Brief observations on travel in Bulgaria

Chin Yi and I recently returned from a vacation to Bulgaria and Romania.  Here are my very brief thoughts and advice to others who plan a similar journey in Bulgaria.

Language: Between us, we have conversational ability in English, French, Japanese, and two dialects of Chinese.  Also some limited capacity in German.  We had no Bulgarian to speak of.  In practice, this meant that we had to try to communicate in English.  In Bulgarian hotels you can usually find somebody who speaks English (though we did end up using German a lot at one hotel, for lack of another common language), but elsewhere, talking to a taxi driver or a bus ticket agent, you may find that English doesn’t get the message across, particularly in the smaller cities.  I loaded the Google Translate app onto my cell phone and installed the Bulgarian language package for offline use, which helped immensely in these situations.  Learn to pronounce the Cyrillic letters used in Bulgaria, it will help you to read signs on buses and addresses.

Cell phone: Before we went, I did some research to find how to get phone and Internet service on our Android phones.  I decided to use the Globul carrier, based on what I could find on their English-language website.  This wasn’t very successful.  While the phone and text-messaging were cheap to set up, I never got Internet going because, as one representative later told me, “the English website is out of date, we no longer offer pre-paid Internet”.  Our phones started with about 3 Bulgarian Lev in air time credit, and we burned that quickly on a couple of phone calls and a dozen text messages.  If I were to plan a return trip to Bulgaria, I wouldn’t be using Globul, but I’d have to do more research to find out what my alternatives might be.

Hotels: As I noted, most hotels had some English-speaking staff, except in the smaller cities.  In those hotels where we stayed more than one night, housekeeping didn’t come.  You might have to request it, or put out a sign.  Breakfast was pretty standard, breads, cheese, meats, eggs and omelets, fruit juice, and tea or coffee.  Sometimes included in the room price, sometimes charged extra.

Laundry: This was a bit of a shock for us.  Coin laundries are rare in Bulgaria, there might be a few in some of the bigger cities, but don’t expect to be able to find one.  Some dry-cleaners will do laundry by the kilogram, we eventually found a place in Varna that would do it for us, 12 Bulgarian Lev for rush service of about 5 days of clothing for two people.  Hotels may have a next-day service to send out to a cleaner for by-the-kilogram laundry, but they may not, and this doesn’t help when you’re only staying one night.

Restaurants: The restaurants are officially non-smoking indoors, though sometimes that didn’t turn out to be the case.  Best to check, if smoke is a problem for you.  Also, while we were there, the restaurants seemed to have about a 50% failure rate on their credit-card equipment, so even if you see a credit card sign on the door, ask when you go in to make sure they can process your payment, or make sure you have enough cash on hand.  The cuisine in Bulgaria is reminiscent of Greece and Turkey.  You’ll find shawarma and shish houses, and lots of offerings of roasted and grilled meat and fish.  One staple of restaurants seems to be the “shopska salad”.  It’s what I would call a Greek salad.  Tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, olives, onions, feta cheese, spices, and oil.  No lettuce.  If you have trouble communicating with your waiter, you can be pretty sure he’ll understand a request for “shopska”, and will be able to bring one to you.  Even in restaurants where we couldn’t communicate the concept of “water”, we were able to get a shopska salad.

Inter-city travel: The geography of Bulgaria is a bit unfriendly to trains.  There is a mountain range that runs West to East from Sofia, effectively preventing North-South rail infrastructure.  We went from city to city by bus.  Buses are non-smoking, may be air-conditioned, and will occasionally have on-board washroom facilities for the more heavily-traveled routes.  Bus travel is very inexpensive.  I would say there’s no reason to buy a Eurail pass for travel within Bulgaria, it’s unlikely to be helpful.  If I were doing the same trip again, I’d be tempted to get an international driver’s license and rent a car.

Things to see: Really, this depends on the traveler, you’ll have to choose those yourself.  We went to Sofia, to Rila Monastery, Plovdiv, the rose festival in Kazanluk, and Golden Sands near Varna.

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