Leaving Sofia, Kevin and I journeyed over to Veliko Tarnovo, which was the capital of Bulgaria during the dark ages, or known as the ‘Second Bulgarian Empire’. It’s hard to imagine, but Bulgaria was an important, expanding empire before 1000 AD. They actually had influence and prestige in comparison to the rest Western Europe. Oh, how times have changed.
Our trip took over three hours so they chose to show us Bulgaria’s choice in family entertainment: ‘The Punisher’. This brutal 2004 film turned out to be an appropriate choice of viewing, given how close we came to death as the bus driver, with his dark shades and static smirk, conducted some of the most extreme overtaking I’ve ever witnessed.
Upon arriving in this sleepy-looking town, we did another of our trademark exhausting walks from the Veliko Tarnovo Bus Station and up a hill, using the far-away fortress as our guide. The town slowly revealed its beauty as we followed the winding road over bridges and valleys, until we reached the enchanting Roman fortress on the top of a hill. We’d stopped for a moment to catch our breath, enjoy the view and to take a few photos, when we were approached by a short, buff Bulgarian man with a blue tee-shirt, who’d spotted us with our backpacks from afar.
“Hello, where are you staying? Come with me, I have a nice hotel.”
“We have accommodation, thanks,” we replied, turning back from the fortress gates and attempting to walk back in the opposite direction.
“Where are you from? English?”
“We’re Australian,” I replied.
“Come here! See! Look at my book, I have Australia comment.”
Even though we should have walked away, we were curious to see what was written inside his notebook. He flicked through a couple of pages and showed us a message written in shaky handwriting, like a child trying to impress their teacher I second grade.
“This is a beautiful hotel, great views, cheap price and great service. I do not think he is a bad man. – John, England.”
And that was all that was written. We tilted our heads back up at the man, who with his red eyes and unsettling gaze did, in fact, look like a bad man. My eyes glanced over the message again, in case there was a secret message begging us to save him from the man’s little dungeon, but there was none; perhaps the man had torn out that page.
It was also interesting that the person had written that he didn’t think he was a bad man. That left yet another layer of uncertainty. But as he the bad man pleaded us to come back to his hotel, we ignored him and made our way down a winding stony path which led to our hostel.
Our hostel was featured in an article in the Sydney Morning Herald with the caption: ‘Is this Eastern Europe’s best hostel?’ and even though it’s pointless to argue whether something is ‘the best’, there was a magic to Hostel Mostel, due to its great location and view, the hostel’s relaxed layout, and the convenience of everything – they even had an honour-system whereby you took any drink you wanted from the fridge and noted it on a list, paying for everything when you checked out. The only problem was, when checking out, they noticed that I’d only taken one beer and three bottles of water. “You’re Australian, yes? Are you okay?” they asked.
I shrugged. “I’m going through an identity crisis,” I explained.
During breakfast we struck up a conversation with a group of young Canadians, and so, as often happens when you meet Canadians, we were soon riding in the back of a 4-wheeled-drive, looking for a waterfall to jump off. We stopped at a nice, remote monastery on the way, but all the monks surrounding the gloomy Orthodox chapel appeared to be topless Bulgarian men chopping wood and smoking cigarettes. Come to think of it, I’m not even sure they were monks at all.
The waterfall-jumping action was textbook waterfall-jumping, so I don’t need to go into any details. Let’s just say that I was the first to jump off, although two of the girls actually waded into the lake first to make sure it was deep enough. But Kevin and I were confused when, drying off after the waterfall-jumping and swimming experience, it was revealed that we were hopping in a rented car in search of a UFO.
But we didn’t ask questions. Only half-way towards the UFO did I ask for an explanation about where we were going. After all, I was merely picturing some stupid UFO-sighting location. But as it turned out, they were looking for something less made up and more realist and Soviet, so this excited me.
The only problem was that I couldn’t seem to get my hands on my daily lunchtime coffee. Hungry after our swim, Matt, Kevin, Blaine and I went to a corner store which boasted ‘English menu’, ‘Lunch’ and ‘Coffee’. But when I asked for a coffee, handing money to the old Bulgarian lady and pointing at the machine, she smiled, looked at the coffee machine and replied with a short, firm ‘no.’ Interesting. We had further troubles when I asked for a beer and a coke – because when she asked ‘you want beer and coke?’ I made the mistake of smiling and nodding. She took the beer and put it back in the fridge. I sighed and paid for the coke.
What we’d forgotten was that in Bulgaria, nodding your head means no, and shaking your head in a wobbly fashion means yes. This explained many other instances of miscommunications we’d had in the past week when ordering food, and in a way it was very funny. We sat and ate kebapche (a Balkan staple consisting of a log of fried mince, which I’m pretty sure ihs the same as Serbian chevapcheche) and then prepared to find the Soviet-UFO everybody was talking about.
It was an interesting mix of people. In some ways it was like a Scooby-Doo mystery, with Kevin and I as Scooby-Doo and Scrappy-do respectively (because of my hair). In another way, it was like the entourage of a horror movie. We had two Canadians with us – one was Matt, a young engineer student from Toronto, who was the most keen on seeing this ‘UFO’, and then we had Blaine, an adventurous blonde girl who drove the car and seemed to have no fear (because she had spent the waterfall expedition scaring me by teetering over the edge of a cliff on one foot), and we had two Portuguese-speakers—one a young, pinked-shirted Portuguese man who seemed nice, but had a touch of sleaze to him, and Carlos, a middle-aged Brazillian man with a gut, who had an annoying tendency to rudely interrupt our conversations with a loud “Eh?!?”
Carlos also was one of those people who feels the need to be the leader in a situation, even though they might not know where the group are headed. Just like Kevin and I, all he knew was that we were going somewhere interesting with some Communist connection. But despite his lack of knowledge he decided to ask Bulgarians for directions–which seemed strange, given he had a poor grasp of English and definitely didn’t know Bulgarian, and also because, in his thick Brazillian accent, he would ask Bulgarians at petrol stations such vague questions as “Hello, we are looking for the Communism! Can you please tell us how to find the Communism?”
Matt wasn’t very happy that Carlos was revealing to where we were going to complete strangers, as it was illegal to trespass there, and apparently days before, another group of Canadians had been found trying to enter the UFO and were turned away by police. Besides, Bulgarians don’t like to talk about the Soviet days—and definitely didn’t want to talk about this Communist-UFO. But as it turned out, the Bulgarian man he asked knew exactly what way to the Communism, and pointed us in the right direction.
We noticed that many drivers and motorcyclists passing were nodding at us – just friendly motorists, proud of us going on this secret journey. So after travelling for nearly two hours, we parked the car and looked up the hill; it was a hill which was hidden by many others, and right at the top, half-hidden by mist, was a concrete UFO-like building, with a tall tower next to it with a red star. It seemed like something straight out of a fifties science fiction film. We trekked up a winding path, gasping in awe (within reason) and trying to work out the meaning behind it all. My first thought was ‘Freemasons!’ but apparently not.
Around the entrance were huge concrete symbols, with gigantic stone stairs leading up to huge closed doors indicating a sealed-off entrance. But very shortly we found a hole in the concrete, which we managed to crawl into by standing on three clumps of stone. One person would crawl inside, careful not to cut their backs on glass, then we would pass our bags and bottles of water up inside to that person, and slowly we all crawled inside—even Carlos, who originally refused to come inside until he realised that we didn’t actually care, and then asked me to help him crawl in.
The concrete walls would periodically crumble as we tried to grasp it, and we had to lookout for protruding pieces of glass and rusty metal. Once we crawled out of the darkness and up the echoing concrete steps, we emerged in a strange amphitheatre, covered in rubble and red plastic dust – the red plastic seemed to be, indeed, the ‘communism’ itself. Various decaying murals were painted all over the circular walls – some images seemed to celebrate the victory over the Turks in the 19th century, and others were portraits of Communist leaders, although with one face curiously removed.
The faint hint of a moustache on the removed portrait indicated that it could have been Stalin, but since there was no sign of Lenin on the wall, it was probably some Bulgarian Communist leader unknown to me. The overall impression, though, was that a bomb had gone off in the centre.
We explored for an hour, sometimes climbing down into dark passages, looking down carefully so as not to fall into steep drops that seemed to fall down to nowhere. For a while, I followed Matt underground, as he’d strapped a torch to his head. Water would drip on our heads, and to add to the atmosphere, the mist from the clouds would pour in through little holes in the walls. Concrete continued to crumble everywhere we crawled, and it’s unsettling to think how easily we could have been injured. But at the time it was all just awesomely atmospheric.
But I was too busy taking photos of the place, so much that I lost everyone in the group bar Carlos, the one person I didn’t want to be stuck with. I searched around for a while, but everyone had vanished. Carlos and his bad English led me to believe that ‘they go!’ so I took that to mean that they’d crawled out of the UFO and had gone back to the car. So I held Carlos’ water bottle and glasses, then helped him crawl out and together, we walked down the hill.
But I could not see the rest of the group anywhere, so I told Carlos that I wanted to go back inside to look for them.
“Eh?!’ he asked, looking at me in annoyance, and gesturing me to come back down the hill with him. After walking for a few metres I stopped. But when Carlos didn’t look back and continued to march down the hill, I ignored him and climbed back inside the UFO.
But this time I was alone and I still had no idea where the others were. I tried to call Kevin on my mobile, and I eventually got through – but it was too crackly, and all I could make up was ‘the stairs, we’re at the tower’. But I was trying to work out how going down the stairs and into the darkness would lead me up the tower. Besides, the red star tower appeared to be detached from the UFO. I decided to exit the UFO again and to find the entrance to the red star.
But outside again, I saw Carlos in the mist, waving his hands at me, still yelling ‘eh!?’ I walked around the huge UFO, ignored him, and then realised that the only way inside the tower would be back inside the UFO. Great. But I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of going back inside – crawling in through that hole the second time, I’d already slightly grazed my back on some glass. But my mind was made up for me, because in the distance I noticed that some Bulgarians had unleashed their pet dog, which was running and barking towards me. As it ran out of the mist, I noticed that it had a unique facial structure—it was a pit-bull terrier. I didn’t waste time and hopped right back up into the hole, nearly getting stuck in the gap, and hurried back inside the Communism.
I stumbled around for a while, helpless and lost, sometimes crawling down into mysterious, dark cellars, then turning back because I didn’t have a torch with me. But luckily, after about fifteen minutes, Blaine had appeared, shining a torch at me and saying ‘there you are!’
I had been saved.
The only problem was that usually, if a blonde girl leaves a group to find someone who’s lost (in this case me, Scrappy-do) she will end up dying. But luckily horror films are fairly fictional and all that in the end, she guided me down into a basement area, where she showed me an iron-ladder, which revealed itself once ducking down into another hole in the concrete wall. The ladder went vertically up into darkness, so she shone her head-torch from under me and together, we climbed up 25 ladders. It was a very good workout and should probably be replicated in gymnasiums.
At the top I saw Kevin and Matt sitting triumphantly on the top of the tower, surrounded by so much mist that we couldn’t actually see any scenery. I had felt quite embarrassed about getting lost, but it didn’t matter once we were at the top. I had made it, and Carlos hadn’t. That was the most important thing.
As I’d had this experience without getting my usual lunchtime coffee, the only thing keeping me going was the adrenaline which the mysterious setting provided. So by the time we drove back to Veliko Tarnovo, the adrenaline was well-and-truly gone and I felt like a ruined man. But it was nice to join the Canadians for pizza later that night, eating at a fancy Bulgarian cafe and enjoying a whiskey and coke. It was a nice end to the evening and Tanja, a tall, extroverted Vancouver girl, bought a bottle of cheap wine for us to share as we walked back to our hostel.
It was now past midnight and people were exhausted after such a jam-packed day. Little did we know that a new adventure was about to unfold – an adventure that taught all of us something about the notion friendship.
It all began when Tanja and I were trailing behind the rest of the group, sharing wine from the bottle and chatting. A white stray dog suddenly emerged from under a bench an trotted next to us, lightly wagging its tail and sniffing our fingers. Tanja petted it and let it lick her fingers. Soon it was joined on the street by black-and-white dog, and they both followed us for a few minutes, wagging their tails and playfully biting each other’s snouts. When the original white dog vanished, we were left with this new black-and-white variety of street dog whose tail didn’t wag so much; this new friend had decided that we were a pack – and he was now our leader.
There are humans like this too, who need to be the leader of the pack rather than seamlessly blending in and adding to the conversation. They remain quiet, on the lookout for danger, prepared to risk their lives for the good of the group, whether the group wants them to or not.
The problem was that as we moved down into one of the tight, cobble-stoned alleys which led back to our hostel, it became clear that basically every other dog in Veliko Tarnovo hated this new dog—which Tanja and I had Christened ‘Mr Buddy’. Because as we moved down the alley and ignored their first barks, Mr Buddy barked back, then began whining.
We pondered whether it would be safe to continue via this route. Matt warned us that he’d met a guy who’d spent a night in Veliko Tarnovo nights before who’d been bitten on the heel by these same dogs, and whose trip now involved an agonising search for a hospital for rabies shots. So we just couldn’t take the risk. We needed to be rid of Mr Buddy.
But we couldn’t see to shake him off! Blaine and I (in hysterics because of the absurdity of the situation) tried to lead Mr Buddy up another small, winding path in between various houses, but after he followed us up halfway, a kitten arched up its back and hissed at him. He ran away with a whine. This was ridiculous. I took him aside for a little chat.
“Look, Mr Buddy. I don’t know how to say this but – you’re kind of getting in the way.”
Mr Buddy looked at me, confused.
“It’s not that we don’t like you. But you’re just sort of fucking up our shit. You see, those dogs down the road—they’re winners. You? You’re just a loser. No offence.”
Unfortunately no offence was taken, and he continued to stay on the lookout, making out that he would protect us against anything, when he was, in fact, a coward. We continued our attempts to rid of him, in fact we nearly succeeded when Mr Buddy was distracted by a group of Bulgarian teenage boys. But even after we had run down a tight set of stairs and down into another steep lane-way, it didn’t take long for Mr Buddy to find us again.
We were still laughing and passing the bottle of wine around, taking large gulps and yelling “Just fuck off, dog!” But it all became a bit scarier when we attempted to hail a cab; which we hoped would stop and take us to the entrance of our hostel. But once one arrived, Mr Buddy ran and jumped up at the driver’s window, trying to bite his arm—which was enough to make the taxi ignore us. Mr Buddy then looked up as if to say: ‘Don’t worry guys, I’ve got your back.’
Frustrated, we tried to enter our hostel from around the side alley. But as soon as we did this, we heard the dogs barking angrily from both sides, leaping out of bushes! They had ambushed us! Mr Buddy, of course, ran away whimpering, abandoning us like we all knew he would. Our group hurried up two sets of stone steps – I took another swig of wine and even managed to stop laughing for a while when I realised we might get attacked.
The problem was, we wrongly assumed the dogs were merely protecting their little piece of territory. But when they chased up the steps, it seemed that they probably WERE intending to hurt us (although I argue that they probably didn’t want to take on a group of five humans), so we hurried into a gate for a swanky-looking hotel, blocking Mr Buddy from entering. Then I closed the gate and shrugged at Mr Buddy.
We all huddled around the entrance in a mild panic, taking out the hostel’s pamphlet so we could call them. Then a Bulgarian man noticed us, came out from behind reception and asked if we were okay. We apologised to him and interrupted each other in out attempts to explain our stupid situation, but he smiled and invited us to sit down inside the hotel and relax.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
“Hostel Mostel! We need them to help us! The dogs were chasing us!”
There were no dogs to be seen, except for Mr Buddy who was outside, whining.
“No,” he smiled, “what country?”
It was a bit embarrassing how nervous we all seemed. Obviously Bulgarians are completely used to these dogs and know how to deal with them (I think they just ignore them) and our group of Canadians and Australians, supposedly hardened from having to face dingos and bears on a daily basis, were coming across as cowards. But he happily phoned up our hostel, spoke to them in Bulgarian, and arranged for them to pick us up. When the young guy from reception drove over to the hotel, he was partially amused and partially annoyed. We thanked the man at the hotel and clamored inside the minivan. Mr Buddy was NOT allowed in.
We stayed up on the terrace chatting until four in the morning. I took a shower, remembering I’d begun the day swimming in a murky lake, and having gone an entire day with only one coffee, it wasn’t hard to fall asleep. I only woke up once, and it was at the sound of a whining dog being attacked at the entrance to our hostel.
Sorry Mr Buddy. Sometimes you need to surround yourself with winners.