Copyright © 1998 David C. Hay
V. The Black Sea
I had planned to go to Vienna and Yugoslavia, but back in Warsaw, my friend Izabella suggested that I check out Varna on the Black Sea. Apparently it is a popular summer vacation spot in the East and she said it was great fun. That's where she was going to be.
To me this was unthinkable. The Black Sea? That was way past the place on my map marked "Here be Dragons". I remember it from my days of reading about the Roman Empire. I couldn't imagine that a real person could really go there. Wasn't The Crimea there?
No problem, she said. In Budapest you just buy a train ticket.
It can't be that easy.
It turned out that it was that easy. Well, by Eastern European standards
it was easy. (In the socialist lands, it was
never "easy" to buy an international train ticket.) It only took a couple
of hours before I had a ticket to Varna. First class, at that!
(It wasn't even expensive!)
The train to Varna
The ride took the day to get through Hungary, the night through Romania, and the next morning I was toodling through Bulgaria. It was fascinating to look out the window to the back of the train as it rounded a curve. The train (called the "South Orient Express") seemed to extend back forever, all of it absolutely jammed with young vacationers. I was very grateful for that first class ticket.
The villages in Bulgaria haven't changed significantly since the middle
ages. Each was in a scenic valley – a collection of small houses with
thatched roofs, the odd cow, and people dressed like the characters in
fairy tales. I will always hold in my head a picture of one scene: a
plump, older woman was sitting in the yard in front of her house. Her
long dress was spread on the ground around her, and she was wearing an
apron and a scarf over her head. Not too far from her was a cow, with
a piece of rope around its neck, dragging along behind, completely
unattached. She was just sitting there, quietly. The cow was peacefully
munching on the grass. If ever there was a picture of tranquility, that
Speaking of tranquility, apparently there isn't a lot to do in these
villages. The train's rolling through town was clearly the big event of
the day, and the villagers all came out to greet it. So, there I was,
thousands of miles from home, rolling through Bulgaria, standing at the
open window of the train — and all of the citizenry was waving at me in
welcome to their country! This was quite all right, thank you.
Breathtaking is what it was.
In general, when I met people who spoke English, they spoke with varying degrees of Slavic accents. Those who were better at the language spoke with a touch of a British accent, since that was the kind of English they were taught. I was quite surprised, therefore when, on the train, I heard a distinctly American phrase from a couple of compartments down. I took the opportunity to follow it, and met a most unusual young woman. It turns out that she had set out to learn American English, and had been successful — sort of. The problem, which I learned as I listened to her further, was that she got the pronunciation from one part of the country, the phrasing from another, and the rhythm and melody from a third. It was truly a bizarre effect. I had never realized that a regional dialect is composed of so many elements. Mix and match them and the effect is truly awful.
Budapest to Varna
Map copyright © National Geographic Society
Things took a decided turn for the worse when I got to Varna. Izabella was
to meet me at the train, but when I arrived, she was nowhere to be found!
Let me see if I've got this straight: I am now standing by myself in a
train station in deepest Bulgaria, where no one speaks any English at all,
and I don't speak Bulgarian. Among other things, I have now graduated
from Introductory Survival to the Intermediate Course. You see, in all
the other countries where I have been, I could at least read the signs!
Bulgaria, however, uses the Cyrillic (what we know as the Russian)
I know no one here and I have no place to go.
And I am a very long way from home!
(Or words to that effect.)
Ok, Hay, now you've really done it!
So now whatcha gonna do?
Fortunately I had been traveling long enough that I was kind of
used to standing around train stations by myself, so the
fact that I was in seriously deep trouble didn't really sink
in. After all, Izabella had provided for this eventuality by writing
directions in my journal. So I figured that all I had to do was to try
to follow them.
The problem was that she actually wrote two sets of directions. The first
were instructions for taking the bus to the neighborhood where she would be,
and the second was the address in Varna of a lady who would know exactly
where she was.
The two sets of instructions were next to each other, however,
and I had forgotten that they constituted two things. I thought it was
one set of instructions. So I would show the book to someone who would
point in a direction. I would then wander off in that direction until I
showed it to someone else who directed me in the opposite direction. This
silliness progressed for an hour or so, until I found a fellow who actually
spoke English. He clarified my problem (making me feel incredibly foolish),
and took me to the address of Izabella's friend.
Of course this year, the friend decided not to vacation in Varna.
So, the fellow directed me to the bus. The instructions were that I
should take the bus up the coast until I saw a sign that looked like the
chicken scratches she had written.
Well, I missed it.
So, after a while I gave up and got off the bus, looking for some kind of
tourist center. Or help of any kind. I was told that to find the tourist
center I should get back on the bus and go back a couple of stops
in the direction from which I had just come. Apparently it wasn't quite
as many stops as I took, and I went past it again. So I then had to take
the bus back forward again. I thus proceeded heuristically (that means
"back and forth") for several hours, until I finally found it.
(It turns out that it was in the woods, back away from the highway, which
is why I didn't see it before.)
When I walked through the door, my ears were greeted with a distinctly New York accent: "Do you know where I could find a room?"
It turns out the fellow worked three floors above me at NYU!
First, the Hotel
This guy was smarter than I was. He'd hired a taxi. The lady at the
tourist center suggested that we continue up the coast to Albena, a new
town that was built specifically to accommodate tourists. We did so,
and discovered a magnificent brand new resort city on the beach. The entire
complex looked to have been built in the last few years, with a dozen or so
hotels, shops, restaurants -- and a magnificent beach!
We looked around for a while, found the hotel center, and asked for a room.
As it happened, one of the hotels had just been completed and a room was available, but only for two nights. A group was expected on Friday.
Sounded ok to us, so we took it.
For the princely sum of $5.00 per night, we were in a brand new room, literally on the beach. That is, you could jump over the balcony railing and be standing on the beach. Not too shabby.
An Albena Hotel
(Late that night, when the beach was empty, I went skinny-dipping in the Black Sea. It was wonderfully warm and, well, black. I think that everybody should go skinny-dipping in the Black Sea once in his life.)
This arrangement meant that for the entire next day I did not have to cope.
This was good, since by now, my cope was pretty well broken. I lay on the
beach, flirted with some German girls (it was made abundantly clear to me
that Bulgarian girls were not available to strangers), and at one point was even ambitious enough to wander back down the coast to Varna.
Varna is an incredible city. I had never heard of it before. (It was actually kind of embarrassing the number of quite significant places I had never heard of before this trip.)
It seems that this was where Jason stopped on his way to find the Golden
Fleece. Perseus had his spat with Medea over on the other side of the pond.
This was the home of the Phoenicians. I remember reading about
them, but it never occurred to me that they were from a real place. We're
talking seriously old!
Cathedral of the Assumption, Varna
The city sits in a natural harbor formed by a piece of land that juts out in a spectacularly beautiful curve. If you studied geography and tried to imagine what a natural harbor should look like, this was it. The city in its setting is quite beautiful, as is the coastline to the north.
In general, Bulgarians (in metropolitan Varna, at least) were not nearly
as friendly as their northern neighbors. In fairness, this was a tourist
area, and they were clearly tired of tourists, but the Bulgarian
temperament in general didn't strike me as being all that warm to begin
I did meet a nice young woman on the bus who was quite friendly, and we
arranged to meet on the beach later in the day. But when the time came,
she was with her family and it was clear that she was not available for a
Second, the Bungalow
The next day my New York friend took off for parts unknown. Now I had to figure out what to do next. I didn't actually know.
I wanted to go to Istanbul, which wasn't that far down the coast. I thought it would be a kick to get a deck chair on a freighter, but upon checking I learned that the only boat going my way in the next week or so was a Russian cruise ship. That would cost me $70.00, which was about a week's allowance for me. Moreover, it wasn't entirely clear that by coming from Bulgaria I would be allowed to stay in Istanbul. In general, if you came to Istanbul from Bulgaria, you were required to go back.
The building that held the ticket offices for the trains in Varna was a not very large box which was wall to wall sweaty people. Given my experiences buying train tickets in Eastern Europe, I couldn't really face that.
Besides, I kind of wanted to stay a little longer.
Now realize that this was the place where everyone in Eastern Europe came for vacation. In principle, if you hadn't booked a room last March, there were no rooms available.
Well, actually — problem. First of all, the hotel office was manned by
one little old lady who only spoke Bulgarian. Not even French or German!
At one point I got to talking to a German fellow who had a Czech girlfriend
who spoke Russian. She was actually able to find out something!
Unfortunately, what she found out was that — there were no rooms available.
Like I said, no problem.
In retrospect I find it difficult to believe I actually pulled off what I
did. My U.S. self would never have had the moxie to do this: I met up
with two men and a woman from East Berlin who were in the process of
renting two bungalows up on the nearby hillside. Even though they didn't
really speak English very well, I managed to con them into letting me rent
the fourth bed. It did require me to sign up for a week, but the prospect
of not having to go anywhere for that long appealed to me greatly.
I'll cruise the Greek islands next time.
So, I lay on the beach, wandered around Varna, and finally met a Polish family who kind of took me in.
(It was funny. By now, whenever I met Polish people I said "Yes! People from home!")
The family included a seventeen-year old girl who had an interesting
attitude towards Russians. Bulgaria was psychologically much closer to
the Soviet Union than any of the other countries I had been in. At one
place on the beach was a "Soviet-Bulgarian Friendship Club". She found it
as exotic as I did to see real Russians, and would point to them
conspiratorially. "Those are Russians over there!"
Even though I had the room for a week, the aggravation of my arrival and the fact that I'd now been away from home for a very long time, left me not really appreciative of Bulgaria. I was tired and fed up and I just wanted to go home!
This was a pity, since the Bulgarian coast is incredibly beautiful. There's the sea, the beach and the rocky cliffs. The cliffs are not as precipitous as Big Sur, but they are as lovely in their own way. The coast road is cut into the cliffs, so it provides a great view of the water.
The Beach at Albena
At one point I was walking along the coast highway and I came across a large sign consisting of a red circle with a white bar across it. It looked familiar, but since it had no text on it, I took a minute to decode it as a "Do not enter" sign. Just as I did, however, a white Mercedes came up the road and zipped right in.
Hmm. This must be an interesting road, I surmised. So I wandered down it towards the sea. Not surprisingly, a bit further down I came across a guard house and a gate across the road. I decided I had now been brave enough and would look for Cincinnati elsewhere.
Eventually I learned that this was the summer home of the Chairman of the Bulgarian Communist Party. Oh, well. Maybe I'll call on him another time.
Learning the Cyrillic alphabet was a lot of fun. It was created by the
monk Cyril in the middle ages from a combination of Roman, Greek, and
some miscellaneous (Hebrew? Armenian?) other alphabets. One evening I
was particularly hungry, and while there were a number of establishments
labeled "PECTOPAH", I couldn't find any restaurants. Only later did I
learn that the "P" in Cyrillic is really from the Greek rho, or "R". "C"
takes the "S" pronunciation from the west, and "H" is, for reasons I never
discovered, the letter "N". My "PECTOPAH" was really "RESTORAN". I had
been standing next to restaurants all along.
Later in the week I decided to try once again to find Izabella. I found a sign that looked sort of like what she wrote and got off the bus. There wasn't much there, but I did find a place that looked like a kind of residential hotel. I asked after her and finally found someone who pointed me to her cabin. As it happens, she wasn't there, so I went down to the beach to see if perhaps she was there.
Now this was a continuation of my two month trip, so when I saw her walking up the beach, I didn't think anything of it. She, on the other hand, was a thousand miles from home and on vacation, so to see someone she last saw in Warsaw was a bit of a shock. This was amusing.
It turns out that she had indeed waited for my train. It was, however, some three hours late, and of course no one in the station could tell her exactly when it would arrive. Finally she got hungry and went for a bite to eat. Then it arrived. When she returned, she saw it — but I was nowhere to be seen. She went to her friend's house but she got there just after I had been there.
This was not to be.
(Parenthetical comment: You should know that when you are in foreign lands for as long as I was, Coca Cola is a truly wonderful thing. It is a link to sanity.)
Sofia and out
After my week, I was again confronted with the problem of what to do next. On one of my visits to Varna, I had noticed an airline ticket office across the street from the train station. I had been doing pretty well on my budget, so I decided to give it a try. There was a bit of a line, but the setting was not unpleasant, so I took my place.
When I got to the ticket agent I told her that I would like to buy a ticket.
"I don't really care. What have you got?"
As it happens the only place you could fly to was Sofia, the Bulgarian
capital. It was not terribly expensive, so I ordered up a ticket.
It was fun trying to memorize what the sign on the bus to the airport
would look like. But I got there without incident. The plane was a Soviet
version of a DC-6, and the boarding process consisted of a large mass of
people at the bottom of the stairway elbowing each other to get on.
The flight wasn't too bad, although I really don't like flying in airplanes that rattle.
From Sofia I intended to take the train to Istanbul. So, from the airport
I took the bus into the "Centrum" and looked for the train station.
Except that it wasn't there. Asking directions in Sophia was a challenge,
because I found no one who spoke English. How do you say "train station" in sign language? Things were made more complicated by the fact that in Bulgaria nodding of the head means "no", and shaking the head means "yes".
I finally found a kiosk where I could buy a map and discovered that the
train station was in fact some blocks over that way. So, I made my way there.
For a change, buying a ticket turned out to be remarkably easy. The first line I got into turned out to be the line for buying tickets to Istanbul. The fellow behind me who wanted to go to Yugoslavia was out of luck, but I got my ticket in less than an hour. An hour after that I was on a train heading out of the East.
Please understand that I had a very rich set of experiences in the
socialist lands — ones that I will always treasure. But you should also
be aware that traveling there was very hard work. Especially doing it on
the cheap as I was. From the lines for train tickets to the lack of familiar food, after a month and a half, I was getting really hungry for a Big Mac. When I was on the train heading out, I felt very good indeed.
Varna to Istanbul
Map copyright © National Geographic Society
I was ready.