Mark with a glass of Raki, the classic Balkan aperitif, on our last night in Bulgaria

From the Black Sea it was a long drive back to Sofia. On our first pass through we’d gone to the U.S. Embassy to request new passports. They said it would be five to 10 working days and they’d let us know by email when they were available. We headed back a day early, in part because the hotel we were at in Burgas was full but also so that we’d be in the city the morning of the fifth day.

This had the potential to be a challenging stay. We needed to wait until the passports were available but that could be at any point over several days. So after our first two-night reservation we would need to reserve hotels on a day-to-day basis. And given that hotels were quite full this time of year in Sofia, that could mean having to switch hotels one night and if the passports didn’t come, switch again. Ugh.

Well, to cut to the chase, the first afternoon we were there – the fourth working day since we’d applied – we got the emails that our passports were ready and that we could pick them up the next morning. Wait – they said it would take five to 10 working days and they were ready the morning of the fifth day? When does that ever happen? But it did.

My life in Sofia: reading in a park while lovely ladies sit and chat nearby. I love this park and café lifestyle!

Mark likes all the flowers in Sofia

Unfortunately, there was one more hurdle. We’d needed to file a “lost passport” claim with the local police station so we would have documentation on why our new passports had no arrival stamp. Filing the report had been a big hassle on our first pass through Sofia, but now we were having even more trouble getting them to give us a copy of the report. Eventually the bellman at the hotel we’d stayed at during that first visit solved the problem for us, even though we weren’t staying there this time. You have to love great service like that. (And yes, he was tipped handsomely for his efforts.)

Finally, then, we were ready to leave and could just enjoy Sofia for the rest of the afternoon. That meant another great lunch at a Thai place we discovered and more pleasant hours walking and reading in Sofia’s great parks. These late summer days in Bulgaria have been beautiful, sunny, warm but not too hot, a hint of autumn in the morning that wears away by late morning. It’s not likely that we’re ever going to move to Sofia but it really is a beautiful city. Just lots of parks and attractive buildings and nice restaurants and cafés, everything you want. And as I walk through these parks with leaves beginning to fall I find myself wondering, why do decaying leaves smell so good and decaying animals smell so bad? Just wondering.

We both love the Cathedral. We posted a very similar picture earlier when we came through but you can never have too many pictures of the cathedral here.

At any rate, apparently we’re not the only ones who have discovered that mid- to late-September is a perfect time to be in Sofia. The hotels are full and our favorite dinner restaurant, which we’d gotten into easily on two nights just a week earlier, was packed to the gills when we got there this time; we were told at 9:00 PM that there would be a one-hour wait. Yikes!

Lovely Ruse, Bulgaria. More of those fountains that put so many American cities (or at least Boston) to shame.

To break up what would be a six-hour drive to Bucharest, we drove to a little city called Ruse right on the Danube, the border with Romania. On the way we saw the strangest thing. We were out in the country, far from everything. It was a major road for the region, but still just a two-lane, pocked road with a fair amount of traffic. At one point I observed that there were a surprising number of people standing along the road; not groups of dozens or anything, but every hundred yards or so someone out standing. Then we noticed that they were all women. Then we noticed what one of them was wearing.

Sure enough, there was a stretch of maybe a mile or so in the middle of nowhere with half a dozen or maybe 10 hookers out a little before noon. Once again, I find myself amazed that after all this travel we can still find something new and unique. Strange.

Last weekend was the annual Ruse sandcastle festival, or something like that. They’re still standing here along the Danube, but starting to wear away now.

And then it was into Ruse for the night. The city is famous for its 19th century Neo-Baroque and Neo-Rococo architecture. I like it because it’s on the Danube and I love big rivers. As was the case with Belgrade, the last time we were on the Danube, Ruse doesn’t treat the river as some beautiful play area with townspeople dancing to Strauss all day. It’s a working river, with big cargo boats tied up all the way down. So much for the romance of the beautiful blue Danube.

And this is farewell to Bulgaria. Tomorrow we cross the Friendship Bridge into Romania, the 66th country on this adventure. More importantly for each of us Romania will be the 100th country we’ve ever been to. That’s a big milestone!

Our hotel towering over parkland near the river. We have a great view of the Danube from our 11th floor room, and they upgraded us to a Junior Suite, and it’s cheap!

The Danube in the early morning from our hotel

When you get into a city at 1:45 or so, you take the first reasonable place you can find for lunch. Here we are at Happy Bar & Grill, a big Bulgarian chain we’ve seen everywhere and avoided everywhere. Today it was time to give it a try and, for a big chain catering to very ordinary tastes, it wasn’t bad.

Parkland in Ruse

The beach in Burgas was long and sandy with an endless supply of chairs and umbrellas

I had never been to the Black Sea so, with a few days in Bulgaria to spare, this was the time to check that box. I’ll admit, my expectations were low. We love the Mediterranean (we seriously love the Mediterranean), and there are incredible beaches in Mexico and Thailand and lots of other places. The Black Sea? It’s not at the top of a lot of lists.

This just proves that if you set your expectations low enough, you can be pleasantly surprised. Not the best beach we’ve ever been to, or the best beach town, but ultimately both were pretty good. The weather here in mid-September was just about perfect. The day would start cloudy and cool but it always warmed up and cleared up so that by late morning it was perfect beach weather. There were always plenty of chairs and umbrellas, the water was reasonably warm and clean, there was a great paved trail for walking and running, and it was mostly just nice. Four days of mostly just relaxing and reading is not a bad way to spend time.

On Sunday in particular – a really busy day at the beach – this old guy would stroll up and down the beach in his Speedo-style swimsuit playing guitar and singing. He didn’t seem to be looking for tips, which is probably a good thing.

There were a couple of discordant notes. One night we went to an Indian restaurant, always our “go to” spot when we want a break from local cuisine. The native Bulgarian woman who owns and runs the restaurant with her Indian immigrant husband starts pining for the days of Soviet-style socialism, when life was good and before all those damned immigrants ruined everything. “So what if you can’t complain about the Prime Minister?” she asked, observing that life was a lot better when everyone had jobs that they didn’t have to work at. I tried to convince her that the system failed because nobody worked and the economy couldn’t produce the goods that people wanted but it was obvious she was having none of that crap. She wants the good old days of security and comfort back – and all those damned immigrants gone.

Days would start cool and cloudy, but would always clear up perfectly

And then there was our maid service. When we got to the room this motherly Bulgarian woman in her maid uniform latches onto us and just chats and squeezes our cheeks and says she’s going to take great care of us. Definitely a warmer welcome than we’re used to but kind of sweet. And reminiscent of the Soviet days when every floor in a hotel had some older, heavy-set woman who monitored things. You know, make-work jobs.

Well, the sweetness of her welcome started to wear off when every time we came and went from the room she was there to chat and give us hugs and remind us how she was taking care of us. Kind of obviously searching for tips; apparently to Mark she was extremely explicit about that. But you couldn’t come or go without her there to remind you how sweet she was. Need to go back to the room to go to the bathroom? Sorry, gotta chat with her for five minutes first. The sweetness of it all was really gone by the end, when Mark would go way out of his way to avoid the room between 8:00 AM and 6:00 PM.

Just when you think you’ve seen it all, you encounter something we’ve just never experienced before. But, all that aside, we liked our little Black Sea excursion. From here it’s back to Sofia to pick up our new passports than off to Romania.

Good food was a challenge in Burgas, but over a couple days we made some good finds. This was dinner for two nights at Ti Bar.

And lunch twice at Rosé, where a glass of rosé seemed appropriate

Burgas has this huge pier that people walk up and down all day. A sign there describes it as the symbol of Burgas, though I didn’t think it was that interesting.

And finally, there is a huge park that runs along the beach for a long way. If not for the beach I’d have spent a lot of time there, but it was definitely worth a nice walk here and there during our stay.

Mark & I atop one of Plovdiv’s seven hills (shades of Rome), amidst Roman & Ottoman ruins

Plovdiv feels like a small city or even just a big town but in fact with a population of nearly 350,000 people, it is Bulgaria’s second largest city. We were here once before, in 2010 when we came to Bulgaria for a wedding. It was a brief, one-night stop and I didn’t really remember anything except that I liked it. Mark remembered a great areas of loungy, outdoor restaurants and cafés that we couldn’t find, if it in fact ever existed. What we found here, though, we loved.

There were two distinct parts of Plovdiv we liked, some interesting Roman ruins and beautiful modern parks. That, a wonderful, airy, and inexpensive hotel room, and some great meals is pretty much all you need for a great stop.

First, the modern city. Just a couple blocks from our hotel was a big, beautiful modern park with seemingly dozens of fountains and hundreds of nice benches in the shade. I’m always amused when I get to these cities that are measurably poorer than, say, Boston, that are able to maintain these beautiful parks and fountains. In Boston, for most of the 15 years we lived there they couldn’t keep the main fountain in the Commons working. In Plovdiv the fountains were almost limitless. Along with nice maintenance and more benches than they could ever need, it was pretty nice.

A city of beautiful fountains

As for the old part of the city, this is a place that was conquered by Philip of Macedon in the 4th century BC – after which it was known for many centuries as Philippopolis – so it has a long history. (Now, to be honest, there is evidence of human settlements dating back to the 6th millennium BC, so it is in fact really old. It thus claims to be one of the oldest settlements in Europe but it seems to me that I’ve seen that claim too many places to give it that much credence.) And then for several centuries in the comparatively more recent past it was under the control of the Ottomans who also left there marks here.

The main ruins in town are a big old Roman theater and, not that far away in today’s modern city, another, seemingly smaller Roman stadium. Not many cities claim two ancient Roman theaters. The oldest, the Ancient Theater, was built in the first century AD and is probably the most famous ancient site in all of Bulgaria. We’ve seen a lot of old Roman theaters and are probably a bit jaded, but this one was in pretty good shape. The Roman Stadium dates from the second century AD and while today’s ruins are smaller, the stadium was once huge, supposedly holding up to 30,000 spectators.

The first century Roman theater

And the second century Roman stadium

We would have stayed longer – it really is a lovely town that deserved more than two nights – but something must have been going on because the third night everything was just booked. So we headed on west to the Black Sea.

A highlight of Plovdiv for us was this penthouse hotel room with a big wrap-around deck that made for ideal clothes drying. Oh yeah, and made the interior wonderfully bright and airy. There were those 67 steps to climb every time we came and left (no elevator) but it was worth it.

One of the more delightful lunches we’ve had in a long time was in this little private garden. The weather was perfect, the setting lovely, and it was just the two of us. Seemed too good to be true; if you’re ever in Plovdiv go to Hebros for lunch!

Great street scene in Plovdiv

Some beautiful buildings there, too

A quiet corner of the old town

The park near our hotel was beautiful. I used to wonder who those people were who had time to while away the afternoons sitting in a park reading. Now I know: it’s me!

A big giraffe on the edge of that park

Mark at lunch at Hemingway’s right across the street from our hotel. We went back for dinner and I had to fight with the staff. Our hotel gave us a card for 10 percent off at the restaurant but when the bill came, they only wanted to give us the discount on the food, not the wine (notwithstanding the fact that wine has a far bigger markup than food). Eventually I got the discount. Apparently I’m getting more like my father-in-law all the time.

How’s that for making us feel welcome?