I can’t believe I nearly neglected the Black Sea Coast. Before I left for Bulgaria I was warned that the country’s famous Eastern strip was plagued by ugly construction projects, cheesy resorts and package tourists looking for a cheap patch of sand to set up their umbrellas. There’s some truth to this, but it turns out that the coast is much more than a pretty place. It’s a historically rich region filled with quaint seaside towns, beautiful beaches and one zany British-owned hostel where for five nights I got to relive the magic of summer camp.
After a couple of bad experiences with the Bulgarian bus system, I decided to take the train eastward from Plovdiv to Burgas, the southern coast’s main hub. Compared to the bus, the three-hour journey was quite civilized. I dozed in and out of sleep until the last half hour when I switched seats to escape the guy in front of me who started blaring ringtone versions of U2 songs from his cell phone.
From Burgas, I took a bus to Sozopol, a small town on a rocky, hilly peninsula about 45 kilometres south. Instead of the usual old lady, I was greeted at the station by a man in his early ‘40s wearing crocs and a polo shirt who later introduced himself as Roman. He told me he had a room available in the old town, only two minutes away, so I followed him through a small modern amphitheatre and around a bunch of tourist shops to a small townhouse right by the harbour. The room was in the basement, but it was clean and cheap enough and the location was perfect, so I said OK, paid him his 15 leva ($8) and set off in search of some much-needed lunch.
Here’s the thing: it was raining pretty much the full two days I stayed in Sozopol. The town boasts two superb beaches but I only got to enjoy them for an hour or two on the evening I arrived. There’s a nice little outdoor theatre where I was looking forward to watching “Date Night” with Bulgarian subtitles; rained out. Instead, I found shelter in a gaudy nouveau-riche cafe called Lipstick where I watched Germany beat Ghana while dance music blared obliviously. I ordered a Grolsch (foreign beer only) and a slice of ice cream cake, which cost more than the amazing dinner (fresh mussels and tomato sauce, green salad with blue cheese, grapes, walnuts and sliced apples) I’d eaten earlier at a cliff-top Italian restaurant towering over the sea. I’d been told about places like Lipstick, where locals shell out ludicrous sums to keep the company of others who can afford to do the same.
After rainy but relaxing Sozopol I headed north to Nesebar, a UNESCO World Heritage City that’s known as the jewel of the Bulgarian coast. It’s an incredibly picturesque island littered with the ruins of dozens of Roman and Ottoman-era churches and restored Bulgarian revival houses. But in the five years since courting and joining the EU, it has also become grotesquely commercialized. The façade of every stone wall is obscured by pottery, rose products, key chains, woolen socks, seashells, Russian dolls and other souvenirs being sold by opportunistic locals. In Nesebar, you can’t move without making a cameo in someone else’s photo. That said, the town is fabulous if you stay on the outskirts of the island, out of range of the hawking merchants and restaurant pitchmen.
I must have spent hours by the sea, jumping from rock to rock, lost in thought. I moved slowly and carefully at first as I doubted my footing and over thought my path, but began to step stridently, even gracefully as my thoughts became lucid and my movements instinctive. It was exhilarating to contrast my temporal anonymity with my postmark existence back home. There I am son, partner, coworker, tenant. Here I am man with futuristic silver rain jacket scribbling on a notepad while hop-scotching the rocks. I wondered what would happen if I fell in, twisted my ankle, became bloody and bruised and wet: “Tourist falls in sea, rescued by off-duty waiter in sailor cap.” Then I become that guy. But I’m amazed at how consistent I am, how I’ll blush or get angry at, shy away from or get excited about the same things whether I’m in Koprivshtitsa or the Cavendish Mall. I used to see travel as an opportunity for reinvention, like that guy I met in Plovdiv whose name is Daniel but introduced himself as Otis. But now it’s about reconfirmation, about going somewhere else and finding out whom I’ve become since the last time around.
Here’s a song I wrote on the rocks (think James Taylor or Paul McCartney at the piano for the melody):
You’re very far away
from the city and the mountain
where I was born and raised
And though I will back there soon
a part of me will stay
in Nesebar, if that’s okay
I’ll never say a word
about your rugged island beauty
of which most have never heard
Let’s keep it between you and me,
the Germans and the birds
Oh Nesebar, you’re absurd
I only stayed one night in Nesebar, in the family home of yet another grandmother I followed up the hill. At night the island emptied out, almost eerily so. Most visitors returned to their hotels on German-infested Sunny Beach, a kilometre or so away. The merchants took down their souvenirs for the night and I was left to roam freely among the lighted ruins. Then, as I was heading to bed, I heard loud, drunken Bulgarian singing from one of the restaurants overlooking the harbour and was beckoned in to sit at a table with the chef and a bunch of his friends who spoke no English but kept offering me beer and food, on the house. At night, Nesebar becomes Nesebar again.
Sozopol and Nesebar were all about introspection and solitude; in Varna, I was a fucking rock star. Boasting roughly 365,000 citizens, Varna is the second or third largest city in Bulgaria, depending on which Wikipedia page you trust (Plovdiv is the other contender). Either way, Varna is the metropolis of the Black Sea Coast, sporting a major seaport, a massive pedestrian mall, and plenty of lively beaches. I stayed at the Flag Hostel, which is both the stalwart and underdog of the Varna hostel scene. Established by an Australian millionaire in 2004, it was purchased five years ago by an Englishman named Dave. Last summer a fire in the building forced the hostel to close and relocate during peak season, so the Flag is still struggling to regain its momentum and compete with its flashy, more commercial rival, a hokey pirate-themed hostel a few blocks away.
In many ways, Dave is the stereotypical English bloke. Crass, potbellied and self-deprecating, he looks a bit like Phillip Seymour Hoffman with a permanent sunburn. He doesn’t speak a lick of Bulgarian despite having lived here for a half decade (his signature telephone greeting is, “Hello! Do you speak English?”) and, embittered by the red tape involved in operating a business in a former communist country, exhibits a general disdain for the local population, That said, Dave has a heart of gold and insists on treating every guest like family. Like a bear protecting his cubs, he doggedly shields you from dodgy bank machines, unscrupulous merchants, overpriced restaurants and predatory cab drivers. From the moment I got there, I was whisked from one activity to the other – rainy day billiards, bowling, night swimming at a secret communist-era hot springs pool, free mountain bike rides along the coast, a speedboat trip to a deserted beach, dinner at an underground family restaurant nicknamed the “AC/DC” because of the owner’s propensity for heavy metal T-shirts. I didn’t do much writing in Varna.
And then there was the rest of the Flag family. Ivan is Dave’s Bulgarian right-hand man, a permanently lovesick 27-year-old who speaks a hilariously colloquial, profanity-laced English and seems to have escaped from an Adam Sandler movie. Sam and Stewart are the hostel stalwarts, two 19-year olds from Northwestern England who set up shop for the month to watch the World Cup in the cheapest city they could find. Shaggy-haired Stewart works at a hunting ground back home where rich Londoners spend their holidays shooting birds at a few hundred pounds a piece. Stoner Sam is wise beyond his years and harbours some very astute, very libertarian political views unearthed during a heated debate at the hot pool re: Obamacare.
I shared a room with three university students from Sheffield, England. They arrived from Istanbul, and when I spotted an ironic fez on each bed, I braced myself for a couple of loud, drunken nights. Turns out this was the nicest, wittiest, most down-to-earth group of guys I’ve met. Six-foot-seven James (rechristened “Jimmy” after a night at the lanes) is the quiet giant who won me over by his complete bemusement; while his mates watched England’s World Cup elimination in agony, he sat away from the TV drinking his beer without a care in the world. Matt (aka The Panther) has an intense thirst for salt and cigarettes but seems to have emerged from a tough working class background (he mentioned that most of his childhood friends are meth addicts) to become a quality guy. Max is the trio’s de facto leader, a jovial 6-foot-4 film student with an indie haircut and great taste in music (which invariably plays in his ears or emanates from his iPod dock). The trio taught us a great bluffing game called “Mafia,” which provided hours of comedy and helped us all become fast friends. Call it a summer bromance, but I love these guys!
Finally, some much-needed female energy was provided by two spirited girls from Quebec City (via Victoriaville, the disputed birthplace of poutine). Things began shakily when, after introducing myself as a Montrealer, I hesitated before pinpointing July 24 as St Jean Baptiste Day (Quebec’s “national” holiday), but the two solitudes were bridged soon enough and the three of us formed a formidable, bilingual Bloc Quebecois. Arianne is a nurse who lovingly bandaged my foot after it got cut up in the rocky waters off the deserted beach. Virginie is a special education teacher-cum social work student who taught me some kick-ass Quebecois slang. Ironically enough, I probably spoke more French over five days in Bulgaria than during the last year in Montreal. En tous cas…
I write this from my last stop in Bulgaria, Veliko Tarnovo. It’s a gorgeous town in the middle of the country known for its massive medieval fortress and its prestigious university, which keeps this place from becoming another overdeveloped and overpriced tourist stop. I travelled here with my three British mates from Varna on a surprisingly posh coach bus that showed Lindsay Lohan’s Labor Pains on mute with Bulgarian subtitles (regardless, the guys were able to predict the outcome in the first few minutes). I booked for two nights but ended up staying five, drugged by the wild, forested landscape and the homey atmosphere of the most luxurious hostel I’ve seen.
Housed in a huge revival era house, Hostel Mostel (I stayed at the sister hostel in Sofia) is clean and roomy, with a gigantic, multi-level terrace, brick oven barbecue area, and a breathtaking flower garden lovingly tended by the elderly owner, Stan. Breakfast is an impressive spread of tomatoes, cucumbers, feta, granola, toast and jam, and they even throw in a light dinner and beer in the evenings – all for $12 Canadian. After saying a sad goodbye to James, Matt and Max, I began hanging out with a 30-year-old married couple, Alex and Rebecca. He’s a Russian Jew who recently quit his job as a marketing director in Portland, Ore. She grew up in L.A. and Las Vegas and just finished a six-year degree in naturopathic medicine. This trip is their big blowout before moving to Berkeley where he’ll begin his MBA and she’ll open a practice. Yesterday I joined them for a short hike to a nearby village. We managed to lose the trail and were forced to “off-road” it up a rocky hill and through some prickly gnat-filled bushes, three wandering Jews with Lady Gaga stuck in our heads. I know I’ll see these two again, whether in California, or Canada, or wherever.
Now begins the home stretch. This afternoon I head back to Sofia, then Frankfurt, and then Montreal, where I hope to find my old self waiting for me, relaxed and reinvigorated.