Travel Story Bowled over by Bulgaria's simple charms... eventually

Plovdiv’s ancient Old Town area.
Picture: Ronan O'Connell

A greedy taxi driver and drab city views give way to a better vibe and far prettier scenes on a train ride into the Bulgarian countryside.

I am livid, but this is not the right time to vent my rage. If I was travelling alone, as I usually do, and I wasn’t running late, which I rarely am, I’d have caused a scene. But my mother is with me and we’re in a rush to catch our train so I can’t challenge the dodgy taxi driver who has just scammed us on our short trip to Sofia train station.

The 2km ride should have cost only $2, according to the fare rules printed on the back of my seat, but the meter was obviously rigged, resulting in a price of $15. That fare is still only slightly more than you would pay for the same length ride in a Perth taxi, however Sofia is, by some measures, listed as the cheapest city in Europe.

Regardless, it was an unfortunate way to start our first visit to Bulgaria. There is always a risk when travelling that your perception of a city or country can be greatly impacted by a negative incident such as this at the start of your stay. First impressions count. Luckily, Bulgaria quickly won us over with its quirkiness and eclectic culture.

Located on the eastern edge of Europe, bordered by Turkey, Romania, Greece, Serbia and Macedonia, Bulgaria has noticeable Slavic, Greek and Persian influences. The ancient Roman and Greek empires both had major presences in Bulgaria and, as a former Eastern Bloc country, it also has an unmistakably Russian feel.

These disparate influences are evident in Sofia’s melange of architecture. The city’s most iconic structure is the gold-domed Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. Built in the late 1800s in honour of fallen Russian soldiers, it features the Neo-Byzantine architecture seen throughout the region. But the church is Eastern Orthodox, a type of Christianity which emerged from Greek communities.

Further Roman traces can found nearby in the remains of the Rotunda, a 4th century Roman-built church, while the Ottomans most famously left behind the majestic Banya Bashi Mosque. As our train leaves central Sofia and enters its suburbs, the less glamorous Russian influence becomes stark.

Grey, monolithic, communist-era apartment blocks blight the landscape. Run-down factories flank the train tracks, some obviously defunct, and others in operation despite their poor upkeep. Their smoke stacks produce noxious plumes, adding to the ugliness.

Dozens of factories at various points of their life cycle line the railway between Sofia and our destination, the pretty city of Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second-largest metropolis. Fortunately, the scars of human endeavour give way to the country’s natural splendour at reasonably regular intervals.

Our comfortable, first-class train carriage has big windows which allow us to look out across the wide plains on either side.

Filled with crops including sunflowers and wheat, these plains are dry in early autumn and stretch out towards ranges between which the train chugs along.

My mother nods when I remark that the scenery looks not dissimilar to the south-eastern outskirts of Perth where parched fields sit below the Darling Range. Soon, however, the train finds its way into an environment nothing like Perth or its suburbs.

We have cut through a narrow valley, hemmed in by verdant hills, and pass over pristine creeks and rivers along which quaint little villages are perched. The train stops at regular intervals in these towns. The train stations mostly are crumbling, the towns are cute but any grandeur has long faded. Bulgaria is one of the poorest countries in Europe and, while Sofia and Plovdiv are relatively prosperous, that wealth does not seem to extend far beyond the city limits.

But, just like Sofia and Plovdiv, the countryside is fascinating and reflects the history of this country. It is this complicated backstory which makes Bulgaria such an appealing place for the curious traveller.

Throughout our journey, a Bulgarian man with hands blackened by grease or oil has been alongside us in our carriage. He has been patently fascinated by our reactions to the changing sights out the window. Eventually, not long before we arrive in Plovdiv, he breaks his silence and asks me in broken English if I like Bulgaria. A few hours ago he wouldn’t have liked the answer I’d have given. But now my response makes him smile. I do like Bulgaria.

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