Bulgaria: Getting There it’s Natural Beauty, Markets and more…
Having flown many times between Crete and Greece mainland, I had learnt that there is the option to travel by KTEL bus and connection with the ANEK ferry service.
The bus network is pretty comprehensive and offers services connecting the majority of major cities located across mainland Greece and cities on the island of Crete.
However, it’s important to know that some of the bigger cities like Athens, Patra and Thessaloniki may have more than one bus station. It’s also important to know that many smaller villages along bus routes, don’t have a designated bus station and is more likely that the bus stop is outside a local kafeneio (traditional coffee house), that also doubles as a booking office.
Tickets are available for purchase with cash and cards. When buying your bus ticket, you ticket shows an allocated seat number, however in some cases is ignored by locals. I also found that you’re unable to purchase tickets between future destinations. You need to purchase your departure destination ticket, from the departure point bus station for your next arrival destination as one booking, for that days travel. When you make a break in travel, you need to purchase your next departure/arrival ticket from the departure point bus station.
Something else to be mindful of is University students holiday periods. During heavy holiday periods and University students leaving and/or returning to the many different Universities across Greece; buses are crowded and large suitcases may be stacked along the bus isle.
Greece has an extensive ferry network, and in many cases is the only option of travelling between many of the islands. Schedules are affected by poor weather conditions resulting in delays and rescheduled services. It’s better to be safe on land and delayed than travelling in stormy seas.
When you purchase a ferry ticket, you are required to provide a mobile contact number should your scheduled departure change; this is how you will be advised. This is a standard consideration during the winter months when poor weather is a regular occurrence.
A number of ferry service providers operate within Greece, however I learn that ANEK ferries are the only service provider that operate in conjunction with the KTEL bus services between Crete and Greece mainland.
When travelling between Crete and (Piraeus Port, Athens) Greece mainland route there are options to sit up and share a common space or book a four, two shared cabin, or a private cabin. Many people only book the sit option and can be found sleeping anywhere on the floors and waterways of the boat.
I’m scheduled to leave from Chania bus station at 8.00pm, for a connecting ferry service departure at 10.00pm and reconnecting with the bus service at Piraeus Port at 6.00am the following day to arrive in Thessaloniki around midday. I also had plans to catch a connecting bus from Thessaloniki to Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria at 2.00pm.
So, what happens when a stormy night delays a bus, an overnight ferry service between Chania and Souda Bay (Crete) and Piraeus Port, Athens then onward to Thessaloniki, and the next connecting bus services to Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria is 5 ½ hours later?
A day out on the Sea of Crete brings an opportunity to see the mid-morning departure as the ferry travels through the natural harbour of Souda Bay that is formed between the Akrotiri peninsula and Cape Drapano, before crossing the open sea and arriving at Piraeus Port, Athens.
Arriving in Piraeus Port, just on dust and long journey ahead to Thessaloniki.
Dropping off passengers’ enroute and learning that all the KTEL bus stations across Greece close at 11.00pm on Christmas Eve.
Arriving at the Macedonia (KTEL) Intercity bus station in Thessaloniki at 2.45am and it’s closed. There just happened to be one local bus parked at the bus station. I learn that the bus station doesn’t open until 5.00am; so the very kind bus driver tells me to get on his bus and go for a ride to the airport (an hour away) and then an hour back to return to the bus station. The kindness of strangers never ceases to amaze me, and I am always and forever grateful. Another three hour wait before any employees are at work and I can at last purchase a ticket to Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria with Arda Tur that leaves 10mins later. Learn more about the destinations offered with Arda Tur bus lines here.
A comfortable and scenic four hour journey and a required stop at Kulata (BG – Кулата); the small village in the Petrich Municipality of the Blagoevgrad Province and the major border checkpoint on the Greece-Bulgarian border.
There are a number of great accommodation options, if you’re looking to stay in Blagoevgrad (BG – Благоевград), as a base and take the opportunity to do some great day trips as I did on this visit. Check here for accommodation in Blagoevgrad.
Rupite Village – Natural Hot Springs
I’d heard about the natural open air hot springs about one hour drive south of Blagoevgrad, close to the small village of Rupite (BG – Pупите) and was very keen to experience.
The natural hot springs are approx. 2km from the village of Rupite and lie at the foot of Kozhuh Mountain, an extinct volcano. In the early 1960s a small area (approx. 0.4 hectares) was declared a natural landmark. With the protected area covering the healing mineral springs. There is a small area closed off for paying public (and a very minimal entry fee) who prefer to relax in separate male and female bathing area. There is also a shared swimming pool, available between the months of April – September.
However, if you’re like me I was keen to experience the opened air natural hot springs, nestled in the foothills of the surrounding snow-capped mountains and the coldness of a winter’s morning.
The water temperate is around 74°c with a continuous flow of approx. 35 l/sec. Sounds hot, however the ingenious locals use various cloth material to close off or reduce the flow of hot water as it cascades through each natural pool.
A blissful, relaxing and memorable experience and well worth spending an hour or more soaking up the healing waters.
Rupite Village – St Petka of Bulgaria, Memorial Temple
A short 15 min walk or 5 min drive from the Rupite Village Hot Springs you’ll find the Memorial Temple; St Petka of Bulgaria. The church was built in 1994 from money provided by the prophet Vanga, born as Vangeliya Gushterova in 1911 and died in 1996. Throughout the now manicured grounds of the “Vanga Complex”, one can visit the small museum showing photos of the prophet’s life and her modest home where she lived her last years and meet with people seeking her help. Spend time relaxing in one of the garden gazebos, or have a picnic of the grass lawns.
There is also a small pond with turtles and guinea fowls. Vanga’s grave is located close to the non-Orthodox architecturally designed church with its unique and interesting artistic decorations and icon paintings. Created by a well-known Bulgarian artist Svetlin Rusev. There is also a very large cross embedded into the slope of the Kozhuh Mountain and enclosed with a gated area (seen as you enter and leave the natural hot springs), that was built at the request of the late prophet.
According to local legend, during her younger days Vanga lost her eye sight in a storm and subsequently had her first vision, unlocking what is said to be her phenomenal prophecies. Originally, she lived in the small village of Rupite, however her relatives have said that the area around the natural hot springs provided a healing energy source and she collected her powers from this. It is further said, that during her life she made thousands of prophecies which came true of local and global events, natural disasters and wars, and personal fates of the many that came to her for guidance. The prophet Vanga is well known by Bulgarian people and attracts thousands of worshipers and tourists from many other countries across the world, because of its connection to prophet Vanga.
Rupite Village – Ancient City of Heraclea Sintica
The sign posting on the dirt road to the natural hot springs also shows a sign post to the Ancient City of Heraclea Sintica, (BG – Хераклея Синтика, ((Ancient GR – Ἡράκλεια Σιντική)). However, no other signs around the hot springs provided any further direction. So, I approached the attendant at the paid bathing area to ask for direction. Speaking different languages proved to be a challenge, however he kindly called a friend who was a native English speaker and I was given directions to follow the dry riverbed of the Struma River.
I learn that the ancient Greek polis was built by Philip II, father of Alexander the Great of (formerly known) Macedon. The ancient Macedonians (under Hellenistic Greek) and was located in Thracian lands on the right bank of the Struma River at the foot of the volcanic Kozhuh Mountain. All I found was a section of the ancient Roman city wall from the II – IV century AD.
Along with a site of an ancient dwelling quarter III BC – IV AD and an early Christian Necropolis V – VI century AD.
I have since learnt that there is another ancient site located closer to the township of Petrich where in 2002 there was the discovery of an ancient inscription between the Emperor Galerius and Caesar Maximinus II from 308AD, amongst other finds.
Kresna Township – Blagoevgrad Province
The road travelled by many between Blagoevgrad to and from the Rupite hot springs takes you through the picturesque and narrow valley of the Kresna Gorge (BG – Кресненското дефиле). This is also the main road from Blagoevgrad to Kulata (border crossing). The 17 km stretch of road runs alongside the Struma River, passing through rocky and steep banks, along with the railway line that zigzags and disappears through hillside tunnels.
Kresna is an interesting and eclectic mix. There is a small local market that operates two or three days a weeks, providing produce grown and preserved by locals from their personal gardens. There are also a number of street food stalls that line either side a section of the road, serving chicken or pork grilled over hot coals, than sandwiched between a grilled bread roll. Be daring, and add some prepared salads, including potato salad, gherkin salad etc. Pork is more the local preference and can also be bought as salami type preserved sausage (pictured).
Pirin Mountain Range – Blagoevgrad Province
An alternative option to return to Blagoevgrad after a visit to the Rupite natural hot springs is to drive the short journey to Kulata (BG – Кулата). From here take the picturesque road through the Pirin (BG – Пирин) mountain range along route 198 to Gotse Delchev, (BG – Гоце Делчев); then connecting with route 19.
Much of this scenic drive through the Pirin mountain range takes you through the Pirin National Park and UNESCO World Heritage site.
Route 19 passes through a number of small and picturesque villages nestled high in the mountains.
There is also the smaller township and ski resort of Dobrinishte (BG – Добринище) and the larger township of Bansko (BG – Банско) and popular ski resort, located at the foot of the Pirin Mountains.
Bansko (Ski Resort) – Blagoevgrad Province
Located at the foothills of the Pirin mountains, lies the township of Bansko, (BG – Банско) that has fast grown to become one of Bulgaria’s top tourist destinations. It’s also fast becoming one of Eastern Europe’s more popular ski resort locations.
As a ski resort location, Bansko is an ideal location for snow skiing and snowboarding. There’s an abundance of accommodation choice, should you be looking to stay and enjoy the ski sloops. Check here for accommodation in Bansko.
There’s also an abundant supply of traditional restaurants; known as mehana, bars, cafes, creperies, fresh juice shops, clothing boutiques, shoe stores, ski clothing stores, traditional ceramic wares and souvenirs, mini markets, car rental business and currency exchange vendors on every other corner.
However, for the non-snow skiers and snow boarders Bansko’s location in the Razlog Valley boasts an abundant supply of water reserve flowing from the many tributaries from the Mesta River and pristine glacial lakes. Along with many hot springs in and around the surrounding.
Bansko old town also provides an insight to the areas rich and historic past. Archaeological evidence shows that inhabitants of the Bansko and the Razlog Valley date back to 100BC and periods of the Roman Empire.
Bansko as part of the Byzantine (Eastern Roman Empire) from 811AD was passed back and forth between the Byzantine rulers and Bulgaria for a number of centuries. In the late 14th century, the Ottoman Empire conquest of a number of smaller kingdoms emerged following the breakdown of the Bulgarian Empire, lasting 500 years; until liberation in 1878.
Roaming the lanes of Bansko Old Town, I noticed a number of large black bows on the front doors of some houses. I learn that the black bow symbolises remembrance and morning for a member of the family home that has passed. There is no set time for displaying the black bow; this is completely at the discretion of the family.
Walking down the main pedestrian only thoroughfare of Bansko Old Town is a very modern monument located in Vazrajdane square. The Paisiy Hilendarski Monument, was built in 1976 on the site that is believed to be the former residence of the Bulgarian philosopher and commentates his ideas for national self-awareness and liberation from the Ottoman occupation.
Further along and surrounded by a high enclosed wall, is a simple and well maintained garden surrounding the church of “Sveta Troitsa” – Saint Trinity, a Bulgarian Orthodox Christian church.
The humble exterior, comprising 1.1 metre thick walls guides you past the main entrance to enter via a side door where you step inside the exquisite interior.
Thick timber beams and columns painted in bright colours, a wall of frames paintings and gold gilded frames glistens with the lights from the chandeliers.
The Saint Trinity church commenced construction in 1810 during the Ottoman rule by the people of Bansko. The church founders paid heavy taxes to the Ottoman rulers during the subsequent 40/45 years before the church and Bell Tower were completed.
Whilst roaming Bansko Old Town the picturesque sight of he snow-capped mountains are visible in every direction (during the winter months).
This combined with the uniquely designed buildings of the historic old town, makes for a scenic walk back to the newer area of town.
Blagoevgrad – Saturday Morning Markets
If you’re in Blagoevgrad on a Saturday, it’s worth making a visit to the local farmers markets in the morning.
Here you’ll find an amazing selection of locally grown seasonal products by small home grown small backyard farmers.
Various jars containing home made fermented pickled vegetables are available, as are fresh seasonal fruit, vegetables, local herbs, honey and bees wax. Even whole picked cabbage is available, along with various other produce.
Walk back through the central boulevard and you might just find a street vendor selling Bulgarian, Turkish influenced loukoumi (a sweet treat, similar to Turkish delight), in every flavour.
Sofia – Arabic Influence and Zhenski Pazar
It was a beautiful clear blue sky day with views across to the snow-capped mountains as we headed to Sofia for the day.
Having visited many of the wonders and historic sites of Bulgaria’s capital on my first trip to Sofia; this time I had the joy of visiting the local Arabic neighbourhood – Car Simeon.
One has a sense of being in the Middle-East as you roam the lanes of Car Simeon and the scents of Arabic spices fill the air. There are many small store owners lining the old cobbled stone lanes selling rice, a huge variety of spices, flax and sunflower seed and other produce sold by weight.
Amazing Arabic bakeries, making and selling hot pita bread then sprinkled with spices. Halal butchers are readily available. Barbershops with the old craft of shaving with flick straight razor are still masterfully practiced. Along with handmade Arabic soaps a heavenly scent and texture. Many forms of traditional wares are also found, including hookah (an oriental tobacco pipe with a long, flexible tube which draws the smoke through water contained in the bowl). This Middle Eastern cultured neighbourhood continues to grow with the increasing number of immigrants moving to Bulgaria.
This neighbourhood, however is well known for being the home to Sofia’s largest and busiest market – Zenski Pazar, (BG – Зенски пазар) Ladies Market. The 140 year old market is a well worth a visit. It began at the end of the 19th century and rapidly grew into the most influential and prominent trading centre of the city.
Stalls of all kinds are here to feast your senses. Seasonal fresh local fruit and vegetables, cheese, cured meat, dried nuts and of course a choice of spices are readily available.
Bulgarian pottery, traditional clothing, homemade socks and locally made woolen shawls and blankets. Local village women sell homemade pickles, jams and chutneys sealed in glass jars with cloth and ribbon. Antique and brik a brak dealers sell wares from pre-socialist and socialist times. Honey, wine, plumbing suppliers and the odd touristy memorabilia stores to immerse yourself in the nations cultural.
Originally the stall owners at the market were only women, hence its name ‘Ladies Market’. However, sellers of both gender now share and sell their produce and wares following a market review in 2014, looking to make the market more inclusive and open to support tourism.
With the richness and abundant essence of spices filling the area, we went in search of a restaurant serving Arabic food to fulfill are taste buds desires. The opportunity to try a local Iraqi restaurant presented.
Diwan Iraqi restaurant, located on a corner close to the main thoroughfare of the bustling pedestrian only market with a simple setting, simple menu, and simply seriously delicious food and great value.
The tastiest hummus I’ve eaten, chicken Biryani rice and orchha vegetable in a tomato base, finished with an Arabic tea.
The drive back to Blagoevgrad with a beautiful crescent Moon lighting up the clear night sky and a heart full of wonder having had an enriching day learning more of Bulgaria’s richness and cultural history.
Thinking about visiting Sofia, you can check accommodation choice here.
Blagoevgrad – Winter Rituals and Traditions Surva Festival
On my last day in Blagoevgrad, I was walking to the bus station to purchase a ticket to Thessaloniki (Greece), when I heard lots of festive sounds. To my delight and surprise, I then witnessed a procession of the traditional Surva, (BG – Сурва) Festival.
In ancient Bulgaria pagan times, the locals would gather wearing masks and traditional costumes believed to ward off evil and provide protection and a successful harvest along with good health and fertility for both people ad farm animals.
Many of these pagan rituals have later been incorporated into Christianity, and are still preformed during the holidays of Christmas/New Year and Easter by locals in many eastern Bulgarian villages and towns. Rituals held around the New Year are known as Surva and those performed during Easter are known as Kukeri, (BG – Кукери).
The procession of traditionally clothed single men and women chant loudly as they make their way through the streets, in a display of warding off evil. While others dressed in traditional dancer costumes add to the procession with colour and music. With others dressed as grotesque evil.
I learn that there are two scenarios relating to the legend of this ritual. One that dates back to the first Bulgarian Empire during the 7th century, with the second further back to Thracian times.
What a truly wonderful and unexpected surprise on my last day in Bulgaria…for now.
Read more about Bulgaria, the land of wonders and aromatic rose valley, here.
Bulgaria really has a lot to offer and see.
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This blog is the second in a series of posts sharing the wonders of Bulgari. Read and learn Bulgaria’s Aromatic Rose Valley here. Add a Bulgaria guide book to your collection here. I hope you enjoy reading and that I bring some inspiration (if needed) to visit this amazing and magical part of the world.
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