My husband and I prefer to travel using rick steves guidebooks to help us plan our trips. Would like to plan a two week trip to Romania and Bulgaria and would appreciate any information from anyone who has traveled there lately. What are the best forms of transportation between locations? How difficult is it to understand the language and alphabet ? Any areas that could be dangerous or should be avoided ? Also any suggestions on must see attractions and suggested itinerary would be appreciated. We are thinking May 2019. Thanks !
There are several of us who've been to those countries, and Rick now has a tour to Bulgaria, I believe. My trip was in 2015, and I had a great time.
You are right to inquire about transportation, because that is a bit of a challenge. As a rough rule of thumb, you should expect to cover only about 30 mph by either train or bus. The train service is limited and not particularly fast. I don't remember any modern-looking carriages. The buses I used were clean and mostly modern. You'll need either to compromise on what you get to see or have a fairly long trip.
Some Romanian bus companies at the time of my trip (it may have changed) had the odd and annoying practice of requiring customers to make a reservation by telephone rather than simply buying a ticket in advance at the bus station or online. I had to do that twice. I was able to find two kind Romanians to make those calls for me. Throughout Europe I always assume that train and bus station employees (and telephone personnel) will not speak English. That way, I am not disappointed.
Bulgaria uses the Cyrillic alphabet. I can't tell you how much of a struggle that will be for you because I, luckily, studied Russian in college. Though I have forgotten virtually everything, the alphabet doesn't look odd to me. Lots of young folks in Bulgaria speak English quite well, and I think you'll find that people try to be helpful. Except for possibly the Black Sea resorts, the country doesn't get tons of tourists, so burn-out hasn't set in. Still, it would probably enrich your trip if you spent a bit of time learning the alphabet. It's always handy to be able to read destination signs, though I imagine they're in our alphabet as well. I'm sorry, but I just don't remember.
Romanian is actually a Romance language, so if you can read some French, Spanish, Italian or Portuguese, you may understand a lot more signage than you might expect. Warning: It seems that being surrounded by Slavic languages, Romanian has accrued some interesting grammatical features, so it is not as close to the previously-mentioned Romance languages as they are to each other. (Or at least that was my impression; I am by no means an expert.) As in Bulgaria, English has made major inroads among the young, and the country has a long of history (despite Ceausescu) of feeling connected to the Romance-language speakers far to the west.
I didn't observe any safety issues during my trip in the usual sense of the word, but it appeared that an awful lot of Romania's sidewalks were either missing or being worked on. I had to lift my rolling bag a lot more often than I like. It occurred to me while I was on my trip that it would have been a challenge for someone in a wheel chair or on crutches.
You didn't ask about food, but I found it not particularly unusual. I don't think it would be a problem for even a rather picky eater. Bulgarian restaurants always have (good) chicken kebabs available. What I remember most about Romanian food is that Romanians seem extremely fond of baked dough rings (sort of like stretched-out bagels) early in the morning and for mid-morning snacks. You can buy them hot out of the oven from windows facing the street. They are available with various fillings and coatings (sweet or savory).
There's a huge economic gap between these two countries and western Europe. The vast majority of the local residents probably cannot afford to eat a meal in a restaurant. Therefore, you may wish to eat at sort of upscale places, targeted at tourists, for more variety and (probably) quality. I made the mistake of buying a very inexpensive (about $1.25) portion of tiramisu at a nice-looking, small pastry/ice-cream shop in Cluj Napoca, Romania. I should have realized that was too cheap. It tasted like something out of a chemical factory, not dairy-based at all. So I suggest avoiding things that are just too cheap for the ingredients they are supposed to contain.
I ran out of room in the first post but wanted to give you a tip about getting to some parts of Romania that may be difficult or impossible to access by train or bus.
The Retro Hostel in Cluj-Napoca (a city with a very pretty historic area) runs a variety of tours within Romania. You don't have to stay at the hostel to take one of the tours. As far as I know, the tours don't run on a fixed schedule, which is a bit of a challenge for tourists who are trying to pin down their itineraries. It is possible, though, that a private tour for just two people would not be inordinately expensive. The Maramures area is especially fascinating, with its wooden churches and towering wooden gateposts. It's also where the Merry Cemetery is located. I took a 2-day tour to that area for about $100 plus the cost of a room and 3 meals at a rural B&B (that part was either $20 or $25). Obviously an incredible deal. The tour guide/driver was a history teacher who spoke excellent English. I took a day tour to the Bucovina area (where the painted monasteries are located) that I arranged through a travel agency in Suceava. It got me where I wanted to go, but it was not as well guided as the Retro Hostel tour.
I think if would be very useful to look at the places the Retro Hostel tours go and consider including them in your Romanian itinerary. Some of the destinations must be accessible by public transportation--I know that Sibiu is (and I highly recommend it).
Places I visited and liked in Romania: Timisoara, Sibiu, Sighisoara, Cluj-Napoca, Brasov, Maramures, Bucovina. Bucharest wasn't my favorite destination, but there are things to see there. It was just difficult for me to get past all the damage Ceausescu had done to the cityscape by tearing down historic buildings and replacing it with ugliness.
Places I visited and liked in Bulgaria: Veliko Trnovo, Plovdiv, Oradea, Sozopol and Nesebr. Sofia, like Bucharest didn't seem the most immediately attractive destination in the country. I wouldn't skip it, but I wouldn't spend a great deal of time there. After I had bought by train ticket from Bucharest to Veliko Trnovo, I read that the border city of Ruse has a nice historic district, but I didn't get a chance to see it. And Rila Monastery would also have been on my list if I had had more time.
May is a great time for this region, I'm usually there every fall and recommend that, but last year also went in May. It's actually more beautiful.
I would strongly recommend you rent a car, especially if you have two weeks, which is really not enough. You can definitely see these countries using public transit, but a lot of the sites are rural, and there are a lot of nice scenic drives. With 7-8 days in Bulgaria, one itinerary I like is a loop through central, south central and south western Bulgaria. This itinerary moves fast and requires a car, so adjust as needed.
Start in Sofia. I would recommend only one full day in Sofia, but make it a full day, so maybe land there, overnight, another full day, overnight, then leave in the morning. Like the last poster, I am not a huge fan of Sofia, or any of the Balkan capitals except Sarajevo. Maybe check out the history museum and Boyana church, walk around some of the main areas (opera house, NDK, etc). Vitosha Street is okay as well, a pedestrian zone. Next day head to Rila Monestary. You can also incorporate a trip to the 7 Rila Lakes as well if you want to do a half day hike before the monastery, but you have to start earlier. Afterwards, overnight in either Blagoevgrad (a small, pleasant college town) or Bansko.
Head east through the Rhodopi Mtns - drive toward Smolyan, there are a ton of things to do on the way there, caves, hikes etc. On the way to Smolyan visit the Trigrad and/or Yagodina gorges (both of these are really scenic, there are also some incredible caves like Devils Throat there with an underground river, and hikes). Overnight in Smolyan or possibly one of the small towns nearby - Gorna Arda, Smiliyan, Mogilitsa etc. Mogilitsa has a perfectly preserved turkish konak which is actually pretty cool.
Smolyan has a cool little regional history and art museum there. There is also a trail that starts from there - waterfall canyon. Just absolutely beautiful hike along side some rivers with a series of waterfalls, bridges, scenic views etc.
From Smolyan area, head toward Plovidv. Visit Bachkovo Monestary on the way, some people also go to Asen's Fortress. Plovdiv is one of the nicer towns in Bulgaria, has an old ottoman section, roman ruins, etc. It is also the European Capital of Culture 2019, which means there will be a lot of events, I would actually recommend booking Plovdiv in advance because of this, normally I wouldn't bother. Look for something in the Kapana district. Stay for two nights, visit the old town, the roman ruins, drink some beer, have some fun.
General idea: https://goo.gl/maps/XtJUi
Next,head north toward Veliko Tarnovo. Make this a long day. On the way visit the russian memorial church outside Shipka town, hit the Shipka pass, visit the Shipka monument, definitely don't miss Buzhluzhda (although I've heard you can no longer get in, would still be worth the outside picture), possibly Etar (ethnovillage) or one of the monasteries on that road (e.g. Drynaovo), then stay over in VT for a couple nights. VT is great, don't miss all the artists shops and there is some good food here. This area has a ton of side trips as well, you can actually do them from here or Ruse:
- Transfiguration Monastery
- UNESCO Rock Hewn Churches of Ivanovo
- UNESCO Madara Horseman
You can check out some pictures of these places on my blog. https://cvbnmx.wordpress.com
Let me know if you have specific interests I am just scratching the surface here with the most obvious sorts of recommendations.
Also I am assuming you will return the car in Bulgaria. So basically exit via Ruse, see Romania, re-enter via Vidin. If you have time you can check out the area around Vratsa and/or Belogradchik on your way back to Sofia.
Safety: Don't worry about it. Driving is a bit unsafe as speeds can be fast, just pay attention. Alphabet: Pretty much everything is signposted in English now with rare exceptions.
I'm sure glad Kaeleku spotted the "two weeks" and mentioned it, because I read right past it.
Don't try the two countries in that amount of time. You'll burn too much time sitting on buses and won't have much left for actual sightseeing. With two weeks, I think you really need to focus on either Romania or Bulgaria.
Even with two weeks, if you have a car and keep it focused you can see a lot. Two weeks is right on the edge. Like maybe a bit too much for one country but not enough for 2 ... 3 weeks would be great. Also I think Romania is slower going than Bulgaria, Bulgaria has a lot of fast highways and I think a lot of the Romanian roads are still slower, so maybe you can see more faster in Bulgaria.
I think two weeks is fine if you plan it well and dont try to see everything. K is correct, the major sights are better connected in Bulgaria, but the roads in Romania are not terrible. For a "fun" road in Bulgaria visit the Devils Throat.
These are two countries where a car and driver/guide is affordable and that would make 2 weeks very doable. $200 to $300 a day.
I rarely just do one country on a trip. What if that one country doesn't ring your bell? Better some variety and lots of flexibility.
Two really great destinations.
Must see: Plovdiv. at least 2-3 days