Hello! So you're thinking of or already are walking through Bulgaria. This post will (hopefully) enlighten you on the wonders and dangers of backpacking through Bulgaria. Don't worry, the dangers are pretty much as simple as they come, and I hope that you'll become motivated to see the amazing landscapes that are tucked away in Bulgaria.
For now a quick update: I've successfully made my way from Istanbul to Cape Emine (the end/beginning of the Kom-Emine trail) by way of highways, luck, and some clever trail maneuvering. I'm currently in a small hut that is located in some town that I won't even attempt to spell, and things are pretty swell. I've had some loneliness, plenty of laughs, and my legs are working (for the most part). The locals tend to be very friendly towards travelers, and I've had my fair share of trail magic and the like.
I've walked through caravans, mud, as well as scat. I've crossed hills and dry roads, been gifted with delicious food, and have had the pleasure of meeting extraordinary individuals. From the kind Bulgarian adventurers in Emine to the gracious hosts of the hut I'm currently in, Bulgaria is a country of wonder that deserves exploring. Did I mention that a person on a moderate budget can afford nearly anything that they're looking for?
So, onto the list of things to know about walking/backpacking in Bulgaria:
1. Get Used to Walking on Roads
Like every country, Bulgaria has plenty of roads and highways. Unfortunately for the backpacker, you'll need to get used to either hitchhiking on the roads, or walking alongside them. Cars will shoot past you, drivers and passengers will stare at you, and you'll be breathing in plenty of fumes from the cars that would never pass an emission test in the United States. The highways aren't terribly interesting, and you'll have to get used to walking in the hot sun, but you'll be able to reach whatever city you're looking for in a matter of minutes.
Another thing to note, there is plenty of crime that occurs on roadsides in Bulgaria. I can't say that I'm speaking from experience, but nearly every local will warn you about what you need to prepare for when you're walking alone. If you're walking in a pair or in a group you have less to worry about, but traveling alone comes with greater risks.
While I was walking to Burgas, I was going through a minor heat stroke. The sun was beating down on me, I wasn't drinking enough water, and I still had another two hours of hiking ahead of me. Rather than go through the misery of exhaustion, I decided to hide on the side of the road in the shade and rest. I thought that I was hidden from view, but in no less than 45 minutes I was poked with a stick by a young Roma teenager. He must of thought I was dead, for when I jumped up he was very surprised. After coming to his senses, he asked me for a light for a cigarette, then went on his way hitching down the coastline. I learned my lesson: the woods are much more populated than they look, so it's wise to stay careful and sleep in protected areas.
There are more roadways than trails, and the hiking trails in Bulgaria incorporate roads. So, if you're hitchhiking you'll have plenty of traffic. If you're walking, your feet are going to ache after the pounding.
2. Get Used to Being Pragmatic
Bulgaria is one of the poorest countries in the EU. Because Bulgaria doesn't have the funds for any major luxuries (unless you're willing to shill out big ducats), get expected to spend for any luxury, minor or otherwise. You want bread with your meal? That'll cost you. Toasted bread? A little extra. Some extra toilet paper? That's also going to cost you. It make logistical sense when you think about it. The costs are minimal and you pay for the luxury of using an expense. Living is cheap. If you want more comfortable living, be ready to pay for it. Additives typically only cost a small amount, plus you become more responsible for your usage. You won't leave your bread untouched anytime soon!
Another lesson in pragmatism, space in Bulgaria (like all of Europe) is limited, so people made do with what they're given. This means a single room in a hostel/hotel/motel/hut will have several beds, a larger room will be reserved for only groups or parties, and your toilet will also be your shower. Most places have a portable shower-head attached to the sink, so you'll have to get used to maneuvering yourself in such a way so that your toilet paper won't be soaked. My recommendation is to only use the water in short bursts, lather up between then, and finally rinse yourself off. It is also a wise decision to situate yourself in a corner, that way your towel will stay dry, and only one corner in the room will be dripping wet.
3. There Will be Hills
Bulgaria is a mountainous country, and your feet will get to know the fact very well. Walking along the coast of the Black Sea is pretty easy, but the rest of the country is filled with hills. From the Stranja to the Stare-Planina, Bulgaria is a country that rolls. You'll encounter mountain peaks, hills, mounds and more. Your legs will be tired after climbing through brush, your feet will throb from the roads, but your eyes will feast on some of the most beautiful views imaginable. As some hikers say, you'll need to learn to love the uphill. You'll be encountering plenty of it.
4. Learn What it Means to Come from a Conquered Nation
For many of us, the concept of being invaded and inhabited by an empire sounds outlandish or otherwise impossible. Not so in Bulgaria. This country has lived under Ottoman as well as Soviet rule in the last 150 years. Because of the scars of memory, Bulgarians are very proud of their independence and align themselves closely with their national image. There isn't much experimentation here, certain villages are wary of outsiders, and you'll be damned if you mention the superiority of Turkey. People are proud to be from Bulgaria and the only people that can talk poorly of Bulgaria are Bulgarians. The people here are very well aware of their economic woes, so there's no need in bringing them up.
If you remain curious and want to know more of Bulgarian independence, nearly anyone will be happy to talk to you about their heroes and their holidays. Be careful when discussing communism; some folks in Bulgaria prefer the days when they were a larger economic power, but many people remember the atrocious architecture, the lack of local decision-making as well as other maladies. Discussing politics is a great way to learn more about the country and the culture, but avoid making a resound statement until you know where your conversational partner stands. No sense in being arrogant now, you're just visiting, Bulgarians have plenty on their plate and they don't need more foreign peoples telling them what would be best for them.
5. Talk, Talk, Talk
There's no better way of learning about a country than chatting with the locals. However, there is a conversational gap between foreigners and different generations in Bulgaria. If you meet someone who is older than 40, chances are they speak Bulgarian, some Russian or German. If they're in their 30's or younger, they may know some to a lot of English. Younger generations have learned the value of knowing an international language, but older generations haven't had the time or the opportunity to learn English. Oh if only I spoke German or Russian, how much easier would my travels have been!
Regardless of the language barrier, there is much to learn, even if you can only use broken Bulgarian to get your point across. The people here like to practice their English, and many people are curious to know more about foreign countries. If you're from the U.S. or England, get ready to talk about politics as well as cultural references. I've had many conversations about American movies and the like, and the younger people dream of saving enough money to travel abroad. Be sure to share as much as you can, the locals will return the favor so long as you're willing to listen.
It is also worth mentioning that certain groups are more talkative than others. If you're in a village with a mosque, the locals celebrate a variation of Turkish hospitality that is intoxicating as it is inviting. Other villages will have no interest in talking to you or knowing more about you need to survive. Bulgarian adventurers are an amazing group of people, and you'll be sure to meet more of them when you're doing any type of extreme sport or hiking through the Balkans.
Some folks may be cold at first, but spend some time talking, you won't regret it. Once you're on the in with a local, the town will be sure to take care of you. It's an amazing experience to be taken care of by a group of strangers, but you can only receive such a service when you make the effort to communicate beyond what you need. Learn more about the person you're talking to, and you'll be sure to learn more about this amazing country.
This is just a start of my thoughts of traveling in Bulgaria so far. I still have another 25 days in Bulgaria, so I will be sure to add another post discussing my travels. I hope that you've found this interesting, and I hope that you sleep well tonight.