea, beach town, although abandoned. But I think the abandonment of the beaches made it even more beautiful in its starkness. We took many wonderful photos, and even ate scrumptious cake.
However, we had bought this scrumptious cake with some of our last levas in the belief that our ticket we had purchased that morning was a roundtrip ticket. When we went to go back to the minibus, the new driver said that we only had one way tickets. We did not have enough money between us to purchase two tickets back. Kindness is a Bulgarian strong point, though, and he let us take the bus back to Bourgas. Now, however, we had no levas and even though I had to go to the restroom badly, no one would let me go because you had to pay to use public restrooms. This meant that Caitlin and I had to go all the way back to our hotel from the night before, where they were kind and let me use their restrooms. At this point, we decide that we have seen enough of Bulgaria and we wanted to go back to Istanbul early.
Despite our will to return to Istanbul, though, the trek back would prove longer than we ever thought it would be. When we went to the bus station the next bus back to Istanbul did not leave until 11:30pm that night, and it was 2pm when we checked. The woman also kept saying the bus did not go to Istanbul, even though it did, which was the start of our ‘nowhere near Istanbul’ experience. Next, we decided that a train would be best since we were cold and hotel-less in Bourgas. After one hour of language barriers at their best, we finally understood from the woman that we could not get to Istanbul from Bourgas (‘nowhere near Istanbul’…) but I we went several hours in a different direction, we could get a train from the city of Plovdiv to Istanbul. It was our best shot, so we bought our tickets and set off on this journey.
The Bulgarian countryside looked strongly like what one would imagine a stereotypical eastern European countryside to look like—covered in snow and filled with abandoned factory towns. After bothering the porter on the train many times, we reached Plovdiv late in the evening. It was dark and very cold and the lady at the ticket counter told us she did not sell tickets to Istanbul and we would have to take our chances that they would let us buy one on the train. Chances were all we had at the moment, so we boarded the train when it arrived despite not having tickets. Within a few moments, however, we overheard a conversation between a train worker and two French men about how if they did not have a reserved compartment in the sleeper train they could not go to Istanbul. The other half of the train, the part we were in, would be detached and left in a town whose name sounded very close to Stalingrad. Only on a journey such as this was would one hear that only HALF a train was allowed to go to the trains supposed final destination. Caitlin and I became very worried and started talking in earnest to the worker the best we could, since she spoke very little English. She finally took pity on us because we appeared very anxious, and she guided us to the sleeper train, talked to the man in charge of that compartment, and found one free compartment for us. We were at last going to make it safely to Istanbul.
Our lull of safety in our warm and comfortable sleeper car did not last long, as a knock came to our door and a young guy asked if he could come in and chat with us. We said yes, since he seemed harmless, not knowing we would begin a classic Eurotrip ‘mi scuzi’ moment. Within seconds we realized he was drunk off of cheap Siberian liquor he kept offering us and would literally sprawl himself all over our seats, requiring Caitlin and I to squeeze ourselves into tiny corners so he could not touch us. We were finally rescued by a kind Scottish guy named Bruce who became a good friend of ours who we shared Christmas dinner with the next evening. For Caitlin and I, it was both our first times in a sleeper car train and we finally went to sleep. In the middle of the night though the temperature gauge in the car had broken and we awoke to about 85 degrees in the small compartment sweating away. We finally fixed that by opening our door to the cold corridor, but later were roughly awoken by the train porter who came inside and ripped our blankets off of us, yelling that we would arrive in Istanbul in 20 minutes. Despite the rude awakening, however, we were more than overjoyed to see the familiar skyline of Istanbul 15 hours after we had boarded that first train in Bourgas.
Needless to say, Christmas morning was eventful and Caitlin and I will never forget Bulgaria.