Since it is only four days until I (and you, through the magic of the internet, hence 'we') set off to Bulgaria, I figured it was time to do just a little bit of research on it. Not too much. Don't want to ruin any surprises and get too much misinformation.
The reason I'm putting down all of this in the blog is two fold. First, so I don't forget it. Yeah, my memory isn't great. The second and more important reason is so people who are wanting to research a vacation can see my thought process. Doubtless, you'll come up with your own tricks for researching new places but this may help.
First (and possibly only) stop is Wikitravel.
Because reading that much text is dull, here are snippets with my thoughts on them. All italics are mine.
"Bulgaria is one of the few exotic nations of Europe, due to the fact that it boasts sublime beaches, lovely churches, winter sport opportunities, to name a few."
Never thought of Bulgaria as particularly 'exotic'. Honestly, none of the European nations I've been to thus far has struck me as 'exotic' the way say India is. They can have amazing architecture and interesting customs but for an American Europe hasn't been exotic as of yet.
"Even though it is one of the 75 richest countries in the world, Bulgaria remains as the poorest member of the European Union."
Bad news for them, good news for me as I might be able to afford it. Yea!
It appears that I've had the good fortune to miss their holidays. Unless you are traveling to a country specifically for a certain holiday they are best avoided. Costs go up, lodging and transportation become more expensive and sometimes difficult to find - as it did May Day last year. Oh crap, I just looked at the calendar! It's almost here again. Well, shit.
Bad news, it appears that this country is indeed part of the Schengen Agreement area. This is potentially bad for me but we'll see what happens. For those not familiar with it the countries in this agreement count as one big country for the ninety days in then stay out for ninety days. What this means in terms of my trip is I will either be staying longer in Macedonia/Albania or going through all of them a bit quicker to get to Greece. We'll see.
"There is no railway connection to the Republic of Macedonia (it is being built at the moment)."
This reminds me of that great quote from the movie Eurotrip:
Scott: "Yeah... um, listen. We're trying to get to Berlin, Germany. Do you know if there's a train coming anytime soon?"
Tibor: "Oh yes! Very soon! They are building it now!"
Is there anything that movie doesn't have? While I won't be able to take the train from Sofia to Macedonia there is still an eight hour train from Varna on the eastern part of the country to Sofia in the western. According to their webpage, a first class ticket is about 30 LEV (21 USD). Considering the second class isn't cheap enough to make any difference (4 USD) looks like first class.
"Travelling by train is inexpensive, but also slower than by bus. Trains are most useful when travelling along the two major train routes: Sofia - Varna and Sofia - Bourgas. You can travel both routes overnight, but you should make your reservations early because these night trains are often fully booked."
Good advice and happy to get it there. Personally, I don't care if it's a night or day train. Travel by a night train does save you a bit of money because it's one night less than you get to spend in the hostel but sleep doesn't come easy on the trains. Also, you miss out on all of the scenery. The important thing is what time you reach your destination. Remember, arriving after the sun goes down is unwise. That's when the Morlocks come out.
"As of April 2013 the rail ticketing in Bulgaria is still somewhat Byzantine. After buying round trip ticket before boarding the train on the return you have to obtain a stamp on your ticket at the cashier. Otherwise you will have to pay a fine to the conductor or be kicked off the train to get the stamp. For example we bought round trip tickets at the Sofia train station to visit Plovdiv. The cashier stamped the ticket in Sofia and explained this was a round trip ticket (Sofia-Plovdiv-Sofia) at 14.40 Lev per person. Unfortunately after we boarded the return train, the conductor informed us we failed to obtain a stamp and had to pay a fine of 14 Lev per person or exit at the next station."
Extra fun there. Hopefully, I won't need round trip tickets but I will try to get some sort of stamp on them regardless.
"One should be extremely careful about using a taxi in Bulgaria. Especially since you are a foreigner, you can definitely become a target of unscrupulous taxi drivers. When in need, get familiar with the most well known taxi operators in your area, your route and expected bill. Generally the safest way of using a taxi is by ordering a taxi by phone. Some fraudalent taxis even mimic others' logos and labels on their cars. Definitely avoid using taxis waiting at airports and railway stations!"
Later in the article: "It is recommended that travelers use taxis with meters that have posted clearly marked rates on a sticker on the passenger side of the windshield; these taxis charge generally less than the taxis with no meters."
This is pretty standard for most poorer countries. For some reason, taxi drivers are the rip off artists of the country. I'm not sure why the governments continue to allow taxis to immediately give tourists a bad impression of their country. Generally, it's best to walk past all of the taxis waiting in the airport and railway and go out onto the street. But since I don't know what is a legitimate taxi and what isn't, there are still going to be issues.
According to wikitravel, it looks like I'll be using English and German.
"Never exchange money out on the street. Beware of people on the street who offer high rates of exchange or who may ask you to make some change for them."
Get ready for a shady country. Got it.
It appears their big ethic food is Banitsa. Cheesy bread. They also eat moussaka - good deal. Assuming this food is actually available on more than just the web page, that should put them well above Ukrainian restaurant food.
More importantly, one of their national drinks is Rakia. Although this can be made of different vegetables, the common stuff generally tastes like black liquorice. Good for me, I like that taste.
"Due to the potential for fraud, credit cards should be used sparingly and with caution - for example, in large supermarket chains or reputable hotels. Skimming devices, surreptitiously attached to ATMs by criminals, are used to capture credit card information and PIN numbers to make unauthorized charges or withdrawals; these practices are somewhat common in Bulgaria. If you are unsure which bank's ATM to use, a good rule of thumb is to use one located inside of a reputable bank branch. In general, it is best to use cash instead of a credit card."
Brings back memories of Central America...
"It is sad to say that Bulgarians, much like Greeks, have a bad reputation for their smoking habits. Smoking is the national pastime, and evading the fumes of cigarettes is even more difficult than evading exhaust fumes in the streets. Effective June 1, 2012 smoking in all indoor public spaces, including bars and restaurants is banned."
Yea and boo. As a side note, I've found that in many countries that supposedly have banned smoking inside that it is often still done. For smokers, 'if you get an ashtray you are OK'. If not, light a non-smoker on fire.
Under the section marked 'Hospitals', there is a note, "Medical personnel is very good at their job." Does that make anyone else nervous?
Under the section entitled 'Respect', "For certain people, Macedonia is a sensitive subject to talk about, but feel free to ask your questions, provided you do not discuss it with those more likely to take offence (i.e. nationalists and skinheads). Many Bulgarians feel that Macedonia belongs to Bulgaria, but unless you know the subject and the people you are talking to, just asking questions is the best option."
I had no clue there was any sort of strife between these two countries. Good to know.
Glancing through the Wikitravel page on Varna didn't really reveal anything useful or that interesting. Doing a general search on Varna images shows nothing really that special either. Doesn't look bad but nothing particularly eye catching. Typical large port city in Europe. Hopefully, we'll find something nifty once we get there. Note that getting a place close to the beach - unless you're a big fan of hanging out on a crowded beach - is seldom a good idea. The places there tend to be more run down and expensive. Inland is nicer and often cheaper and still within walking distance of the beach should the mood take you.
The important thing when checking out Wikitravel is to note both what is on and missing from it. For example, the town of Balchik looks pretty cool but it isn't listed on Wikitravel. This means it is not on the 'tourist trail' - meaning the infrastructure for tourists doesn't exist. This wouldn't be a problem in Asia where places to stay are still affordable. However, in Europe you might be screwed. Checking on a website like Hostelworld shows that the rooms are over thirty dollars. Note, don't be fooled by the $15 or $17 price tag. That shows per person. Try booking just for one and see what happens.
Although I've gone way off the tourist trail in the past (see Nepal) generally all of the interesting stuff to see and tourist infrastructure (hostels, restaurants, etc) are in the popular towns. Although going off the track sometimes gives unexpected gems, generally it doesn't. The exceptions come during exception situations - such as when you are living and working there.
Another way to find the tourist trail is to cross reference sites like Hostelworld with it's 'top cities' per country. In this way I discovered Plovdiv which looks good and Veliko Turnovo which looks like I'd be humping my fat ass up and down steep hills all day. Since I don't carry my own defibrillator and am still smoking, think I'll give that city a pass.
To summarize - a couple hours research has given me a powerful need to eat. Wait - not that. But soon, food will come. Anyway, I've gotten a little better understanding of Bulgaria and managed to add one more destination within the trip - Plovdiv. Guessing my route will now be Varna-Plovdiv-Sophia-Macedonia.
There are quite possibly a lot of other neat places to see but I prefer to use my policy of 'harass the locals' to find out what is good than spending hours looking up stuff on the internet. For people with less time to travel the reverse is probably a better idea. Look up a lot of stuff and build that dream.