Tag Archives: independent travel

Melnik & Rila Monastery

Melnik & Rila Monastery

After approximately a three hour drive, we arrived in the beautiful small town of Melnik. Letter F on Map. We had booked two nights here, so it would give us a full day to explore this quaint little town. Apart from its beauty, another reason we visited is that it is situated near the amazing Rila Monastery. More on that later.

The town is an architectural reserve and 96 of its buildings are cultural monuments, which is quite amazing for such a small place, and with only 385 inhabitants. It is also the smallest town in Bulgaria. The town is situated having the backdrop of the Pirin mountain range. Also closer to the town are the Melnik Earth Pyramids, which surround the town. These limestone rock formations known as Hoodoos are a spectacular sight, I suggest you walk up to the highest point of the town to get the best view of them.

 After checking into our hotel, Hotel Despot Slav, a really lovely hotel built in keeping with the traditional Bulgarian architecture around it. We decided to explore the town. We found a really nice Meyhane (Bar/Restaurant) and settled down for a drink. Not only that, but we were greeted by the lovely owners, an elderly Bulgarian couple called Sophia and Tom. And had a lovely afternoon and early evening chatting with them, over plenty of glasses of lovely Bulgarian wine. We enjoyed their company so much we went back the next day. Tom and his wife Sophia showed us around their lovely restaurant and wine cellar, when we left they even gave us a bottle of wine to take with us. A lovely gesture. On our trip around the country, we had many encounters with some really lovely Bulgarian people, they are such friendly and helpful people.


There are a couple of sights to see in the town, these are:-

Kordopulov House

Wine Museum

Earth Pyramids

Even though there are not many sights in the town, it is a must-see on any Bulgarian road trip. The quaintness and the architecture are enough on its own, and the people are so welcoming.

We left Melnik early the next morning for our drive to the Monastery of Saint Ivan of Rila, better known as the Rila Monastery, which was about a two-hour drive from Melnik towards our final destination, Sophia. Letter H on the map. Founded in the 10th century, and also regarded as one of Bulgaria’s most important cultural, historical and architectural monuments, and attracts some 1 million visitors a year. It’s also depicted on the back of the 1 lev note. Words cannot describe this amazing place, its architecture, the people and the overall ambiance of the town, all I will say that it is a must-visit.

Top Tips

                Arrive early before the coaches. We got there around 10am, as you can imagine the place gets very busy indeed. Entrance at the time of our visit was free, car parking was 5 lev around £2.00. Visit the Monastery bakery, and have breakfast at the little restaurant and admire the views. Next stop Sophia

Bulgarian Road Trip – Plovdiv

Bulgarian Road Trip – Plovdiv

Our next stop Plovdiv (letter E on map) which is about a four-hour drive from Sozopol, is the oldest continuously-inhabited city in Europe and the second largest city in Bulgaria. Standing on the banks of the river Maritsa, in the historical region of Thrace. It’s also known as the City of seven hills, because of the seven hills the city is built on. When we arrived we settled down in a street café to look for a nights accommodation as we had cut short our stay in Sozopol. We settled on the Hotel Expo as it was in a good location and reasonably priced. After checking in we ventured into town and were delighted to discover it was everything we expected and read about.

The town is split into three areas, the new part the old quarter, and the Kapana or trap, a truly amazing area of very chic art galleries, restaurants and trendy bars. The area is also known for it’s amazing street art. After a nice relaxing walk around getting our bearings and a couple of nice cold beers it was back to our hotel to look forward to our next few days in this amazing city.

Plovdiv has so much to see and do, to much to write about in detail so I will just list them. Click on the links for more imformation.

  • The Ancient Theatre of Philippopolis Is reported to be one of the best preserved amphitheatre’s in the world, although in my opinion Ephesus in Turkey is pretty amazing.
  • Ancient Stadium of Philipopolis Which is the remains of what was once a huge Roman stadium, a lot of which is below street level. There is currently an ambitious plan to excavate under the streets and shops to reveal it in entirety, although this will probably take years.
  • Ancient Town Of Plovdiv — Architectural Reserve Like stepping back in time
  • Regional Ethnographic Museum Plovdiv This museum is the second largest of its type in Bulgaria
  • Dzhumaya Mosque Part of the mosque at the side of the building is a restaurant. It’s great to sit here with some food or a coffee and people watch and let the world go by.
  • Museum – Gallery Philippopolis situated in the old town, which incidentally is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s an amazing place to visit. It houses works of art both contemporary and classic.
  • Balabanov’s House The house was demolished in the thirty’s but was reconstructed in the seventies using old photographs and plans.
  • City gallery of fine arts Which we did not visit as it was closed due to refurbishment.
  • Sveta Petka Church
  • Tsar Simeon’s Garden Nice place to stroll around during the day. Also, every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 21:00. They have a spectacular light show with music. Although we did get to see the show, but judging by the pictures we saw it looks amazing,

There is so much to see and do in Plovdiv, it’s an amazing city and should not be overlooked if visiting Bulgaria. We loved it so much we wanted to stay longer than our four nights. We shall definitely return. Next stop Melnik

Bulgarian Road Trip. Veliko Tarnova

Bulgarian Road Trip. Veliko Tarnova

Please note this trip was before the Covid 19 outbreak. All future trips currently on hold until who knows when

Veliko Tarnovo

Our travels this time took us back to Eastern Europe and the stunning country of Bulgaria. We have never travelled to Bulgaria before so we were really looking forward to our trip. After some in depth research we decided on our itinerary and booked our flights to Sofia Bulgaria’s capital. As our flight did get in until late we decided to stay the first night in a hotel near the airport and picked up our hire car early the next day and head of to our first destination which was Veliko Tarnovo. After all that we read about the town we were really looking forward to our first stop. Veliko Tarnovo is around a two and half hour drive from Sofia along some very nice scenic roads. We arrived at our accommodation Casa Dea for our three night stay. Our philosophy is to always stay anywhere we visit for three nights as this gives you one full day to explore. Our apartment situated in the old part of town in a nice quite street, was lovely and afforded a beautiful roof terrace with stunning views overlooking the Tsaravets the 12th century fortress which dominates the town’s skyline. Veliko Tarnovo is the oldest town in Bulgaria and has the nickname “The city of the Tsars”. There is a free walking tour of the town which leaves at 11am from outside the tourist office. Which we did not do We just wandered around ourselves with our trusty lonely planet guide book, personal preference I suppose. The town has plenty of nice shops and restaurants, also many beautiful old buildings, churches and monuments.

Must do’s

Take a walk across the Stambolov Bridge. (Click for 360 degree view) Built in 1892 it’s a pedestrian bridge to a small island in middle of the Yantra river where the memorial to the Asen dynasty, can be found The Asenevtsi Monument was built. In memory of the Asen dynasty undoubtedly is the most visited monument in Veliko Tarnovo. It is dedicated to the kings Asen, Petar, Kaloyan and Ivan Asen II. The name of the dynasty comes from one of the brothers, Asen. It was built in 1985 for the 800th anniversary of the uprising of the brothers Asen and Petar. When standing at the monument take the time to soak up the great 360 view of the town.

Visit The Tsaravets

Tsaravets is a medieval fortress built on the top of a hill overlooking the town. It served as the Second Bulgarian Empire’s primary fortress between 1185 and 1393. Entrance fees are currently 6 lev which is just under two pounds. Try to get there early in the morning to avoid the tour coaches. At various times throughout the year (check website for dates) they have a laser light show with musical soundtrack which bathes the whole fortress in spectacular colour.

View of the Tsaravets fortress from our terrace
Bulgarian Asen dynasty monument
Tsaravets laser light show

Next stop the black sea to the town of Nessebar.

The Ancient City of Anuradhapura.

The Ancient City of Anuradhapura.

Our last stop on our tour around Sri Lanka is the ancient city of Anuradhapura. Located in Northern Central Province, it is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world. It is believed that from the forth century BC until the beginning of the eleventh century AD it was the capital of the Sinhalese. The ancient city covers a large area and is split into two sections. The Citadel area in which you have to pay, and the area to the south which is free apart from Isurumuniya Viharaya temple which cost 200 lkr, .87p. It costs $25 to visit the citadel, once again a disproportionate amount to locals, but it’s not to be missed. Like I said the citadel covers a large area, there are plenty of Tuk Tuk drivers willing to take you on a tour. They will come out with an array of different prices so make sure you barter if that’s the way you want to go. We decided not to take the tour but to walk around the site, to the surprise of all the Tuk Tuk drivers who thought we were mad, and who told us that the distance would be anywhere between 17km and 25km. In fact it was just over 11km. It was a really nice amble around which took around eight hours, that does include taking in the sights. It was an amazing day. There is also plenty of wildlife to see on the way, a lot of which would have been missed if we were in a Tuk Tuk or taxi. From exotic birds to plenty monkeys getting up to there antics. At one point we were approaching a small stream when we heard a loud splashing noise. Initially I could only see a duck sort of running along the water, but as we got closer we saw it was being chased by a huge Monitor Lizard. (In fact it was so big we thought it was a crocodile) Luckily for the duck it managed to escape. When the lizard crawled up the bank after its failed attempt we were both amazed at its size. I could go on and list the many stunning structures around the site, but I would be writing for days. So all I can say if you are in Sri Lanka it’s a must see place. One great structure that I will mention is the Jetavana Stupa, which is possibly the main sight in the citadel. The reason I mention Jatavana Stupa is because its currently the highest Buddhist Stupa (made up of 93,300,000 fire burnt bricks) in the world. Also in the 4th century AD it was the third highest structure in the world. Only the two Great Pyramids of Egypt were higher.

Top Tips.

It goes without saying take plenty of water if you aim to walk around the citadel as you can imagine it gets very hot. Also there are not many vendors around plying there trade.  On our second day visiting the site we did get a Tuk Tuk to take us around the sights in the free area (because we were pretty exhausted from the day before, and also the sites are quite far apart). Make sure you have some short socks and a sarong, (or wear long trousers) with you when visiting the temples, as your not allowed in with shoes or bare legs. The socks are a must as the stone floors get hot, I mean extremely hot, After visiting our first temple, the flagstones were so hot I burnt the soles of my feet, we had to run from shadow to shadow it was ridiculous “they stung for a couple of days afterwards”. We had to ask the Tuk Tuk driver to take us back into town to buy some socks. So be warned. Quite how the local people stroll around without any bother is beyond me.

Suggested sights outside the citadel.

Sri Maha Bodhi Tree
Isurumuniya Viharaya

Dambulla Cave Temple, Lion Rock and Kaudulla National Park.

Dambulla Cave Temple, Lion Rock and Kaudulla National Park.

After our couple of nights in Kandy we moved onto Inamaluwa, which is situated midway between Dambulla and Sigiriya. It’s a very quite place with not a lot going on, but has a few home-stays dotted here and there. “Incidentally they are also very cheap, the cost of ours was just £14 per night” but the main reason for choosing Inamaluwa was because it is roughly midway between Lion Rock and the Dambulla cave temple. We decided to stay for three nights giving us two full days as we had a lot to pack in. On our first day we visited Dambulla Cave Temple, also known as the Golden Temple of Dambulla. It was given UNESCO world heritage status in 1991. The rock in which the five cave temples are situated towers some 160 metres above the surrounding plains, so you can imagine there are plenty of steps to reach them. One Top Tip that I read about is don’t view the caves in the order you arrive at. Walk to the far end and view that cave first, as each cave gets more spectacular, until you reach the last which is the largest and the best. Try to get there early before the tour groups arrive.

Kaudulla National Park.

Now anyone who reads my blogs will know that I am extremely fussy when it comes to visiting National Parks where animals are involved, I have to make sure by thorough research that the park is run for the benefit of the animals and are not just in the business of making money from tourists. So after reading how busy Yala and Udawalawe National Parks were, and the amount of tourists that visit these sites we decided to give them a miss. On doing some further research we decided to visit Kaudulla National Park, which mainly houses elephants. We visited the park in the afternoon like most people suggest. When we arrived there were a few jeeps waiting to gain entry, maybe 15 to 20. It was not long after entering the park we saw a small group of elephants. Over in the distance I saw two much larger groups. Our guides then proceeded to drive over to them. When we got there he stopped and switched off the engine. At this time we were quite close, which was great from a photographic point of view. Our guides then pointed to a large female and told us “she was the grumpy one. Initially we just smiled and did not take much notice. Then the driver started his engine and quickly reversed backwards. All of a sudden we heard a roar and the elephant charged at us, at quite a speed I might add. The driver immediately accelerated hard and veered to the left. The Elephant missed us by inches “i had my GoPro attached to the jeep”. It was a quite exciting but scary experience. When we eventually stopped, our guides were laughing and chatting to other guides about our near miss. When we asked why the Elephant had charged us, he told us that five years previous their was an accident with a jeep resulting in the death of the female Elephants baby, the one that charged us. That’s why she doesn’t like jeeps. This news put a total damper on our day, and really made us wish we never went. They say a elephant never forgets, this poor female has to endure the sight of jeeps turning up every day, reminding her of her loss. In my opinion, the jeeps should not get so close to the wildlife and the companies who provide the tours should be strictly licensed and their guides act in a professional manner, like the many professionally run parks we visited in South Africa. Click here to view near miss. Watch the shadow of the jeep and elephant to see how close she was.

Sigiriya, Lion Rock.

Now before I start I will have my little rant. Every main attraction in Sri Lanka has two entrance prices, one for tourists and one for locals, which is fine if the difference in price is a reasonable amount, like India for example, but in Sri Lanka the price difference is vast. For example entrance fee for locals to visit Lion Rock is just 65 lkr which is £0.30 but for foreigners it is £21.50 per person. The same applies at Anuradhapura 50 lkr locals, £0.23p, foreigners £18. These price differences are the same all over Sri Lanka whichever attraction you visit. Now locals should pay less because there income levels are a lot lower than that of other countries, and I really don’t mind paying a reasonable difference in price but in my opinion this is way to much. Rant over. It was because of the price difference we nearly didn’t climb up Lion Rock, it wasn’t because of the cost “although we are on a budget” it was because out of principle. We were just going to climb Pidurangala rock, known to the locals as “cheap rock”, due to it’s 500 lkr entrance fee, which is situated next to Lion Rock, but after watching a couple of YouTube videos it would have been too much for me to climb. So we swallowed our principles and went to Lion Rock. Oh were we really glad we did as it was amazing. The climb up is a slog but the steps are in good shape, their also a iron walkway to traverse, which could be a problem with someone who suffers from vertigo, but it was really worth the climb. The views from the top are amazing. Click on the heading link for more information.

Top Tip. Make sure you get to the rock at opening time, 7am. Two reasons. First and most obvious it’s the coolest time of the day. Secondly if you go later you will have to endure the other crowds, and I mean crowds of tourists arriving in their coach loads. We came down around 09:30 and the sea of people arriving was amazing. When I turned around to look back up to the rock it was just like a swarm of ants scurrying along. Next stop Anuradhapura.

Cheap Rock