Few years back I traveled to Bulgaria and I would like to share my experience and photos! I included all the areas I visited, how I got there, secret locations and tourist information. I hope you like it! Also, I will provide some links based on google maps, so you can find the locations, plan your trip and measure distances. I am not providing any tourist websites because I believe it’s easy to look up the locations. Furthermore, I will describe the driving situations, landmarks, etc so you can check them out.
- Expedition Gear!
Few words about my gear. I tried to travel as light as possible because I heard that Sophia, the capital, is kind of dangerous. I didn’t want to get to any trouble because of my Greek license plates or just because somebody would think I have valuables with me as a foreigner. So, I got my tent, sleeping bags, some extra clothes, knives, lights, a freezer and I think I also took a portable shower. (I didn’t use it so I am not so sure). Oh and of course my 4×4! Not so expeditionary but as one of my rules say: what you didn’t use last time, leave it behind. Analysis and review of my gear will soon be posted.
I don’t remember having any issues with my insurance company. The car was covered by the insurance, most probably due to European laws etc. So, that problem was solved!
- Roads / safety
First things first! If you haven’t exchanged your money already, you can do it after you cross the borders, almost everywhere. There are so many shops. I had to wait for the shop-lady to show up because she had no clients that day and I believe she was sleeping in the room on the back. When you cross the borders, remember to purchase the special ticket for the tolls and for your car to roam freely. Actually this is not only for highways but for all the paved roads. Just say the word: vignette. There are a few options about the days you may need it but the overall procedure is super fast and super easy. You can get it everywhere. If you don’t, there is a heavy fine waiting for you. Plus, since you are a foreigner, you might get into more trouble! Trust me, they don’t speak English most of the time especially when you are planning to go to small villages. I got mine in the first gas station. Don’t forget to put in on your windscreen. Follow the illustrated instructions. Piece of cake!
Now you can roam the roads freely! Well… not so fast! Be advised. If you are not on a highway, most probably the roads are going to be full of deep holes. Apart from the tourist attractions / ski resorts / highways, the rest roads are not in a good condition. I used a 4×4 so my tyres are big and can handle bumpy roads but if you have a normal car you might end up with a flat tyre. ALSO! If you like speeding… don’t! There is more! I usually don’t speed because I want to enjoy the ride and watch the surrounding nature. If you want to go fast, be advised (x2). At any given time, a cow, a horse, or a carriage may be occupying the whole road! Not a good idea to have an accident in a foreign country! Although, the drivers are not really bad I must say. I have experience around the world and Bulgarians are quite ok! If you are Japanese or American, well, be extra careful. Greeks, Polish, Azeri, Mongolians etc… feel like home! But if you are Chinese… try not to kill anybody please! (Disclaimer: My dear Chinese friends, I only experienced the Beijin drivers and I didn’t like it!)
- Noticeable culture
Even though I didn’t stay for a long period, I must say that Bulgarians have a very nice culture and amazing music. I am in love with those angel – like voices. The people are friendly and I had no problems of any kind with them. I consider Bulgaria safe for any traveler, as long as you stay away from the gypsy areas. Sometimes while I wonder inside some cities (in general), I end up in dirty neighborhoods or in places I don’t feel comfortable. I simply turn around and walk back. There is no point of getting in trouble while I am on vacations! Another funny culture difference is the head nodding. Around the world, when you nod your head down, it means yes and when you nod your head from side to side, it means no. In Bulgaria is the opposite! I don’t know how or why that happened but it makes conversations more fun!
- My plan
My plan was to spend few days around Bulgaria, to get a first impression and go again in the future to explore more. I would off road a little bit and of course go around the major cities including the capital. I’m planing to go back in 2018 for more travelling and hopefully more off roading. Since I was alone and had no back – up cars with me I couldn’t risk getting stuck or exploring deep forests.
From Athens, via Rozhen, to Lubovishte village. 640 Km. The driving part, from the borders to the Lubovishte village, was the best from the whole trip! If you are planning to cross the borders, check if there is a strike or if there are any sanctions between your country and Bulgaria. You may face huge wait lines or other problems. I have a 15′ video of me driving on the highway getting past stopped tracks that are not allowed to cross the borders! I didn’t ask why, but I hope, this huge line was due to driving laws that truckers are not allowed to drive on the highways on specific days, different in every country. Hopefully, they were waiting for the green light!
After crossing the borders, there is a big river, I can’t remember the name though, that you can explore easily. After the river, there is a small dirt road on your right, that goes down. The river flow is strong but the car is standing on big rocks. You can play around for some fun and wash your car. after you are done playing, drive to Rozhen with no fear. Any car can get there. This village used to have around 200 residents but now, only 12 are staying there (2015 numbers).
You will find plenty hotels with absolute stunning breakfasts! Fresh eggs from the farm, family cooked breakfast, homemade jams and so more! People are friendly and eager to help. Also, most of them speak Greek. They work in Bulgaria during winter and in Greece during the summer. Now the off roading starts. After you reach Rozhen, you will be able the see the famous pyramids. The pyramids are some beautiful mountains made from sand that look so fragile. Scary if it starts to rain!
While you are driving from Karlanovo towards Rozhen, turn left when you enter the village. If you turn right, it leads you to the Rozhen monastery. You will cross the village and then the paved road turns to a dirt road. It will lead you to a tunnel that it is REALLY interesting. Especially if you know the whole story! The story goes like this: For years the residents of Rozhen and Lubovishte, were trying to convince the government to make a tunnel to connect the two villages. They had to go around a very long distance even though they are so close to each other. Now there are few minutes apart. So, since the government did nothing for many years, they villagers decided to do it themselves. I don’t have the information, if it was built by hand, or machinery, but it took them 1 year to complete. As I can imagine, there was no big research on how to build it and it’s more like a hole! When it rains, the sandy mountain comes pouring down really often. There, you may need some off roading skills to cross it depending on the time of the year, weather, etc. The tunnel inside is not very narrow but it isn’t tall. Be careful for your car’s rooftop. Here is a small video a took and some pics.
Crossing Rozhen tunnel – opens my Youtube channel and shows the short video.
If you enter, go straight through it, you will reach the small village. Cross the abandoned houses and you will reach a small but beautiful land on your right, after you climb a narrow steep hill with a left turn. This little land has a building inside (pic below) and says “camping”, or something similar.
The old man who has it, charges something like 5 Lev. I think it used to be 2,5 euros? Oh, I forgot to tell you. After you reach your destination, just wait if the gate is locked, or park inside if its open. The old man will come down to you from the house on your left. (around 23:00 o’clock from your car’s position).
I suggest you become friends with him. He will take care of you. You can have 2 different fire places, 2 big ovens, to cook and a closed shower, inside of a building with hot water. I emphasized on the building part because I wasn’t expecting it! The surrounding garden is absolutely amazing. The owner will try to make you breakfast but in my case I already had supplies with me. The view is stunning. You will enjoy many mountain tops and an unforgettable sunset. Sleep tight! Well, to be honest, the sunrise is also something really nice up there.
After I woke up, breakfast was all I needed. Got out of my tent and enjoyed the nature once more. (slideshow below)
Day 2 was the day of Rozhen Monastery, Rila Monastery and Sophia. I am not a religious man, but I like going to religious places in order to understand the culture better and to gain some insights about architecture, history, mindset etc. Both monasteries where beautiful, especially the Rila. It’s a must! It’s a combination of castle and monastery. I think I haven’t seen any other place with those colours. Black and white was the design. Weird but nice! I think religious people and historians would enjoy it. There is a big parking lot when you reach the monastery.
I suggest you drive a little bit more. You will cross the back of the monastery and after that you will reach the other side. You will cross a bridge that has loads of water and you will see another entrance. Since you will be driving, keep going. The road becomes very narrow for a while. Stop few kilometers away and enjoy the silence with the sound of the river. If you are willing to camp near the monastery, there are some camping sites but I haven’t visited so I can’t say for sure what the situation looks like. If you have confidence and some gear with you, you can camp alone. Be advised, you are surrounded by nature so take the necessary precautions when it comes about food, wild animals etc. When you feel relaxed and energized, return back and park on the back – side parking, that there are no buses. I arrived early and no tourist buses where around. The entrance on the back has sky blue paintings while the entrance on the front looked like a gate. The monastery used to be a castle for some period to protect the people from the attackers. There is a whole story behind that monastery. Who built it, who used it as a castle, how people were treated, which wars had survived etc. After enjoying Rila, I drove to Sophia.
Now my fears were confirmed. I had to be really careful with the car. Ask some locals which road you should take to go to Sophia. When I was there the main roads where under construction and I had to drive through some villages. I had to stop and ask because I didn’t like the surrounding area. Some local families told me to go back because I was going straight into a gypsy area. The Gypsy tribe would try to rob me or throw stones at my car. I made a detour. After I dealt with that, I arrived to Sophia. Some funny rules apply here. You have to find somebody to take care of your car while it is parked!!!! Yep, that is right. A personal bodyguard for your car. I was lucky enough to find a security officer who spoke Greek and he liked Greece! I made that discovery, after I offered Greek alcohol as a gift to him for taking care of my car as long as I would walk around. We immediately became friends and he suggested a hotel nearby for the night. The hotel stuff not only they take care of your car but every few hours the put some groceries / flowers / food inside so it looks like you are shopping and the police won’t ticket you! So it happened! The car was safe and sound parked in front of the hotel until the next morning with some flowers in it!
The capital city is the complete opposite from the rest of the country. It’s a big city, beautiful, fast moving, energized, filled with beautiful classic buildings, modern designs, and really really rich. Lambos, Ferraris and so many other luxury cars are driving around on the stone paved roads. Just amazing. Sophia has fast moving innovation and entrepreneurial environment. Some people are more distant and cold in a way, but that always happens in big cities, right? The city has many beautiful churches, big municipality hall, old and classic buildings. I took some pics, mostly at night that I had free time before heading back to my hotel. Check them out! What you guys think?
The food is really good and taken care of from the chefs. For my Greek friends, there are also some Alpha Bank stores. The city has big streets, easy to drive through. Unfortunately though, parking is hard to find. By the term parking I mean that I was looking for a parking spot on the side of the road. Many European countries use the side of the road as a parking area instead of designated parking lots, such as underground parking lots, automated parking systems, etc. Maybe due to my car’s size it was hard to find but still, couldn’t locate small parking spots too. It’s congested. If you have no idea where to look for parking, check out the following picture that has “parking” written on a wall. These parking areas are not free but you can park safely.
The roads are big and easy to drive through the city. Ummm, there is a catch though. I think it’s kind of frustrating to drive because the streets are stone paved and any car would get suspension abuse. Furthermore, be careful for the trams. Sometimes you have to drive or cross the tram lines and if you are not familiar you might get in an accident or trouble. Please remember that trams are like trains. They are smaller but don’t think that these steel wagons can stop in an instant. They are heavy and they are on tracks. They can’t avoid you. You have to avoid them.
I didn’t stay more than 36 hours in total so I don’t know any secret eating / drinking places or if there is a metro line. There are many buses running around plus many tram lines. The schedule is frequent and I think it’s convenient. Wherever I went in the city center, there was a tram line. Also normal trains run around connecting Sophia with other cities and / or countries. Time to leave..
Part 2 is coming in 3 weeks, or sooner, if I get the chance. Stay tuned!
If you have any questions let me know.
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