Eastern Europe – Part III: Change of Mindset – Romania, Bulgaria, Europe

By the sixth day in Romania, I had heard too many horror stories about Bucharest from fellow travelers. Is it so dangerous and undesirable? Here I was, afraid with a sense of dislike for a city I hadn't seen. Should I go? I didn’t want to lose my passport this time.

My plan was to travel south into Bulgaria, I had to change trains in Bucharest’s notorious Gara de Nord. I planned a layover of two hours, little time to walk out of the station and see the city. Hopefully, I wouldn’t run into fake police threatening to see my wallet and passport (as one tourist had told me).

I got off at the Gara de Nord and found the train leaving for Bulgaria – actually the train heading for Istanbul, Turkey. Storing my luggage, taking a deep breath, I headed into the mean streets of Bucharest.

From Gara de Nord, I hopped on the metro to reach the Palace – a depressing experience. The seven stops took almost 30 minutes. The metro cars are covered with graffiti. The graffiti blocks the view from inside, making it impossible for people to see the name of each station – until the doors open. The stations are dimly lit, not well marked. The slow train usually stayed in each station longer than necessary.

The one attraction I wanted to see was the Palace of Parliament (Casa Poporului, or House of the People) – the second largest building in the world, after the Pentagon. It was built in the twilight years of Romanian communism, a grandiose pet project of Romania’s tyrant, Ceaucescu. The project cost 3.3 billion euros and possibly consumed 80% of Romania's Gross Domestic Product while many Romanians were starving. To build it, one-sixth of Bucharest was bulldozed, numerous old historic buildings lost forever. Today, several rooms remain empty, the palace is largely underused. It's the symbol of communist atrocities and egocentrism. “It is morally incorrect to tour a place like this,” someone told me in the Brasov Hostel.

I got out of the Izvor Station, reached the northside of the Palace where there is a large park in front of the Palace, but not many people around. The surrounding area is like an “urban wasteland” as some article implied. North of the park, there are ugly, old socialist-style buildings. Maybe the gloomy weather affected my perception. I walked toward the Palace, saw its entrance and box office for sightseeing tours, but decided not to enter.

What a monstrosity! Walking from its north to its eastern entrance, took 10 minutes. East of the building is B-dul Unirii, Union Boulevard that leads to Piata Unirii, Union Square. This boulevard was intentionally built to be one meter wider than Champs Elysee in Paris, originally named “Boulevard of the Victory of Socialism". This is another example of Ceaucescu’s grandiose vision. There are beautiful fountains, though, along the boulevard and modern shops.

I returned to the Gara de Nord, picked up my backpack, bought pastry, and realized this is a relatively clean station. I did not run into any fake policeman, menacing kids, muggers, beggars or even stray dogs. I was only there two hours – the most avoided capital in Eastern Europe. I barely scratched the surface of this place. I will need to drop by again.

When I stepped into my compartment on train D499, it was nearly full, with four people in the six person compartment. Later a small Japanese girl with a nose ring came in. I was the only one headed for Bulgaria, other passengers were going to Istanbul. Bulgaria was merely a transit country for them.

Except for a Turkish woman from Ankara, the passengers in my compartment were backpackers from outside the Balkan Region. The Kiwi woman sat across from me. She had been to Turkey before, this was her second trip – loves Turkey. Two British men traveled all over Europe for their first "grand Eurotrip", like many Western Europeans I met. The Japanese girl was quiet most of the time. When she did speak, we found out she lived in Denmark, had come for her "grand Eurotrip". The Turkish woman did not know much English, but she managed to tell us her mother is Romanian, so she speaks Romanian fluently and has traveled between the two countries extensively. Strangely, none of them planned to spend time in Bulgaria, a country sandwiched between Romania and Turkey.

After crossing the Danube and entering Bulgaria, the sky seemed to be bluer. There were few houses along the rail tracks; Bulgaria is less populated than Romania. We passed by many sunflower fields, like the ones I remembered in Spain. Compared to other Eastern European countries, Bulgaria feels more mediterranean than continental.

The train was one hour late when it arrived in Veliko Tarnovo (delay seems the norm in this part of the world). As I requested, Hiker's Hostel sent a driver, Andrea, to pick me up. It took me a while to be convinced she was from the hostel. She kept saying she was looking for an Australian. No way do I resemble an Aussi!

Veliko Tarnovo was the ancient capital of Bulgaria from 1185 to 1393. When Bulgaria finally declared independence from Turkey in 1879, the first constitution was written in Veliko Tarnovo. Though no longer a major city like the capital, Sofia, Vveliko Tarnovo still holds a special place in the hearts of Bulgarians. Perched on the slopes above the crooked Yantra River Valley, there are many winding and hilly streets with hundred-year-old buildings. The hostel is hidden in a hilly back alley, difficult to locate for a first-time visitor. By the time Andrea and I reached the hostel, it was dark.

"You are lucky today." Andrea told me, "There is a free barbecue tonight."

I was assigned to a 12-bed room on the second floor. The space was tight, no locker, but the room was clean. Breakfast was included and the two internet terminals were free – all this for 10 euros. The atmosphere was great. I had opportunities to sample Bulgarian sausages and meatcakes. I spoke with travelers from all over the world. Aside from the beer we purchased, the staff brought out Bulgarian red wine. Again I was the only "yellow" person there!

In many ways, Bulgaria was a welcome change from Romania – better weather, more comfortable hostel. People seemed more polite, spoke good English, and things were cheaper than in Romania. I stayed an extra night in Veliko Tarnovo due to my comfort level at the hostel,the great view and laid back atmosphere.

My first stop was the ancient Tsarevets Fortress, former home to many Bulgarian tsars. Most of the citadel was destroyed in the Turkish invasion, but a long stretch of the wall survived and several towers still stand. At the top of the hill is a beautiful church, Church of the Ascension, in the Orthodox style with frescoes painted in 1981 when Bulgaria celebrated its 1,300th birthday.

Later I walked along the curved streets of Veliko and reached the National Revival Museum. I guess there were not too many visitors since the staff was happy to see me dropping in. It houses items from the Bulgarian National Revival Movement (in late 19th century the fight for independence from Turkey). It even has the chamber where the first Bulgarian Parliament held its meeting and wrote its constitution.

After a late lunch, I bought a disposable camera, remembering my misery at having my camera stolen. Such a lovely country warranted a few pictures for my album. I left the hostel for my final Eastern European destination – Sofia – a three-hour bus ride from Veliko Tarnovo.

Using Skype, the staff at Hiker's Hostel helped me book a bed at Mostel Hostel in Sofia. Athough Sofia is a capital city and has more than one million residents, it felt smaller than I expected. Maybe because it was Sunday, there was not that much traffic on the main streets, Boulevard Mariya Luiza and Boulevard Vitosha. Hostel Mostel was two to three blocks from Boulevard Vitosha – an easy walk to most of the sites. When I checked in, I was told that not only breakfast and internet access are included, they also serve free beer and a portion of pasta. This for 10 euros a night.

I only had an afternoon to see Sofia before flying to Athens for my intercontinental flight the next morning. Fortunately, Sofia is a walkable city and many sights are no more than a 10-minute walk from one another.

I saw the National Palace of Culture, built to celebrate Bulgaria's 1,300 birthday in 1981. Now it houses several restaurants, cinemas and concert halls. Its origin and function are similar to the Palace of Culture in Warsaw. However, this "palace" looks very bland, not half as interesting as its counterpart in Warsaw. The park surrounding the palace is nice, though, and the ice cream from the parlor outside the palace is tasty.

Because Bulgaria has traditionally been an Orthodox Christian country (which is in line with the Byzantine heritage centered in Constantinpole, today's Istanbul ), there are a lot of beautiful orthodox churches all over town. Aside from Orthodox Christians, with 12% of its population Turkish, there is also a sizable Muslim population. One 500-year old mosque, Banya Bashi Mosque, is north of the center and across the street from fancy TSUM Department store. Nearby, behind the central Market Hall, is Sofia Synagogue. Though allied with Nazi Germany during World war II (historically, Bulgaria has always allied itself with the wrong side, really), Bulgaria was one of a few countries that protected its Jewish population from being slaughtered in the Holocaust. Many Bulgarian Jews emigrated to Israel after the communist regime took over, but some of their cultural heritage survived. It is interesting to visit a place with a complicated heritage. Unlike Sarajevo, another multi-cultured city, ethnic and religious differences never evolved into mutual hatred.

Most of Bulgaria's past is associated with its Byzantine connection, mainly the multi-domed Orthodox churches. The most famous one is Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, erected from 1904 to 1912 in memory of 200,000 Russians who fought alongside Bulgarians for its independence in 1878. It is possibly the most popular tourist site in Sofia. At its middle, a huge gold dome is surrounded by several lower emerald-colored domes. More than 400 frescoes were contributed by artists from Bulgaria and Russia. When I was inside, a choir started to sing its Sunday gospel.

From the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, I walked to both the Banya Boshi Mosque and the Synagogue, but they were closed. Before heading back to the hostel for its nightly beer/pasta feast, I went into the Central Market Hall, next to the Synagogue. It was clean and spacious. Both cooked and raw ingredients are sold there. It looks like a smaller and less touristy version of the Grand Market Hall in Budapest. Unlike the one in Budapest, there were few foreign tourists.

Bulgaria is waiting to be discovered. Compared to its mega-popular, super-touristy neighbors, Greece and Turkey, Bulgaria still has that feeling of a bride forgotten right outside the wedding chapel. That will change. Like Romania, Bulgaria is scheduled to enter the European Union in January 2007. While some budget airlines will begin flying to Sofia this year, the number of tourists to Bulgaria has started to change from a trickle to large drops. The New York Times Travel Section named Bulgaria one of the "destinations of 2006". I was glad to have been there before the crowds.

Saricie Kuo is a college professor and public health researcher from Taiwan. He is also a part time novelist and film critic. He took most of 2006 off from his career, traveled in Europe and South America. He made a wish when he was 18 – to visit more than 100 countries before he turned 40. Currently in his mid-30s, Mr. Kuo is glad he has only 10 countries left to reach his goal.

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