The great thing about Sofia is that the quiet of wilderness is never more than just an hour away. Like I have
been saying, Bulgaria actually has a very efficient and functional public transit network that (in contrast to the bemoaning of some Bulgarians) manages to reach the most tucked away corners of the country. The key is understanding how buses are organized. Buses leaving Sofia’s Central Bus Station are usually going to larger towns and regional administrative seats. Sometimes they include resort towns like Rila, Koprivshtitsa, and Belogradchik. Sofia also has several other smaller bus stations (like Avtogara Zapad in Ovcha Kupel at the corner of Tsar Boris III and Ovcha Kupel Blvd., Avtogara Poduyane/Iztok on Todorini Kukli Street in Hadji Dimiter, Avtogara Sever located next to the Sever Train Station in Lev Tolstoy, and Avtogara Yugunder the Durvenitsa Overpass near the Jolio Curie Metrostation) that serve nearby towns and sometimes larger villages in that direction; Zapad serves towns and villages in the southwest, Pouyane serves those in the north, and Yug to those in the east. Bulgaria is divided up into 28 oblasts (provinces) that all have a provincial capital. The provinces luckily are named after these capitals (for example Blagoevgrad is the capital of the Blagoevgrad province). There are buses from Sofia going to every single oblast. Within the oblasts, they are further divided into obshtinas (municipalities) of which there are 231 in the entire country (in 2009, some municipalities with large population losses were consolidated into other municipalities). If you need to get to a municipality, there will be a bus from the
provincial capital. For example, I traveled to Trun which is a municipality in the Pernik Oblast, in southwestern Bulgaria. Luckily, there are several Sofia-Trun buses, albeit leaving from Avtogara Zapad, but they all pass through Pernik, which has additional buses going to Trun. Almost all municipalities will have a bus station, and its from these municipal bus station that you can reach the smallest villages, within the boundaries of the municipality. Most villages have at least one round-trip bus a day.
Most buses going to smaller places will also be smaller – microbuses seating up to 25 people and
referred to as marshrutka. Within Sofia, there is a large network of marshrutkas, which charge 1.50 lev a ride and have fixed routes. Unlike buses, which only stop at marked places, marshrutkas will pick you up and let you off anywhere in their fixed route. This is one of the advantages, as is the fact that they are faster and more nimble than city buses, crossing the city in a half hour where some buses take an hour. Most buses going to smaller villages are also marshrutka, which is nice because they are also maneuver more easily on winding country roads than bulky buses, often flying like a bat out of hell.
If you wish, read along and underline one of the choices to illustarte your own Balkan Marshrutka Adventure:
If you choose to travel by marshrutka in Bulgaria, it’s sure to be a memorable experience. Your driver will probably have a (balkanstache / beer belly / both a balkanstache and a beer belly), and continuously (smoke cigarettes / drink espresso / curse at other motorists). The radio will be playing (Savage Garden / something with a warbling clarinet / Deep Purple) so loud that you will need to scream to the person next to you. The person next to you will smell like (powdery perfume / underarms / sheep). The marshrutka itself is usually a late model (Mercedes-Benz / Peugeot / Fiat) packed to the brim. Passengers will include (a nakhalna woman / an old baba widow dressed in black / a woman with a thicker moustache than the driver), a stinky farmer with a bag full of (conserves / rakia / lamb meat), a beautiful tall young woman getting off the marshrutka in the most remote place, a shirtless guy with a gold chain, a (drunk person / crying baby), and a confused foreigner. You will eventually take the marshrutka to (your grandmother’s village / an old hizha / the monastery), where by the
time you get there, you will have (been offered a hunk of feta cheese / been conned out of your seat by an old lady / thrown up from the
ride). In any sense, there’s no better way to get to know Bulgarians or Bulgarian culture.
On this day, my friend Mr. P and I decided to visit the Erma River Gorge, a rarely-visited but beautiful place near the town of Trun, on the Serbian border, about an hour-and-a-half drive from Sofia. The river isn’t so big – it begins in Serbia, enters Bulgaria, cuts through the mountains near Trun in a dramatically narrow gorge, and enters Serbia again to meet up with the Nishava River.
We chose Trun because neither I nor Mr. P had ever been, and Mr. P was one stamp away from receiving his bronze pin from the Bulgarian Tourist Union for having visited 25 of the 100 National Tourist Sites. The gorge would be site #25 for him. We boarded the 8:00 bus from the Avtogara Zapad, which we almost didn’t make because the sign on the bus didn’t list Trun as a stop. Luckily Mr. P asked an old lady, and she verified that this bus, indeed, went to Trun. When in Bulgaria, you’re going to meet a lot of nakhalni people. It’s hard to translate nakhalna directly into English, but it means a combination of nosy, bossy, and morally superior. When a strange woman in a store is asking you 100 questions about your love life and how much money you make and at the same time scolding you for the items in your grocery cart, she is being nakhalna. On this certain marshrutka ride, the token nakhalnawoman was sitting in the front seat of the bus, blocking our entry. “There’s no more room!” she said. “Nonsense!” I said, fighting back. “Why isn’t Trun listed on the sign on the bus?” I
yelled at her. “Let us in and we’ll stand.” The driver, who had a moustache and a beer belly, screamed over
the clarinet music that we would probably “have to stand until Pernik,” at which there would be another bus with empty seats. The nakhalna women got out and said “hold on, hold on, I have to move so you can get in…” and proceeded to sigh so loudly, it was if someone had let all the air out of the Goodyear Blimp. I doubt that she actually worked for the bus company, yet apparently she was the person I needed to negotiate with.
The Sofia-Trun marshrutka is run by a company out of Trun named Rumasiya-2005 (many companies in Bulgaria are named after the owner’s wife/girlfriend and the year in which it was started). It was a brand new Volkswagen passenger van that had seats for 22, but was carrying 30. Once we got to Pernik, however, we were able to switch to another bus going to Trun owned by the same company.
We arrived in Trun a few minutes before 10:00, a total of two hours of travel time. This includes a 20 minute break in Pernik and constant stopping and picking up people, so if you have a car, Trun is probably about an hour and fifteen minutes away from Sofia. Once in Trun, it’s a three kilometer walk to the gorge from the bus station. We had planned to walk this, however we met a nice baba on the marshrutka that told us she lived in the gorge and grew herbs for sale. She said that once we arrived that there would be a bus to
take us into the gorge, of which there was. There are two villages in that direction from Trun: Lomnitsa and Petachintsi, though when I asked the baba at what time the bus from Trun traveled, she told me the times for Sofia. “No, I mean this bus that we’re on…” but she just looked ahead and said “oh, I don’t know.” We asked the driver too, but he also muttered an “I don’t know,” which either means that these people were idiots or that they just couldn’t understand what I was asking (eventually when I got back to the Trun bus station, I asked the attendant, and she told me that the Lomnitsa buses leave at 7:45 in the morning and 16:00 after lunch, neither of which were times for the bus we were on – I guess the 10:20 bus is a Petachintsi bus). We exited the gorge bus at a small bridge next to three houses.
The baba let us in her yard, and told us that she would like to give us a demonstration about herbology in
her demonstration room. I find that Bulgaria has a large collection of colorful pensioners, and I’m always interested in the things that they have to say, so I agreed. She then promptly told Mr. P that she needed to “feed her goat,” and that he needed to “…come break some branches off of a tree, because he was tall.” For the next thirty minutes we were conned into some yard work, and I stepped in a nettles bush, which isn’t pleasant.
Finally, we sat down in the demonstration room and baba introduced herself as a Dr. Evginiya Dimitrova, although her doctorate was in economic theory, not botany. She showed us some teas that she had made from thyme, basil, lemongrass, and others, touting the affects and healing properties of these plants and that salvia will “calm you down.” I’m not really into herbal tea, but what did spark my interest was that she has some fresh arugula, which is really hard to find. I told her this is what I would like to buy, which cost me 2.50 leva for 100 grams, which is a deal because I pay between 3 and 4 in Sofia. Also, this arugula had a much stronger flavor.
Around 11:00, we finally said goodbye, and Ms. Dimitrova told us how to get to the gorge. The entire area is encircled by the Trun ecotrail, starting on the main road next to Ms. Dimitrova’s house where there is a bridge and a dirt road bearing to the right. Information and maps can be found at the ethnographic museum in Trun, or at the large hotel off of the main square. There are also maps and information at the Hizha Erma, on the road halfway between Trun and the gorge, where the stamp for our books was located and a room runs about 10 leva a night. The Trun ecotrail is 11 kilometers in a circle, hitting Monastery of Michael the Archangel, the gorge itself, Village Petachintsi, Village Trunska Bankya, the smaller Trunska Bankya Gorge, and back to the monastery. There are lots of well-marked signs, and on the weekends there will be lots of other people around. We didn’t opt to hike the entire 11 kilometers; instead we did a two kilometer loop and sat and ate sandwiches.
If you’re going to make sandwiches, I recommend buying the mediterranean ciabatta from the Dutch Bakery
(JoVan) at the corner of Angel Kunchev and Han Aspirouh in downtown Sofia, and fill it with roasted peppers, cream cheese, garlic, parsley, and tomatoes. The bakery also happens to be across from Zona Urbana, which is a gift shop that makes bags, wallets, and other items from recycled materials.
Since there was no bus coming down the gorge road, we walked back to town from the large campground up river from the gorge, which took us about 30 minutes. If you’re in a pinch, hitch-hiking is an option, since most people are going between Trun and the gorge itself.
If coming for the day the entire loop would be hard to complete, so if that is what you’re interested in, contact the Erma Hizha at 0896 715 254 and make a reservation. Buses leave Sofia’s Avtogara Zapad for Trun at 8:00, 10:30, 15:00 and 19:00, and buses leave Trun for Sofia at 9:30 (but 8:00 on the weekends), 14:00, 16:40, and 18:40. We had planned to take the 16:40 bus, but actually made it back to town early, catching the 14:00. If you’re interested in a demonstration about herbs or herbs to purchase, you may contact Dr. Dimitrova at 02/8748179, or 07/7313023.