Looking down from my private balcony, it looks like a few people have just gotten off the bus I really should have caught. Come to think of it, I probably could have seen more of the Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia, if I wasn’t impatient, but I’ve also eaten butter bean soup, eggplant salad, and had a glass of wine in the time it took them to get to Melnik so, you know, it didn’t work out terribly.
I woke up this morning bright-eyed and confident I would make it to Melnik – the tiniest town in Bulgaria. Upon boarding the first bus to Sandanski (a small town three-ish hours out of Sofia), I promptly noticed that no one spoke English. I figured that out because a very exasperated woman kept talking to me in Bulgarian, and I eventually worked out she had a problem with the seat I was in.
‘Oh,’ I said aloud. ‘They’re reserved.’
And she said something in Bulgarian and looked at me blankly. The guy in the seat in front held out his hand, and I gave him my ticket.
‘Five,’ he said, and turned back around.
I realised the Bulgarian woman must have been saying something like ‘you’re in the wrong seat’ over and over again.
I moved. Someone was in my window seat, so I sat in the isle.
I was only on that bus for three-hours, but it felt like 12. Sitting upright with nothing to lean on, I drifted in and out of sleep, feeling strangely like I was in India again – we stopped at random bus stations, the driver stood and announced something in a language I didn’t understand, and half the people on the bus got off and milled around for a period of time I was always unsure about. I did what I used to in India during these unspecified breaks – I ran to the bathroom and hoped the bus would still be there when I got back.
Another two-hours went by. Despite my best efforts, I ended up drifting in and out of sleep the whole time, but confusingly, I also distinctly remember my eyes being very open at various stages. I know I had at least two dreams, and one involved having a chat with the person next to me. In my mind he replied in English, so based on the fact that I knew he only spoke Bulgarian in real life, I assumed it was just a dream and I wasn’t sleep talking. But then when I looked at him after waking up, he had a look… It was more than mild discomfort.
I eventually recognised the name of the place where I was meant to get off. The bus stopped on the side of the road. I asked the driver if there was a bus stand. He shook his head and looked very confused, but we were on a highway, and it was fairly obvious this was where I was meant to alight. I got my bag and tried to shut the luggage compartment door, until the driver poked his head out and said ‘What are you doing?’ and I realised it closed electronically.
The bus drove off and I stood on the side of the highway for a second, unsure how to approach the next phase of my trip, and eventually decided to walk forward to what I presumed was the city centre. I trundled along a very isolated stretch of road with my 65-litre backpack until I got to a hill with a few small cafes and beer houses at the bottom, and what looked like a few buses in the middle – it felt like a win situation.
As I approached, I realised the ‘city centre’ I was heading for comprised three cafes and not much. As I moved toward the buses, they began to look a bit disheveled – some were chocked, the grass around them was very un-mowed, there was no one around, and there appeared to be nowhere to buy tickets. Definitely not the bus stand. I quickly decided to walk to one of the cafe/beer house and show them the Cyrillic version of Melnik (Мелник) the guy at Hostel Mostel wrote for me.
I walked down the hill, the guy out the front (the owner?) said something in Bulgarian, and I asked if he spoke English. He gestured for someone else to come over, they didn’t speak English either, I showed them my piece of paper and there was lots of nodding, and throwing the word ‘Melnik’ in to various Bulgarian phrases directed at various people around the area.
They didn’t know how to get there either.
The guy who had been gestured to motioned for me to go and sit with them, as they all brought out their phones and (I presume) looked up how to get to Melnik. They politely offered me some beer, and I politely declined, looking around, wondering how I was going to get out of the situation.
Alarm bells were (admittedly) going off in my mind, but I have a good sense of judgment, and despite feeling as though it was a potentially dangerous situation, I didn’t actually feel in danger – they seemed very genuine, and it really did look as though they were trying to help.
They ended up chatting to someone on the phone, before handing it to me. Confused, I raised it to my ear and said ‘hello?’. Sure enough, someone answered in English. He said they were going to try and take me to the bus station and see what they could do. I asked a few questions, thanked him, and hung up. Turns out there was no bus from Sandanski until the next day, so we negotiated through the man on the phone, and someone drove me to Melnik for 10lv.
We tried to chat in the car, and he seemed like a lovely person, but really, Bulgarian is absolutely nothing like English. I learnt the word ‘dog’, and that was about all we could manage. I don’t even remember what that word is anymore.
Just before I got out of the car, he pointed at his phone, and pointed at my phone. This happened a few times, with a few mimed ’calling’ actions thrown in here and there.
‘You want my number…?’ I eventually asked.
He smiled and nodded furiously.
Knowing I couldn’t possibly explain that I was seeing someone, I said ‘Plovdiv’ a few times in the hope he would understand I was moving on after Melnik. I smiled a lot. He smiled a lot. I don’t really know what was communicated, but it seemed positive, and I wondered hypothetically how a phone conversation would even work.
In hindsight, I really should have caught the bus to the border of Macedonia and caught another bus from there to Melnik, or better still, waited in Sofia for the only direct bus, but I’m just really impatient, and the thought of making my own way there sounded challenging. I had looked up the bus routes beforehand, so I thought I was good to go, but the bus timetables had changed and the websites aren’t all English-friendly.
I said bye to the guy, got out of the car, looked around at the wineries, cafes, and trees, walked off to what I thought was a hostel, realised it was a hotel with an ensuite and a private balcony overlooking the whole town, and felt overwhelmingly grateful I’d made it.
Despite that ordeal, I did get better at navigating Bulgaria – check out the Bulgaria Travel Guide for more info.