I did what I always say I won’t, but always do. I arrived in a new country after dark. We were now in Bulgaria, country #31. I wasn’t quite sure about the toll sticker, if it was required for all roads, or just the tolls. I read that it was needed to drive on any public roads, but I couldn’t find anything that confirmed that when actually paying for the sticker. It wasn’t expensive, so I thought it best not to risk it.
We needed to find a campsite this evening, rather than a free camp. We were out of fresh water, and our toilet needed to be emptied. It might be hard to be believe, but there wasn’t a great amount of choice between Thessaloniki, and Sofia. It was 8PM by the time we arrived, and after a bit of nervous waiting by the locked gate, a British man came and let us in. I was taken aback when I heard his northern accent here in rural Bulgaria!
Risa got started frying up those fresh prawns we’d bought from the market in Thessaloniki, while I got started on the more mundane things – like washing clothes, since it’d been some time since the last wash.
It had taken a while, but once the sun was out, the temperatures rapidly increased from down jacket to t-shirt weather. Our clothes were also quickly drying, which was our only real worry.
We overstayed a little, not leaving until 2PM, however, we were basically the only guests there (they had a lady doing volunteer work), and they didn’t seem to mind our presence. As we were about to leave, I had a look at the welcome letter that we’d been given. There was a not about a nearby hot spring. It sounded natural and interesting, so we thought we’d go explore.
We had a name, but actually finding the hot springs was another challenge entirely. We found the town of the same name – but all we found there were confused stares from the locals. We searched online, and on Google Maps, but couldn’t find an actual location – just some nice photos and reviews.
As is usually the case, we were ready to give in when we took a side road. The sign didn’t say anything about the hot springs, just about a church.
We found a busy car park, with buses of tourists, and vendors selling all kinds of different things. We got changed into our swimwear, and went to go explore.
As we were walking towards the church, we noticed that we were the only ones dressed for the hot springs. I told myself that there must be change rooms, and kept on walking. I had to laugh when a man approached me and asked if I was from Australia – apparently he’d made a bet with his wife, and just won. I was the only one in this area wearing bathing shorts, and thongs…
We walked around the grounds of the church, which was dedicated to a local woman. She lost the power of sight from a storm, but was blessed with healing powers and prophetic abilities. The church was quite different to most other churches, with the exterior fresco looking more like something you’d find in a modern art gallery. As I was dressed for bathing, I didn’t have the right clothing on to enter a church – especially one with so many fervent pilgrims entering.
We were a little confused about the hot springs though. We walked all over the grounds of the church, but couldn’t find anything that looked like an entrance. We found one small pond, with signs warning about the 75˚C water – I think even Bulgarians aren’t tough enough to bath at these temperatures.
There was steam rising from the other side of the large concrete fence, so we went to try and investigate. It was further than we thought, but, it was exactly what we were looking for. There was a small stream that was delivering piping hot water along an irrigation channel. This was tapped and diverted to a series of muddy pools.
We experimented, and found one that was of an appropriate temperature, and just laid back and soaked our tired bodies. It was amazing, and was something we’d dearly missed since leaving Japan. There was a surprising number of motorhomes here, so, we thought that we might as well move Gunter to this car park and enjoy the hot springs all night.
I re-joined Risa in the muddy pool, and was shortly joined by two older gentlemen. They struck up a conversation with us in English, since at this point, I hadn’t even learnt how to say ‘thank-you’ in the local language – it’s blagodarya, if anyone cares. We kept talking with them, finding out that they are both pilots, and are here for the weekend with their motorhome. We also learnt that a motorhome club had organised this social weekend, which was why there were so many motorhomes parked here!
They invited us to dinner, so once we’d finished soaking, which was becoming more and more pleasant as the temperature fell, we joined them for a local feast. We were spoilt with the sweetest of peppers/capsicums, cheese, grilled and cured meats. Oh, and wine and… ouzo.
We eventually went and joined the main group, where we ate even more food, drank even more alcohol, and met some more locals – all of whom lovely and pretty surprised to see someone from Australia/Japan here in a motorhome.
It wasn’t a surprise, but I woke with a mid-level hangover. The wine (and especially the ouzo) had quietly snuck up on me, forcing me to an early evening. We went and joined our friends for breakfast – and disappointingly they looked much fresher than we felt.
At least we had the hot springs to bath in as a refresher. We returned back to the pools that we were using last night, but found that they were now much cooler – too cool for comfort. We hopped from pool to pool until we could find a compromise that was comfortable. Once again, we’d received a reasonable amount of curiosity, with people attempting to talk to us – though, they didn’t seem to understand English – and we were at a loss for Bulgarian (and only knew basic Russian).
We were getting ready to leave when one of the younger guys in the springs came over and started speaking with us. He too was here in his motorhome, and we got to chatting. To much absolute surprise, having not shared contact information (I’m not even sure if we exchanged names!), he found me on Facebook and sent me a message – he found that I’d added this campsite to the Park4night application, and used my username (rvchdotnet) to find my real name, and then found me on Facebook! Oh, and to make it even more amazing, the Australian couple we’d met in Croatia found the campsite I’d shared on park4night, and while here met our Bulgarian friend, too!
The water was incredible for bathing in, but it had a fine grained silt that coated your body. I saw some other people filling their motorhome’s water tank with water from the stream, which I can only assume they were then using for a hot shower. The thought of doing that to our van terrified me – the smell/taste of the water tainting the tank/pipes and the silt in the pump… We filled some buckets with the hot water, and then used that to rinse off. It wasn’t perfect, but it got the fine sand out of places it isn’t wanted.
It was approaching lunch time, and we had plans to do some exploring before joining our friends in Sofia for dinner. We stopped off on the way to Rila Monastery in a small town, thinking it would be fun to just grab something from a small restaurant/café. It stopped being fun when we had to search for an ATM (something we were going to have to do eventually anyway). We then had to wait for what felt like an entire afternoon for our food to arrive. It was alright, but not great. Sometimes it’s fun to be spontaneous, sometimes it turns out like this.
This came up in just about every list about attractions in Bulgaria. So, of course we made a trip up into the mountains to visit. The temperatures were markedly different to earlier in the day, when we were down on the plains. The trees were also in full autumn mode, with the road covered in a beautiful blanket of orange leaves.
It came as quite a surprise that entry to the complex was free to all. The sun was hiding much of the complex in shadow, but it was still fantastically beautiful. The stripes reminded me of some of the other amazing churches that we’ve visited, including Cordoba, and Sienna – though very much an Orthodox style church, with the series of domed roofs.
I didn’t know much about the monastery (I like to keep things surprising, so avoid looking at photos), and was amazed at how colourful it was. The entire colonnade was painted in frescos, depicting scenes and stories from the bible. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many devils/demons at a church before.
I had my camera bag with me (as I always do), and because of this, I was not allowed to enter the church. Risa and I took turns visiting, so that we could leave the bag outside. It was an amazing place to wait, admiring all the painting and decoration above us.
Photography wasn’t permitted inside, so instead I bought some postcards and took photos of them – not just a pretty face. It might not be the best photos, but this interior was just too incredible to let it fade away from my memory. It radiated beauty, with so much painting, gilding and marble covering every conceivable surface. It might not be the largest, or the most lavish, but there was something about it that made it feel like one of the most beautiful buildings we’d ever stepped inside – and yes, as you know, we’ve stepped inside quite a few.
The central chandelier was itself a thing of beauty, created like a giant halo, dominating the cavity of the central apse. Words fail me, and I my usual style of letting the photos doing the talking can’t work this time.
It wasn’t a large complex, but there was plenty to entertain ourselves for an hour. We walked around the main church, as well as out the shops outside selling incredible fresh donuts (covered in honey and powdered sugar).
It’s still an active monastery, and we’d see people shuffling along the upper balconies.
Thanks to our exceptionally slow lunch, we couldn’t spend too much time here, as we had dinner plans with our friends from last night. We made our way back down the beautiful mountain roads, loving the beautiful autumn colours on display, and joined the traffic making its way to Sofia, the nations capital.
Our friends lived on the opposite side of town to where we were coming from, which meant we got to experience our fair share of Sofia traffic. It wasn’t quite as bad as Tirana in Albania, but it just felt never ending. I’m continuously grateful that this isn’t our everyday existence, and just a minor inconvenience we have to tolerate while on vacation.
We arrived a little late, and unfortunately two of our friends had to go to work. Not all was lost, as our friend’s son and his wife came and joined us for dinner instead. It turns out that we had quite a lot in common with them, especially snowboarding – they were hoping to visit Japan for a bit of snowboarding, so we tried to share information with them.
The fantastic weather that we’d been having for the past week or more was over. Today was cold, grey, wet and miserable. It was also set to be like this for a few days, so we had no choice but to just get on with it. We decided to leave Gunter at our friend’s house and just catch the train in to town. I feel pretty good about that decision after driving yesterday.
There weren’t that many sights that I felt strongly about visiting. We caught the train to the centre of town, and walked around a little. We stopped by the old baths, and past the Sofia Monument – which with the golden skin and dark clothes reminded me of something from the movie 300 – though somewhat more peaceful.
We stepped inside the Sveta Nedelya cathedral. It was similar to what we’d seen yesterday in Rila Monastery, but larger, and overall less grand. Photography was possible – if you paid €5 for a pass. It was exceptionally dark, so I don’t think I’d be able to capture the beauty very well anyway.
It wasn’t as pretty as many of the other cities that we’ve visited, but it was still enjoyable to walk through town. There were a surprising number of parks, and many wide streets lined with markets and other stalls. It felt lively, and not at all oriented towards tourism.
After the less than successful lunch yesterday, we spent some time researching lunch for today. We found a pretty popular restaurant, Manarstirska Magernista, that has a collection of recipes from monasteries from all over Bulgaria. It was overwhelming. The menu weighed as much as a phonebook, and had over 30 pages! I ended up with an insanely rich lamb casserole, and Risa had something similar. I’m getting hungry just thinking about it, and the exceptional homemade bread that it came with. It wasn’t as cheap as yesterday, but Bulgaria is a cheap country, so it was well below budget.
The main sight I’d wanted to see in town was the Saint Alexandar Nevisky cathedral. The weather had been quite cooperative until this point, but it was starting to rain now. The cathedral was enormous, and the gilded domes were incredible, even such a dark and dreary day. The shape really reminded me of the enormous mosques (that were former orthodox cathedrals) in Istanbul.
Like the other churches we’ve visited in Bulgaria, it too was covered in amazing frescos and gilding. It was also exceptionally dark (probably due to the dark day), and photography was also €5 – and quite strictly enforced.
The rain was getting even heavier, so we made our way back to our friend’s house, said thank-you and farewell, and took off towards the centre of the country before the weather got worse.