Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Balchik rules, Albena sucks!

I have just returned from a holiday in Balchik, Bulgaria, and this is my view on it.

You might have seen a commercial or heard a friend that Albena and Balchik are a great place to visit and spend your holidays. Even if they are separated by only 10 km the difference between them is the difference between heaven and hell.

Albena is the standard seaside commercial resort, with wide beaches occupied by a string of expensive hotels, with jerks attempting to speak to you in your native language while trying to sell you junk at high prices, a place invaded by tourists and with poor service at any shop, as they are owned by companies and operated by hired help. The useful things you can buy at Albena are of very little variety, meaning that almost every shop has everything you can buy, all drinks are either Pepsi or Coca Cola, etc. Albena is a franchise, and besides the natural reserve (which is a nice forest patch) and the Tracian treasure (that I didn't really go visit), there is nothing nice there.

Balchik, on the other hand, is a small piece of paradise. It is actualy a town, a rather old one, with small houses (and villas) sprinkled onto an almost abrupt seawall. The beach is very small and private, while the shops in the area are operated by their owners, which are usually very nice people. The prices are almost half of anything you meet in Albena and the tourist numbers are small during the week and medium during the weekend. Another good thing about Balchik being a town is that you have both seaside hotels, small villas, large villas, apartments for rent or purchase, high profile restaurants, small cozy restaurants, cheap supermarkets, etc. So you have everything you need. The view is spectacular, with a tasteful combination of mountain and sea.

In conclusion, I highly recommend Balchik as a holiday destination or (as I fantasised during my stay there) a remote place where you can buy a house or apartment and write in the quiet atmosphere of the small town.

Now, for the detailed impressions from Balchik

Leaving Bucharest

Both me and my wife wanted a nice holiday where we get to experiment as much as possible, so we decided against an "all inclusive" package. So we arranged with people from Balchik to house us, while we took transportation separately. Searching on the web, we stumbled upon Balchik Holidays, a site owned by a young nice couple, Val and Marta, operating a small local tourism company with very decent prices. As you will see later on, they treated us fairly and nice and we recommend them if you need to make similar arrangements. We decided on Corali as a transportation company. Our opinion of them is poor to very poor. They are plagued by lack of proper organisation, delays in transport and drivers that don't know the cities they pass through. I will give them the benefit of the doubt, though. Maybe there are situations when they perform well, but this was not one of them. Unfortunately, I can't really imagine a Romanian company that would do a lot better, so don't expect too much from the trip to and from Balchik by bus. It could be a good idea to look for a company that goes to Albena, then get a 4 leva bus to Balchik.

The bus left Bucharest at 8:30 and, enough said, arrived in Balchik at 18:00. The bus started from somewhere in Transilvania, though, so there are people who spent a lot more in the bus than we did. Immediately it became apparent that the well organised passanger list contained 51 names. The bus itself had 50 seats. That meant that one lady got her money back and spent the entire road on a small chair with no back placed amidst the rows of seats. I also don't know who makes these buses. While they look nice and are air conditioned, I couldn't fit my legs properly the entire trip. Even if I am a rather tall guy, the length of the femur bone shouldn't be much bigger than the one of a smaller guy, the lucky guy the buses are designed on. I think the highest age at which I would have been comfortable in those seats would have been 14 years old.

Ok, enough with the seats. The bus starts from Bucharest, goes to Constanta, leaves the country through Vama Veche, then proceeds to Balchik. The highway to the sea is not yet finished, so there were delays there, then the customs, which must be "greased" to let us through. The customs officers reached a so high level of confort that they took money while we all looked through the windows of the bus. We could have had cameras or something, but they didn't care.

Once we reached Balchik we were deposited in a parking lot placed in front of the road towards the Botanical Garden. If I am to continue my religious analogies of heaven and hell, that spot is purgatory. It is the most 'Albenised' place in Balchik. You have restaurants that boast their menus along with greetings in Romanian and waiters that try (annoyingly, I might add) to speak Romanian or whatever your native language happends to be. The prices there are medium to high, the service depends on the place.
For example I was terribly disapointed by the service at Taraleza, a small restaurant that was praised in a Romanian TV news story. The only Romanian they knew was in the greetings outside, the prices were high, the crab rolls they gave us make my wife sick, the tripe soup they gave us had very little tripe in it and (what bugs me most) I asked them for garlic and they brought me a small cup of a clear liquid. They refused to bring me sour cream, they said the soup had enough (as they would know). I poured the entire cup in the soup, only to find it a moment later uneatable. The 'garlic' sauce was garlic in vinegar.
The Sea Horse, the restaurant right in fron of the parking lot, had the same tripe soup (even the amount and shape of the tripe bits were uncannily similar), but they brought dried red pepper bits and a sauce that contained yoghurt, as well as garlic and , of course, vinegar. That was more acceptable and I could even feel the garlic inside.
As a paranthesis, Tihia Kat, or at least this is how I remember the name, a serbian grill restaurant on the seaside, have a garlic sauce made from sour cream and very little garlic.
But back to the parking lot, except for their monetary exchange, you shouldn't really use anything there. Besides, when you will leave Balchik you will have extra levas (the Leva is the Bulgarian money) and you will have to wait for the bus (which will be late) so you will be forced to sit somewhere.


When the bus entered the town, we got scared. There were communist style blocks of flats, really ugly ones, and dirty garbage filled road sides. But that's just on the outskirts. As you will see, Balchik is actually made of two distinct parts: the side near the sea, which is the old part of the city, with houses and queen Maria's summer residence, and the expansion zone, where you will have blocks of flats, schools, a large super market, etc.
Our two rooms apartment was 500 m from the beach, as advertised. What was left unsaid is that the road is a continous hill at maybe a 30 degrees slope. That resulted in muscular pain for the first two days, but we quickly got used to it. What was unexpected was that the pain felt in the lower part of the leg, which is actually very little exercised. And I should know, I ride my bicycle to work.
This side of the city is a combination of modern construction techniques and old stone roads and walls. If you are a computer programmer and you build maps for 3D games, like shooters or, better yet, quests or MMORPGS, then you should definitely go to Balchik and your software company should pay for it. There is something to be said about stone stairs that are hidden from view by the fact the walls are made from the same exact material. If you stay more than a day or two, you will come to know not only the streets, but also these hidden stairs that you can find all over the place.
We also had TV cable in our rented apartment. Something was wrong with it, though, as only a few channels were clearly visible. And, even if I did want to relearn Bulgarian, I couldn't watch anything but National Geographic, Zone Reality and Viasat History. I even stumbled upon a show about a bus going down hill without breaks, entering the water, skidding 80 meters, then drowning most of the people in it. Nice show, huh?
Val and Marta were very nice, they took us for a dinner and they explained the main things we needed to know about the town, then they gave us the house keys and left us be. They weren't a bother in any way and hopefully, neither were we to them.


There was sun there. And lots of it. If it weren't for my wife, I would have cowered in fear in the room, trying to fix the cable. Luckily, she rules my life, so I went down to the beach every morning, then we ate in a restaurant, then we had long walks through the city. If you are like me, you should not disconsider the power of the sun lotion. They seem to have different strenghts marked by weird numbers. Just take the highest strength you can find and put it all over you. Else you get your skin burnt. And, if you are like me, you hate having oily things on you that smell like flowers and squeezed animals. Get over it. Not being able to touch anything or having any type of water except very cold one seem hot is not cool. (Pun not intended)
Balchik is truly beautiful. Formerly part of Romanian teritory, it was chosen by queen Maria for her summer residence. That means a huge domain was filled with beautiful gardens and a few nice mansions were built. The buildings themselves are not interesting, the small trinkets that are linked to the queen or to her house are nothing more than money wasters, but now the domain was turned into a Botanical Garden. Even if less organised than the one in Bucharest, it is a lot more interesting. It combines slopes, plants of all kinds (including cactae), water falls, a high view of the open sea and the all present stone stairs and hidden passage ways.
The town itself looks a lot like a more crowded version of Maria's residence, with fisherman style houses sprouting amongst the stone roads and plants. This is something that the Romanian seaside lacks: plants. Even Albena had beautiful trees and forest patches near the sea. Romanians destroyed everything that wasn't cheap commercialism.
The prices were all in leva, which was more or less half a euro, and stotinky, hundredths of a leva. Energizer drink: 1 leva. Average restaurant meal: 7 leva per person. Taxi ride: 1-5 leva (for the same distance). Beach umbrella: 3 leva. Beach chaiselong: 3 leva. (as opposed to Albena where a chaise was 5 leva, a pillow was 3 leva, an umbrella 7 leva, etc.) Evening meal from the supermarket: 5 leva for two people. Restaurant bread slice: 20 stotinky.
I have no idea why every Balchik restaurant asked us for the exact number of bread slices we wanted. I asked smilingly for one bread and they brought me a slice. When I asked for ten slices all the waiters turned towards me like they have seen the devil. "Are you sure?".
The sand on the beach was very fine, as well as the sand beneath the water. There were two days after what we gathered was a storm in the open sea, when the shallow water was filled with algae fragments, but it wasn't terribly annoying. The entire Golden Sands-Albena-Balchik beach is in a golf, so there are no big waves and the beach is somewhat protected. The water was warm and pleasant.
People on the beach ranged from very fat people coming in families to skinny young girls. Not many girls, though. The ones that were acceptably attractive were more slim than sexy. There is no distinctive Bulgarian genome. People can look like Turks, Russians, Romanians or anywhere in between. Balchik has amazingly few gipsies.
Language: all Bulgarians know Bulgarian. Some of them understand English, some of them understand Romanian. I guess that some of them understand German, since all the menus were in Bulgarians, English and German, but I didn't try it out.
Music. I have been informed that a few months ago there was a rock festival in Balchik, White Snake and The Scorpions sang there. But I found that this was not a good enough explanation for the fact that almost every song in the town was an American 60-70's song. It wasn't annoying, but it was uncanny. I've even imagined Teal'c observing that the music technology of the planet seemed to be 30-40 years behind our own.

The Dark Side

Search for the supermarket Akvilon, on Hristo Botev street. It marks the start of the dark side of Balchik, the place of ugly grey blocks of flats. They do have regular cable and internet, though. Akvilon does provide for anything you need, as it is similar to Billa or MegaImage shops. The prices are lower than anything you get in the old part of the city, but not by much.

The End

We left on monday, the bus was supposed to pick us up at 18:30 from the parking lot, they were there, but only arrived in Balchik. We had to wait until 20:00 for them to go to the Golden Sands and Albena, leave their passengers, then return. We arrived in Bucharest at 2:00 in the morning.
What else can I say except thank you for sticking to the very boring end of my notes on Balchik. Maybe I will add more as I remember.

Special Notes

  • Cats - Balchik is a town of cats. Everywhere you go you meet a cat of any conceivable color except green. Most are accustomed to humans and grateful for any petting, playing or, of course, food

  • Bread - restaurants give you bread in slices. They ask for the exact number of slices. One bread means one slice.

  • Ayran - in Romania, ayran is a liquid yoghurt drink with salt. In Bulgarian, airan means yoghurt. So you will be able to see Danone Airan. They do have a sortiment of liquid salty yoghurt that is very tasty in rather unpleasant plastic 500ml or 250ml bottles. Ask for airan at Morsko Oko. They used this variety. Then you can buy it at a supermarket

  • Boza - there is a drink made (I guess) from sweetened wheat called Boza. I can't imagine any person except an insane child that could drink boza and like it.

  • Music - most places were tuned to Radio Edno (radio 1) and they played mostly songs from the 60's-70's.

  • Garlic - beware the garlic sauces. They are likely to contain less garlic and a lot of vinegar

  • Romanian speaking waiters - beware! Even if there are some exceptions, Bulgarians trying to communicate in Romanian usually want to sell you overpriced or underquality stuff

  • Taxi drivers - good luck trying to convince them to start their meters. Try not to give them 5 leva for a trip.

  • Botanical Garden/Maria's Castle - you may be intrigued by the ticketing system there. You need to buy a ticket of 10 leva to see a small garden, then advance to a ticketing booth to get another 10 leva ticket for the castle and the actual botanical garden. At the entrance to the castle you will be asked for both tickets. You can't buy them there, you need to go back 10 meters to the above mentioned ticketing booth

  • Muscular pain from climbing up and down Balchik streets - a massage helps, try pressing more on the painful parts. It doesn't help too much though. Walking another day is useful, also.

  • Bus rides - if you are taller than 1.80m, ask for special seating for your legs.

  • Car rides - the Balchik streets are at 30 or more degrees slope. Drive carefully.

  • Toilets - most of the bars and restaurants in the town have the annoying habit of charging for the use of their toilets

  • Albena - it sucks. If you want to go there, there are regular minibuses to Albena, Golden Sands or Varna

  • Recomended restaurants: The Blue Lion , Morsko Oko

  • To avoid: Taraleza, the Irish Rover, the cafeteria in front of the Irish Rover, the bar in Queen Maria's residence.

  • You might notice in Balchik a lot of printed A4 posters glued upon light poles, gates, bulletin boards, etc, representing dead people and when they died. It seems to be a local habit of commemorating the deceased.


Debbie said...

Hey, my names Debbie, wondered if you would like to write an article for our free online magazine about Bulgaria -
www.bulgariainfo-online.com about your holiday in Balchik, if you have photos etc....

If interested u can email me at debbie@bulgariainfo-online.com

Cheers for your time