Our cab driver dropped us off at the train station in the nick of time, giving us enough time to buy tickets and plenty of crumbly pastries for the train. We climbed into our compartment, taking up most of the seats with our bags and sweaters. After all, how many people could possibly be traveling from Bucharest to Veliko Tarnovo? Apparently, that itinerary was quite popular – we shared a compartment with a charming old Romanian man resembling the man character in Up and a Spanish girl living in Switzerland. Eventually we were joined by a young Bulgarian art student, with whom Bowen competed with to draw the most interesting sketch. In an entirely objective analysis of the artwork, the Bulgarian boy demonstrated his mastery of swift strokes and lightly applied details, probably due to Bowen’s inferior drawing instruments, which the Bulgarian mentioned he stopped using way back in middle school.
The Cyrillic alphabet, a familiar and sometimes overwhelming friend, greeted us at the train station. I chatted up a marshrutka/minibus driver to take us to the main street where our hostel was located, and our trio piled into the backseat of the van. The man was really excited that I spoke Russian with him and was very helpful to drop us off near taxis to take us to our hostel. Unfortunately, the cab driver I spoke did not respond to me in Russian and just kept saying “Sign!” over and over. Flustered, we walked along the main road, stopping occasionally to ask if we were going the right direction. Hot, sweaty, hungry, and tired, we slowly made our way up a cobblestone road to find our hostel. After dumping our things in the dorm room, we stomped down the stairs where we found the most wonderful surprise – dinner and company! Our host, Mila, served us delicious salad, bread, feta, and rakiya – Bulgarian moonshine made of mixed fruits. We chatted with four British doctors who could have been characters on a sitcom – the bossy blonde one, the cute and charming girl, the sourpuss who has the greatest one liners, and the boy who gets stuck sitting in the backseat.
We spent the next day walking around Veliko Tarnovo. We took a tour of the city’s castle, which we had seen illuminated the night before in a really lovely light show. Perhaps some of the excitement was rakiya-fueled, but I would bet that the flashing lights and changing colors are objectively pleasing to the eye. In the fortress, there’s a giant church called “The Patriarchate Ensemble” that’s been painted with a contemporary style, which was refreshing to see after so many mosaics in churches in the past two months. After strolling through the castle and climbing around a bit, we went to eat at a cafe where we demonstrated our Americanness – Bowen and I ordered fries, and while Catherine attempted to be healthy with a parfait, she was served cake instead. Nothing says nutrition more than cake, hot chocolate, and fries, right?
Although the Old Town area of Veliko Tarnovo seems campy and touristy, it turned out to be a really interesting area for artists to work. Walking through the stores, we saw a coppersmith, a wood carver, an antique dealer offering real swords, an icon painter, and a knife maker. I talked with the icon painter, who apparently is one of the most famous in Bulgaria, about his work – he had a painting of Adam and Eve on the wall that grabbed my attention because of the serpent’s male head. When I asked about the reasoning, he answered, “It was simply the painter’s decision.”
That night we had a yummy Bulgarian dinner before resigning to the hostel to play cards for several hours with the Brits and the group of American students we met in Brasov. Shenanigans ensued, continuing the next morning when the Brits went spelunking, the other Americans panicked about returning their rental car, and we sped off to the bus station to figure out how to get to Sofia.