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Weekending: Veliko Tarnovo
The best part of expat life for me are the travel opportunities, especially when living in Turkey, conveniently located where Europe meets Asia. Expat travel takes on a new twist as you seek out the new and unfamiliar as in any new destination, the newly familiar of your adopted home city, and the old and familiar of your original home city. You luxuriate in the things your expat home lacks, compare versions of similar foods and drink, and wonder where you'd hang out, what you'd cook, and where you'd buy groceries in this foreign place. I recently took a week-long trip to Bulgaria (read about Sofia here, and I'll finish up with the Black Sea town Varna) and fell in love with the country's old architecture, young creativity, and most of all, the prices.
The place: Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria
Veliko Tarnovo (also called Veliko Turnovo, so I'll simplify as VT) is smack dab in the middle of the country, dominated by a 12th-century fortress, hills aplenty, and the Yantra River (a Danube tributary). Once the Medieval capital of Bulgaria, VT boats a bevy of sights and lots of daytrip possibilities. After the country was liberated from the Ottoman Empire, Sofia became the capital, but VT remains a popular tourist destination and a point of pride for many Bulgarians. Other than the spectacularly Soviet Interhotel (don't be fooled by glam interior photos, the exterior is an eyesore from another era - see above on right), VT escaped much of the communist architecture of Sofia and retains a historic small-town feel.
- While I found Sofia to have the best prices of any European capital thus far, VT is even more budget. I stayed in the boutique Studio Hotel for 45 Euros a night, and ordered local wine in restaurants for 2 leva a glass (and that's for a 250 ml pour, a third of a bottle!). Two people can hit the town with 40 leva (under $30 USD) in their pockets and come home with change to spare. Real estate signs advertise houses in nearby towns for 10,000 Euros, making you contemplate a rural Bulgarian life.
- Endless people-watching fun. For a hill town of 70,000 people, the ladies sure know how to dress. On any given weekday afternoon, you may see women in 5-inch stilettos, miniskirts, skin tight jeans, or revealing dresses. The girls may look like they are on their way to a Jersey Shore nightclub, but more likely destinations are a university class or their grandmother's house. Additionally, '80s fashion is alive and well in Bulgaria - I spotted mullets (for women), big hair (for men), neon colors, high-top sneakers, and vests everywhere. An entertaining afternoon can be spent at a sidewalk cafe marveling "Did you SEE what she was wearing?!" with your travel mates.
- While VT is a charming place, it feels like a one-horse town after a few days of wandering the same streets up and down. The historical sights are lovely to see but small and a tad overpriced (6 leva for a quick tour of a church feels a bit extortionate when you realize it could buy you a meal or get you nice and tipsy). One upside to the tiny museums is few crowds, even in the height of the tourist season. Visiting the weirdly wonderful State Art Museum as the only patron while little old ladies followed me around, turning on and off lights, was a highlight of the trip. The (almost) nightly Tsarevets fortress sound and lights show is fun to see at least once, though I thought it could be improved with more lasers and the Beverly Hills Cop theme song; visiting the fortress by day is a little disappointing and best enjoyed as a scenic view.
- Another downside to the small-town feel of VT is limited food options. More cosmopolitan Sofia offers sushi, Indian food, and modern Bulgarian; coastal Bulgaria boats seafood galore; VT has traditional and not-terribly-exciting Bulgarian food (which can be a good or bad thing) and pizza. This means a LOT of meat and after a few days, I was literally dreaming of salad. Also: be careful with drinking tap water. Although, opinions are divided on whether or not it is safe to drink, I was sick every day I drank tap water in VT until I discovered the CDC advises against it, and was much improved after switching to bottled water. One favorite place to eat and drink: the Malkiya Inter cafe is eclectically decorated with antiques and musical instruments, buzzing with locals celebrating birthdays or watching football, and serves tasty and cheap drinks and, of course, meat.
Centrally located, travelers can fly into Sofia or Varna and bus or drive from there, about 3.5 to 4.5 hours. Bulgarian buses are cheap, comfortable, and clean, and have the added feature (not sure if its a good one) of playing raunchy Canadian comedies with Bulgarian subtitles; I saw the dreadful National Lampoon's Going the Distance and the "Dan Ackroyd needs a paycheck" White Coats. Trains are available as well but slower and less reliable, though they can connect you to Istanbul and Bucharest.
Make it a week
After a few days in VT proper, rent a car and explore the central Balkans, stopping at Arbanassi for architecture (you can even hike from VT) and multiple monasteries. VT can easily be combined with trips to other major Bulgarian towns, small villages, or even neighboring countries like Romania. If the weather is good, head out to the beach for my next Bulgarian stop, Varna on the Black Sea.
Read my previous Weekending trips from Istanbul here.