Sunday, October 01, 2006

Travel Angel Takes Vacation

How many times has this happened to you? Not wanting to almost miss the train again, I checked both the nice lady's printout AND the Sigisoara station board, and they both said 9:20. So I set the alarm, got ready in plenty of time, and headed out into the foggy morning for the fifteen minute walk to the station. I got there in plenty of time and then sat and waited for the train.

At 9:30 I found out that the train actually came at 10:20. So I sat there shivering in the Transylvanian fog, awaiting my carriage.

That meant that I didn't get back to Bucharest until 2:30. Which made a difference, since I had to check my e-mail. You see, the day before I went to reconfirm the car rental I had arranged for Bulgaria. And the e-mails kept being sent back, saying 'no such address'. So then I had to feverishly research more rental companies, the trouble being that my first one was for 19 euro a day, while 'name' companies wanted 60 euro a day. I had finally found one at 34 euro a day, but they had made some mistakes in the rental agreement they had sent back. So I had returned that for correction.

Now I was at the Bucharest train station, which meant that I had to go downtown, which meant that I walked over to take the subway. But it turned out that the subway network is totally nuts, the station maps were totally indecipherable, and many of the stations didn't even have signs in them. After going all the way around the city, I finally found a map that made sense, and that showed me that if I had just turned right at the beginning...

Anyway, now I was out on the street looking for an internet cafe, which The Book had said would be on every block. Twenty minutes later I asked a nice young man who wore huge glasses because he had been born with cataracts for directions, and he very nicely pulled out his Romanian Blackberry and tried for 20 minutes to try and access my e-mail. Finally he pointed me all the way back the way I had come.

When I finally got on line at 4:45 there were no messages from anyone.

So I walked around Bucharest for a couple of hours. How depressing. Maybe it was the 'Paris of the East' seventy years ago, but none of the buildings have been cleaned since then. Indeed, the whole country is a dump and the people are all in the dumps. I mean, I feel sorry for the little guys (and they are quite small), because they're really nice, but they all seem only too aware that they're living in a Blade Runner world.

I ended my tour by walking over to the gigantic Palace of the People, Bucharest's premier sight and dictator Cousecou's last big project. I'm all for megalomania, but this is just one big ugly building.

Anyway, it was back to the train station and my 11th night sleeping on a train.

We got into Sofia at 6:30 and, guess what, nobody was there. Any other day I could have gone around and found another deal, but this was Sunday morning. The big dream I had always had of driving around Bulgaria had become a cropper. Totally dejected, I checked my big bag and walked across the street to the bus station.

There was a bus leaving for Veliko Tarnovo in ten minutes, so I bought a ticket and got on. As we started off towards the east I tried to console myself. After all, the morning sun was rising like a red rubber ball.

But it was still kind of annoying as we hit the Bulgarian countryside, since finally here was some really beautiful scenery and totally driveable roads. It was all mountainous and pastoral, with little side roads going off into the unknown.

Okay, back to reality. We arrived in VT at eleven, and I ate something and then walked into the old town area. I had already fallen in love with all things Bulgaria, but, unfortunately, VT didn't remotely live up to its billing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Just rather boring buildings overlooking a half decent 'gorge'.

On the other hand, the medieval 'Fortress' at the edge of town, was pretty neat. Mostly a few old walls, the rest is a really pleasant parklike area with wide views of limestone hills on the horizon.

But that was about it for VT. I decided to move on.

The taxi dropped me off at the far bus station as the lone bus for Plovdiv was about ready to take off. So at least there would be little down time; we headed off over eastern US type 'mountains'.

I got into Plovdiv as the sun was setting, immediately found a hotel, and then set off to walk the city. I found their version of an 'Arbat', and I was immediately struck with how much less depressing it was than Romania. The people in Bulgaria, too, were... well, human. After gloomy Romania and Russia, where nobody shows ANY expression, let alone smiling, having people walk down the street showing a normal range of human emotions made me remember what a real world looked like.

And at the far end of their Arbat I turned right and headed up a steep heel to their Old Town. It was by no means ancient, but here was finally an Old Town that could hold its own in quaintness with the best of Western Europe. As I finally reached the top of the hill in the last light of day, and looked down on a moonlit 'uptown' Plovdiv, it was actually a magical moment.


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