I wasn’t really sure what to expect from Bulgaria as it isn’t really considered a hot travel destination (other than the resorts on the Black Sea) and there is a relative shortage of info about it. But I had already booked a plane ticket out of Romania and figured I’d check out Bulgaria along the way. I’m sure glad I did as it (strangely) turned out to be one of my favorite countries so far in Eastern Europe.
The first step was to take an overnight train SE from Belgrade to Sofia. Thankfully, I was heading further away from Western Europe and therefore not really affected by the migrant situation, though the plight of those traveling in the other direction was clearly visible and quite disheartening.Unlike the fancy, modern train station in Vienna where we had previously seen hundreds of migrants in relative comfort, the dozens of migrants at the simple train station in Belgrade were sleeping outside in the bitter cold (~40F) while they awaited some stroke of good luck to help them get out of this temporary limbo and continue along their way. Boarding my aging sleeper car, I was dubious at first but felt very fortunate to have an entire 6-bunk cabin to myself for what turned out to be a relatively comfortable 10-hour journey.
Arriving in Sofia early on a chilly and gray Sunday morning, the capital city was still quiet and asleep but I could immediately feel that there was something different about it. While I couldn’t put my finger on it as I walked to my hotel and dropped off my bags, it became more apparent as I wandered around the city. The art and architecture are very unique, an eclectic mixture of the Roman, Orthodox, Ottoman, and Soviet / Communist influences compiled over the centuries. In particular, the public sculptures (many in the Socialist Realist style) really intrigued me and spurred further exploration.
Next up was Veliko Tarnovo, a picturesque city set along the steep banks of a serpentine river and surrounded by forest. While VT has plenty of interesting public art and old churches to explore, the star attraction is Tsarevets, an ancient fortress and capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire during the Middle Ages. At the pinnacle of the hilltop fortress lies the Patriarchal Cathedral of the Holy Ascension of God, whose interior was repainted in the 1980s by artist Teofan Sokerov, depicting important moments of medieval Bulgarian history in a spectacular modernist style.
Thanks to a tip from a fellow traveler, it was time to have my mind blown by one of the craziest places that I’ve ever been. Buzludzha is perched 4700′ up in the Central Balkan Mountains, on the site of the final battle for independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1868. The futuristic monument, built by the Bulgarian Communist Party and opened in 1981, enjoyed a very short life. Soon after the Communists lost power in 1989, it was abandoned and left to the elements to decay for the last 25 years. I spent a few hours thoroughly exploring the derelict structure, crumbling mosaics, and impressive views, my impressions alternating between creepy and absolutely amazing. Completely hooked, I started researching on Atlas Obscura, quickly found some other monuments, and updated my travel plans.
A couple of hours east, the industrial city of Shumen is home to the Founders of the Bulgarian State Monument, built in a cubist style in 1981 to commemorate the 1300th anniversary of the First Bulgarian Empire. At a height of 450m above sea level, the imposing concrete structure can be seen from 30km away and can be reached by climbing 1300 aptly designed steps. As this is actually a monument to Bulgarian history, not to the Bulgarian Communist Party, the Transformers-esque statues are thankfully still maintained.
The Monument of the Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship lies somewhere in between. While it isn’t specifically a monument to the Bulgarian Communist Party, it is hard to ignore the association and thus hasn’t been maintained since 1989. But, being in a prominent location in the Black Sea resort city of Varna, it is in much better condition than Buzludzha.
It was probably a good thing I didn’t really expect much from Bulgaria, as I came away thoroughly intrigued and impressed. While that is in large part due to my admittedly strange obsession with Communist art, it doesn’t discount the fact that Bulgaria is a country full of beautiful mountains, friendly people, and (quite surprisingly) tasty vegan restaurants. It is easily one of my favorite Balkan countries and I’m looking forward to having more than a week to explore in greater depth.