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:-
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.
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
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.
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.
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
After a relatively short journey, about an hour from Nesebar, we arrived in Sozopol. (Letter D on map). We found our apartment , but do you think we could find a parking space, we could not find a parking space anywhere. We did eventually find a car park at the end of our street. Well I say car park, it was a bit of wasteland with a ram shackled hut with a large sofa outside which had seen better days. And a rather dubious looking Bulgarian collecting the money. In fact, he turned out to be very nice and was very friendly, and all was legitimate. Also parking was very cheap 61 lev per day, around £2.80.
One thing we did not envisage was how busy the place was, as on doing our research beforehand Sozopol was labelled as a quieter family resort, so we thought it would be nice to relax by the sea for a couple of days, and also visit the old town and its attractions.
So after dragging our cases down a very long street we eventually arrived at our apartment, and we were not disappointed, it was very nice indeed, and had a balcony with a nice sea view. The elderly owners of the apartment and who live on the ground floor were lovely and very helpful. So our expectations of the town were upbeat.
After settling in we decided to have a walk around to get a feel of the area. It was not long before we both decided that Sozopol was perhaps not what we expected. Crowds of people, endless tacky souvenir shops, fast food stalls, and restaurants with the largest menus you have ever seen, which for us puts us off straight away. We were both feeling a little downcast. Luckily on our dejected walk back to our apartment we stumbled across a lovely Hotel and restaurant called Hotel Briz. Where we had a really nice meal, and a few glasses of wine. We both decided that we were perhaps both tired, and it will be a better day tomorrow.
With a new day ahead we ventured back into the old town. Sozopol is the oldest city on the Bulgarian Black Sea Coast. The first settlement here dates back to the end of the 4th millennium BC. So as you can imagine the architecture is amazing.
Visit the archaeological museum. Open Monday to Friday and is situated near the port it houses a fascinating collection of local finds from Apollonian days. Apparently the museum occasionally exhibits the skeleton of a local vampire, found with a stake driven through its chest, although it was not on display when we visited, which was a shame.
Another interesting place to visit is the Church of Sveta Bogoroditsa. This 15th-century church was built below street level, as required at the time by the Ottoman rulers. Set in a courtyard with a giant fig tree in the middle, it is one of the most picturesque and photographed places in town, with an exquisite wooden iconostasis and a magnificent carved pulpit. So after a good look around we were slightly warming to the place. The beauty of the old architecture and the quaint little streets you can wander around. Another place worth visiting is a traditional Bulgarian house Ethnographic house which is now a museum, which is very interesting indeed, where we learnt a great deal about life in a typical Bulgarian town and household. After we left the museum and on walking around the quaint streets, we came across locals who had set up stalls outside their homes selling local produce and crafts. Where we bought some very nice local honey. Don’t be put off visiting Sozopol as the old town is amazing, but when you venture into the new town it’s typical of any busy seaside town. We had originally booked three nights in Sozopol but cut our stay short as in my opinion you only need one full day to see everything. Tomorrow we move onto Plovdiv.
Please note this trip was before the Covid 19 outbreak. All future trips currently on hold until who knows when
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.
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.
Please note this trip was before the Covid 19 outbreak. All future trips currently on hold until who knows when
Spain was the destination for my birthday trip with us having a week in the capital Madrid. There is a lot to see and do in Spain’s capital as you would expect also their are some very good sights outside of the city that are good for a day trip if you have the time. We stayed in an area just outside of the centre, but easily walkable to the main attractions, called Atocha. A nice quiet area with some good restaurants nearby and a short walk to the metro, the perfect base for our trip. As Madrid is Spain’s capital, and as you would expect, the most populated city in Spain. It lies on the River Manzanres, and if you look at a map of Spain it is right slap bang in the middle of the country. Madrid has plenty to offer in the way of sights, restaurants and nightlife, and is a great long weekend destination, although we stayed for a week, which enabled us to explore other towns and attractions outside of the city.
Top attractions to visit
Plaza Mayor(Click here for a 360 degree view) is situated in the heart Hapsburg the old part of the city and is one of the capitals most visited areas. The large square with its many restaurants around the edge is the perfect place to while away an hour having a cold beer or a cup of coffee. As you can imagine it can be an expensive experience because of the location, that said, its a must. Just through the arch in the corner of the square and down some steps you will come across Restaurante Botin which is the worlds oldest restaurant as published in the Guinness book of records. Founded in 1725 and famed for its suckling pig and lamb roasted in the Castilian style it’s a popular place. Although we didn’t eat there it looks amazing from the outside. In the window there is a small model of the building a great photo opportunity. If you like music and your passion is blues music like mine a great place to go in the evening is a blues bar called La Coquette situated in Calle de las Hileras this very intimate little venue has a great vibe about it. They have live music every evening. It doesn’t open until 9pm with music starting around 10pm. I’d advise getting there when it opens as seating is quickly taken up. Unfortunately they do not have a website but they do have a Facebook page.
If you happen to be in Madrid on a Sunday or a public holiday a must visit is El Rastro Market. Situated along Plaza de Cascorro and Ribera de Curtidores, its very popular with locals and tourists alike. So many stalls selling everything from clothes, antiques, food and general wares its a great place to spend a few hours. The nearest metro station is La Latina. After visiting El Rastro a good place to get some lunch is the Mercado San Miguel Built some 100 years ago, it started out as a wholesale food market. Today in this magnificent historical building it caters for all gastronomy tastes, from fresh fish and shellfish, Iberian ham, amazing cheese, and tapas. It’s a great place to head to for lunch, and is extremely popular with the locals and is always busy. It’s open Monday to Thursday and Sunday from 10am to midnight and until 1am on Friday and Saturday
If you want stunning views of the city then you should visit the Circulo de Bellas Artes which in itself is an art gallery, featuring works of art, paintings, sculptures and a large collection of books. The other reason to visit is for its roof top restaurant and bar, with great 360 degree views over Grand Via and the city. Entrance at time of writing is 4€ and drinks are reasonably priced. Location is Calle de Alcalá 42
If its parks you like take a visit to Parque de el Retiro a very beautiful and well kept park and a great place to go to escape the hum drum of the city. The park is filled with beautiful sculptures with its centre piece a large lake. A must view near the rose garden is the statue of the fallen angel. It’s the only sculpture in the world dedicated to the devil. and curiously stands 666m above sea level. Another lovely structure is the glass house, it does not house any exotic plants which it once did but is now used as an exhibition hall. The cast iron and glass structure is well worth looking around and a good photo opportunity
Another great place to visit is the Palacio Real de Madrid. This palace is the official residence of the Spanish Royal family, but is now used only for state ceremonies. I would advise booking in advance online to avoid the queues, as its a popular tourist destination. At time of writing admission is 12€
If Flamenco is your thing then take a look at Casa Patas. it’s a typical old Spanish restaurant serving traditional dishes and tapas. (Click for 360 view) The shows are performed in a large seated area at the back in a separate room. Casa Patas is not your normal touristy Flamenco show but authentic, traditional and passionate dancing, music and singing. Entrance is 40€ with a drink so a little pricey, but in my opinion well worth it
Day trips outside of Madrid
If you have a little more time than a long weekend, a week in our case, then there are some great attractions and towns outside of the city.
San Lorenzo de El Escorial
On your way and a good place to stop halfway to Segovia is the Monastery San Lorenzo de El Escorial. A truly magnificent structure and a must visit. Construction started in 1563 and was completed in 1584 and is in remarkable condition. When we arrived it appeared that you just walk in, but when we went to go inside we were asked for a ticket. We asked where the ticket kiosk was and was directed to a ticket machine all the way back to where we came in, the machine was in a corner and not easily visible so take note. Entrance fees at time of writing was 8€ and is good value for money as once inside the architecture is jaw dropping, especially the magnificent library. Give yourself a couple of hours to have a good look around. Unfortunately as we were moving onto Segovia we did not have time to look around the town so you could easily spend a day here.
After leaving San Lorenzo we stopped off at the Valley of the Fallen, which is about a 20 minute drive towards Segovia. The valley of the fallen is the former resting place of the infamous dictator Franco and is not normally found in guide books because its not a piece of history that most Spaniards want to remember. It’s a sprawling huge over the top memorial to this disposed dictator. It served as the burial place of Franco’s remains from his death in November 1975 until his exhumation on 24 October 2019, as a result of efforts to remove all public veneration of his dictatorship. Apparently every year on the anniversary of his death a huge gathering still takes place to celebrate this man’s slaughter of the many Spanish people who died during his dictatorship. The death toll during his regime is estimated to be between 100,000 and 200,000 people. The reason for our visit was Mark who is taking a degree in politics wanted to find out more. Once inside it felt very sombre and dark, almost creepy a real stark reminder of Spain’s infamous history
Finally we reached the really lovely town of Segovia, a world heritage listed site, so as you can imagine the town has some stunning architecture, with its magnificent Roman built aqueduct leading to the main square. Made up of around 166 arches it brought the water from La Acebeda to the Alcázar a distance of more than 17km. Don’t forget to take a closer look at the stones used to construct the arches. No mortar or adhesive was used in its construction, amazing. Some of the upper stones have ridges on their sides. These marks were caused by dragging the stones and raising them into position The town has a beautiful main square, a stunning Cathedral and a must visit, Alcázar, palace. Walt Disney is said to have modelled Sleeping Beauty’s castle in California’s Disneyland on the Alcázar, but to be fair if you google it appears that another castle in Germany has also laid claim and perhaps many others. So take a visit and make up your own mind. Also have a stroll around the old Jewish quarter with it’s quaint little house out of the way restaurants and bars, just walk around and soak up this really lovely part of town.
Another great day out from Madrid is the city of Toledo, it lies about an hour’s drive south east of Madrid, and as its Spain I will certainly guarantee some more stunning architecture. It boasts a magnificent cathedral the Santa Iglesias Cathedral Primada de Toledo. The cathedral is one of only three High Gothic cathedrals in Spain and is architecturally stunning both inside and out. Work began in 1226 and was finally finished in around 1493. The outside is beautiful but the inside will leave you open mouthed, especially the altarpiece which is something to behold (Click here) for the official website which has lots of information and some great photos of the interior
Whilst in the city also visit the beautiful stone built and very imposing Alcazar Perched on top of a hill overlooking the city with some great views over the surrounding countryside, the Alcazar which was once used as a Roman palace in the 3rd century has been destroyed and re-built throughout years of history and conflict but is now used as Army offices and also houses a military arms museum. If your thing is military I’m sure the inside is worth a visit, (entrance fee is currently 5€) but if it’s not, like us, then a walk around the perimeter just to soak up the grandeur of the place is worth doing.
Well that’s it for Madrid. Next post will be our Bulgarian trip in 2019. So stay safe and keep following.