Back To The Balkans: Part 2. Bulgaria. And Then, The Long Trip Back Home…

Hey everybody! I haven’t been always able to keep up with writing about my recent journey in a timely fashion, but now I will, because this is the last segment of the trip.

My last Slavic country on this mainly Slavic trip that took a little more than 3 weeks and spanned 5 countries is Bulgaria. I was originally also supposed to visit a friend here, but, like in Bosnia-Herzegovina, we couldn’t make it work and it didn’t happen. That didn’t stop me from enjoying the country and all it had to offer. Also, Bulgarian was the weakest Slavic language that I speak of the countries that I visited, so I ran into problems trying to practice and communicate with others.

I landed in Sofia International Airport after 3 PM with no trouble on Air Serbia, and they let us know that as we traveled to Sofia, we went an hour ahead. So for the next 5 days being in Bulgaria, I was now in a different time zone, and now I had a 7 hour difference from back home in New York. My accommodations in Bulgaria were interesting, because I chose to stay in guesthouses instead of hotels or hostels (well, except my last night in Bulgaria). My first guesthouse in Sofia was pretty small, it was about the size of one of my old apartments. I had my own room, and there were 3 other rooms with people in them, a Greek family, and an Australian couple. I was in the center, close to the huge park and the football stadiums, especially Vasil Levski National Stadium, and after trying to go to a restaurant to eat and get Bulgarian practice, I went walking around the park on a nice Thursday evening. I ended up going back to the guesthouse after sundown and rested a bit, because I was going to spend the weekend in another city.

I woke up around 8:30 AM to get ready, have some breakfast at the guesthouse, check out, and go to the Sofia Central Bus Station. Although I also had the option to take the train, I decided to take the bus to Plovdiv. Plovdiv is one of the oldest and most historical cities in the world, and this year, it was selected as a European Capital of Culture, so there were many different events going on in Plovdiv that promoted the city. It was only a 2 hour bus trip, and I was there before I knew it. I took a 30 minute walk up from the Plovdiv bus station, all the way to a very young, urban, hipster, artsy neighborhood called Kapana. Kapana was mainly known because it was an area with many streets that had no organization, so anyone who ventured into Kapana would get lost, including myself (while walking around after checking in to my guesthouse). To take this further, Kapana is a Bulgarian word meaning “Trap”, and getting lost in there felt like being in a trap and one would wonder how can they get out. After checking in, the house owner gave me tips and recommendations on Plovdiv, and I joined a free tour at 6 PM, and then on Saturday, went to a delicious and small local restaurant about 15 minutes from the guesthouse.

Saturday was my main day when I focused on practicing my Bulgarian in Plovdiv. I went to a bakery to order a banitsa (small pastry similar in appearance to a burek, phyllo thin bread with a filling inside), and the lady was really happy to hear me speak with her in Bulgarian. After breakfast, I went to the Plovdiv Archeological Museum, which was much smaller than I thought it would be, and bought a ticket and walked around with French tourists. After the museum, I then tried to look for the restaurant I was told about. I felt that I only found the place out of sheer luck, and it definitely had the local feeling, especially because the staff spoke no English. Great scenario for me! 🙂 And although the service could have been better, I appreciated the practice. Next up was a really cool place called Plovdiv Old Photo, where anyone can have a photoshoot of themselves or with others in traditional Bulgarian clothing. After the photoshoot, I was sent the photos via email, and got one framed as a souvenir, while explaining that Mexican culture in the villages was similar to Bulgarian culture, which was the reason why I went and did the photoshoot. Lastly, I went to a café to have another small meal. I tried out baklava and had coffee. My Bulgarian was not good enough to precisely tell the server how much baklava I wanted, and I did underestimate how big the pieces were, so I did order more than I was able to handle. Hehe. I did feel frustrated at times, but I should’ve studied a bit more, and cheating with another Slavic language was not going to work here, I felt.

As part of the European Capital of Culture, my neighborhood, Kapana, had a small musical stage set up that would have various performers from around the world come to perform in Plovdiv. I remember seeing singers coming from Jamaica, London, and other Slavic countries as well. They would perform short sets in front of crowds of young people who were hanging out drinking beer. It was pretty entertaining to watch these guys for a few hours until I got tired and went back to the guesthouse.

On Sunday, having the options to go either to Hissarya, a place north of Plovdiv that was home to hot springs, or go to Asen’s Fortress, a historic castle south of Plovdiv, I decided to go with the second option, and took a bus at the Plovdiv Main Bus Station, and went to a small town 20 minutes away, called Asenovgrad. It’s a really nice town, and not much English was spoken there, so if I wanted to speak with locals, I had to use Bulgarian. After arriving in Asenovgrad, I made the 40 minute walk uphill from the town all the way to Asen’s Fortress. This place was important because in old times, the area was a very strategic place in the middle of bigger mountains. It may have existed before the Byzantine Empire controlled the area, but the Byzantine Emperor Justinian fortified the fortress and his army fought off invasions from Bulgarians, until the Bulgarian Empire controlled the area, and it would be passed back and forth until the Second Bulgarian Empire held firm control over the fortress and the town underneath. At that point, Tsar Ivan Asen II fortified the fortress, and the fortress was named in his honor. The fortress fell to the Ottoman Turks after 1396 when they invaded Bulgaria, and most of the structure was destroyed in a fire when 2 Ottoman princes were fighting for the throne after their father was kidnapped by the Mongols. It is a beautiful area, especially in the summer with all of the forests covering the mountains. After making my way down, then there was another Bulgarian challenge: getting lunch in Asenovgrad. I found a café on the way back to the bus station, and noticing the local flavor of the bar, I knew that it was a good opportunity for language practice, especially because the café had no English menu. I was very bad at not knowing Bulgarian food, so the advanced Google Translate features helped in allowing me to choose something good to eat. (I almost went with chicken innards by mistake. Oh my!) The waitress was very gracious with me, and maybe also because I spoke enough Bulgarian to make her life easier. Haha. The day ended with me going back to Plovdiv, finding the Maritsa River, and watching the sunset from the river.

Waking up early at the guesthouse, I checked out, without being able to see Ivan one last time, and went back to Sofia on that Monday morning. Another friend from the Polyglot Gathering last year discovered that I was in town and agreed to meet and show me around Sofia. My golden discovery was one I made before the meeting: hot springs. It turns out Sofia has a small area of hot springs, and people would carry buckets and big containers to get as much of the mineral water as possible, because many people talk about the healing qualities of the spring water. Unable to go to the Hissarya Hot Springs, Sofia’s hot springs was good enough for me. I bottled up some water and took some for the day, and I really wished I had a bigger bottle to take some water home, but at the same time, I was traveling with a carry on bag.

Tuesday was a day of mixed emotions. I was sad that my Slavic trip was pretty much over, and I needed to start going west, but I had one day left in Europe, and I couldn’t think of a better place for me to go than to Lisbon. I liked being there in December, and I felt that it could be my new landing city in the future instead of Paris, for various reasons, one of them being that I want to improve my Portuguese, and being in Lisbon gave me that opportunity. Also, being in Lisbon on a Tuesday meant that there was a language exchange event going on, and I was in luck that day to be able to practice some languages that night. I flew from Sofia and made a 2 hour layover in Athens, because I chose to fly with Greek airline Aegean Airways. I arrived to Lisbon on time, and quickly headed to the hostel near the venue of the event, and then quickly had dinner before going to the event.

The event was very fun. I met a lot of participants and chatted with the hosts. I actually got to practice a few languages that I didn’t put on myself, those being Polish and Romanian. I met a lot of Brazilians as well as local Portuguese to speak Portuguese as well. I ended up losing my voice. Haha. We were kicked out of the venue after midnight, and then afterwards went to a small restaurant. I had a quick meal and then went back to the hostel to rest on my final night in Europe.

And that was the end of one of my favorite trips abroad as a language traveler. I thought I did okay, I had a lot of fun, I learned so much about these places, about myself, and I made amazing new friends.  The only thing that is just left to do is to cherish the wonderful memories, and improve my languages. August is here, and my next short trip is coming, and I will discuss what I have been doing, and what I will do at Montreal LangFest 2019.

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