Stepping onto Platform 2 in Budapest to catch the night train through Romania to Bulgaria held so much promise. I had visions of a magical train chugging through the countryside while I sipped tea and made conversation with new internationl friends over the whooshing landscapes passing by. Well, the dream was at least partially true. Once we found our assigned compartment with help from the conductor, I only had to take one step in to realize I wanted to be taking two steps out. The cabin was 6 feet wide, 6 feet deep, and 8 feet high…with 6 beds and 6 people crammed inside. Luckily, the large picture windows right outside the cabin opened half way so I got some fresh air and met our friendly Bulgarian cabinmate who was socializing in the hall before shutting up in the sardine can. Since the beds were stacked closely on top of eachother, you could not sit up straight in the cabin, which meant the two French girls inside were dangling half on and half off of their beds, necks crooked, eating ham and cheese sandwiches and probably wondering like us, “how are we going to make this into a comfortable 22 hour ride?!”. I decided to take a quick stroll and see how our neighbors were living on my way to the dining car- which surely had to have some sense of luxury, even if that meant a seat to sit upright in for a little while. About every fourth cabin I passed looked to be living the high life, with true seats and seemingly plenty of head and leg room! I quickly grabbed Lee so we could investigate further together and then we had a eureka! moment, we simply had to fold the bottom and middle bunks in the correct order and they created a set of six comfortable seats for non-sleeping time. We introduced the idea to our cabin of newly found bent neck friends and were met by enthusiastic cheers. The rest of the evening we spent comfortably exchanging travel tales, listening to our Bulgarian bunkmate tell us about living through communism, and answering endless questions that began with, ” Is it true that in America….” (one of the most humerous being: “Is it true that in America if you are stopped by a cop and you move abruptly, they will kill you?”) When we couldn’t hold sleepiness off any longer, we lay the beds down again, crawled in, and fell asleep like babies in the gently rocking car. It had that spark of magic. And in the morning we had a cup of tea over the sunrise and soaked in how lovely the night train turned out to be after all.
When we reached Bucharest, Romania we changed trains for the remainder of our journey to Veliko Tornovo, Bulgaria. This second train was what train dreams are actually made of. Lee and I had our own cabin that was decked out in cherry wood and brass furnishings. The craftmanship from eras past could be felt in each little detail as we discovered one functional luxury after another. From swinging brass coat hangers to a mirrored door that opened to reveal shelving, to hinged rope shelves that could be flipped down to hold little items like a book or journal, to the flip up shelf that gave you access to your own sink with running hot and cold water. We were very appreciative of all the train’s workmanship and charm. The conductor even gave me his hand as I stepped off the train at our final destination.
Since travel days are never as straight forward as you think they could be, we weren’t all that surprised when we were told 30 minutes before our stop that the tracks by our ticketed destination were being worked on so we would have to get off a village early. We had arranged for our hostel to pick us up at the train station (it is a courtesy they provide since the hostel is at the top of many curving hills and hard to find). Since we were at a different train station at a different time than arranged, we felt badly that someone may be waiting for us in an empty station as we somehow made our way to the correct village and on to the hidden hostel. So we were quite pleased when we heard a beckoning, “Finkbeiner!?”, from a 30-something year old man dressed in neon blue hot shorts and a pink tank top. After assessing if any other travelers also needed a ride to Veliko Tarnovo (they either did not need a ride or were too skeptical of our scantily clad friend), we hopped in the car and were on our way. Mr. Hot Pants turned out to actually be Mr. Hostel Owner and gave us a driving tour of several monasteries in one of the old stone towns nearby with spectacular valley views. Crossing one of the main streets, we stopped for an elderly man and his extremely well trained goat as they stepped to the other side of the road together. Once arriving at the hostel, our host Tosho continued the generosity and insisted we join in the celebrations of the evening – it was his mother’s birthday and there was lots of excitement in the air. Tosho and the other staff welcomed their local Bulgarian friends to join the party as well; and since we were the only guests at the hostel, and since the hostel actually used to be Tosho’s house, we immediately felt like we were having a true Bulgarian experience. We sat outside underneath red and green grape vines shading the porch and were poured small glasses of pure Rakia, a smooth golden liquor made from grapes, which Tosho’s father had made. Salad after salad appeared on the table. Fresh tomatoes, sliced cucucumber, otherworldly feta, heaps of olives. Grapes pulled from above. More rakia. Then came the roasted bread and grilled spiced meat patties. Toast after toast was given to the birthday girl. “Nastrovia!” More rakia was poured, and the Bulgarian conversations flowed. White bread with a red tomato paste was brought out and we were encouraged to eat! eat! (though that dish was really our least favorite). By 3am the last drops of the rakia had been drunk and the whole party agreed, we had celebrated Tosho’s mother’s birthday perfectly! And he promised to give her all our best, as we had not seen her all night since she was miles away having a quiet birthday evening.
The following day we awoke to stunning views right outside our window. The death-defying drive to the hostel through twisted cobblestone and tight corners, up alleyways and past cliffs proved worth it. One of the oldest villages in Bulgaria, and once the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1386), we had hilltop views of Veliko Tarnovo’s Tsaravets Fortress and palace ruins across the valley. Though to me the powerful, historical hillside looked like a 90 minute walk away, it was a mere 20 minute stroll through town and past the shops selling traditional pottery and handmade jewelry. Once there, we hiked throughout the ruins, imagining what life must have been like all those years ago. At the top of the hill, past execution corner, stands the Patriarchal Cathedral of the Holy Ascension of God, the interior of which is painted in muted modern frescoes that almost feel like a street art interpretation of war, famine, and religion. In fact, we are told the paintings are a mixture of traditional religious figures, historical figures, and historical Bulgarian scenes. Due to these paintings (created in 1985 as part of the rebuilding of the ruined building from Ottoman destruction in 1393), the Cathedral has not been reconsecrated. From the many, many churches and cathedrals I have visited, this is definitely one of the most shocking/absorbing/heaviest.
If you’re lucky when visiting Veliko Tarnovo, enough people may pay to see the whole fortress lit up at night for the famous Light Show. Since this threshold of overcoming the cost to run the show is unpredictable, we felt lucky indeed when the Cathedral bells starting ringing to announce the show. Climbing the hostel stairs to the best view of the full fortress, we watched in awe as color after color bathed the various parts of the fortress telling a story of the area’s battled past. The compound seemed even more grand and sprawling than when we had wandered its grounds just a few hours earlier.
While at the hostel, we made friends with a wildly outrageous Welshman who, as of recently, had become the hostel gardener, personality, and general caretaker. He too had a fondness for the rakia, and for short shorts, and for good storytelling. So when the opportunity arose to get him a few hours off of work to show us the best fishing spot in town, we jumped on it. Lee had purchased fishing line and a few hooks while in Sopron, Hungary so we had the basics for our our adventure. Tagging quickly behind Andrew the Welshman, we followed his lead in greeting all the locals in Bulgarian, and hopped down one broken and grown-over alley after the next. Just past the shuttered biscuit factory, we reached the premium spot to access the Yantra river. Since the only fishing shop in town was closed, we did not have a fishing rod or any bait, but Lee being Lee, I knew that wouldn’t put much of a stop to his fishing. He looked around and found the tallest, straightest tree (a small 9 foot walnut) and cut it down. The he stripped the tree of its branches and voila! Fishing pole problem solved. Now for the bait. We walked down the hill a little closer to the water and Lee picked up a rock and threw it in a shallow pool of water, with the second toss Lee had is bait: a minnow. The fishing continued and when one bait was lost the next was in line: a cricket, a frog, a leech (eek! I know). As the men fished and threw rocks, I sat along the rocky banks and used my water colors and the river water to capture a little scene of the day: the rocks, the clear cool water, the steep lush hillside, and the jutting fortress overlooking us all. The fishing didn’t produce much, but we had a grand time.
In the evening, we celebrated national Unification Day (in memory of the unification of all Bulgarian states on September 6, 1885). For the entire weekend, a motley crew of artists, musicians, and performers filled the streets and delighted all the town children – along with us! There were face painters, drum circles, fire throwers, tight-rope walkers, a manipulator (marionette’s puppeteer), graffitti artists, and an almost indescribable circle of people connecting plastic tubes to each other while simultaneously listening to and talking through them in a disorganized dance. There was much to absorb, but we kept finding ourselves pulled back to the manipulator who danced along with his marionnette to upbeat music and increased the skill + difficulty of their moves as the kids’ eyes grew wider. Many of the performers spent the night at the hostel too, so we awoke feeling like we were in a bit of a circus. A grape-drenched, hilltop, Bulgarian circus.