It all starts in Sofia. I head to the bus center to get a ticket for the bus to Veliko Turnovo. I get the ticket, call a hostel and book a bed for the night. Then I realize I left my passport at my apartment. I decide to get a taxi and go get my passport. I decide upon a taxi from the OK Takci service, since it’s a service you can trust — according to Lonely Planet anyway — but I’ve had good experiences with it already). So I get in, he starts driving. I show him where I need to be on the map and as I start requesting to put the meter on, the guy starts talking. First I thought he was doing it accidentally, but after a few seconds it became very clear he was talking over me as long as possible. When I finally did my request through, it was already too late.
Me: will you turn the meter on.
I stare him right in the eyes.
Him: it’s 10 euros.
Me: no, that’s too much. I live in Sofia. I’m not a tourist.
Him: okay, 8 euros.
Me: no, 7 leva. (which is about 3.50)
Him: no that’s not good, because I will be back at the bus center
Me: ok, osem (8). Dobre? (means “okay”)
Him: Hmm… (seems to be agreeing)
A second later…
Him: Okay, 10 leva.
At this point I can drink the guy’s blood, but I decide to be realistic (not a big fan of the taste of blood anyway) and realize that if I do get it down to 8, the guy will just not have any change when we get to the station, so I’ll pay 10 either way. Well, whatever.. all it takes is a euro to learn these dirty tricks. But this is not all…
The guy turned out to be right about complaining about the bus center, there was a HUGE queue of taxi’s there. Anyway, when I got out I noticed the driver fiddling with the meter and I saw a receipt coming out just before I stepped out. The meter had been turned down so the display wasn’t visible for the passenger, but apparently the meter was on all along… and I didn’t give 10 leva for the ride, I probably gave about 7 and a 3 lev tip! Bastard, haha. Very smart chain of tricks, but I learned a lot, most of all: don’t get into any taxi without first checking the prices on the windshield and having him turn the meter on.
I then sat down to have a coffee (I had to wait 2 hours) and two Turkish businessmen (it turned out) sat down at my table because it were the only free spots. I talked to them (talk to everyone, everywhere) and learned some tricks on how to intimidate taxi drivers if they try to screw you (don’t worry, mom).
I got another coffee when they left and headed to the bus. At some point a bus pulls up with a sign that said Варна and I see two backpackers getting their Lonely Planet guides to figure out what it means, I tell them it says Varna and I have a chat with them. Turns out they’re from Scotland and that they’re staying in the same hostel as I am. Before we get into the bus, I tell them that I’m using the hostel’s free pick-up service and asked if they had arranged it for themselves too. They tell me they didn’t know, so I told them I’d get them on the hostel with the service. Helping is the easiest way to meet people.
The busride was a bit boring, 3 hours, no toilet. The girl next to me didn’t speak English. I asked, she said no, I told her that she does because she just did and I asked her to just try and we’d see if she would understand… Well, turns out that she actually didn’t speak English, haha. Most young people speak English and when they say no, the above line (with some added charm) usually gets you in.
So anyway, I get to Veliko Turnovo and we go to the hostel. Finally I see some real Bulgaria. Unlike Sofia which is just a big city, Veliko Turnovo has somewhat more of an ambiance you’d expect when you go to Bulgaria. Sofia was mostly overwhelming, but V. Turnovo seemed more down to earth (e.g. Amsterdam vs Utrecht). We get to the hostel, I get my stuff into my room (read: onto my bed) and go downstairs. There’s a guy sitting there, reading a magazine, so I start talking to him and he turns out to be from New Zealand. A tad later two more showed up and I head into town with the New Zealanders to ‘get some grub’. Grub later turned out to be pancakes.
We head back to the hostel and chill out there for a while. I socialize with some people there (Austrians, Belgians) and then I decide to go into town for some dinner around 8. A lot of the places are packed, though. So I talked to a group of Australians drinking beer and acting very Australian at a restaurant bar. Tried asking them where to go for food around this time, but they didn’t know either (they tried to help but were just too drunk). So I walk back down the street and hear a guy (speaking English) introducing himself to a girl with a Bulgarian accent as Bastian. I stop and tell him that’s my name too. The two of us team up and head for a restaurant. We have dinner, split the bill and we go back to the hostel where I’m staying, because there’s a lightshow at a fortress on a hill every night and it’s nice to see it from the balcony of my hostel. We get there, and basically we just caught the last 20 seconds. We hang out for a while and then head to a pub with the Scottish couple.
When we come back from the pub they go to bed and I sit down with the New Zealanders and have a chat. Later a Japanese guy and an American girl (Ukrainian born) come back to the hostel and I talk to them for a minute. Then some Bulgarian girl and an American guy come back to the hostel and I decide it’s time to go to bed, because people are talking (read: complaining) way too much.
The next morning I wake up around 8 and 20 minutes later I decide I’ll sleep in my busride back to Sofia and I get up and get going. Two hours later I’m still talking to people at my hostel (met an Irish guy who works as a producer for the BBC World Service). Anyway, after a while I decide to walk into town and I run into Bastian, the German guy from the evening before. We say goodbye and we exchange email addresses. A few minutes later I get into a taxi to a small town called Arbanassi, where there would be a beautiful church.
After walking around for 1.5 hour, I decide (in chronological order) that:
1) The map in my Lonely Planet guide is wrong;
2) I have no idea where I am on this map;
3) I can’t read maps;
4) There is no church.
I’m guessing at least 3 out of 4 are mostly right. I asked some people on the street and they walked me to the church, which indeed did not look much like a church on the outside (so I took no pictures). It’s not about the way it looks on the outside, real beauty lies within… Not always, but in this case, yes. So I head inside and basically the whole place is painted under with oldskool Christian graffiti… well, I guess we call it painting or maybe even frescoes… Art painted directly to a wall, to me, is just a predecessor of graffiti. Like I said before, nobody appointed me as the art critic here, so don’t get nasty with me.
Anyway, I wasn’t allowed to take pictures, so I bought this booklet which had some pictures. There was one very striking painting on a ceiling that I specifically wanted to have which showed ‘The Holy Trinity’. Basically, you see the older form of Jesus, with a younger form of Christ on his lap and on his chest there’s this diamond resembling the Holy Spirit. The older form of Jesus (in a meditative position) resembles God. Very interesting thing to see, even for non-Christians if you can admire the metaphors of the Christian religion without getting all anti-theistic (I’m looking at you Richard Dawkins-nuts now. You make atheism look bad through intolerance of religion).
What also struck me was the following.. in front of the church there was a wall of panels with paintings on them and gold decoration (ikonostasis?). At the top of this were two dragons facing each other… I was trying to figure out the relevance of them, but besides also spotting a unicorn in a picture depicting Adam naming the animals, I was clueless. I wanted to ask, but figured nobody would really have an answer what these dragons symbolized. It was just unclear and for me it communicates that there is always a deeper, hidden side of Christianity. Whether it’s good or bad, I’ll leave to the Christians and the conspiracy thinkers. If you want to see pictures, just use the following phrases for google:
– The “Rozhdestvo Hristovo” Church
– Nativity church + Arbanassi
– Nativity church + Veliko Turnovo
Then I had some food and got in a taxi back to town to view an old fortress. I do not know what the name is, plus I also just found out I forgot my Lonely Planet guide at the hostel. 2000 bonus points to me. Anyway, I took a lot of pictures and I can probably figure out the name of the place later if I want to. I got to the church in the center of the fortress and the art inside was really odd (I have no pictures of this, because it cost 3 levs to make pictures and that is quite a lot for Bulgarian standards, so fuck that). The art seemed WAY too modern to me. I was later told that these were made during the communistic era, explaining the modernism in them. I met some Americans there too, who were in Bulgaria since April for the Peace Corps. I exchanged numbers with one of them, because some of them visit Sofia every so often in the weekends.
I go back to the hotel, show the Japanese guy about my day, forget about giving him my Lonely Planet guide and then I go out for dinner. Not much to report actually.. Later I say goodbye to people and head to the bus station. There I see two backpackers, so I figured I’d talk to them. Turns out they’re Bulgarian, one’s a lawyer, the other is an environmentalist and they live pretty close to where I live. When we get to Sofia we share a cab and the guy (environmentalist) gives me his card. I tell him I’ll shoot him an email (environmentalism and ecology interests me a lot) and get out near my street.
Then I come home, start typing, find out I lost my Lonely Planet guide and save the written text so I can post it at a later date.