The alarms were set for 5:30 AM, and it was that we grumpily got up and threw all our clothes on. We left the hostel only twenty minutes later for a dark walk through the early morning streets of Sofia to the Central Railway Station. Today, we would be heading on a day trip to Plovdiv, the second largest city in Bulgaria.
We found our train awaiting us in the quiet platforms, and piled our belongings into the first-class carriage. We were in an old fashioned eastern European train, with six-berth compartment all to ourselves, which made us feel like we had travelled back in time. Our train made its way through the Bulgarian landscape, which was a mix of some signs of modernity with obvious elements of the socialist era constructions. We watched the sun rise over the mountains as we climbed through a snowy mountain pass.
At the top of the mountain pass, our train stopped at a small railway station and would not move again for around an hour. Numerous trains passed us the other way and so we assumed that we were waiting for the line to clear. We were chatting and eating our previously bought breakfast when the conductor came around to ask us for our tickets. He only spoke Bulgarian, and each time we told him that we only spoke English, he repeated what he had said in Bulgarian only louder. We presume that he was trying to tell us that the train was late but the only thing we could do was attempt to hand him the tickets. Eventually, he took them away, which made us nervous because the return ticket details were on there as well. A while later, he came back with handwritten slips for each of us, which we couldn’t decipher, but the train started moving again and he didn’t return except to tell us we were arriving in Plovdiv.
At the station, we met our guide, Dmitrov, who awaited us in a white minibus. He was excited to meet us (we had phoned ahead to tell him our train was late), and drove us out of the city and up an unassuming mountain road. We quickly gained a great elevation with views down to the city below. We passed by a quarry and a small village, and turned onto an unmade road which took us a short way into our forest. There, his colleague had prepared and saddled six horses for us, among a number more that were standing in a field yonder. Dmitrov gave us a rather abridged lesson on how to mount, dismount, steer, start and stop our horses. He then lined us up to select horses for us. I was chosen first; I was to ride Lisco, whose name meant Red Fox to match his red mane and coat. Apparently this was because I was “the strongest” according to Dmitrov. Next, was Jacqueline, who was assigned to Tundzha (with the explanation that she was “a girl”). Annalise was given Gencho, due to her “short legs”. Of the final two, Paul was given the alpha male Bromeo and Krittika’s horse was named after the Bulgarian for White Star.
We mounted our horses and set off down the road. There was an assigned order to the precession; Dmitrov was at the front, followed by Annalise, Krittika, Jacqueline, myself and Paul. We went a short way down the track all happy and well until something spooked Paul’s horse, which panicked and started to run forwards. This startled mine as well, which reared slightly, but I was able to pull the reins back to calm him down. The damage was down now though, since Krittika and Annalise’s horses ran as well (Jacqueline’s had strayed from the path at this point). With great skill, Annalise calmed her horse down, but Krittikas ran and reared, and she toppled to the ground. Fortunately, she didn’t hurt anything other than her pride and confidence, and Dmitrov was able to help her get back on her horse (once it had calmed down). This panicked Paul a little as well, who kept his horse well back from the rear of the group from now on.
We wandered around the side of a knoll to a narrow mountain path. From here, each of our horse’s personalities started to show. Annalise’s horse stuck like glue to the rear of our guide’s horse. Jacqueline’s horse would start eating at every conceivable opportunity, and she struggled to get it moving again. Krittika’s didn’t always want to start, and so would stop and turn when it felt like it and she struggled to get it moving again. Paul’s was lazy and stayed to the back out of trouble, but he didn’t want to bring it forward in the line. My horse felt fine, it responded to all of my guides and went wherever I wanted it to go. Eventually, the group split in two, Annalise and Dmitrov at the front and the rest behind; Dmitrov getting frustrated with Krittika’s horse’s slow progress. Eventually he called me through to try and get her horse to follow, but this tended to leave me and Annalise at the front and the remainder trailing.
We detoured through a tall forest to a grassy knoll where the horses sat and ate for a while. We didn’t dismount but instead looked at the view beyond. After the horses had had their lunch, we tracked further around the mountain and then down a steep slope towards a watering trough. The last few metres towards the trough were very steep, and so while Annalise’s and my horses tentatively walked down, when the other’s caught up they struggled to convince them to go, much to our amusement. Some of the horses drank a little, but the others proved the old idiom about horses and water.
Our next destination was a short way around the side of the mountain. We arrived at an old abandoned monastery, or so our guide claimed. In reality, it was a pair of small shrines built into the side of the mountain. We parked our horses and dismounted to explore a little; the horses taking a short breather. Here we chatted more to Dmitrov to learn about the kinds of rides that he led for three to seven days through the Bulgarian mountains.
When the horses were ready, we got back on to head back to the van. Dmitrov led us through a bit of trotting and cantering, with my horse briefly and exhilaratingly reaching a full gallop. I found this amazingly fun, it felt really great to have the horse moving beneath me. However, after crossing a small mudded creek, Paul’s horse spooked again and ran, which scared him greatly but fortunately everybody got their horses under control before they fell off. Sooner than I would have liked, we found ourselves back with the van and had to dismount and say goodbye to our steeds.
Dmitrov drove us back into the centre of town and recommended a restaurant in the old town for lunch. Eager, we climbed up the cobbled streets of one of the seven hills of Plovdiv to find the restaurant, which was small and unassuming but served us a set of sizzling Kavarma; chicken or pork served on a hot plate. We ate it all relatively quickly and set out to explore some more of the Plovdiv old town. The key highlight was the old Roman amphitheatre. The semicircular, tiered seating was built into the side of the hill, seemingly untouched for thousands of years. Paul, Annalise and Krittika sat at the top drinking coffee while Jacqueline and I went to walk around the theatre, soaking in the surreal experience.
After coffee, we walked down the hill, past a small old church, in search of the Roman Stadium. We discovered that this was built underneath the main street of modern day Plovdiv, the semi-circular seating at the end preserved beneath the main square. We walked the length of the stadium, then spontaneously turned right to climb up another of the seven hills of Plovdiv. This gave us great panoramic views over the city, as we clambered over the rocky outcrops near the top of the hill. The difference between Roman, medieval, socialist and modern day Plovdiv was stark and plain to see. We slowly navigated down the side of the hill and walked slowly through the park, watching the people interacting in the open public space. One thing that Bulgarians seem to utilize better than other places is their public space. From here, we walked slowly to the train station, at first getting slightly lost and ending up at the goods station. We checked in the ticket office to make sure we had everything we needed and went to find our train. On the way, we saw a juice stand and decided to get some drinks, but the guy operating the stand would manually press the juices in a small, household juicer after each order. On the third order, the juicer broke, and by the time he fixed it, the train was almost due to depart. Armed with our juice, we made our way back onto the train (the same compartment and carriage as the morning’s journey) and rode back through the Bulgarian countryside to Sofia. We watched the sun set over the horizon and played games with each other in the darkness. Our conductor was much nicer this time too. In the end, we arrived back in Sofia a minute ahead of schedule, and went almost straight to sleep when we finally returned to our hostel.