I had wanted to do a trip around Europe for a while. It was suggested a couple of years ago but we ended up opting for more of a beach holiday. This year we were ready. So 3 friends started to throw a few ideas around and come up with some loose plans.
The idea of going through Europe on the train sounded good but the hassle of lugging around our luggage around seemed like a massive chore. So maybe hiring a car was a better idea.
Googling cross country one way car hire came up with lots of results so before looking into it further we decided we needed to all agree on the dates and picked one country were most wanted to see.
I picked Bulgaria because I wanted to see the derelict Buzludzha monument, Keith picked Serbia; he is into brutalist architecture and concrete so New Belgrade seemed to fit the bill, Jon picked Poland.
We decided 2 weeks was enough time to get from A to B to C stopping in other countries and cities on the way.
We booked a flight to Plovdiv in Bulgaria as it was the closest airport to Buzludzha. We booked a flight back from Krakow 2 weeks later.
Looking at the distance on a google map and measuring with a ruler against the screen worked out it was only slightly further than driving from the bottom of England to the tip of Scotland – easy.
Keith and I had a souvenir mission. He has to get a fridge magnet from every place he visits. Where as I want a little flag from each country to stick on the bar I made.
We used booking.com to book a hotel in central Plovdiv. We wanted to try and do the whole trip in hotels rather than hostels. £19 per night for a triple room.
So next we looked into oneway cross country car hire. Although there are many results on google all companies that advertise it do not really offer it! We could not find one company willing to hire a car to us to travel from Bulgaria to Poland. We tried the big name firms such as Europcar, Hertz, Avis etc. Then some more local based ones. All got back to us with the same answer. Not possible.
We found one way car hire in Bulgaria. So planned to hire from Plovdiv and drop the car off in Sofia, thinking we’d have a better chance of finding more car hire in the capital city. This fell through. Keith decided to email the hotel and see if they could organise car hire for us. They were in fact very helpful and organised a car for us.
We decided to worry about the next step when we got there.
All the countries we’d picked used different currencies. My brother had told me about the Halifax Clarity credit card which allowed you to draw money out and make purchases abroad with no transaction fees. I tried to apply but was unsuccessful due to already having an old Halifax credit card that I hadn’t used for years but also hadn’t cancelled, I was told it was too short notice to change it. Keith on the other hand managed to get one which got delivered just in time. He offered to get money out for everyone to save us getting any fees.
Day 1 : Monday 25/05/2015
I drove to Stansted to meet the others. We checked in then went to Burger King and discussed the next couple of weeks.
We landed in Plovdiv and everybody on the plane cheered! The queue for passport control was slow and long, by the time we made it through our luggage was already on the conveyor so it was a pretty quick exit.
There was no man with a plate, just a man holding up a piece of paper with “Keith Brown” written on it. We followed him to the car, he knew barely any English. He drove to Plovdiv and parked on a random street near the hotel. We walked to the hotel to fill out the paperwork for the car.
The hotel was a bit strange. The man on the reception spoke a little English but not much. There was another man, he looked like he was in the mafia or something. He spoke to us, when he found out we were English he took offence and said something about crocodiles and crowns, we had no idea what he was on about but it was clear he didn’t like us! He was probably a bit drunk. This wasn’t the best start to our Bulgarian adventure!
It was fairly late now but we decided to take a wander into Plovdiv centre, surprisingly there were quite a lot of people around, it was after 10pm. We found a takeaway stall and grabbed a slice of pizza. Then decided to have a quick drink in a random pub, the name of it escapes me a the moment. Accidentally picked the most British looking pub in Plovdiv. It was fairly nice though. The bar man spoke English so recommended some places for us to check out.
Day 2 : Tuesday 26/05/2015
Didn’t get much sleep as Keith was snoring so badly, got up grumpily and rummaged through suitcase to find earplugs, got back to sleep and the alarm went off, had to get up early to move the car by 8.30, couldn’t figure out if we could text to pay for the parking on the streets around the hotel with a UK phone.
Was the first time since last year I had driven on the right side of the road, started the engine and the car leapt forward nearly hitting the car in front! The ‘man with plate’ had left it in gear without the handbrake on. Also he wasn’t lying when he said it needed fuel!
Moved the car to a street which seemed to be free. We took a scenic walk back to the hotel, went via a supermarket to find something suitable for breakfast, after quite a few loops of the store I went for a French stick and some random flavoured dairylea type cheeses and some rather nice looking cherry tomatoes. Jc went for some random ham and cheese rolls. We sat on a bench, ate our food and thought about the weeks ahead while a weird look dingo looking dog made us chuckle as it walked past. The weather was warm and sunny.
Keith wanted some food so went for a wander while we got ready for the day ahead, no point wasting the day trying to get some more sleep.
Took a walk through Plovdiv, it seemed like a nice city, the majority of people seemed nice and the girls were pretty. We decided to head for the furthest things we wanted to see first. So headed for a new shopping mall and concrete memorial.
On the way we came across a big hill (Bunarjik Hill) which we scaled, at the top there was a large statue, it was the Alesha Monument, it is to commemorate the Soviet casualties during the liberation of Bulgaria from the fascist government and their Nazi German allies .
We carried on towards the mall, saw a brand new mosque or temple with a shiny blue roof.
The shopping centre was pretty big but didn’t have any shops we were interested in.
The concrete memorial we wanted to see is called The Hillock of Fraternity, it was interesting but there were locked gates so we couldn’t get inside. Managed to peer in once we climbed up the sides, looked interesting. From what I could find out online it was dedicated to the Liberation of Bulgaria from Ottoman rule, the The Unification of Bulgaria, the Bulgarian partisan movement and “the victory of socialism” in 1944.
We walked back to the old town via a short stop at Central Perk, a coffee place done up to look like the cafe on Friends.
The old town was nice with more traditional buildings than the concrete we had been looking at.
Found a souvenir stall that had a small Bulgarian flag magnet, perfect for my bar. Keith also found a suitable magnet of Plovdiv for his fridge.
We ended the days walk at Nebet Tepe, the remains of an ancient Thracian town on top of a hill.
For some reason Keith had been craving Mexican food all day so once we had wifi we googled it. It was a long walk but it was worth it. Мексикански Ресторант “Сомбреро” or Sombrero Mexican Restaurant, food was really good and the waitress liked our accents! http://www.sombrero-bg.com/en
Day 3 : Wednesday 27/05/2015
We got up, got ready and checked out of the Plovdiv hotel. Had to walk for about 10mins with our luggage to get to the car. They gave us the car with a totally empty tank so the first priority was to find a petrol station.
We attempted the use the Navmii app on the iPhone to locate one but it was too had to follow its directions, luckily as we were going the wrong way we spotted one. They seem to have a strange system where someone fills it us for your while you go and pay. The guys on the forecourt knew very little English, this mixed with the fact we had no idea how much fuel we needed made it very confusing situation on all fronts! We decided to let them just fill the tank up to make it easier.
We amused ourselves by making up lyrics to the Bulgarian songs playing on the radio. My favourite was “where’s my shovel!”.
As we got closer to the mountains we spotted the monument in the distance.
The weather was getting worse, it clouded over and started to rain. We drove up the mountain until we reached the torch monument. We pulled over, there were a few other cars parked there, were they dog walkers or explorers? We could see some people walking up the track towards the main Buzludzha monument. We took some photos, it was raining and cloudy, the whole monument kept getting swallowed up by the clouds.
Brief history from wikipedia “The Buzludzha Monument was built by the Bulgarian communist regime to commemorate the events in 1891 when the socialists led by Dimitar Blagoev assembled secretly in the area to form an organised socialist movement with the founding of the Bulgarian Social Democratic Party, a fore-runner of the Bulgarian Communist Party. The Monument was opened in 1981. No longer maintained by the Bulgarian government, it has fallen into disuse.”
The rain was getting heavy so we opted for trying drive a bit closer, we had google street viewed the road back home and it looked like you could get to a point then there was a barrier with a no entry sign so we aimed to park there. I continued to drive the car up the mountain until I could get no further, we thought we might have missed the turning as we hadn’t seen a barrier when suddenly the clouds parted and we were directly in front of the spaceship! A very surreal moment. We were a bit freaked out and thought we should probably move the car but then decided to just leave it there. The weather was getting better, the sun was coming out. We took a load of photos outside then made our entry. We weren’t alone, there were a couple of other groups of people, they were also just there to explore it.
I’d seen plenty of photos online but it was so much more epic in real life. It
I’m not great with heights but I couldn’t come all this way without climbing to the top of the tower. There was no way I was gonna do it if it was one vertical ladder but luckily it was short angled sections with platforms so it was ok. It was pitch black so luckily I had a torch! We reached the star, this was the scariest point. There’s hardly any glass left in it, the wind was blowing in. We continued up to the top. The views were amazing.
Further down the Buzludzha mountain.
I drove us back to Sofia. An angry old Bulgarian man started waving his arms at me as I nearly didn’t stop for a zebra crossing but I was laughing and pointing too, I said “its fine he’s English”, he was wearing a union jack t-shirt!
It was dual carriageway pretty much the whole way apart from roadwork’s every so often so not a bad drive really. Made one toilet stop at a petrol station where I bought a random CD called “The Folk Collection” I judged it by its cover!
Time was getting on and me not quite being used to driving on the right didn’t really fancy driving in the dark! With the new tunes on we made our way towards our Sofia hotel (Maxim Boutique Hotel). The SatNav was confusing so ended up driving straight past the hotel and had no idea where to park.
Parking was directly outside the door of the hotel which was nice.
The room was fairly nice though the decor was a bit in your face. The shower had jets going everywhere! Only issue was the doors didn’t seal on the shower so the bathroom got pretty flooded!
Time was getting on and we were hungry so we went out in search of somewhere to eat. We found a nice looking restaurant, we thought it must be good as it was fairly busy. We were wrong, Keith’s food came out, he was half way through it before mine came out and we were both finished before Jon’s appeared. My food was not very nice, I had some sort of breaded fish, it was full of bones and I didn’t like the taste. Keith tried to complain about the service but they didn’t speak enough English. So we paid but didn’t leave a tip!
We had no idea where the centre of Sofia was or where we would find a bar, we didn’t wanna turn on data roaming. We stumbled upon a bar, we had some vodkas and a shisha. We wanted to try and find somewhere else to go after, the bar man suggested somewhere but it was quite a walk, it was already 1 or 2am so seemed a bit late for a random trek. The Bedroom Premium Club was opposite the bar we were in so opted for that. We paid to get in, it was busy, a girl escorted us to seating area but we went to the bar instead. The women in the club were hot. On the stage there were dancers and a girl singing. Pretty good random night out.
Day 4 : Thursday 28/05/2015
We had to check out of the hotel, the guy on the reception was very helpful and agreed to top the car up with parking tickets for us so we didn’t get clamped while we explored Sofia.
I found Sofia for the most part wasn’t built for pedestrians, there were busy main roads through out most of the city with trams and cars everywhere. We checked out most of the main sites listed in the guide books. If I’m honest I preferred Plovdiv.
We came across some little stalls selling souvenirs and old memorabilia. I bought an old sign from the communist era. It basically translates as “perfect home”.
There was lots of Nazi stuff there, even a framed picture of Hitler!
We had to drop the car off at the airport. Now we were at the airport with not transport, no plan and all our luggage.
We thought we may have a fairly good chance at hiring a car from here, worst case we would get a taxi to the train station and get the sleeper train to Belgrade.
None of the hire company’s could help. One company, Choice Rent said they could drive us to Belgrade. It would cost €260. For the ease of it, the extra expense over the train seemed well worth it. (I think the train would have been about €35 each+ taxis and lots of extra time!) So we agreed and within the hour we were off……..next stop Serbia….