|Bulgaria's Black Sea|
Date: August 12-19, 2021
In mid August 2021 I took a bit of a last minute, not exactly timing-wise optimal (due to bunch of past due work) trip to Bulgaria. See, my mom recently retired at the early age of 62. She has been living in Prague for the past 10 or so years, and calculated that between the social security payments from Slovakia, USA, and the Czech Republic, she will collect at least enough to replace her salary. It simply didn't make sense to keep working, especially given her job involved interacting with the public, which in the age of COVID carries risks. Her salary was never high, and basically just covered basic living expenses. Between Prague's high cost of living, the ever increasing rent prices, and the often cloudy weather, it made sense to move. She had always wanted to live near a sea, and started looking at Bulgaria as a possibility. Prior to this, I had no idea how affordable, at least to somebody from the "west", Bulgarian real estate can be. Especially along the coast, it is not difficult to find apartments listed around €30,000. Many of these are in "aparthotels", which are essentially apartment properties with a pool and often concessions such as a pool bar or an onsite restaurant, and featuring a reception that can accomodate guest check in and out. These apartments are often purchased by foreigners as investment properties to be rented out to vacationers during the summer months. And Europeans love spending their summers sunbathing! I grew up in the former communist Czechoslovakia where international travel was limited to other countries in the Eastern bloc. Bulgaria was the most accessible beach destination during those times. I spent two summers there as a child, once with my mom in Varna, and another time with my grandma in Burgas. In fact, prior to moving to the USA, Bulgaria's Black Sea was the only salty body of water I have ever been to. Unfortunately, it seems that Bulgaria has not completely shaken off this image of a "Red Riviera", as tourism is still mainly driven by visitors from the former Eastern bloc countries as well as Russia. Western tourists, along with well-off inhabitants of countries like my native Slovakia, seem to prefer vacations in Croatia, France, or Spain. But what a mistake! I had the most wonderful time. Bulgarian beaches are spectacular, there is a multitude of historical sites, further inland the country offers great hiking, and best of all, everything is so cheap! No wonder Bulgaria is becoming a popular destination with digital nomads.
My mom found an apartment in Lozenets, which is a small sea-side village about 50 minutes south of Burgas and about the same distance north of Turkey. Burgas is the southern of the two major cities along the Black Sea coast (the other, Varna, is near the northern border with Romania). The idea was to meet in Burgas. Getting there was easy for my mom given the multitude of direct flights from all major European cities, including Prague. For me reaching Burgas involved a longer and more complicated journey. Despite Istanbul being near by, there doesn't appear to be a direct flight between the two cities. The cheapest option (at least limited to United / Star Alliance planes) was to fly to Sofia (Bulgaria's capital) and from there, take a flight on a separate reservation with Bulgaria Air. The flight to Sofia had a layover in Frankfurt as it was operated by Lufthansa. I could have actually skipped Sofia completely, and just taken a flight to Burgas from Germany. But due to Germany having particularly strict COVID restrictions, I figured it was better to just transit through Germany on the same reservation so I don't accidentally get stuck there. As long as I get to Bulgaria, I figured, I can just drive to the sea if for some reason I miss my connection.
I left my house at noon on a Lyft. This got me to LAX in just enough time to grab a COVID test. The test was not strictly required, as a vaccination card seemed to be sufficient to transit Germany, but I figured to get one just in case. Furthermore, my mom never got vaccinated and I didn't want to be responsible for sending her to a hospital. I then got in line to check in at the Lufthansa counter. After passing security I had just enough time to grab coffee before boarding the flight. Possibly due to some pricing fluke given a booking only 2 weeks before departure (or because I landed on Friday the 13th?), Premium Economy seating was cheaper than flying in the regular economy. No complaints! Premium economy comes with larger seats and presumably better food offerings. This was my first time ever flying in this category class.
When I got to my seat, there was another passenger in the window seat. However, prior to take off, he moved to a different seat in one of the completely empty rows in the middle section. It's possible this guy was just sitting there to take pictures, as during my seat selection, the seat was marked as empty. We were then off. The flight to Europe was on a Boeing 747. United had retired these several years ago and this was my first time flying a 747 in years. Just like when flying to Hong Kong, this plane seemed like a clunker. I guess that's how they are. During the take off, the whole plane shook violently. It must take a lot of force to lift off the massive beast off the ground! You can notice and hear the shaking in the video below. One cool feature was that we could watch a forward and a downward camera view from our seat TV screen. Once in the air, the 12 hour flight was quite uneventful. We got offered dinner shortly after take off. After that, many passengers slept but I failed to do so. I really admire people who can sleep, sitting, on airplanes. I probably got only about 2 hours of napping during the entire nearly 24 hour journey. Before landing we were offered breakfast. The food was perfectly satisfactory. I tried to get some writing done but didn't make much progress on that either. To me, flying is such a waste of time. I can't sleep, but can't work either, as I tend to get kind of groggy likely due to the lower air pressure and the dim lighting. So I just read and then watched terrible recent Star Trek movies.
In Frankfurt I had about 2 hours to make my connection. There wasn't much of a line for the passport control so I had plenty of time. I also only had a carry on so I didn't have to deal with any bag transfer issues. The flight to Sofia was about 2 hours long. Before landing, we flew over neat looking mountains. I was sitting on the left side and as such only got to see the suburbs as the downtown was on our right during the approach. In Sofia, I had 4 hours until my next flight. This airport is quite tiny. Basically, after landing, and going through the passport check (Bulgaria is not in EU's Shengen Zone), I found myself on the public side of the terminal. The flight to Burgas departed from Gate D, which turned out to be essentially a small room with its own security check that doesn't even open until about 1 hour before departure. Until then, there wasn't really anything to do besides lounging around in the only bar/cafe that was open. This was the first time I took money out of the ATM. Bulgaria currency is called the lev, with $1 equaling 1.67 lev at this time. Most places take credit cards with some establishments actually defaulting to a card payment. This was a nice surprise, as Europe tends to be much more cash-based society than the US. I grabbed a "Tuborg" beer and a bag of chips.
I didn't get to Burgas until 8:30 pm. I had a car reservation with Sixt that I originally made for the following day. The idea was to take a taxi back to the airport the next morning and pick up the car during normal operating hours. The agent however suggested to do an afterhours pickup which would save the return taxi trip. In hindsight, I should have stuck with the original plan. This was my first time renting with Sixt, and I can't say I am particularly happy. The car was bit of a lemon! The whole way to Burgas, the car kept randomly beeping due to an open door indicator. The light made it seem like it was the driver door, but only later I realized it was actually the trunk. The low tire pressure light was on. But worst of all, the left headlight, while lit, was pointed completely wrong, and provided essentially no road illumination. On top of that, and realize this is after a long day of travel and driving on unfamiliar streets at night, the GPS took me through narrow streets cutting through the middle of Burgas, which by now was packed with restaurant and bar goers. I got quite lost and even ended up driving wrong way down a one-way street, just in front of a police station. But they didn't seem to mind, as it probably happens often. Finally I arrived at Hotel Bulgaria. This large hotel is built in the same Soviet-era architectural style as Hotel Lux in my home town of Banska Bystrica but has been thoroughly renovated. The website mentioned parking availability but this is completely misleading, as I soon found out. For the 194 rooms, the hotel offers space for about 10 cars. Not exactly a one-to-one ratio. The receptionist told me to just look for blue-marked street parking somewhere. Realize that this was on Friday evening, in the town center next to multiple restaurants and bars. Clearly finding a spot was not going to be easy, and was definitely something I was not in the mood for after my long journey. I seriously considered driving the 30 minutes back to the airport and just reparking the car there, when after about 15 minutes of meandering around I found a spot only about 5 blocks from the hotel. The space was sort of blocking a gate, but was also painted, although faintly, as a "blue" parking spot so I just left the car there. Good news, no tickets or boot the next day! But besides this, the rest of the trip went smoothly. In hindsight, it would have been a good idea to contact the hotel to check on the availability of parking. I just figured that a hotel of this size, and advertising itself as a 4-star property, will have an underground garage or at least offer valet parking.
I found my mom waiting outside the reception. She arrived few hours earlier and taxied directly to the hotel. It was good seeing her after at least 2 years, although I was a bit concerned about her catching COVID. As I shortly found out, nobody in Bulgaria wears a mask. There is also a lot of random coughing going on. In a restaurant, it isn't unusual for somebody to be coughing at every single table (without wearing a mask of course). Even my mom kept coughing. She said she has had the cough for at least 3 months. She had to be tested at her work weekly and never tested positive, but perhaps she also caught COVID at some time without it being detected and remained with a lingering cough. We then took a short walk on the nearby pedestrian street. Our dinner in one of the many cafes consisted of 2 beers and three appetizer plates: french fries, fried zucchini sticks, and a large plate of crispy fish that are popular here. The bill for all this was around 10 dollars. In the USA, just one of those beers would cost about the same. This was my first intro into how cheap Bulgaria is!
Despite being quite sleep deprived, I managed to wake up before sunrise to go for an early run. I figured the streets will be deserted but this was far from the truth. I encountered a strange mix of early risers like me out for their exercise, and late bed goers just now heading home from all night partying! From the pier I could hear dance music (chispoon as Sandra calls it, since a lot of EDM sounds likes "chispoon-chispoon") and after returning back from an out-and-back run along the beach path, I found the party by the pier in some convention center grounds. In the USA, all bars have to close by 2 am (or so) but I guess all night dancig is totally normal here. Check out the video below for clips from the run. We then had breakfast at the hotel buffet (this was included in the room cost) and headed out early (as I wasn't totally clear on the legality of my parking space) to our next destination: Sunny Beach.
Sunny Beach is a popular summer destination located about an hour north of Burgas. My mom originally found an apartment here but I wasn't particularly excited about the location. While Sunny Beach is nice during the summer, my understanding was that this resort-like area totally shuts down in winter, and there may not even be a grocery store open. Since my mom doesn't have a car, living here year-round would be difficult. Sunny Beach also tends to attract the more rowdy crowd, as it is among the most budget-friendly destinations in the already budget-friendly Bulgaria. It is home to perhaps one hundred large hotels and aparthotels but given that I was booking a room the morning of, there was only a handful of options available. I picked Admiral Plaza as it had good reviews, promised parking, and was only $80 a night. This was actually a higher than average cost but seemed like the best combination of price-to-ammenities. We got to the hotel around 10 am, which was too early to check in. However, it was just in time to grab the last remaining parking spot! While having your own car is great, figuring out where to park it in a foreign country can be a real ordeal. I was quite happy once it was off my hands. We then walked to the beach. I had a paper due the following day (although the journal subsequently extended the deadline by a month) so I just parked myself in a nice beach bar called XO Beach Bar. It seems to be popular on Instagram, with many people posing with the sign. At 2 pm we checked in. My mom then relaxed on the balcony while I migrated to the pool bar and continued working on the paper.
The next morning I went for a run. I headed south to Nesebar, which is composed of a modern luxury part and a historical UNESCO Heritage Site old town. I started by running on the beach, on the sand. Even in the morning (I think I left around 8:30 am), the beach was already quite packed. About a mile from the start I passed a nude section, which is quite normal here, but would definitely lead to a major outrage in the conservative USA. I then got to Nesebar. I didn't know what to expect and was really amazed by this beautiful town. The old town is built on a small hill on a peninsula. There is a path and a road along the water, and numerous staircases lead to the houses above. The town is a maze of narrow cobblestone streets lined with restaurants. As it was still early, there were not many people out. This changes completely in the evening, as we found out on an afternoon return. Bulgaria seems to have a lot of neat places to explore. For instance, south of Burgas is a neat looking castle that we didn't get a chance to stop by. I was about to head for the main gate, when I decided to check out one more street I have not gone down yet. It led me to a plaza filled with restored Trabants. These cars were made by East Germany during the Soviet era, and were infamous for their low power. In fact, I remember seeing, as a child, a Trabant start rolling down a hill as it could not climb the grade leading to my sister's apartment. Despite their initial cheap cost, they have since become collector items. The cars here were really neat. There was even a Trabant truck! On the way out, I passed some patriotic song being played with navy-looking personnel standing by the water. I then continued back to the hotel, but this time took a walking path that led all the way back to Sunny Beach. I returned back to Nesebar in the afternoon with my mom. We had dinner in one of several Czech-themed restaurants, where we also chatted with Czech tourists at the next table. On the way out, we crossed a sea of people heading in (all mask free). There was also an EDM party getting started just outside the town gates.
After two nights in Sunny Beach we headed to Lozenets, which is a small village south of Burgas. Essentially, Lozenets is about the same distance from Burgas as Sunny Beach but in the opposite direction. This is where my mom found an apartment so we headed there to check it out. We arrived around 9:30 am for a 10:30 meeting with the realtor. We were both really impressed with this town! Reading the Wikipedia page describe Lozenets as a "village" made it seem quite archaic, but it is anything but. It reminds me, somewhat, of the place I live in California, that is its own community full of fancy boutiques and restaurants. The town has a nice coffee shop, and next to it was a snack bar selling the Turkish version of banitsa called gozleme. This was delicious. It was basically a ham and cheese croissant, but in a pancake form. We also saw a pizza restaurant, and multiple markets. Among my concerns was that my mom wouldn't be able to easily get her groceries done, but it doesn't seem like this will be an issue. We then hang out at a beach bar until the realtor arrived. The apartment is currently rented out (it is owned by some foreigners who use it as a rental) so we got only a brief tour, but it looked like a perfectly adequate place for my mom to retire in, with modern fixtures and a sufficiently large bathroom. The building is quite new and has a beautiful pool. Best of all, it is located only a 2 minute walk from the beach.
In the afternoon we headed to the Lalov Egrek hotel in the southern part of Lozenets. Also due to my last minute booking, this was one of only 2 or 3 options available. It had a good rating and cost only about $50 a night. On the way there, we passed a luxury community called Oasis. It is a combination of a hotel resort, private apartments, and a shopping street, all along a long stretch of beach with nice restaurants and bars. What is quite neat about this place, or perhaps Bulgaria in general, is that access to the beach is completely open to the public. We noticed frequent passing of a shuttle bus with stops in Lozenets, Oasis, and Tsarevo, which is the near-by major town. So people staying in a guest house in Lozenets or Tsarevo can just hop on the shuttle and spend a day at the Oasis beach, or grab lunch or dinner in one of their restaurants. Here we also saw a Ferarri and a Maserati. Again, this brought back memories of my home town, as these kinds of cars are quite commonplace there, and this was the first time seeing comparable luxury automobiles anywhere in Bulgaria.
The Lalov Egrek hotel was our favorite of the three hotels we stayed in. It is located next to a row of villas that are also rented out for the summer. It overlooks a tiny beach with the most spectacular clear water and marine flora. I felt the water clarity here was even superior to that in French Polynesia, perhaps due to the brilliant shades of green and blues. Most of the guests were Russian, and in fact, the people working in the hotel had almost zero understanding of English (not even basics like "water"). But we got by fine. We had the advantage of a) being able to read cyrillic, as Russian was a compulsory second language, and b) many Bulgarian words being quite similar to their Slovak counterpart. For others, I just used Google Translate, or messaged a Bulgarian running friend from California, Polina, for her advice - mainly when it came to selecting food. One of the guests staying in the villas was a guy from the Netherlands. He has been living in Bulgaria (in Sofia) with his wife for over 10 years and loves it. He runs a business in the Netherlands and just flies back once a week or so. Essentially, living in Bulgaria is affording him a much better quality of life, which is what my mom is looking for. He also very much likes Lozenets. For his wedding, they rented out 40 apartments in the complex my mom plans to move to, and the actual ceremony (officiated by the mayor of the town) was in a beach disco club Zangador in Kiten, which is the next village on the way to Burgas.
The next morning I had a plan to run to Tsarevo, to get a town report for mom, and then continue past the hotel to Lozenets. However, I had a really hard time sleeping and didn't leave until about 9 am. By then it was quite warm, plus the distance to Tsarevo was a bit longer than expected (the roundtrip was about 9 miles). So by the time I got back to the hotel, I decided to call it quits and went swimming instead. My Garmin started having issues back in Sunny Beach perhaps due to the salt water exposure and by now, essentially called it quits. As such, I don't have a track from the swim but I made it about 500 meters from the shore to a "bird rock" that was occupied by a large contingent of birds. After coming back to the states, I contacted Garmin to see if they could at least offer a buy-back discount for a newer model of my out of warranty watch, but they offered to replace it for free. That's some amazing customer service! I also figured I wil go running again in the afternoon but this didn't happen. Instead I took mom to Oasis where we had nice dinner at the Thai restaurant. The total for two drinks (non-alcoholic cocktails), seafood soup, a noodle dish, two pieces of tuna nigiri, coffee, and two cakes was about $60. This may seem like a lot for someone making Bulgarian salary but is quite small given California dinner prices.
And that was it. The next morning it was time to head back to the airport. But before that, I used the supervised home COVID test kit from Abbott to check if I will be allowed to return. I had two boxes, so took one test first without the technician supervision as a practice run. As it came out negative, I next started the official supervised test. This test is the only home test currently accepted for return to the USA since you take it while being observed by a technician on a video call. After you place the nose swab in the receptacle, the card is sealed and placed in the view of the camera for 15 minutes during which the chemicals do their magic. The technician then takes a picture of the result and updates the info in the application. This gives you the result to show at the airport during check in and boarding. This was my first time using this home test. Not only is it more convenient than lining up at the airport, it is also much cheaper.
The flight back was quite uneventful, besides being even longer. The entire trip back, starting with leaving the hotel in Lozenets and ending with arriving back in my house in California, took almost 40 hours. My mom had an earlier flight at 4pm, so we got to the airport around 1 pm to give us time to return the car, and possibly have her take a test (it was not needed, and she took one, negative, for free after returning to Prague). I then waited until 8 pm for my flight to Sofia. The next flight to Munich was not until 7 am, so I spent the night in the Sofia airport hotel Ibis. In the morning, on my way to the elevator, I cross paths with some girl dragging a large suitcase. We ended up taking the same cab and chatting in the check in line as she was on the same flight to Munich. She had been living in Bulgaria for a year, helping a soccer association setup the video review VAR system. She is also originally from the Netherlands, and also very much liked living in Bulgaria. So 2 for 2 when it comes to Bulgaria expat country reviews! On the way to Munich, I ordered the €3 airplane coffee (this domestic leg didn't have free drinks). This ended up being money well spent as the coffee was served pour-over style (hot water poured over coffee grounds) but the lid had a mesh filter to keep the grinds out of your mouth. I have never seen this before, and the coffee tasted much better than the typical airplane brew. I got to LAX at 3pm Thursday, essentially 7 days after leaving. Sandra was already waiting for me, and after another hour of driving, I was finally home!
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