Stara Zagora to Domogled, May 5 – 12, 2017
As we arrived in Bulgaria we had no real expectations for what it would hold. We had heard the East Coast was nice, so east we went, aiming for a trip up the Black Sea coast. There was quite a contrast of differing towns and villages. The border towns were gipsy like, but clean and peaceful and even had a sense of organisation about them. Kids’ played outside on the streets as the adults sat talking out the front of the houses. As we headed inland, it was obvious there were many villages and families living very basically, in scattered, ragged little towns, lucky to have a derelict house to shelter in, tending to what they had which was often as little as a tied up cow on the front doorstep.
It was late by the time we found a spot for the first night – a park, sitting a little above the city and it seemed a few other people had the same idea as we. We fell asleep as the sounds of a local party drifted towards us.
The next day or so opened our eyes to the lack of what the East Coast had to offer – it was touristy, seasonal (and we were a couple of weeks pre-season) and seemed it lacked the real beauty. The first night of that leg landed us on top of a small hill near Medovo (not far off the coast of Burgas) but high enough to be worried when a thunder storm rocked the surrounding area at 3am. We were incredibly exposed up there at this point and decided it best to head for lower ground.
For the next few days the weather was miserable, even gracing us at one point with hail. We were very much confined to the van’s living area.
At this point we were in desperate need of a campsite. We had run out of clean water, our black water tank had been full for days, we had no clean clothes and hadn’t showered for close on a week – and being the off season still, there was nothing open on the coast. This was when we decided to head inland and (momentarily) find some better weather.
We headed for Veliko Tarnovo (Bulgaria’s previous capital) where we found a site for the night. It had rained so hard the previous few days the following morning we got ourselves bogged in and had to be towed out. This got us talking with the fellow and we asked if they knew of anyone on a farm that could use our help for a day or two.
We spent the next two days on a farm close to Elena, bottle feeding a baby goat, looking out for the ten cats and four dogs and helping out in the yard. In the evenings we chatted, learning some insights into the way of Bulgarian life. Apparently, Bulgaria is the poorest of the EU countries, yet 80% of people own their homes outright…
Along with our few days spent on the farm, we visited the local town on Elena, where we found a very strong flavoured cows’ cheese, similar to what we’d call cheddar – known as kashkaval – and butter. Both were very different to what we’ve come to expect in the Western World, although both thoroughly delicious. We were also told we must get gold of some Elenski But – Bulgaria’s version of prosciutto or jamon. Apparently Elena is the only place in Bulgaria where they are legally allowed to air dry meat as it is known for having a superb and well balanced air quality for such things. Traditionally Elenski But is heavily salted in barrels for 40 days, in the same room as the wood-fired stoves which allow this prized meat to take on slight smokey flavours. They then air dry the leg for a minimum of one year.
Then it was on towards Sofia. We spent the day here exploring some various Bulgarian baked treats at both the Central Market Hall (Tsentralni Hali) and Ladies Market.
Overlooked easily, Bulgaria is known for it’s probiotic yoghurts that stretch back centuries, using the ‘good’ bacteria lactobacillus delbrueckii and streptococcus salivarius, who work well in conjunction together to create mildly sour, milky yoghurts that have great health benefits and taste amazing – again, not what we’ve come to expect a yoghurt to be in the Western World.
As we walked through the aisle of the Central Market Hall, Paul noticed a wine merchant, selling European wines with a good selection of Bulgarian wines amongst it and commented “Wait a second, what about Bulgarian wines?’
We didn’t know much about Bulgarian wines to be honest. The man behind the stall was very knowledgeable and gave us a very good basic explanation of Bulgarian wines and a bonus for us he spoke good English – and was not shy to show off his Hungarian wine knowledge too!
Bulgaria produces mainly reds and he suggested we try two. Both native varieties of the South West; mavrud, grown in the Thracian Valley and melnik from the Struma Valley. Mavrud is much fruitier (blackberry and prune) with pungent aromas of clove and vanilla. One day while taking shelter in the van, escaping the 24 hour torential downpour, we enjoyed this wine alongside our books – and slowly got to the bottom of the bottle…
A nice historical anecdote about mavrud: in around 800 A.D there was a khan called Krum who decided he wanted to destroy all vine plantations. At this time of the year there was a lion that roamed the countryside and Krum was the only person that stood up to the lion and killed it. When people in the town asked where he got his courage from he answered “I’ve secretly saved some grapes so I could make wine”.
By the time we came to drink the melnik, we had made our way to Hungary. It was enjoyed in a rather different setting; outside in the warm, early evening sun, amongst a group of us, with smoked ribs from our new bbq and smoker and some traditional Hungarian salads – which you can read about here. Melnik often resembles the aromas of tobacco and sour cherry leaves. Nicely full bodied and tannic, aged in barrels, however further bottle ageing is also recommended. Melnik is also the smallest town in Bulgaria with a population of 400.
Winding back to our day in Sofia… we found an awesome place for dinner, a very trendy vegan place called Sun Moon, serving some traditional Bulgarian fare where we sampled tarator; a cold yoghurt soup, ljutenica; a roasted red pepper and tomato dip and a shopska salad; a salad made of tomatoes, cucumber, scallions, peppers and sirene.
Unbeknown to us, while we were thoroughly enjoying dinner, some buggers were hard at work giving the van a wheel clamp!