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Bulgaria : Rusee, Varna, and "Sunny Beach"

by - August 7 2010

I came to Bulgaria in order to meet up with my Russian friend Yuri, who I last saw in person 16 years ago, when we took part in an exchange program. Yuri has a holiday house in Sveti Vlas on the black sea coast, which happened to be only a minor detour from the route I had been planning.

I'll be meeting up with Yuri later today, but first I'll tell the story of how I got to Sunny Beach, a town near Sveti Vlas where Yuri said he could pick me up. On the European rail web site it was made quite clear that there was a direct overnight sleeper train from Bucharest to Burgas, a city near Sveti Vlas, but when I arrived at Bucharest station I was told that no such train existed. Instead I would have to take a train to the bulgarian border town of Rusee and them change onto another train. On arrival at Rusee, things got more complicated. The information lady told us that there was no train until 6am the following morning and seemed annoyed that we were there - wanting to read her magazine instead. Moreover the toilets were locked, it seemed the station was about to close, and the 6am train didn't seem to be on the electronic timetable. I hadn't expected to stay in Rusee and so had no maps of the city and didn't know if it even had any hotels. The city hadn't seemed very appealing as we approached.

At this point a taxi driver approached, offering to take people to Varna - another city on the black sea coast, in his "minibus". Five of us expressed interest and he told us he had lots of space. The "minibus" turned out to be a normal four door car. One lucky person went in the front and the rest of us rode four abreast on the back seat.

Eventually we arrived in Varna at 2:30am and started looking for a hotel to stay at. I had booked a hotel in Burgas but not in Varna. I didn't know where any hotels were, or even what the word for hotel was. Moreover it was 2:30am and the city was deserted. By following a random walk I was able to find around 5 hotels but all were either full or weren't answering their doors. Those who were open spoke little English and had little interest in helping me find somewhere else. Eventually, at about 4:30am I realised I was reaching a point of diminishing returns and so decided to just sleep on a bench outside the station. This might have worked better if the city wasn't so filled with Mosquitos. I wasn't happy.

As part of my wanderings looking for hotels I got a bit of a feel for the city. It seemed to be primarily a port city with a large noisy dock area. There was also a beach area for those who like to swim in the port's diesel runoff. In the downtown there were a few nice looking buildings, but it felt generally run down. Admittedly one doesn't usually get the best impression of a city at 4am while failing to find somewhere to sleep.

The station had a tourist information office that was supposed to open at 6am. By 6:30 it was still closed and I decided that I needed to work things out myself. I scavenged some free wifi from a nearby hotel and found out where I could catch a bus to "sunny beach" - where Yuri had said he could meet me. The bus stop was of course on an unmarked backstreet.

I had wondered why Bulgaria would have a town called "sunny beach" when every other town had a name in Cyrillic. As I entered the town it all became clear. It felt like I had entered a wormhole and been teleported to an Essex council estate. Hoards of fat drunk bare-cheated Brits, Germans, and Scandinavians were wandering between bars, pools, and "English Pubs". I had wanted to try Bulgarian food on my trip, which I had heard is very good, but here the best on offer seemed to be bangers and mash with a cocktail umbrella stuck into it (yes, really).

On the beach, the sea seemed to be nearly empty while the beach was filled with people slowly toasting themselves. I now understood why the people in Varna and Rusee had been so unfriendly towards me - the British don't really show the Bulgarians their best face. After exploring the town briefly, I retreated to my air conditioned dorm room and read books about Iran.