Bulgaria (August 2005) (& a brief note about Romania)
Sadly, we didn't bike in Bulgaria except between hotels and the train and bus stations, as we used the train to arrive in Sofia from Serbia and hopped a bus to Thessalonki, Greece from Sofia. The information about road safety for bikes and accommodation availability just didn't add up to a pretty picture as we headed south to Istanbul from Serbia.
Putting bikes on the trains or buses is tricky. We were told "No" in Niš, Serbia when we asked about bikes on the train to Sofia, Bulgaria at the ticket counter. Bolstered by a tourist info man's "No problem" attitude, we did it anyway. He was right, there were few people on the train and we took up an entire 6 person compartment with no complaints. The conductor charged us the equivalent of a 3rd person's fare, which is a common price for 2 bikes. However, at the Bulgarian border we paid a second time for the bikes and a higher rate. We were thrilled just to be making the trip so paid without hesitation, not that the price seemed to be negotiable.
We took a side trip to Varna, Bulgaria from Sofia without the bikes. The seats on that train were reserved and it was packed, both on the weekend and weekday runs. There is no way we could have gotten bikes in the passenger compartment. There was however a baggage car and they likely could have traveled there. We were told that there were no baggage cars on the train from Sofia to Thessaloniki, Greece, so didn't even try to get the bikes on the train.
Two bus line clerks (for the MTT bus company) said we could put the bikes on at Sofia for Thessaloniki and at no extra charge. The bus drivers were not pleased however but finally allowed us to put them on. The gesture seemed to be "You can if you can make them fit." They didn't charge us for the bikes.
Time & Money
Like Greece, Bulgaria is an hour ahead of the rest of western and central Europe being GMT +2 hours.
Like in Serbia, don't count on being able to make online purchases with your credit card. Even with a US based credit card we were not able to make a purchase from a UK firm while in Serbia or Bulgaria
Inquire about the benefits of paying cash for things like hotel bills. In Sofia we arranged for a total of 6 nights of lodging through an agency and were told we would avoid the 20% VAT (value added tax) by paying in cash instead of charging it to a card. We've never heard of eluding VAT but happily forked over the cash. (Our credit card also charges another 2% anytime we use it overseas so we now only use cash obtained with our fee-free debit card).
Like Serbia, the prices in Bulgaria are on 2 different structures with food and transportation being cheap and lodging being expensive. We each ordered a salad, entree, and beverage at a vegetarian restaurant and the simple meal with tip was about $7 for the 2 of us. Modest dinners at other restaurants were about $15 for the 2 of us, including beverages and a tip.
Our plodding train ride from Niš to Sofia was under $8 each. A roundtrip train ticket for 1 person between Sofia and Varna (about 300 miles each way) was about $18.
But the outright tourist services like hotels are set at EU prices. On a lark we thought we'd check the rates at the Sheraton thinking we might get a steal but the basic rooms started over $300 for a double (the $64 VAT tax and $22/ person breakfast were additional charges). A good deal on a business-class hotel was $60-70 per night for and even the youth hostels weren't rock bottom prices.
Internet usage at great internet shops was a steal at about $1/hr and the 24 hour shops had bargain deals for 11 hrs of overnight usage for $3.60 (which we didn't use).
Bulgaria is gearing up to join the EU in 2007 and the hospitality industry is already quoting prices in Euros and happily accepts the currency.
We essentially never take taxis to save money and spare ourselves having to deal with rip-offs, but Bulgaria was an exception. Taxi rides in Sofia and Varna were often $1-2 for 2 people and luggage. We didn't have much trouble with the drivers taking advantage of us. To keep the prices down, ask your hotel to call the taxi and ask them for an approximate cost. When you get in the taxi, make sure the meter is on and insist that it be turned on if it isn't. Don't count on the driver speaking any English at all--have a map to point to where you are going and your destination written out in Cyrillic. Several didn't know where our new hotel was, so having the hotel's brochure with a sketch of the location was a huge help. For a tip, just round up.
Internet: both of these shops are business-customer-oriented (no teenage gamers or great clouds of cigarette smoke) with knowledgeable, English speaking staff and competitive prices.
Garibaldi Internet Cafe: www.garibaldicafe.net; 6 Graflgnatiev Str.; Garibaldi Square, tel 989 42 85, has Wifi
[SITE]: www.siteout.net; 45 Vitosha Bldv; tel 359 2 986 08 96, has Ethernet connection for laptops. (Yes, that really is the business's name and not a typo.)
RILA near the post office sells train tickets saving a trip to the train station for tickets and information.
Hotels and Travel Planning
We used the ZigZag Holidays Ltd. (www.zigzagbg.com; 20-V, Al. Stamboliiski Blvd; tel 359 2 980 51 02) and were pleased with their help (for a small fee). Through them we got a great discount at the Sveta Sofia Hotel in Sofia at 18 Pirotska Str., www.svetasofia-alexanders.com, tel: 003592 981 26 34 from outside Bulgaria. It's a newly renovated, centrally located, 3 star hotel with good beds, TV, air conditioning and mini-bar refrigerators. We were however surprised that the hotel would not extend our stay at the same discounted rate--we had show up in person at ZigZag and pay for a voucher for the additional days at the hotel. ZigZag also made our reservations for a 3 night stay in Varna over a busy weekend on short notice.
Bulgaria as a Destination: Qualified "Thumbs Up"
I certainly wouldn't put Bulgaria high on a "must see" list of destinations but if you were wanting to head east across the former Iron Curtain its a destination worth considering, though it is a bit rough around the edges for a relaxing trip or one in which you want to see a lot of things in a short period of time. Our visit to Bulgaria was essentially limited to seeing Sofia and Varna but we were impressed with the historical sites it has to offer. The museums in these 2 cities have unusual and generally well displayed finds. For history buffs I'd recommend the Archeology Museum in Sofia on Saborna Str. near the Presidency Building that Lonely Planet guidebook overlooks. On our next visit we'll make time to visit the Thracian tombs at Kazanlak, Perperikon and Sveshtari though the gold finds are in Sofia's History Museum (however they were out of the country on tour when we were in Bulgaria). The city of Plovdiv will also be on our list for next time.
The Black Sea resorts around Varna, like the Golden Sands, are huge destinations for 'package tourism' for sun-loving vacationers. As we are always trying to reduce our time in the sun, I'm hardly the person to compare Bulgaria with other sunny holiday spots but I am guessing that Bulgaria wouldn't get the highest marks.
Vacationers with an eye to skiing, hiking or birding should look into Bulgaria as a destination as the country's tourist bureau promotes those opportunities, as well as the country's many medieval monasteries.
We felt quite safe and at ease in Bulgaria, day and night The Cyrillic alphabet and the language combine to make communication harder than more western European countries.
Romania is a country we've struggled with visiting, with safety being the big concern. When in Rome in May of 2007 I briefly spoke with a Romanian woman living in Italy who consolidated what we'd heard and suspected. She was very quick to say it was a beautiful country and the people very kind, which we had also heard from our Romanian dental hygienist. When Bill asked if we'd be safe biking as a twosome, she was just as quick to give an unqualified "No." With a group, she said it would be fine. And yes, the hypothetical group of 6 we proposed was big enough. That settled it for us.