2017 South East Europe – Bulgaria

A journey to the Sounds of the Ages…

After a wonderful time in Romania I flew to Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. From there I took a taxi to my hotel and had a delicious dinner at a neighboring restaurant. Besides today’s traveling I had not done anything at all, but still I felt tired so went to bed early.

I must have needed my sleep as I did not wake up until 9:30 the next morning and by the time I had showered the restaurant had closed for breakfast. Therefor I decided to go directly to Sofia’s main sight, it’s famous cathedral. During my walk to there I noticed immediately the much more open atmosphere and wider streets in Sofia compared to Bucharest.

At Vitosha Boulevard there was a vivid atmosphere with plenty of shops and restaurants but instead of being lured to them I continued on as I initially planned.

The Cathedral Sant Alexander Nevski was an impressive landmark indeed, located on a large square so it could be admired from all sides. It was completed in 1912 and built as a memorial to the 200.000 Russian soldiers who died in the Turkish-Russian liberation war from 1877-1878.

There were beautiful paintings and chandeliers to be admired inside and I did love the artworks and architecture. I spend quite some time wandering around and making pictures. Watching the people praying, lighting candles and spending their thoughts was inspiring as I could see how devoted they were.

The high dome and chandelier were impressive to say the least and The numeric frescos painted on the walls and ceilings were to many to absorb I one time.

As I did not have breakfast I went to a terrace that overviewed the cathedral where I enjoyed a lovely brunch. Also now lunch came closer to what I was used to at home and definitely a smaller portion than I was used to during the last week. This is something I more than welcomed as I am already dreading the scales on my return home.

Not far away the Sant Nikolas Church was located, another beautiful sacred and religious site. It was much smaller than the cathedral but still beautifully decorated.

And then I wanted to visit the oldest building in Sofia but somehow I totally lost my tracks as I walked in the complete wrong direction. Still I was enjoying my walk through local areas and loved the shops, the small terraces, as well the flats which clearly originated from the communist time. Somehow they seemed to be a bit neglected and I felt privileged not to have to live in one of these housing compounds.

By the time I realized my mistake My destination was already 3.5 km away, very sad as it turned out to be very close to the Sant Nikolas Church I visited before. Oh well, I passed the Eagles bridge again, visited some small parks with impressive statues commemorating some more war heroes, passed the church again and….. Arrived at the Rotunda of St George, which was build in the 4th century. It was in completely surrounded by government buildings and the Sheraton hotel but looked very peaceful. In front of the church there were some ruins. Unfortunately once again photography was not allowed inside.

Not much further was another beautiful cathedral, the Alexander Nevski cathedral and of course I wanted to see that one as well and admire the beautiful interior.

When I got out of the cathedral I recognized the Vitosha Boulevard and as I was getting thirsty I looked for a nice terrace for a well deserved, but not very Bulgarian ‘Hoegaarden’. It was great to see the world passing by and I felt a really mellow and relaxed atmosphere.

In the middle of the pedestrian area a long range of book stalls was located and I did enjoy watching people browsing through what was offered, looking for something that appealed to them. I could not resist an ice cream and although I thought three scopes would be ok I ended up with an ice read much bigger than anticipated. Still I was able to finish it though. By now it was almost the end of the afternoon so I returned to the hotel for a much needed nap. Although all street names were in Cyrillic I had no problem finding it back again thanks to my phone, the maps application and the lack of roaming charges in Europe. This makes traveling so much easier!!

My nap lasted over 2 hours and by the time I woke sun had set. I returned to the Vitosha Boulevard for a pre dinner drink and to work on my journal. Initially I also wanted to find a place to eat over there but passing by the restaurant where I had dinner yesterday I was enthusiastically waved to by the waitress and as the food was brilliant I decided to return there for dinner.

I opted or a full three course dinner and a nice bottle of Bulgarian red, all turned out to be a very good decision.

Next morning after breakfast I took a taxi back to the airport to pick up my rental car, a process that went extremely smooth. Not much later I was on the road towards my first destination, Arbanasi, a sleepy village in central Bulgaria. The roads were fine and thanks to my Garmin navigation system I had no problem finding my way and was even able to enjoy the landscape. It was much drier than what I had seen before in Romania.

Gentle hills on both side of the road, lot of agriculture and some villages. Somehow I got the idea that Bulgaria is better developed than Romania but after just two day this could be a misconception. The total distance I had to cover this day was 253 kilometers and it took me 3 hours and 20 minutes in total. On arrival I already noticed that Arbanasi was the perfect example for traditional Bulgarian village life and not a lot was going on, not that I was bothered as it would be a welcome change to relax a bit.

My hotel was nice and after checking in I enjoyed a simple lunch in the garden, then it was time to go for a stroll. My first stop was Chiesa fella Nativita, an old church that was built in the 15th century and where almost every inch of the interior was covered in paintings and frescoes. The exterior did not reveal the beauty of the interior which was simply breathtaking! So completely different from what I had seen before and so unique. Officially photography was not allowed but then if they charge you 3 euro’s for entry and there was no security… Yes I was a bad boy indeed!

Walking through the village was a treat by itself, not a lot was going on except several ladies sitting in the streets who had exposed their merchandise to sell to the tourists who simply did not seem to have found their way to the village.

Next stop was the Konstantsalieve House, the home of a former wealthy family which was now turned into a museum. I must admit I must have been spoiled lately as I was not very impressed but still it was a good laugh and 5 minutes after I paid my entry fee I found myself outside again…

The village, as quiet as it was, was adorable although living here would drive me absolutely nuts. I continued my stroll to the St. Nicholas Convent but halfway there I found a terrace with a stunning view so I changed my mind and enjoyed two glasses of wine instead.

Back at the hotel I went for an afternoon nap that did do me well. When I woke up I checked trip advisor and headed to the beat recommended restaurant in the village, the Arbanaskhi Han Tavern. It had a huge garden and a playground for children so I selected a table far away from the playground. I looked over an open grill and judging from the size of the chef the food must be really good.

The atmosphere was very relaxing, so quiet compared to Sofia. Simply loved it. I took the opportunity to zip my beer (No wine available), update my journal and simply relax. Most funny after was that after a while I saw bottles of wine being passed on to customers, there you go with the language barrier. Once my journal was updated I looked through the menu card and saw that the meat was sold per piece. I selected some pieces from which the description appealed to me, a grilled pepper salad with goat cheese and Bulgaria style potatoes. I hoped for the best but if I would be as lucky as my wine order…

I should not have been worried as my self assembled mixed grill was absolutely fantastic, actually one of the best ones I ever tasted. But as usual the portions were big so I could not finish all. One more beer and completely satisfied I returned to my hotel for a good sleep.

Next morning when I entered my next destination into my navigation, Veliko Turnovo, it came as a big surprise to me it was only a fifteen minute drive, not very good planning on my side…

Because of the short drive I was far too early at my hotel but after I enjoyed two cups of coffee my room was ready. I dropped my luggage and left for a stroll through the old city. The roads were paved with wonderful cobblestones and I could even see some craftsmen working on souvenirs to sell. And there was no lack of souvenirs as it seemed every shop was at least selling a small collection of them.

I entered one of the larger churches and was immediately told no photography inside was allowed. I am still confused on how it is decided where one is allowed to make pictures and where not. I m getting the feeling it all depends on randomly on the priest who runs the church. Oh well, so is life.

Continuing my stroll through the narrow streets I found another lovely church where photography was allowed for a change. I saw two burning ovens with cheminees leading to the outside but had no clue what the function of these ovens were. Some kind of messaging system? For heating they appeared to be a bit to small.

At most of the houses in the streets I could see pictures of people who must have passed away, it was rather bizarre to see but then it was a different culture after all, another eye opener to me.

I found a nice restaurant overlooking the valley and the narrow street where my hotel was located so set down for a glass of Bulgarian white. There I met an interesting Australian woman so we chatted for a while after which I said goodbye.

Back at the hotel I checked my e-mail and got the one that I knew would be coming, the confirmation of my divorce. Although not unexpected it still hit me so I went down to the restaurant and had some more wine (perhaps a bottle was a bit too much). Then it was time for an afternoon nap, a very restless one…

That evening I did not feel like going out so I stayed in the restaurant of the hotel and ordered dinner. Although it was fine I was not really appreciative. I finished my food, finished my wine and then returned to my room for another restless sleep.

Although my night had been horrible I did not feel that tired in the morning. I decided to leave my emotions behind and continue enjoying Bulgaria the way it deserved it. After breakfast I checked out, maneuvered my car out of the garage and found my way to the main road again.

This time my planning was much better as my next destination was about 140 km away. I did totally enjoy my drive which was leading me through a hilly landscape. Lots of agriculture again but like before the landscape was rather dry.

I arrived at my hotel around noon and on arrival was immediately blown away by it. Hotel Nirvana… It looked stunning and only had 7 rooms. They had no room numbers but colors. Colors that belonged to the chakras. I was in the green room, dedicated to the heart chakra. A lovingly decorated interior could seduce me to stay here all day but as yesterday had been rather mellow I wanted to see things.

As it turned out to be I really needed my car to see the highlights around Shumen so I programmed my navigation system once again for the first visit of today, the Madara Rider. I had some issues finding as no excavation address was given but made it in the end.

Before getting to the Madara Rider I had to conquer an amount of steep steps. But there it was, much smaller than expected but still very special. It was carved around the year 701 – 718 when Christianity was introduced in Romania. It looked nice but still I could not help not being very impressed.

I found there was a pathway on top of the rocks to the remainders of a fortress so decided to follow the path to be unpleasantly surprised by an almost endless amount of steps to the top of the rocks.

Sometimes it’s the journey that counts and not the destination and this time that was definitely the case. The views were absolutely stunning every time I looked back! Slowly I made my way up but I had to rest on more than one occasion.

Once I made it to the top I still had to walk a bit to get to the fort and it came not as a big surprise there was not a lot left of it. But once again, the views paid for the effort.

I do not know what was worse, the effort of going up or being confronted with how steep the stairs were on my way down. I got totally distracted by the views and had to take care I was keeping attention on where I was walking. Tumbling down would make a long fall.

Back down I lovely made my way to the grottos, only 200 meters away from the Madara Rider carving, according to a sign… However one could never accuse Bulgarians to be very accurate as it turned out to be up further. One of the grottos had a nice fresco and a selection of sacred pictures. A lady was praying so I tried not to disturb her and went on.

I looked up upon at a big wall overhanging the small open space where I arrived an on top I could see the fences where I was standing behind an hour or so ago on my way to the fortress. Very impressive, so close but such a long way up.

After a bottle of much needed very cold water I on programmed my navigation system once again to my next destination, the Fortezza di Veliki Preslav but as no correct address was given I just went to the village where it was supposed to be, only it was another 9 kilometers away according to trip advisor. So I now focused on the map provided by trip advisor and I must admit the road was absolutely stunning. Loved every moment of it but once I arrived at my recommended destination… I was in the middle of nowhere.

Not that I was bothered as I was enjoying ever single moment of my journey. By now it was already almost 4 o’clock in the afternoon so instead of giving another highlight another try I decided to return to my hotel for a swim in the pool.

It was a wonderful day, 32 degrees Celsius, far to warm to climb the stairs to the fortress as I had experienced before but for Bulgarians too cold to open the outdoor swimming pool. By now I was in such a good mood I could not be disappointed and headed to the garden to enjoy a nice glass of white and work on my diary.

Service at the hotel was immaculate and so I decided to enjoy my dinner in stages. I ordered one course after the other whilst in the mean time I updated my journal.

It was a lovely evening, very relaxing, unlike the night before which was ruined by circumstances.

Next morning I started with a wonderful breakfast, packed my car and went on a stroll to a monument dedicated to 1300 years of Bulgaria. In order to get there there was however one major task to be completed. One stairway, over a kilometer long and more than 3000 steps. I do not know who came up with this idea but it was horrendous. Needles to say I needed several breaks on this stairway that seems to have no end. But I managed, well, I thought. When I arrived what I thought was the top there was another final stairway that led to the actual monument. Fortunately this one was not as long and almost completely out of breath it took me a while before I could start enjoying the monument.

And if this monument was made to impress they succeeded. Massive blocks of concrete were covered with cubist style Knights, horses and other people in armor. There was nothing to explain the meaning of the sculptures but guessing by the name of the monument I assumed they all were historical figures.

Three panels showed more scenes, beautifully created in a mosaic. I thoroughly enjoyed strolling around and then I have not even mentioned the stunning views over the town of Shumen. I could see the fort but decided to leave that as was as visiting that would require to conquer another stairway and after this one I decided I had enough for the day.

But I still had to descend, fortunately that was much easier than going up so when I arrived at the foot of the stairway I even could hold my breath.

Back at the hotel I grabbed my car and not much later I was on my way to Varna, my next destination for the next three days.

As soon as I left Shumen I found myself on the highway so I speeded up and drove towards the coast. Just over an hour later I approached Varna and pretty fast the traffic became far more hectic, like expected in a major city. I found my hotel rather easy and as expected it made a very trendy and design impression. After I checked in I went for a swim at the small pool at the fifth floor, followed by an afternoon nap.

When I woke up I went for a stroll to the beach which was about 4 blocks away. I had to cross a big park, which looked rather nice after which I made it to the beach. What can I say, a beach but definitely not my style as it was far to crowded for my taste. Loads of parasols, beach clubs and loud trance music everywhere. I knew I could have expected this but reality is always different then ones imagination.

I set down at one of the clubs for a drink and watched the world go by. It was amusing in a way but I did wonder whether I made the right decision to book three nights in Varna as the beach entertainment offered over here was nor particularly my cup of tea…

There was a nice boulevard leading into town, with plenty of terraces on each side. Also I witnessed some kind of demonstration, most likely from football fans. Although it was very noisy there was enough police surrounding them so I felt safe.

Back at the hotel I updated my journal, had another drink at the terrace but as not much was going on I decided to return to the boulevard and find a place where I could have something to eat. At one of the places I saw that mussels were being served so I did not hesitate longer, ordered a nice bottle of Bulgarian white and a portion of mussels. They were smaller than I was used to but very tasty indeed. The waiter even convinced me to a piece of homemade cake as desert which was the perfect ending of a nice day.

The next day was Sunday and as almost everybody had a day off I decided not to go and do any sightseeing but make a stroll on the beach. As expected it was crowded but I did enjoy the atmosphere. One of the disadvantages of traveling on your own is the uncertainty of leaving your things behind on a public beach so I decided to skip the swimming. At the end of the beach I made continued through the sea garden, the large park in front of the beach. I discovered the naval museum with a big exposition of Warcraft in front of it but decided not to go inside. Instead I wandered through a quiet rural area and somehow found my way back to the boulevard where I had a light lunch.

Some more hours at the beach watching the world going by and listening the the mindless noise called trance and enjoying a drink. When the sun was setting I returned to the park where a lot of activity was going on. There was a group of traditionally dressed ladies giving a concert, not much further there was some folk dancing, a young guy playing the piano and even some kind of hip hop performance. It seemed everything was happening at Sea Garden on a Sunday night…

Later that evening I returned back to my hotel. I had already noticed the menu card at the restaurant was very appealing and I could not imagine leaving Varna without even having tried. It turned out to have been a very wise decision…

The next morning it was time to collect my car again and go on a tour to Balchik, a small town north of Varna. The road was rather nice and at times I had great views over the Black Sea. My goal for today was the palace and botanical gardens of Balchik. It used to be the former summer residence of Queen Maria of Romania and I could easily understand why. Instead of a traditional palace she had built a collection of houses on a beautiful compound overlooking the sea.

The gardens themselves were rather small but nice. It had a big colorful patch of flowers in the centre and a cactus greenhouse.  Compared to the fantastical botanical garden I visited in Candy, Sri Lanka last year it was not very impressive, still I did enjoy it though.

After a coffee and some water at a restaurant I continued my way to the so called stone forest aside the old Varna-Sofia road. Getting there was an adventure by itself and a couple of times I got frustrated as I passed it on the highway and there was no exit present. Anyway, after having passed it twice in both directions I found the old road and then things were easy. The stone forest was on both sides of the road and was difficult to miss.

Although at first sight it appeared I found myself in a very badly maintained ruin the forest was a natural phenomenon, like a small desert with stones. It was rather appealing to walk through for ten minutes or so after which I returned to my car and made my way back to Varna.

Back at the hotel I passed my car keys to the bell boy who parked my car in the catacombs of the hotel whilst I went it for a late lunch. After that it was time for an afternoon nap and a swim.

Looking at my journal I noticed I had not written for two days in it so I grabbed my iPad and headed to a bar for a beer and some editorial work.

Later that evening I returned to the boulevard for dinner. Looking at my itinerary I realized I was already two thirds into my trip. In 4 days I would be in Plovdiv for three concerts at the Roman amphitheater in a row, needless to say I left the best for last… Marillion !!!

Next morning the regular shower breakfast and then it was time to hit the road again. I had enjoyed Varna but somehow I also also realize I would most, likely never come back. Like in Brazil also over here experienced busy city beaches are not my thing. Too noisy, too loud and far too many people…

As soon as I left the city centre I followed a nice coastal road with some good views over the beaches and the sea. At certain places there were plots filled with massive hotels and watermarks. Glad I was not staying in one of those either. The trip went very smooth and about 1 1/2 hour I arrived in Nessebar. What could I say the new part of town was in one word horrendous. Massive hotels packed upon each other with hardly any space in between, so glad I was not staying there.

I continued my journey to the peninsular where the old town was located and arriving there was not easy. It was packed with day tourists and the only place I could find to park was a large parking area outside the old city so I decided to leave the car there and proceeded to the hotel on foot. I was welcomed warm heartedly and given an access card which allowed me to enter the old city by car.

And that was easier said then done. I drove over the cobblestone narrow roads in a pace it would have been easier to leave my car where it was and pick it up the next day. The town was a labyrinth packed with people. Sometimes the streets were so narrow I doubted whether I could get through or not but I did manage after all…

20 minutes after I entered the city I found myself exactly where I started, but this time at the exit. U-turn, back through the entrance and second try. Fortunately the receptionist had given me a map of the old city and by showing that several time to what I hoped were locals I made it to the hotel.

After dropping the remainder of my luggage at the room I started a stroll through the city only to be amazed like there was no tomorrow. The place was so touristy I could hardly believe it. Apparently it was a popular day trip for those staying in one of the many hotels an new Nessebar. The amount of tat for sale was simply unbelievable. Large groups were following their leader like headless chickens.

And between all that fuzz it seemed to be difficult to see the Unesco protected buildings that made Nessebar so famous. Still I wandered around and enjoyed the place, it was simply a matter of disconnecting from the crowds.

Later that afternoon turned to my hotel for a nap and after that returned to a quiet part of town that I discovered earlier for some well deserved mojitos. One could really feel the town slowing down now the day people slowly returned to their resorts. As I liked the place and the view I decided to stay for dinner and enjoy a relaxing evening.

That night for whatever reason I had a very restless sleep. But like usual. Woke up around 8 in the morning, dozed a bit longer and then went for breakfast. Getting out of town was remarkably easy as it was still early and the day tourists had not appeared yet.

It was only just over an hours drive to my next destination Sozopol. Unlike Nessebar it was not on the Unesco list and that made a world of a difference. Yes there were still some souvenir stalls and groups of people being led through the cobble stone steers but all was so much more peaceful. Without question Nessebar originally was a far more beautiful full town before the commerce took over but atmosphere wise I did prefer Sozopol.

Round lunchtime I looked for a nice place with a view over the Black Sea and enjoyed a slow and extended lunch over there. It was lovely not to do anything at all but simply enjoy the waves crashing into the rocks far below me and the seagulls passing by looking for something to eat…

After lunch I made another stroll through the city and enjoyed the tranquil atmosphere. The cobblestone streets, the old houses and the lack of souvenir stalled that completely ruined Nessebar. I loved the place in it’s simplicity. After another stroll around I Went for my usual afternoon nap.

And it was quite a long one, I noticed by now I was getting rather tired because of all the impressions that were presented to me in a high pace. Fortunately by now I had learned to listen to my body and knew when things are enough and go for a break.

Later that day I returned to the old part of Sozopol and found another great place overlooking the sea for a drink and dinner. I wanted to update my journal but did not get far as I met a nice English women and we ended up in a vivid conversation.

Next morning it was raining a bit but in spite of that I drove to Radavino Castle. I was already warned about its extravagance but still could not stop laughing when I saw it. Everything was over the top and as kitsch one could think about. The decorations, the garden and the wine cellar, there was nothing tasty or classy that would describe the place but still I thought it was fun to see. Because of the rain I only did a short tour around the castle but I do not think I would have stayed much longer otherwise.

Once again I found myself on the road on my way to Kazanlak in the very centre of Bulgaria. The roads were leading through mountains on either side and I was thoroughly enjoying myself. Because I mainly drove on a highway I made good progress and 2 1/2 hours after departure I had already checked in at my hotel. Across the road I found a nice restaurant and after lunch I was on my way again towards the Buzludzha monument. Although I got to the right direction finding it was not as easy with all road signs being in Cyrillic. As I did not have the correct address my navigation system was rather useless as well.

So getting in the right direction first I visited a beautiful church in a small city called Pliska. The church was completely built by volunteers and one could already see it’s golden domes from far away as the sun was reflecting on them.

I found out I drove a bit to far so backtracked a bit and this time found the proper junction towards a badly maintained and very windy road that led to the monument.

The Buzludzha document was built by the local communist party and is now an epic exploration of Bulgaria’s communist past. The road leading to it offers a beautiful landscapes through the forest and villages far below.

I found a parking space where I left my car behind and climbed the narrow and steep path up to the monument. It was a rather exhausting climb so I had to rest for a couple of times. But I was glad I took the effort as when I arrived at the abandoned monument it’s impact could not have been bigger.

It looked like a giant ufo on top of a hill with a large column and the unmissable communist star on it. When Bulgaria became democratic most of the building was wrecked and now no more of it’s once majestic interior is left. It is a ruin covered with lots of graffiti. An empty symbol of a regime that once ruled the country.

Although it is strictly forbidden to go inside and all former entrances are now heavily secured people were still inside . I did manage to find the entrance but then decided against going inside on my own as it was a rather dangerous and tricky adventure.

The way downhill to the car was much easier going than going up to the monument and not much later I was already on my way back to Kazanlak. Once there I made a short stroll through the rather unappealing city centre and in the evening found a place for a nice bite to eat.

It was time for the final drive to Plovdiv, the main reason for my trip. It was only a 105 km drive which was leading through a beautiful landscape. Temperatures might still be very pleasant but the leaves on the trees were already changing their colors. A beautiful tapestry of green, yellow, reds and Browns covered the hills as the leaves had not fallen of their branches yet.

Once in Plovdiv I had some issues finding a parking spot but I did manage to get one outside the old town. I decided to leave it there for a day and make my way on foot into the old town. It was ether difficult to maneuver my suitcase over the uneven cobbled steep streets and the 1.4 km walk took me quite some time. On my way to the guesthouse though I saw a big billboard

Arriving at the hostel I could not have received a better welcome. Signs were everywhere personally welcoming guests by their name. By coincidence I found out that Hristina and Alex, who I knew through the Marillion Facebook group were also staying here.

After checking in I headed towards the amphitheater which was a leisure stroll away. There I witnessed the sound check of the Devin Townsend Project in full flow and enjoyed it from a terrace next to the theatre whilst zipping a well deserved beer. I met some other people who were going to the concert and it did not take long it was going to be an international event. People were coming from everywhere and there was a real vibe. It was also the first time I had goosebumps overlooking the theatre and hearing the sound heck. Superb!

Later in the afternoon I met Hristina and Alex again and the three of us went out for an early dinner. Unfortunately that was about the time we started to hear the first rumors the Manfred Mann gig had been cancelled (Apparently there were only 390 tickets sold due to bad promotion and too high prices for local standards). The Facebook group for the Marillion event was buzzing and quite some people were disappointed as well. But then something beautiful happened. Ivan Linkov, Valia Koleva, George ‘Duke’ Radushev and Zlatina ‘Titi’ Radusheva, four Bulgarian hardcore Marillion fans (and lovely people indeed) started to organize a party for Marillion fans instead of the now cancelled Manfred Man gig… But they only had 24 hours to organize everything… Would that be enough for a successful evening? We would find out…

At 5 o’clock we returned to the theatre where I picked up my ticket and we mingled with the crowd again. The atmosphere was great and everybody was ready for a great evening. At 6 o’clock the gates opened and we found a perfect spot to watch the gig.

The two hours we had to wait before the gig started did not take long as we were chatting with the people around us. The stage was massive and a lot of seats onstage were reserved for the Plovdiv Symphonic Orchestra that joined for the first set of the gig.

And then it started, and OMG what a special gig it was. Unfortunately the orchestra could not be heard very well in the mix but for sure it will sound completely different on the Blu-Ray of the gig that was recorded that evening. Still an amazing high energy performance that took quite a while. The first set was a on request set after which there was a 25 minute break when the stage was changed in layout.

During the second set we were treated on an integral performance of Ocean Machine, including the original bassist (seated on a chair due to health issues). It was a tremendous performance which I did enjoy a lot. Over three hours of music… At the end all three of us were rather chilly though so we returned to the guesthouse for a good night sleep.

Next morning Hristina, Alex and myself had breakfast after which I checked out and went to the other guesthouse I had booked for the last two nights. After I checked in over there I returned to my car and drove it through the narrow streets of the old city as I was offered a free parking spot.

Then I wandered through town again to do some sightseeing. It was clear the city was divided in two parts, the old part where the amphitheater was located, and the new part for the shopping centers and where people lived. Right now I decided to focus on the old part, which was the most attractive after all.

I went to the place where the wine-tasting was supposed to be held but was greeted by an unfriendly receptionist who only spoke Bulgarian. Also the ticket-boot from Eventim, that was located on the main shopping boulevard, did not provide useful information so I left things as they were…

Instead I returned to the bar next to the amphitheater for a coffee and update my journal. Temperatures had dropped considerably so after a while I returned to my guesthouse to pick up my jacket.

By now plans from my Bulgarian friends were already taking shape and they had booked a sports bar outside the center of Plovdiv for a family gathering. There were already 40-50 people interested so it was arranged we would meet later that day in front of the Roman Stadium in Plovdiv and take taxis to the sports bar. A Buffet with Bulgarian specialities was also arranged and it seemed that Ivan, Valia, George and Zlatina  indeed had achieved the impossible and actually were able to arrange a full blown party within 24 hours. Once again prove of the magic that only occurs within the Marillion family and the ultimate sign of Bulgarian hospitality. Yes it was a shame I would not see Manfred Mann live but now I was looking forward to something that without doubt was even more special.

I made another stroll over the cobbled roads of old Plovdiv towards the new centre. There I met Ronald and Diana, a Dutch couple, I already knew from facebook and we decided to go for a beer. We also met Ron, another Marillion fan and together we spent a nice afternoon, full of expectations for what was ahead.

Later that afternoon I returned to my hostel for a short nap. On the way there I met a very familiar face… We had a short chat and then I said goodbye to Steven Rothery, guitarist from Marillion, as without doubt he had a very busy agenda. Still I asked him whether he would be at the party that evening to which he vaguely answered with a big mile on his face: “One never knows what happens in Plovdiv…“.

After my nap I went to the Roman Stadium where I met the first Marillion fans. Some people I already knew but most of them were new. Not that that mattered as people from the Marillion family never remain strangers for long… People from all over Europe. Bulgaria, Netherlands, Germany, United Kingdom, but one from Australia as well (Alex). There was a positive vibe and a good buzz and everybody was looking forward to a very special evening.

There were quite some taxis arranged to transport all of us to the bar and in each of the taxi’s a Bulgarian speaking person was present and language problems were avoided.

It turned out to be a fantastic evening. One of us, Mike Stead was “secretly” celebrating his birthdays but those things do not stay secret for long so we all sang a birthday song and a birthday cake was presented to a visibly touched Mick.

After having met Steven Rothery earlier that day I already suspected he would be present at the party and I was not disappointed. A really nice guy who was genuinely having a good time, and who took time to speak with everybody present. At one point I quickly went to see him whilst he was in a discussion with other people and asked whether I could offer him a single malt whisky (I knew these is his favorite drink). Not much later he joined us at our table for a toast, a chat and the mandatory pictures…

What an evening, what a crowd and what a fabulous drink… That evening Ivan introduced me to mastika, the Bulgarian version of Ouzo. I loved it a lot so I had plenty of them. What I did not realize is how strong it was so at the end of the evening I was rather ehh drunk… Oh well, it was a holiday after all, and in spite of the mastika it was an evening I will never forget.

Next morning I had a much needed sleep-in and after a splendid breakfast wondered around Plovdiv. It was wonderful to see many Marillion T-shirts in the crowd. It was like an announcement of the magic that was to happen later that evening.

It was a beautiful day again but somehow I did not feel like sightseeing anymore. My mind was already set to the event that had triggered my journey to Romania and Bulgaria. Marillion performing live at the ancient Roman Amphitheater in Plovdiv… It all seemed to be a bit surreal but it was really happening…

As most members of the family members had platinum tickets (Another wonderful achievement of George ‘Duke’ Radushev) we were granted access 30 minutes before general admission and assigned seets on the first three rows center stage. The best seats in the theater… It was another surreal thing to an event I knew was going to be so extraordinary special, even more so than ordinary Marillion gigs. The gig was still another two hours away but in the mean time all of us enjoyed this very special atmosphere with a small group of dedicated people lucky enough to have this special treat.

It seemed to last ages before the theater was filling up and shortly I was afraid Marillion would have to perform before a half empty theater. Hristina however told me this was normal at Bulgarian gigs as no one seems to be in a rush. And there was no reason to be worried as before the gig started the theater was full and an exciting buzz filled the air.

At 8 o’clock sharp we could hear bees humming and there will not have been many people in the audience not knowing this was the beginning of El Dorado, the opening track of Marillion’s latest album F.E.A.R. The next two and a half hours or so I was on a different planet. That happens during most of the Marillion gigs intend as they are always such an expression of emotion and feelings. It is difficult to explain what this band means to me so I am not even going to try. Fact is that once again I was enjoying the music that I loved most, surrounded by people who understood perfectly what it means, in an ancient place where 2000 years ago the Romans would have had no clue that a rock band would be treating fans from all over in a place they once founded with completely different ideas. But now, the 24th of September 2017, the Ancient Roman Amphitheater in Plovdiv was a magic place… We come together…

Early, far to early for my liking an end came to the concert. But did it really happen? Was I there? What an experience! After the concert a group of us still went to a restaurant for a late meal and discussing the gig. One thing all of us had in common, this almost unnatural smile on our faces. What a brilliant gig at a very special location.

Next day I had difficulties with the fact it all was over. It’s been a long time I had been looking forward to this whole trip but now it was time to go home again. Expectations turned into memories, sweet memories. I picked up Hristina and Alex and together we drove to Sofia. That evening we had one final dinner, together with Ron, Ronald and Dianne. One final dinner with people who were brought together because of music.

One more sleep and it was all over. At the airport I met Ron, Ronald and Dianne again as we were booked on the same flight to Eindhoven.. A short bus and train ride later I was home.

It had not been the first time Marillion triggered a trip. Numerous time I had flown to the UK for a series of gig and I still remember mu journey for cruise to the Edge in 2014. But every time my trips were completely dedicated to the concerts after which I returned home immediately. This was the first time Marillion inspired a full holiday for me to two countries which normally I would most likely not have visited in a while.

But what a surprise it had been. I can only say I thoroughly enjoyed my journey to two of the oldest civilizations in Europe. As I had no idea on what to expect I went there with an open mind. Both neighboring countries were significantly different and each of them had it’s unique charms. I had a wonderful three and a half week which once again showed me you do not need to travel far to have a wonderful trip. I wonder which my next European adventure will lead me to but first my eyes are focused on the east again for two trips in 2018…

Note: The live pictures on this page from the Devin Townsend Project gig are not mine. I found them on several resources at the internet. The brilliant Marillion pictures are shot by Ron Kraaijkamp, a friend and member of the Marillion family, who kindly allowed me to use his pictures. Also the pictures from The Marillion family gathering are from his hand.