Arriving late in Sofia, the Hotel Anel is above a casino, or more accurately around one. I was stopped by a bouncer on my way to my room as he told me I’m heading to the “poker rooms” while my room is in the other side of the corridor. The rooms do have a eastern European communist boudoir about it, with its jacuzzi, large sitting room and the biggest bed I have come across in the separate bedroom. Late night Sofia is quiet but for the main pedestrianised street where I found a brightly lit wine bar and restaurant just off it that served a lovely salad and 4 types of local cheeses.
A quick stop in the next morning at the Aleksandur Nevski Memorial Church with its gilt domes and atmospheric interior, though the highlight is the icon gallery in the crypt with an impressive collection of icons from 12th to 19th century. The drive through the countryside to Koprivshtitsa was quiet with hardly any traffic, any I came across would be coming up speedily behind and duly overtaking me, even though I am at the speed limit. No wonder I have yet to see an undamaged roadside barrier around bends which always fills you with confidence about your oncoming traffic. There was hardly anyone in Koprivshtitsa, let alone tourists. Souvenir stores were all closed and it is as off season as it can feel. The town is attractive and oddly reminds me of Bhutan, filled with national revival architecture that uses traditional building techniques and decoration even though they are relatively recently built in the 19th century. It is also of some historical significance as the origin of the April uprising against the Ottoman and I can see the appeal in the sun with a few more people around, other than this ghostly and rainy place I happened to come across.
The onward journey to the Romanian border took me over the 1500m Beklemeto pass on road 35. Once again it was quiet and I would have enjoyed it a lot more if it wasn’t raining as hard as it was. The day total of 7 and a half hours drive over a modest 226 miles shows how slow going it was. A quick stop at Viliko Tarnovo with its impressive fortress completes the day of sightseeing. The night was spent in Ruse and a surprisingly enjoyable dinner at a touristic restaurant Chifilika, complete with live cheesy local music but fun nonetheless.
At Chifilika, I’ve been told Raki, the local schnapps, is usually served with a salad. It is not the first combination that comes to mind but it is surely healthier than the salty, fatty alternatives that usually accompany drinks. It will be unkind to call the claypot dish of pork pieces, mushroom, onion and sour cream a stroganoff as the amount of onion do set it apart. It is somewhat lighter and sweeter than its Russian cousin.
Setting off for Romania, the first obstacle of the next day is the Danube Bridge, formerly known as the Friendship bridge which I personally prefer. It is only one of two bridges connecting the two countries and with the road works on it, it took an hour to cross it. Another 7 hours drive over 230 miles took me to my overnight spot in the Transylvania village of Copsa Mare where I will have an “extended” stay of 2 nights. The journey was slow going, passing through countless villages and packed with heavy goods vehicle. I passed through some scenic valleys and snow capped mountain as the landscape transitioned from the southern plain to the more hilly north.
Arriving in the small town of Biertan, german presence is tangible, not only German chain stores but also the local Saxon who settled back in 13th century. Along with German town names and the shopkeeper asking me to return the empty bottle in German. Continuing on to Copsa Mare, a sleepy village set in a valley and gentle wood fire smoke rising out of the chimneys was as idyllic as one could imagine. The guest house was beautifully decorated and next door was a communal dining area where the friendly Simone catered for my breakfast and dinner for the next two days.
The first dinner started with peppers, aubergine and onion dip and was sweet and flavoursome, served with some German oats thins in a French packaging. The carrot soup was tasty but a bit thin. And the roast pork with nicely stewed courgette and potatoes hit the spot perfectly although their portion is probably more like for 3 people than 1.
A relaxing and slow day followed, having woken up to an overnight snowfall that gave the village and surrounding even more atmosphere. A gentle walk up a muddy path to the Copsa Mare tree, where I had to develop a mud skating technique, gave a beautiful view over the village and the hills around. A short drive to Sighisoara, famous for its medieval citadel and the birthplace of Vlad, “The Impaler”, better known as Dracula. Returning to Copsa Mare after lunch for a stroll around and a relaxing afternoon in the guesthouse. Ready for another battle with dinner.
What looked exactly like smoked slices of cheese turns out to be “bacon”, but it should accurately described as slices of lard. One slice of which was more than enough. This was served with a subtly smoky aubergine dip. The “meat soup” was a milky meatball soup that was rustic and hearty, perfect for the surroundings and the roaring fire behind. The fact that the light flickered as the oven toggled itself on and off further added to the atmosphere. The gratin of polenta and cheese was beautifully seasoned but almost impossible for me to even try to make a dent on it, especially after that slice of “bacon”. The baked apple dessert showed the thoughtfulness of the menu after what was a heavy meal to say the least. The natural sweetness and the acidity of the apple soothed the stomach and refreshed the palate. I may not have been ready for more, but at least I was not suffering as much from over eating.
My greatest entertainment for the two nights were watching the two traditional fire stove and trying, or failing as the case may be, to get it going. For such a townie I am, I am fascinated by wood fire, and I can pretend I have a professional interest being a combustion engineer.
Another 6 hours of driving to Bucharest took in Bran castle and a failed attempt to find Peles Castle in Sinaia. The drive took in some spectacular mountain, still with a considerable amount of snow on it. The route is definitely faster with stretches that enables overtaking and a brand new motorway for the last leg of the journey. Bucharest is pleasant in the spring sunshine and modern and sophisticated compared to Sofia. The parliament building was certainly impressive and the central area of bars and restaurant were buzzing with tourists. And this is brings a pleasant end to this whirlwind tour of Bulgaria and Romania.