Off the beaten track in Bulgaria

Chartered Wealth Solutions clients, Carl and Santjie Geldenhuys, have unique requirements when travelling. While some prioritise balmy weather and a welcoming beach, others love the thrill of excursions. Some can’t imagine accommodation without heated bathroom rails or an adjoining spa.

For the Geldenhuys couple, a child-friendly location off the beaten track is essential, as they take the whole family with them. Join them as they visit their surprising selection: Bulgaria, and tell their story.

It started with a phone call from our representative at Dream Vacations (our holiday club).

She: Carl, I think I have what you have been looking for. Off the beaten track and very child-friendly. In Bulgaria.

Me: What is the cost for the seven of us? (oupa, ouma, two kids from London and their three kids, one still a toddler)

She: R1 747, but, unfortunately, you cannot use your club points. It is an RCI special.

Me: That is a bit stiff per day for four adults, two kids and a toddler.vShe: You have it all wrong. R 1 747 for the week’s accommodation in a ski-resort close to Razlog, 80 km south of Sofia, capital of Bulgaria.

Me: Done deal. Where do I sign?

This is the only advantage to having kids and grandkids overseas. Travelling together is a good excuse to discover new places with the Londonites, and the three grandchildren are seasoned travellers.

Autumn scenery from Bulgaria
Room with a view … a Bulgarian Autumn.

Bulgaria is cheap, dirt cheap, even with a weak Rand. A Bulgarian ‘Alps’ ski-resort is not well frequented in October. The Balkan Jewel Resort was just what we were looking for: centrally located to explore the natural parks and villages in southwest Bulgaria, and a kid’s paradise (they provide care for children of all ages during the skiing season when the parents are skiing). The heated indoor swimming pool was a major plus!

We rented a 4×4 Mercedes bus at the Sofia airport for R2 700 for seven days (about what you pay for two days in South Africa).

Family photo at Dancing Bear park in Bulgaria
Dancing Bear park in Bulgaria

We visited Debarsko village, known for its 11th century underground church, the Dancing Bear Park close to Belitsa, Melnik (a village dating back to the times of the Roman empire) and the Seven Rila Lakes.

The Dancing Bear Park was an eye-opener. 25 bears are being rehabilitated, most “rescued” from gypsies, who have in the past “trained” bears to dance by placing them on hot plates, forcing them to “dance”.

Our tour guide, fluent in English, called her restauranteur friend in Belitsa. On arrival, we were treated to an unforgettable lunch of traditional Bulgarian foods and wine: R 600,00 for all seven of us.

The Seven Rila Lakes visit was both the highlight and the ‘lowlight’ of our trip. The lakes are situated in the Rila mountain, one of the highest in the Balkans. The 4×4 bus came in handy, as we traveled for two hours up the mountain just to learn that the ski-lift into the mountain was being serviced. We negotiated with an owner of a monster of a Pajero to take the seven of us up – an absolute nightmare, and undoubtedly Santjie’s “lowlight”. Our son-in-law equated it to his trip up van Zyl’s pass in Namibia. We also had snow en route.

Up and down the moutain to Seven Rika LakesBut it was absolutely memory making!

At the top of the route, the guys still had to hike another two hours to get to the lakes.

After a week in the Balkans, we moved on to Sophia, Bulgaria’s capital. There, we visited the Saint Nicholas Church, the city park and the Alexander Nevsky Patriarchal Church.

The downside of Bulgaria? English is largely non-existent. All signs are in Bulgarian (which looks like Russian to the ill-informed – that’s us) That is where sign-language, now our twelfth official language in South Africa, comes in handy. And it is international.

The kids and grandkids then moved on to London.

Family outside St Nicholas Church in Sofia Santjie and I intended to travel by bus to Bucharest, but departure was changed at short notice from a day trip to a night trip, so we would have seen nothing of the Bulgarian and Romanian countryside. Instead, we took a private shuttle (like our Uber). It was an absolute blessing as we were shuttled by a Romanian fluent in English. Though he had a university degree in Economics, he could not find employment as an Economist. This was surely the most educational five hours I have spent with an absolute stranger. Our guide was well informed regarding South Africa, even about the Guptas!

We detoured to the Church of the Virgin just inside Romania. Cut out of solid rock in a cliff overhanging a river gorge, it had been operational since 1220 but is now a tourist attraction.

Then we explored Bucharest by “hop-off-hop-on” bus and by foot. Memorable was the visit to Cismigui Gardens, the second largest city park in the world after New York’s Central Park.

Pelisor Royal Castle in Pelles
Pelisor Royal Castle in Pelles

Bucharest is an absolute jewel in comparison to Sophia. Modern with skyscrapers all over, it is very cheap, albeit not as cheap as Sofia. The two of us lunched on soup, a choice of three meats, and veggies for the equivalent of R 55,00 for both of us!

The next day was the absolute highlight of our trip: a shuttle trip with our new friend to Transylvania, the Alps of Romania. We visited the Pelisor Royal Castle in Pelles, and made a brief stop in Brasov, a beautiful village in the heart of Transylvania.

Couple outside restaurant in Transylvania
Santjie and our new Romanian friend outside the restaurant in Transylvania

Our shuttle friend took us for a late lunch at a very well-known sky resort in the mountains. We were treated to a starter, entré, main course and dessert, all very Romanian. And, of course, Palinka, the national drink of Romania. Our own mampoer would give it a good go.

We were back at our hotel at 23:00, having originally planned to be there at at 18:00!

Romania, and especially Transylvania, is an absolute must on anybody’s bucket list. Communication is no problem as they are fluent in English and all signs are bilingual.

We left for London the next day with mixed feelings. The trip to Transylvania is surely a highlight of our overseas’ visits.

Comments (3)

  • Fascinating trip and beautifully written article. Thank you for sharing.
    Sounds like an absolute essential to add to that poor bucket wheel! Every time we tick one item off, we add another three 😆
    Will fit in well under Play, Learning and even Money.

  • I love the fact that your children and grandchildren are included in your adventures! I have found from personal experience, that this makes for the most amazing memories and is such an important part of the legacy you leave your loved ones!

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