Alternative title: How to drink heavily and fail at hitch-hiking.
Apparently, the train tracks from Istanbul to the Bulgarian border are broken, so everyone was corralled into a bus and shuttled the four hour journey. Arriving at a… ‘quiet’ border town around 2am, we were helpfully informed by the station staff that the train wouldn’t leave until 8am. We were welcome to sleep on the train, but the seats hardly seemed better than the concrete outside.
Instead I sat around and chatted with other people, picking wild apples from a nearby tree, watching grass grow throw the cracks, whiling away the night. The odd cat lazed around and tried its luck stealing someone’s cherries – that’s not a euphemism, one girl had actually brought cherries. There was a hole-in-the-wall duty free store selling only bulk cigarettes and ’boutique’ alcohol (think ‘Jack Daniels’); at one point one of the ticket inspectors beckoned me over. In broken English, he explained that he wanted to use my passport to bulk-buy cigarettes and a bottle of ouzo as there was a per-person limit – his was apparently maxed out.
We finally were underway, sleep-deprived and irritable, as the sun rose a finger’s breadth above the horizon. Welcome to Bulgaria. The train was… well, it worked, but I’m not sure ‘maintenance’ has been in Bulgaria Rail’s vocabulary for at least forty years. The landscape we rolled through was pretty, if unremarkable. Low hills and rolling plains, fields of sunflowers and wheat, the odd longed-for patch of trackside berries. The towns we passed through were built by Stalin’s hand: hard, square eaves, grey, uniform walls and roofs. Uninspiring. We had properly arrived in Eastern Europe.
Finally in Plovdiv – a great name, by the way; just rolls off the tongue – twelve hours after leaving Istanbul, my Dutch friend, Kevin, and I made our way to the old town, Plovdiv’s main draw. The old town itself is indeed charming, with brightly coloured old buildings and large jagged cobblestones. Our hostel, Old Town Plovdiv (they have imaginative names here in the East Bloc), was listed on a ‘Global Top 10 Hostels’ ranking, and it shows. A lovely old building, super soft mattresses, a leafy garden are all welcome features. We put our stuff down and promptly crashed out until 5pm. After travelling for a while, you no longer feel that nagging pressure to ‘get out and see things!’; your own wellbeing becomes far more important – and rightfully so. That old building isn’t going anywhere, and you need to leave something to see next time!
A beer garden was discovered in a secluded area a few metres down from one of Plovdiv’s six hills – this one with Roman ruins on top – and fried food and cold beer was ordered. For a grand total of $1 per beer, pricey for Bulgaria, it seemed like an acceptable spot to watch the Euro cup game. A procession of fried courgettes, fried yellow cheese, and fried chicken made its way to our table to soak up the beer.
At halftime we shifted to the main square of Plovdiv, where a massive screen and grandstands had been set up. For a Germany-Italy game in Bulgaria, there was surprising passion: we could hear elderly men behind us spitting ‘cazzo!’ with every missed shot, and young guys at the front ripped off their shirts and threw beer, screaming, when Germany finally scored.
Midnight in Plovdiv? The night is young. We found a pub which happened to have three bachelorette parties and were invited along to the next pub on the crawl. There we ended up jumping around to hilariously upbeat Bulgarian folk music until 3am, when we did the logical thing and went to find a busier club. For a small city, Plovdiv has a surprising number of adverts for clubs, everything from ‘fetish nights’ to ‘top Bulgarian DJs’. There’s even an entire district right next to old town, ominously named ‘The Trap’, full of underground clubs. I don’t quite remember how that night ended; only that I stumbled back in the hostel a little bit after sunrise. My notebook was full of drunken scribbles (not mine); apparently we had never made it to a ‘busier club’ and had instead sat outside a corner store and sampled homemade cocktails with some locals – mind you, somewhat unsophisticated cocktails such as ‘ouzo with water’ and ‘ouzo with water and mentha (mint liquor)’ or just ‘ouzo and mentha’. I shudder to think about them.. I can still taste the mentha.
Wincing from the previous night’s mistakes, Kevin and I caught a bus to Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. The ride and accompanying landscape was, again, uneventful. Sofia is a strange place – it’s less grim than I expected, and some parts such as the subway and the centre are surprisingly new, but you do get the feeling of a ‘void of happiness’. For one of Europe’s oldest continually-inhabited sites, 2,000+ years, there is disappointingly little to show. The main ‘cool old thing’ is a church a few hundred years old.
In order to absolve ourselves of pizza-in-Bulgaria-eating-shame, we checked out a ‘proper’ Bulgarian restaurant. We ordered was a ‘stew thing’, very acceptable, some excellent taramasalata (cod roe mixed with bread and oil into a paste – again, Turkish), and the standout, baked eggplant with tomato puree and plenty of cheese.
Bulgaria being the civilized country that it is, most corner stores are sunk to street-level, practically forcing you to do the infamous ‘Slav squat’ (google it) in order to buy alcohol, cigarettes, or a new Adidas tracksuit.
The next morning, Kevin left to hitch to Romania, where he would catch a flight back to Portugal. That left me with the plan of hitch-hiking to Skopje – a mere 200km, what could go wrong? Well, for a start, I ‘accidentally’ heavily procrastinated by writing a blog post, meaning I finally left the hostel at 3pm. I was on the tram to the edge of the city, leaving Sofia, when a girl about my age came up to me and started talking. We ended up getting a beer and looking at some graffiti; she had a notebook like me but filled with infinitely more arty and thoughtful sketches.
Finally back on the road out of Sofia, after waiting for half an hour on the edge of town with my thumb out, a friendly guy named Emil picked me up and drove me to Pernik, the next town over towards Skopje. He said he had graduated three days earlier and hadn’t slept since – just one big party. Comforting…
After an uneventful ride he dropped me in a tiny town called Radomir, just past Pernik, outside a petrol station. It was 7pm, already getting late, but the sun wasn’t due to set for another two hours. I stood on the roadside and help up my sign saying “SKOPJE”. I waited. Cars passed. A couple motioned they were stopping here. Many turned off into Radomir. Half an hour passed… An hour… I realized the petrol station had free WiFi… two hours.
The sun was nearing the horizon, and still no one had stopped. I realized I should probably work out where to sleep – there was no way I would head back into Sofia; that seemed too much like giving up. I went for a walk around the field behind the station; I heard music in the distance and the bells of dairy cows. I found a few abandoned buildings, but none seemed too appealing.
I walked back to the station and swore when I saw the front of a police car by the entrance to the field. Thankfully, it turned out they were just random breath testing and thrilled to meet someone from so far away. When I motioned to sleep in the field behind me, one laughed and shook his head, saying “Mafia”. I went to eat dinner in the petrol station, an utterly uninspiring $1.5 hot dog. Back out in the field a few hours later – the police having left, now dark except for the nearby station lights, I rolled out my sleeping back behind a comfortable-looking bush on a patch of long grass. There are worse places to spend the night than under the stars, satellite spotting, listening to the insects in a field in Bulgaria. In some ways it was fun – knowing I was relatively safe and that I wasn’t in any ‘immediate mortal danger’; instead it was more like camping. It was actually very satisfying to think to myself how little money I had spent that day, and that I was getting a night for free.
I woke up a couple of times throughout the night – once when a snail crawled onto me and then again when I heard rifle shots a few hundred meters away. The five or six shots echoed through the field. Probably just some drunk Bulgarians… but I do wonder what they were shooting at. Maybe teaching a rival gang member some lessons, or just letting off steam.
One pro of sleeping outside is that you always get up early – it’s hard to sleep in with the sun in your face. I sat in the field for a while and watched the birds gorging on insects and the snails crawling furiously towards me while listening to Dylan’s ‘New Morning’ (an excellent album, by the way). Other than a criss-cross of snail tracks across my sleeping bag and some very fogged-up glasses, I had made it through the night unscathed. It was time to get back to work trying to leave this damn town.
‘Til next time,