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Best of Bulgaria Trip Report - September 2022

My husband and I returned from our Best of Bulgaria RS tour (Sept 11-22). We went to Bulgaria three days prior to the start of the tour and stayed almost seven days after our return. We really enjoyed the tour and our time before and after. This is a long report so I don't blame people for just skimming through parts (I mainly wrote this as a record for myself, but understand some others looking at the Bulgaria tour might be interested in some specifics). I'd be happy to answer any questions others might have about our experiences.
I think that it is fair to say that we were a bit apprehensive since we have always been independent travelers (using Rick Steves’ travel books and other materials since the early 1990s. I tend to be the trip planner in our family so it was my idea to use a tour in order to travel around Bulgaria. It seemed like train and bus travel was a bit more daunting to arrange in Bulgaria, so I pitched the idea to my husband and we booked the tour just about 2 months before the tour started. Overall, we were pleased with the tour and definitely with the other tour members that we were able to share time with. If I was to complain about any aspect of the tour, it is just that we tend to go at a bit slower pace when we travel now, preferring to stay in one location for 4 or 5 days. We never stayed in one location more than 2 nights, and several locations, we agreed that we would have preferred at least 1 or 2 more days. We also tend to want to linger over breakfast a bit, and a group tour does tend to keep you moving. Let’s just say, we were never the first ones at breakfast.
Pre-Tour – Sofia: We flew to Sofia via Paris (CDG) three days prior to the start of the tour. I had arranged for an apartment for those days through booking.com. The apartment was great. We learned that it was in a building of apartments built following the war for the Communist elite. We were on the third floor. The owner sent detailed info on how to access the key from the lock box outside. As you entered the apartment, there was a hallway with three rooms (living room, bedroom, and kitchen) in a row (each connected only to the hallway). The bathroom was at the end of the hallway. There were small balconies off the kitchen and the living room. The apartment had everything we could want – stove, microwave, refrigerator, clothes washer, etc. There was detailed info on where the closest 24/7 grocery was and other nearby necessities. The apartment was only a 5-minute walk from the main downtown Metro station. We had taken the Metro from the airport (only 1.6 leva each – 1 Euro is approximately 2 leva). The first metro line was built only about 12 years ago, some of the lines are even newer, so the stations and cars with all bright and clean.
We slept late our first morning in Sofia, which was a mistake. We should have gotten up early and gotten on the new time schedule. This was particularly a bad idea, since I had trouble sleeping the next 2 nights (only about 2 hours each night). By the time we joined the RS Tour, I was a bit of a zombie. We didn’t have a lot planned for Sofia before the RS Tour because we knew we would be back in Sofia for 5 days at the end of the tour, so we decided to not do too much, especially staying away from crowded locations. We did walk through the Roman ruins of Serdika, had drinks and snacks at several locations on Vitosha Blvd (the main pedestrian shopping area), walked around the Aleksander Nevski Cathedral during the daytime and at night (I got a super professional night photo), visited the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and also admired the old Soviet era architecture all around downtown. One day, we had lunch at an Italian restaurant , Mi Casa, just because its outside dining area was right next to yet more excavated ruins of a Roman fortress!

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BEST OF BULGARIA RS TOUR REPORT continued: One activity that I had booked in advance was a Wine Tasting led by the owner of a wine shop a couple of blocks off Vitosha. It was excellent. We tasted 6 different wines, using grapes unique to Bulgaria: miskets, melnik, mavrud, gumza and rubin. As we tasted, we also had the availability of local cheeses and bread sticks. The tasting lasted a little over and hour and a half because the owner described so much about the history of wine making in Bulgaria. I highly recommend this tour for anyone who appreciates wine.

Day 1 of RS Tour - Sofia: As I mentioned earlier, with two sleepless nights, I was ready to move to our Rick Steves’ Tour hotel and rest before meeting with the other tour members at 4:00 pm. (we needed to be out of our apartment by 11:00 am. Unfortunately, our room at the EuroStars Sofia was not ready until 3:20. The hotel kept our luggage and we walked from park to park, trying to stay active, but it was a pretty miserable wait for the room (for me – my husband had gotten enough sleep). At 4:00, we checked in with our guide Yuri, showing him our vaccination cards and negative Covid tests, and met our companions for the tour. Yuri gave us a general overview of the trip and some basic info about our surrounding area. We met at 5:00 again for a walking tour, ultimately ending up our group dinner location, Staria Chinar. There was quite a feast of food, but I was so sleepy that I didn’t feel like eating, as a matter of fact, I could barely stay awake. I should have gone back to the hotel, but I didn’t want to miss out on our first evening. Mike wasn’t very wowed by the food. He felt the meats were quite dry, but our first introduction to Shopska Salad was positive. By dinner’s end, I was so ready to head off to bed.

Day 2 – Sofia: We had a wide variety to choose from for breakfast at the hotel before joining the group for our 3 ½ hour walking tour. We headed up the hill to Aleksander Nevski Cathedral first. The outside is very spectacular, but the inside is so disappointing. The icons are dark, covered with years of smoke. It’s really a shame that no effort has been put into the restoration of this church. We passed by the Sveta Sofia Church, one of Sofia’s oldest. Then, we stepped into the Russian Orthodox Church (quite beautiful on the outside) where a service was being held. We soon found ourselves on the “Yellow Brick Road” for which Sofia is known. Then it was on past the former Royal Palace, which now houses the Ethnographic Museum and the National Fine Arts Gallery and the City Garden that used to be part of the Royal Palace gardens and is where the National Theater is located. We also saw quite a few older men in the garden playing chess, which is quite typical.
Yuri decided to treat us to a gelato (the shop could also be used as a restroom stop). I thought the gelato was just ok. After the tour when we were back in Sofia by ourselves, we stopped at a much better gelato shop, Gelato and Latte, an organic gelato shop that Yuri recommended we try, but not close by for our morning walking tour.

After our gelato stop, we walked by the Presidential Office Building (missed the Changing of the Guard – saw it when we returned to Sofia at the end of the tour), the Serdika Roman ruins, and Sveta Petka. We ended near Sofia’s large mosque and garden. Nearby we checked out the mineral waters, watching citizens of Sofia filling jugs with the warm waters that are said to cure many physical problems (the old Public Baths is now the location of Sofia’s City Museum). We had hoped to end at the city public market hall, but it is now closed. Yuri said that it is to be renovated as a modern supermarket – so sad.

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BEST OF BULGARIA RS TOUR continued: We were now free to head to other museums or lunch on our own. I was still tired (although I’d slept well the night before) so we headed back to the hotel to rest for a bit before we headed out for a late lunch/early dinner. But before finding a place to eat, we walked to Knyazheska Park to view the Monument of the Soviet Army, which honored the Soviets who helped liberate Bulgaria in WWII. This monument is regularly defaced with paint and graffiti, but today it just had the remnants of some of the more recent splashes of paint. If you go online, you can find some interesting examples of protest artistic commentary on this monument.

The entire group met at 6:00 pm for an interesting question/answer session with a “government official.” Yuri said they had used another person previously, but our “official” was a young man who was Bulgaria’s representative to the World Bank. He gave us lots of interesting information about Bulgaria’s shrinking population and resulting economic problems.

Day 3 – Dupnista and Rila Monastery: Today after breakfast at the hotel, we were ready to board our bus and head to our first destination, Dupnista. Yuri had said that the new school year did not begin for 2 more days, so we would probably just tour the school. He also warned us of the somewhat “grumpy” school administrator. “Grumpy” was a word that Yuri loved to use to describe individuals who might be dry and boring, as well as not very friendly. The administrator was in Sofia that day, so one of the teachers ultimately led us on a tour of the building. But first, we got to watch some of the students who were present and practicing for the opening day ceremony to welcome the new students. It was delightful. There was the presentation of the flag and the singing of the national anthem. Multiple children sang a combination of traditional and as well as more modern songs, some in group, some solo. The tour of the school was a lot of fun, especially for the former teachers in our group (myself included). As we toured, I kept thinking that the rooms reminded me of my 1960s classrooms. On the walls, there were pictures of historical figures, colorful maps of the country, and large charts of the alphabet. Granted, the subjects were different – Bulgarian historical figures, maps of Bulgaria, and charts of the Cyrillic Alphabet. However, it had a retro look for me that I rather enjoyed. Several of the teachers had stacked the textbooks for the individual students on their desks, tied with colorful ribbons. It was such a welcoming sight. Many of the teachers were in their rooms, preparing for the first day. It turned out to be a nice visit with a teacher who was not “grumpy,” and who willingly answered a myriad of questions about the education of the students as well as the integration of the Roma students.

After the school, it was on to lunch. I don’t have the name of the restaurant, but it was in the countryside on the way to Rila Monastery. It was located near a stream, a very pretty location. We had been given the choice of trout (their own) or pork. That was about as descriptive as Yuri ever got in giving us our lunch or dinner choices. He was kind of warning people about the trout, that it would have lots of bones that we would have to pick out, but I knew that I was having pork for our group dinner in the evening so opted for the trout. So glad I did. The bones were there, but quite easy to pull the fish from. The fish had been grilled and had a nice favor. Before the fish was served, we had a choice of a traditional cold yogurt soup (tarator) or a chicken soup. I had the cold yogurt soup and it was wonderful. For dessert, we were served a cake that had too much cream/pudding on it (not really that great).

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BEST OF BULGARIA RS TOUR continued: After lunch, it was a short drive to Rila Monastery. I was surprised by how freshly painted and tended everything here was (Rick had described it as “gloomy and atmospheric – air heavy with candle soot and incense.” The icons on the inside and outside of the monastery were much more vibrant, compared to the smokey, dingey icons in Aleksander Nevski Cathedral. The gold chandelier inside the church was gleaming. As a group, we visited the museum that housed the original bread ovens and kitchen fireplaces, displaying huge pots. Our Rick Steves’ tour group was also allowed to tour the upper levels of the monastery that had historic rooms for pilgrims. We were warned not to take photos by the watchful Bulgarian women “guards,” but ever rebellious Yuri encouraged us to sneak a few photos without getting caught. He argued that the photos are all over the Internet anyway and it IS the 21st Century. I think that is one of the things I like about having Yuri as our guide. He brought a very youthful vision of Bulgaria – definitely hopeful, but also somewhat cynical. He made me think in a different way about Bulgaria than a guide that we had when we were on our own after the tour was over. That guide was a little older than us and could reflect on what it was like growing up in Bulgaria in the 50s and 60s, living the Eastern Block life of the 70s and 80s, experiencing the rebirth of the 90s, and now developing her own type of cynicism as progress is sometimes difficult to measure. I think it gave us an interesting view of Bulgarian perspectives. After viewing the upper levels of the monastery, many of us chose to climb Hrelyo Tower which is the oldest part of the complex, dating from the 1330s.
After touring Rila Monastery, we headed to our lodging for the evening which was nearby, but higher in the mountains. It was a ski resort and spa. Several of the tour members went swimming in their indoor pool and one even got a massage. The rooms at the resort were very nice with balconies (our room looked toward the ski lift/ski slope). Most of us met downstairs at the bar before dinner to enjoy drinks and conversation. I think we were all assuming that our dinner that evening would be quite wonderful, but actually, it was one of the more boring meals we had. The sliced pork was rather dry and accompanied by a couple of small potatoes on a giant plate. Even the Shopska Salad they started with was not the best of the trip. However, we had an enjoyable evening introducing our buddies to one another.

Day 4 – On to Plovdiv: After breakfast at the ski resort, we made a short journey to Tsarska Bistritsa, the countryside residence of the Bulgarian Royal Family. We had a nice walk through the grounds to the house, the power plant, a gallery with mainly paintings of the family, and then stopped for coffee in the small coffee shop on the grounds. It seemed to me that the Bulgarians don’t really know what to do with this royal who doesn’t quite fit into their current governing style. Our walk back to the bus took us by some pretty small waterfalls.

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BEST OF BULGARIA RS TOUR continued: This was another day when Yuri seemed to pack in a bit more than the itinerary originally scheduled. Our first stop was at a carpet factory. When I heard Yuri say that we were going to a carpet factory, I was not pleased because I had visions of “shopping” pressure sells. This was definitely not the case. The factory has the largest loom in the Balkans (along with many smaller looms) and they produce rugs for the royal family of England and many other high-profile customers. We got to see how they died the wool and actually watched weavers doing their work. The rugs were quite beautiful. We did wonder if the workers were fairly compensated for their work since the factory itself was quite spartan. The photos we saw of the royals with the owners of the factory were not taken in the factory, but in a rather posh location. I will say that the workers seemed to be very proud of their work, as they should be. Needless to say, we were not pressured to buy any carpets since I doubt any of us could have afforded them.
Yuri had hoped to have us ride the narrow-gauge railroad that ran nearby, but the there had been a problem with one part of the track so it was not running where he had originally planned for us to travel. Since we had a box lunch, we sat near the train station to eat. Near the end of our lunch break, Yuri suddenly called for us to board the train. We were going to ride in the opposite direction for one stop, and our bus would pick us up there. It was such a fun, impromptu run for the train. Luckily, our tour group members were definitely up for the change in plans. We all agreed it was such a great experience to ride with the locals who use this small gauge train for necessary transportation between towns.

Our next stop was the Bessa Valley Vineyards. Our experience here was mixed. We all loved watching the workers, up close and personal, as they were sorting and washing the grapes as they came in from the fields. I’ve been on many winery tours around the world and never literally watched over the shoulders of the workers. Less than exciting was the wine tasting. We tried one white, one rose, and one red, ok, but definitely not the lovely explanations we had received on our wine store wine tasting in Sofia. The gentlemen guiding the tasting seemed to be in a hurry to finish. He didn’t even initially give people the chance to buy any bottles. We weren’t interested in making a purchase, but several members of our group were. Finally, Yuri forced the issue and he reluctantly brought out a few bottles.
After about an hour bus ride, we arrived in Plovdiv. Our Ramada hotel was an old Communist style architecture – rooms were larger, with very high ceilings. Everything was 1970s in style. The first room, Mike and I were given didn’t have air conditioning that worked. After talking with some other tour members who had working air conditioning, we decided to ask at the front desk. They sent an “engineer” to the room to inspect the situation. He held up his hand to the vent, and uttered the words, “need new room.” Back we went to the front desk, we were given new room keys, and then proceeded to move everything to our new room. It was smaller, but the air conditioning worked just fine. It pays to ask, and not suffer. That evening, we had a group dinner in Plovdiv off the pedestrian street. It was very generous servings of food (especially grilled meats), but I have to admit, the salad (this time with beets, cheese, peppers, and cucumbers) was still my favorite part of the meal. Yuri encouraged all of us to make a trip to the restroom before leaving since it is located in an old Communist era bunker. The doors leading to the restrooms was super thick metal with serious locks. Yuri was really great at pointing out old Soviet-era spots that all of us really enjoyed.

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BEST OF BULGARIA RS TOUR continued: Day 5 – Plovdiv: After a buffet breakfast at the hotel, we headed out on our group walking tour of Plovdiv. Yuri had made the decision that instead of suggesting that we visit the Bishop’s Basilica on our own time in the afternoon, that he take us as a group there first thing on the walking tour. He felt it was one of the most important sights in Plovdiv and he didn’t want anyone to miss it. He was so right. It was one of the most spectacular Roman sites that we saw on the tour. It was built soon after Christianity was legalized in the Roman Empire. Philippopolis, as Plovdiv was called then, became the seat of a bishop. There are large mosaic floors on two levels. The mosaic floors are very different in design as one moves throughout the remains of the basilica. A basilica guide gave us background information about the location for about 20-30 minutes, then we had another 45 minutes to explore on our own. The descriptive panels throughout the site, were extremely informative and one really needed the 45 minutes to explore. These were the most colorful mosaics I have ever seen on my travels. There was also a restoration room open, where one could watch what the art specialists were doing as they continued their work restoring yet more of the mosaics. One experience that was available to use were some virtual reality goggles that allowed the user to look out and see the basilica as it would have appeared when it was in use. It was amazing. If your tour guide doesn’t include this site in your walking tour, you absolutely must see it on your own!
Next, we went to the much smaller Trakart museum which housed other mosaic floors. The glass decorative arts here, although few, were exquisite. Then it was on to the remains of the Roman stadium built in the first century CE and then the long climb up the hill to the Klianti House museum, a recently restored Bulgarian National Revival style house. The ceilings and wall painting were quite beautiful, and the carpets in the home had been created by the carpet factory we had visited the day before.

The final stop on our group walking tour was the Roman Amphitheatre, built by Emperor Trajan, and originally seating 5,000-7,000 depending on your source of information. The theatre wall is mostly intact and lots of inscriptions remained on seats and stairways. The view of the city and hills in the distance was quite beautiful. After our exploration of the amphitheatre, many of us headed off to lunch for more Bulgarian specialties to a spot at the top of town that had beautiful outdoor seating overlooking the city below. After lunch, Mike and I decided to visit the art gallery featuring the work of Zltyu Boyadzhiev. His most famous work came after he suffered a stroke that forced him to use his left hand only. The vibrant colors and Chagall-style whimsey and emphasis on peasant life in much of his work was so appealing. By the time we finished viewing Boyadadzhiev's artwork, it was time to hurry back to the hotel to meet up with Yuri. He had invited anyone who was interested to climb to the top of Bunardzhika (liberator’s hill) to see the large statue of the Soviet soldier, Alyosha. The climb was pretty strenuous, but the view from the top, both of the impressive statue and the city spreading out below near sunset was super. After our walk down, Mike and I went to the Kapana area of the city where there were lots of cafes and bars. Two of our fellow travelers joined us for beers and snacks at a craft beer bar called Kotka I Mishka (Cat and Mouse). After our huge lunch and late evening snacks, we opted not to have dinner, but stopped by to pick up pastries and cookies from a nearby bakery to take back to the room to enjoy with tea.

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BEST OF BULGARIA RS TOUR continued:
Day 6 – On to Burgas with stops in Shipka and Kazanlak: Our first stop after leaving Plovdiv was one of the Thracian tombs near Kazanlak. It was a beehive tomb of Seuthes III. I really wish we might have had more information provided for us about all of the Thracian tombs since I know there are others listed as UNESCO sites. Following our exploration of the tomb, we headed back into Shipka to visit the Russian church there, dedicated to the Russian and Bulgarian troops who fought to defeat the Ottomans near the end of the 19th century. The gold domes on this church were gleaming in the sunlight. The interior had lots of beautiful icons. I think the thing I liked most was its park-like setting with the mountains behind.

Now it was time to head up into the mountains to Buzludzha, the Bulgarian Communist Party conference hall built in the 1980s. Needless to say, when Communist rule ended, so did the need for this conference hall and it fell into disrepair. Rick Steves says that it is a “decaying souvenir of a failed system.” Yuri says there are guards there now trying to prevent any further vandalization, but it still made a great background for our photos. The building looks like a 50/60s era vision of a spaceship (think the Jetsons). The bus stopped right in front of the double-fisted flame-holding memorial, with the conference hall directly behind right up the hill. We all loved this photo stop. Yuri said that we were the first Rick Steves’ tour to visit there.

We had a lovely lunch in Kazanlak in a restaurant with an open-air building. Again, we enjoyed the ripest tomatoes with a cheese that had been whipped. Our main course was a Kavarma – a claypot stew served in the loveliest traditional pottery. The dessert was an ice cream topped with “rose” jelly. Kazanlak is the center of Bulgaria’s rose oil industry. This was really the only nod that we had to that fact. I knew that we weren’t going to be in Bulgaria in the spring when the roses are in bloom and being harvested, but I was disappointed that we weren’t introduced to more of the rose industry products. A good reason for others to perhaps think about booking the tour during the spring . . . .
On our final journey to the Black Sea coast, we stopped at a recently restored Ottoman bathhouse. Obviously it was in a town that had mineral springs. We got to go inside the bathhouse for an audiovisual presentation about the history of the site. It too had been the site of Roman baths prior to the Ottomans. On the outside of the bathhouse, one could see the excavation of the Roman site. After our brief stay here, we drove on to Burgas. We settled into our rooms, then met for a walk on the beach and nearby garden before heading into the hotel restaurant for our group dinner. The meal was fine, but we were in the regular hotel restaurant and it was very noisy. This was probably my least favorite hotel even though it was the newest hotel. We had a room with a view of the beach, but the room seemed too spartan to me, no kettle for tea or morning coffee, minimal toiletries supplied compared to the other hotels we had visited so far. Even the old Soviet-era hotel in Plovdiv seemed to have more retro charm to me. Others seemed to like it because it was new so everyone has different expectations.

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BEST OF BULGARIA RS TOUR continued:
Day 7 – On to Varna: Breakfast in the hotel was pretty basic. I was kind of disappointed that we really didn’t get to learn anything about Burgas, except taking that short walk on the beach the evening before. But we were on our way to Nessebar right after breakfast. I really like our quick visit to Nessebar. We walked as a group to the ruins of one of the churches near the end of the isthmus. We then visited St. Stephen’s Church (10th century) with mural paintings (16th century). The paintings were quite amazing with lots of goldleaf. Yuri gave us plenty of time to look, but remarked that other tour guides would probably have spent hours describing all of the individual icons and their symbolism, but he thought that that was too boring. Perhaps, but it might have been nice to have a bit more info on the religious significance of some of the murals. After our visit to this church, we were given free time to visit on our own. We discovered there were so many churches in Nessebar. The architecture of the mostly 10th – 14th century churches were unique to this area, striped brick Byzantine-style with circular green and turquoise green ceramic decorations. As we were leaving Nessebar later in the morning, Yuri pointed out Sunny Beach, the next beach area going north toward Varna. It is the casino, party resort that was established during communist times.
Usually, tours eat lunch on their own, but Yuri wanted to provide more time for our afternoon activities, so he arranged a lunch that he called in prior to our arrival (salad, pizzas, and grilled meat). It was at a park/fishing camp location at a restaurant the had lovely outdoor seating near the river. We all split the bill. Our next stop was one of the oldest glass factories in the country, which is primarily a museum today. We saw a glass ornament creation demonstration and had the opportunity to climb in the old kilns. On display were antique glass bottles and some glass artwork. We were able to hear the story of how the factory owner back in Communist era times, accidently (?) set up a meeting that ultimately resulted in the factory producing the bottles for Bulgaria’s first Coca Cola. Of course, there were some lovely small glass gifts for purchase. Our next activity was the opportunity to tour a Soviet made Bulgarian submarine, the Slava. It had been built in the Soviet Union in 1959 and commissioned for the Soviet Black Sea fleet in 1960. The sub was transferred to the Bulgarian Navy in 1985. She was decommissioned in 2011 and is now a museum. I have been on two submarine “museums” before, one German and one U.S. (both from WWII), but this was the most interesting tour I’d taken. It was conducted by a Bulgarian serviceman who had actually served on the Slava. We covered the sub completely, and every question we had was addressed. This was really a great tour, although those who were claustrophobic didn’t stay long.
Our final stop was our hotel in Varna. After checking in, we headed out for a quick orientation walk along the promenade and down by the restaurants near the beach. Yuri had promised all of us a sunset welcome drink at the top of the old Soviet era hotel, but alas, there was a wedding reception there so we took a quick peak out the windows and all then went our separate ways for dinner. Mike and I decided to join another couple for a pre-dinner drink at the Black Sheep Beer House, a nice craft beer bar. Then we headed down to HAPPY, a Bulgarian chain restaurant that had a huge menu with a variety of food including sushi. I opted for a crispy fish salad that very tasty.

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Thanks for your wonderful travel account of Bulgaria. The RS Bulgaria Tour is Number One on my wish list and many of my expectations regarding that tour were detailed in your excellent report.

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I'm signed up for the Best of Bulgaria tour and am enjoying reading your impressions of it. Thank you for taking the time to write this up!

You mentioned that there were some towns where you would have liked 1 or 2 more days. I'm trying to figure out where I'll go after the tour and was wondering if I might go back to any of the tour stops. So I'll be interested in your thoughts on that.

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BEST OF BULGARIA RS TOUR continued:

Day 8 – Varna: The breakfast at the Capital Hotel in Varna, where we were staying, was the least impressive of all the breakfasts on the road. The coffee urns were either empty or cold (even when they brought out newly filled urns). The selection of breakfast items was limited too. Following breakfast, we had a local guide who took us all on a walking tour of Varna for about 2 hours. We passed by several churches, buildings from the Ottoman period, and one synagogue. We saw the outside of the Varna Cathedral which was beautiful, but did not have the opportunity to go inside. The most interesting location we saw was the second-century Roman baths (the Roman Thermae of Odessos). We did not go in at that time and had the opportunity to stay in Varna to come back in the afternoon and go through it, but we opted to go on the optional excursion that Yuri had planned for the afternoon (more about that later). Our last stop was the archeological museum where a member of the staff conducted our tour. The bulk of the time was spent viewing the gold jewelry said to be the oldest worked gold in the world (6,000 years old). The displays were quite impressive, most taken from graves in the local necropolis. There were also many pieces of Roman jewelry, particularly intaglios and cameos on display in the museum.
Almost all of us had decided to join Yuri on the optional afternoon trip to what he billed as the northernmost/easternmost part of the Bulgarian Black Sea coast. We did make one stop to drop off one our tour members at a golf club on coast. It was a beautiful detour to see this well-manicured course surrounded by expensive condos. Then it was on to lunch at the Tyulenovo village restaurant. The outside patio of the restaurant clung to the cliff overlooking the water. The weather was perfect and most of us enjoyed a lunch of mussels and local bread. In looking at the menu, we discovered two types of bread. One that was described as “slice of bread” on the English menu, the other described as “breadcrumbs.” Confused by this, we asked Yuri, who quickly replied, “Bad translation, you want the breadcrumbs option because that is the large round flatbread with oil and spices on top.” So glad that we made that choice because another member of the group that chose the “slice of bread” option got two slices of what looked like Wonder Bread. After a leisurely lunch, we drove to look at the Shabla fishing village, saw some smelly oil pumps, and viewed the most northerly lighthouse on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast. The Yaylata archaeological site was our last stop of the afternoon. Yuri’s father, an archeologist, had worked at this site when Yuri was a boy. While we did not walk all the way over to the remains of the Byzantine fortress, we were able to walk into several of the cave dwellings that were built along the cliffs and could see some of the excavated tombs (3rd century -5th century). The scenery was spectacular. By the time we got back to Varna, we decided to head out to the Black Sheep Beer House again, this time for beer and dinner. When we arrived, several other members of the tour were there so we all sat together.

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BEST OF BULGARIA RS TOUR continued:
Day 9 – On to Veliko Tarnovo: I think we spent what time we had in Varna well, but there just wasn’t enough time. This was definitely another location where another day to visit more museums and walk in some of the parks would have been nice. However, it was time to head out for a drive inland to Shumen. Our first stop was at the Madara Horseman (rock relief) site, a UNESCO World Heritage site. When I first caught sight of it, I was less than impressed. I could see variation of color in the rock, but that was about it. But after allowing my eyes to refocus, the horseman, dog, horse, and lion popped out, amazing! It was carved in 7th – 8th century and is quite weathered. No telling how long it will survive. It is said to represent a triumphal image of the Bulgarian Khan Tervel (701-721), implied by inscriptions around it. As we climbed a bit further, we saw the St. Panteleymon Rock Chapel and a large rock crevice which was identified as an ancient shortcut used for connecting the caves (Rock Chapel and other nearby caves) to the fortress above. One of the small caves was believed to have been used by prehistoric people as early as 200,000 – 150,000 BC, based on artifacts found within. A much larger cave is believed to have been used by the Thracians during the 1st century BC, and used in later periods as a storehouse.
Next we headed to the Shumen mosque. It is the largest mosque in Bulgaria, and one of the largest in the Balkans. It was built between 1740 and 1744. The interior painting was quite vivid. Following our tour of the mosque, we headed up into the mountain to view the Founders of the Bulgarian State communist-era memorial. It was built in 1981 to commemorate the founding of the Bulgarian State 1300 years before. The “founders” were sculpted in a cubist style – think Transformers. It was quite an amazing site. Before we left, we had a wonderful experience as our bus driver who was an accomplished gaida musician (a gaida is a type of goatskin bagpipe and a traditional Bulgarian musical instrument) treated us to a wonderful open-air concert at the memorial. Two of the tour members in our group who were accomplished Balkan dancers, treated us to a dance performance as our driver played. It was a magical experience.

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BEST OF BULGARIA RS TOUR continued:
Time for a quick lunch. Again, Yuri decided to save time by preordering our lunch at a nearby restaurant (Primo) in Shumen. We had inside seating, but it was in a separate room just for our group. This preordering (phoning in our order shortly before our arrival was great because the restaurant was always ready when we arrived and we didn’t waste any time). I had a nice Bulgarian meatball and potato dish, nicely seasoned (I think Yuri had given us two menu choice options here). And Yuri even ordered a special chocolate cake as his treat. Following lunch, it was on to Arbanasi to see the famous Church of the Nativity. The building looked like a large farm outbuilding from the outside (Christians during the Turkish era hoped to disguise its true purpose), but the inside was covered with amazing icons. The frescoed icons were painted in the late 14th and early 15th centuries. There is not an inch of the interior without artwork. There was a docent here who gave us in-depth information about the church and its icons. From Arbanasi, it was just a short drive to our hotel, Hotel Gurko, in Veliko Tarnovo. It turned out to be our favorite hotel of the tour. Since it was on a street that could not be accessed by the bus, the hotel staff loaded our bags into a couple of cars and took them to the hotel for us. When we arrived in front of the hotel, several staff members were there with glasses of white wine and slices of bread sprinkled with the traditional seasoning to welcome us. The hotel had a beautiful view of the buildings cascading down the hillside around it and a nice view over the river below, and looking toward the Asen clan memorial of warriors on horseback surrounding a giant sword in the distance. Mike and I lucked out with a large room with a balcony, the double bed had a lovely crocheted coverlet. Mike hurried downstairs to get a carafe of wine for us to enjoy on our scenic balcony while we relaxed before our evening group dinner that would be in the hotel restaurant. The dinner menu consisted of the tarator (the chilled cucumber and yoghurt soup), cheese and meat stuffed peppers, and a baklava type pastry with cream. Delicious!

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BEST OF BULGARIA RS TOUR continued:
Day 10 – Veliko Tarnovo: Instead of the usual breakfast buffets we had experienced on the tour, the hotel breakfast here was individually served. Each plate included sliced cold cuts, several types of cheese, fresh tomato and cucumbers, one hard boiled egg and banista. Fresh fruits, juices and bread were on the table for sharing. After breakfast, we enjoyed a three hour walking tour of Veliko Tarnovo. It included a visit to the outdoor markets filled with fresh pepper, cucumbers, garlic, onions, and fresh fruits. Yuri took us to a supermarket to find the traditional savory spice mix, chubritsa. Many of us bought packets to take home. Then we walked to the Samovodene crafts street, stopping at several overlooks toward the valley along the way. Most of us just looked at the available arts and crafts during the tour, and came back to this street later in the afternoon when we had time on our own – I bought a beautiful traditional pottery plate). Next, we passed by the National Assembly building where the modern Bulgarian state was created in 1879. Finally, we reached the Tsarevets Fortress from the Second Bulgarian Kingdom (13-14th centuries). It is mainly in ruins, with lots of reconstruction, but we walked to the top to a reconstructed church that has a very modern interior. This was another artistic effort commissioned by the daughter of Bulgaria’s last Communist dictator (the Founders of Bulgaria memorial was commissioned by her also). After our visit here, we were free for the afternoon. Mike and I decided to go to the recommended Shtastliveca restaurant for lunch (and as we soon discovered, everyone else was there, too). We did end up outstaying everyone else since we had a wonderful table overlooking the canyon below. It was one of our favorite meals. Mike had lamb and beef moussaka with eggplant, tomato sauce, baked bechamel and fetaki mousse. I had biber dolmasi – stuffed dolma peppers with minced beef, lentils, traditional spices, feta cheese and walnut yogurt mousse. We ordered a side dish of parsnip puree with sage. Everything was delicious. As others left, we stayed and ordered biscuit cake Shtastliveca for dessert with coffee. Mike had some rakia, too. We definitely enjoyed our relaxing scenic location.
We had time to return to the room for a short rest before we all met at 5 pm for another Yuri “special event.” He had arranged with a Trabant car collector ( the Trabant was an East German car) to meet us near the hotel. We all took turns riding in the Trabant on our way out to an area where he stored his collection of over 100 Trabants. The bus carried those not riding in the Trabant. Instead of a covered shed that most of us were expecting, the Trabants were literally standing in weeds, but each had a license. Following this unique look back to Communist era times, we headed off to a pre-ordered dinner by Yuri (shopska salad, pizza, and dessert) before heading to the Gorna Oryahovitsa Culture House to enjoy an hour-long folklore show of traditional singing and dancing. The costumes and presentation by the large ensemble were impressive.

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BEST OF BULGARIA RS TOUR continued:
Day 11 – Back to Sofia: This was our last full day on the tour. After breakfast, we headed north to the Danube River city of Nikopol. It had been the site of a great battle in 1396 between French and Hungarian knights and the Ottoman Empire, which ultimately led to the destruction of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom. We viewed a medieval church (very reminiscent of the medieval churches we had seen in Nessebar), a Roman fountain (from the reign of Marcus Aurelius), and looked across the Danube toward an industrial area of Romania. Then it was on to Asenovo, a town populated by Banat Catholic Bulgarians. The mayor of the town led us on a tour of the Roman Catholic Church and then took us to his home where his wife had prepared a delicious lunch for us, all set up on tables out in their back yard. We started with a cabbage and carrot salad served with bread sprinkled with the now quite familiar traditional chubritsa spice mixture. We were then served a large schnitzel accompanied by potatoes and a bean salad. All of this was washed down with pitchers of rakia that they had made for their daughter’s wedding. For dessert, we were served a small cake with bowls of fresh fruits. Our hosts were delightful. Sadly, it was soon time to head to the bus that dropped us off in a town where we could catch a train to the rock-carving (sculpture) school in Kunino. The train ride was fun. We were just sad that it was a Bulgarian made train and not the Soviet train that Yuri said usually traveled here. It was another great opportunity to mix with local people on the train who were all friendly, if not confused why these Americans were in Bulgaria. When we arrived in Kunino, we walked across the tracks to tour the school, one of only two such schools in Europe. We met with several of the instructors, saw teenage students working on assignments, and viewed the “graduation” pieces sculpted by previous students that were located in hallways and throughout the outer courtyards. Several tour members were given the opportunity to try their hand at some sculpting, too. It was quite impressive as we stood outside looking out some of these finished works and glancing up in the distance at the mountains from which most of the stones used for carving were taken.

Following our school tour, we were off to Sofia. After check-in back at the EuroStars Sofia hotel where we had started our tour, we all went out to our final dinner at Skara Bar – fresh peppers, olives, tomatoes, cucumbers and feta-like cheese, hummus, bread, grilled meats, and a variety of small desserts. Many were leaving early the next morning, so a lot of goodbyes were said this evening. We were going to move into another apartment the next day, so we would still have breakfast the next morning with some of the others who were flying out late or staying a few extra days.
By the way, no one from our tour left due to Covid. I was the only person who seemed to develop a cold and cough (although it was all post nasal drip related, but I had brought along extra Covid tests and while testing on a regular basis, I always tested negative – even when I tested after we returned home).
I’m going to post about our additional week in Bulgaria as soon as I write up my notes.

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blue439: Thanks for your kind words. You will really enjoy the tour when you take it. I think Bulgaria was such as great tour because we knew so little about it. I'm a retired Social Studies teacher and I was amazed by the Roman ruins throughout Bulgaria and in the small area of Serbia we visited. While I knew the Empire had stretched throughout those areas, one never hears about the Roman sites there today.

CWsocial: I think that many of of wished that we had an extra day or two to just take a more relaxed exploration of almost all of the cities. I will tell you that one couple on our tour went to Plovdiv for three days before the tour began in Sofia. They hit several more museums and restaurants that we were able to visit, and I know that they also visited a winery. While I was searching day tours from Sofia, several popped out that originated in Plovdiv that looked like they might be interesting. Another couple from our tour decided that they would return to Plovdiv for two additional days after the tour was over. Mike and I decided to spend an extra four days in Sofia (I'll describe more in a later post). We stayed in an apartment four metro stops out of the center and really enjoyed staying in a "regular" neighborhood. We were able to visit several Sofia museums that we hadn't had time for prior to the tour. We also booked a two day tour (combining two tours that Lyuba Tours offers) to northwest Bulgaria (a part of Bulgaria not included on the Rick Steves' tour) and to southeast Serbia. We really enjoyed what we saw there, too. It seems like there are so many options for extending one's time in Bulgaria - it is hard to choose.

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Thank you, bcerulo. Your thoughts are very helpful in terms of both the tour cities and other options beyond the tour route!

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Thank you for the interesting and honest tour report. It is quite detailed and, having done a tour report myself, I am impressed that you got it done so quickly after getting home. It seems like Bulgaria has not quite emerged from the grim Communist era. Were any of the people there not grumpy? LOL! I got a chuckle out of the slices of bread story. It sounds like you made a good choice of the other bread option.

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POST Best of Bulgaria RS Tour:
Thursday, September 22 - Sofia: After leaving the Rick Steves’ Tour hotel in Sofia, we left our bags at the hotel while we did a bit of sightseeing until it was time to check into our apartment. We were able to walk by the Presidential Building and catch the “changing of the guard.” It was a bit more of a ceremony since September 22 is celebrated as the Bulgarian Independence Day from the Ottoman Empire. We checked out a few shops downtown and then it was time to head out to our new lodgings. We picked up our bags and headed to the Metro to travel four stops from the center of the city to the apartment where we would be staying for the next four nights. It was actually bigger than we needed – a two-bedroom, but at $53 a night, the price was right. The photos on booking.com did not lie. Although it was in one of the Communist-era rather drab looking apartment blocks, the 8th floor apartment was nicely decorated and renovated. The kitchen had a clothes washer-dryer, microwave, large refrigerator, espresso machine, food processor, and even a dishwasher. All of the instructions for the appliances were easily accessible, and after two weeks on the tour, we were ready to use the washer-dryer (worked great)! The apartment had large windows on each side, the kitchen windows with a wonderful mountain view. It also had an enclosed balcony off the master bedroom. The owner met us near the address, took us upstairs (obviously using the elevator since we were on the 8th floor), and gave us a rundown on all the apartment amenities and also information on nearby supermarkets and restaurants. We had his phone number, and although we didn’t need to contact him again except to let him know that we had left the apartment at the end of our stay, it was nice to know we could contact him if needed. After two weeks traveling, we looked forward to a few days to move a bit slower. We checked out the local supermarkets and discovered one, especially, had a nice prepared foods deli with lots of Bulgarian food options. We purchased here several times since we didn’t want to spend time actually cooking in the apartment, even thought we could have. We did enjoy the fact that we had access to plates, silverware, and even wine glasses to enjoy our meals. It was also fun to be part of a neighborhood. There was a large park right outside our building with lots of play equipment for children who lived in the area. A small soccer field seemed to be always busy. We spent the rest of the evening relaxing.

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Friday, September 23 - Sofia: Today, after spending a leisurely morning enjoying our coffee and toast, we used the Metro to head back downtown. Sofia’s Metro is great. It is clean and modern. We targeted the National Archeological Museum as our major sightseeing effort for the day. It is housed in a former mosque. The main floor holds a lot of Thracian, Roman, and Medieval artifacts. The real treasures were on the second floor, particularly the treasury room holding helmets, weapons/other battle regalia, and golden vessels, and disks found in the many Thracian tombs around the country. There was an exquisite gold burial mask and a wonderful bronze head representing a Thracian king (we’d seen a replica at the tomb we visited on the Rick Steves’ tour near Kazanluk). We ended our visit examining the pre-history room back on the main level. It displayed rare finds from the Paleolithic, Neolithic, Chalcolithic, and Early and Middle Bronze Ages (1,600,000 – 1,600 BC) from the Bulgarian territories. It was interesting to find artifacts from the Shumen region (caves we had visited on the Rick Steves’ tour).
After several hours in the Archeological Museum, we were ready for a late lunch. We had enjoyed the Shtastliveca restaurant so much in Veliko Tarnovo, that we decided to visit the restaurant of the same name in Sofia (located on Vitosha Boulevard). It had the same menu, but we learned that the dishes were different. I order the dish Mike had in Veliko Tarnovo and it was not prepared the same. I even called up the picture to double-check, but it was missing several ingredients that his dish had included. Overall, we felt the dishes at this restaurant were not as good, and even though it was a very pretty dining room, it did not have the spectacular view that we’d enjoyed in Veliko Tarnovo.
After leaving the restaurant, we walked on up Vitosha Boulevard to the National Palace of Culture. This is a large exhibition, conference, and arts center, another project initiated by Lyudmila Zhivkova, the daughter of the last Communist dictator, Todor Zhivkov. I’ve already mentioned a few of her other art projects we saw during the Rick Steves’ tour. There were no doors open, not sure why, but the fountains and park leading up to the building were very pretty.

By this time, we were ready to head back toward the apartment, picking up some more deli-prepared Bulgarian dishes, and check out shows available on Bulgarian cable.

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POST Best of Bulgaria RS Tour:
Saturday, September 24 – Sofia: Today, we had another relaxing morning over coffee and toast. Then it was off to see the Museum of Socialist Art. When we looked at the directions to get there, it suggested getting off the Metro at the stop right before ours. When I checked out google map directions for walking, it was less than a mile walk so we decided it would be a great way to get steps. The museum is great. The grounds hold a lot of those statues of Lenin, Demitrov, and other Communist leaders that have virtually disappeared in other former Communist countries. It’s quite amazing to walk among them. You will also find the red star that used to sit atop Sofia’s Party House downtown. There is a small ticket office that shows an extremely interesting loop of various propaganda videos from the Communist era (it runs for about 30 minutes). There is a larger exhibition hall where paintings from the Communist era, particularly during the dictatorship of Todor Zhivkov, were hung. The exhibition focuses on how he manipulated the arts as propaganda, and explored how truly great artists were overlooked by not focusing on the desired political propaganda. I highly recommend this museum to anyone who is interested in the history of the Communist era.

After leaving the Museum of Socialist Art, we sought out a gelato shop that Yuri had earlier recommended, Gelato and Latte. It has several different shops in Sofia, but we went to the one near the museum. Recently, they were awarded as one of the Top 50 best gelato places in Europe since they have their own organic farm in the Balkan Mountains. It lived up to its reputation. The proprietor asked if we were tourists and we said yes. He encouraged us to try his yogurt, stating it was the very best organic yogurt. As a matter of fact, he gave us a jar of yogurt as a gift. I regret to say that I did not care for the yogurt since it was quite lumpy, it had a good flavor, but the texture was off-putting to me. I hadn’t had any yogurt for breakfast on the tour, but many of the tour members commented on the lumpy yogurt. But, if you go to Bulgaria, I would recommend trying the yogurt because it might be to your liking. The Bulgarians claim to have “invented” yogurt.
After our coffee and yogurt outing, it was back to the apartment for another relaxing evening.

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POST Best of Bulgaria RS Tour:
Sunday, September 25 – Sofia: We knew that we had a busy 2-day tour ahead of us on Monday and Tuesday so decided to spend this last day in the apartment relaxing. Late breakfast, walked to a nearby post office to post some cards, then continued walking to see more of the neighborhood (discovering the Embassies of Yemen, Cambodia, and Libya), then to a nearby restaurant, Garden Restaurant Yoli, recommended by our host. The restaurant did indeed have a lovely interior courtyard garden with flowers everywhere. The tables surrounded a lovely fountain that added to the ambience. Our biggest problem was deciphering the English menu, the descriptions either being strange or totally lacking. I pulled out my menu guide from my Lonely Planet Bulgarian language book and we made some selections. Luck was with us because our choices were great. There was so much food, and our waiter wanted to pack up the left overs to send with us, but we knew we weren’t going to have room for anything but a few sweets that evening and we were leaving at 8:30 am the next morning so we declined. After our very late lunch, we headed back to the apartment to pack up and enjoy our last relaxing evening.

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POST Best of Bulgaria RS Tour:
Monday, September 26 – To Vidin via Belogradchik: We had arranged with Yuri to have his tour company Lyuba Tours provide a two-day tour of Northwest Bulgaria and Southeast Serbia. If you look on the Lyuba Tours website, you will see two one-day tours for these areas. We asked if we could connect the two and stay overnight on the road to avoid backtracking to Sofia both days. He indicated that would be no problem. Most of their guides were either leading multi-day tours or handling some school tours so Yuri asked one of their older guides to handle our trip. This worked out well since she was definitely able to tell us what it was like growing up in the 50s and 60s when being a Young Pioneer was an expectation. She said that when she became an adult, her parents told her how they purposefully avoided any complaints about the Communist rule since they could never be sure what she, as a child, might say at school. It was just too dangerous.

Rumi, our guide, and Miro, our driver, were outside our apartment a bit before 8:30 and we were off. Our first stop going north of Sofia was Varshets, a spa town in the Balkan Mountains known for its mineral waters. We walked along the sycamore shaded streets and admired the lovely homes lining the main street. The town was very quiet this Monday morning since the main tourist season was past. We stopped at a café with outdoor seating for a coffee, then got back on the road. As we got closer to Belogradchik, the rock formations jutting out of the mountains really grabbed our attention. The rocks vary in color – most reddish, some yellow-hued. Their fantastic shapes have elicited various nicknames, although we could never figure out which was which without a diagram. The dramatic tourist attraction here is the fortress that was built into the natural rock formations. There are architectural elements of the fort from Roman, Medieval (First and Second Bulgarian Kingdoms), and Ottoman periods. We walked around the entire complex, climbing up to the highest points, which were also the oldest. This is definitely a very dramatic location well worth a visit. Following our visit to the fortress, we headed to lunch. The restaurant Yuri had recommended was closed on Monday, but our driver had a friend who lived in Belogradchik and he recommended a nice typical Bulgarian restaurant with a view of the dramatic rock formations. Then it was on to Vidin. We got there too late to view the fortress and it was starting to drizzle so we headed to the hotel. Yuri had reserved a nice room with balcony that overlooked the train station for us. While that might not sound so great to many, my husband had worked for a company that built locomotives so Yuri knew that this would be right up his alley. I think only two trains left that night so noise was never an issue, and yes, my husband did enjoy the view.

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POST Best of Bulgaria RS Tour:
Tuesday, September 27 – Serbia: Our breakfast was delayed because the hotel restaurant failed to open on time (not sure why). Ultimately, we did enjoy a nice breakfast of mekitsas, a fried yeast dough served with local honey and a feta-type cheese. The soft pillows of fried dough and the sweet/salty combination of the sides was great and we were so glad that Rumi insisted we try them. As usual with most of the hotel breakfasts we enjoyed in Bulgaria, we had a machine-produced espresso (short or long). Most machines also provided options of cappuccinos and Americanos.
Our first tour stop of the day was at the Baba Vida Fortress, overlooking its strategic position on the Danube. This was yet another fortress displaying Roman, Medieval, and Ottoman architectural components. We especially liked the architectural symbolic decoration built into the walls and some of the remnants of frescos in the lower chapel. After exploring the fortress for more than an hour, we next drove into Serbia (showing passports when leaving Bulgaria, and again when seconds later, entering Serbia) to impressive Roman ruins of a 3rd/4th century imperial palace of Galerius located at Gamzigrad-Romunliana, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Again, we were amazed by the expanse of ruins found in this beautiful rolling countryside. There was an obvious outline of a palace with several courtyards with remains of massive pillars and marble flooring. One area still retained remnants of a mosaic floor. A very large detached Roman bath which had contained cold, warm, and hot water pools was also evident. The entire complex was surrounded by fortified walls with two main gates (today it is a combination of ruins and some reconstruction). This is definitely a very worthwhile site to visit. Our next stop was the city of Nis. It was already about one in the afternoon, so we headed for lunch to a restaurant called Mezze, a favorite of our driver Miro. He told us he often drives from Sofia to Nis just to eat Serbian grilled meats. He ordered for the four of us, grilled meats that were brought to the table on a rack, accompanied by fried potatoes, mushrooms, and peppers. The thing we liked the best was a spicy garlic, cheese and onion sour cream type sauce to put on the meat (Urnebes? I think). He warned us when we first sampled it because he said it was often too hot for many people, but we loved it. After our delicious lunch, we hurried to the Red Cross Concentration Camp, operated by the Nazi Gestapo during WWII. It was used to imprison Serbs, Jews and Roma people, often used as just a transit center for larger extermination camps such as Auschwitz. However, more than 10,000 people are believed to have been killed by this camp. Most taken to a hill (Mt. Bubanj) out of town where they could be shot out of sight of the townspeople, often in mass executions. We were able to walk the grounds, see the outside of the buildings used by the guards, and view the memorial displays inside the old prisoner barracks. On the third floor, one can view the isolation cells. I think we felt an impact from the fact that it seems like everywhere one visits throughout Europe, there are camps similar to this, and even physically small ones such as this Nis location were responsible for the deaths of so many people. Following our sobering visit to the concentration camp, we drove to the top of Mr. Bubanj were a memorial of three huge fists thrusting from the ground demonstrated the defiance that many showed against tyranny even until their final moments.

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POST Best of Bulgaria RS Tour:
NIs, continued: Our stay in Nis was almost at an end, but we still needed to make a quick visit to the Skull Tower on our way out of town. It is a stone structure embedded with human skulls. Its story involves a group of Serbian rebels fighting against the Ottomans. The Serbians knew they didn’t have a chance to win and would probably be impaled by the Ottomans so they blew up their powder magazine and themselves. The Ottoman leader ordered that a tower be made of the skulls of the fallen rebels. The Serbians still view this rather macabre Skull tower as a symbol of independence.

Our return to Sofia was about an hour and a half behind schedule, but was lengthened a bit more at the border because we reached the border at Bulgarian shift change and we had to end up waiting about a half hour for the new border guard to arrive on duty. Eventually, we were delivered to our hotel, The St. George, in Sofia. We agreed that this had been a very worthwhile two-day adventure.

Wednesday, September 28 – Leaving Sofia: The St. George Hotel was a nice spot for our last evening. We had a nice kitchenette room with balcony. After breakfast, we checked out leaving our bags at reception and took a long walk to pass by many of the downtown Sofia locations that were so familiar now. Our goal was walking all the way to the Raketa Rakia Bar across the street from Park Zaimov. It is an eclectic place filled with retro Communist-kitsch decorations. It was a restaurant that I had read about before the trip and we’d never made it there yet, so I decided we’d have our final Bulgarian lunch there. Unfortunately, we were still pretty full from breakfast, so we opted for a shopska salad, the traditional oiled bread with spices, and rakia. They have a huge rakia menu at this bar/restaurant but I had read good things about their honey rakia so that’s what we both chose. It was great! After lunch, we retrieved our bags from the hotel, walked to the Serdika metro stop and headed to the airport. We flew Air France to Paris for an overnight CDG Hilton stay, then on the next afternoon back to the United States.

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Mary: Thanks for your comments. The Communist-era sites were certainly fun for us to explore. We didn't find anything grim, just a little gritty in areas. :) Bulgaria is definitely a fun place to visit!

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Bookmarking - thanks! While I won’t take the RS tour, I do intend to get there in the next year or two and your perceptions and observations are helpful!

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bcerulo, you have given me some terrific ideas for my Bulgaria trip. Thank you so, so much for taking the time to write this all up. I am in the early stages of a plan and very excited about the possibilities!

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CWsocial - so happy to help. Feel free to ask me questions or just share your ideas. We really enjoyed our experience! I may be asking you about Turkey since we are contemplating doing that Rick Steves trip next year. I avidly followed your trip report and will be re- reading it to help me plan.

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bcerulo, I took your idea of combining some of the day tours offered by Lyuba Tours. I got in touch with them last night and Yuri responded within minutes and with enthusiasm! He's going to propose an itinerary, which I'd love to run past you since you've combined their day trips.

Likewise, I'll be more than happy to answer any Turkey questions!