Sunday, August 26, 2012

Impressions from Obzor, Bulgaria

I've just returned from a holiday spent in the lovely Bulgarian town called Obzor. At least other people say it's lovely, I thought it was full of them (people, I mean) which would explain both their assessment and mine. Anyway, my wife and I stayed at this hotel called The Cliff and spent 8 days together celebrating her birthday and 10 years of marriage. Happy birthday, love! These are my impressions of the journey.

First we had to get there and there are two major routes from Bucharest to Obzor: through Ruse and across Bulgaria and through Durankulak, after driving on the newly constructed A2 highway in Romania (the digit two coming from the fact that we only have two highways at the moment and this is the second). We went via Ruse and returned on the highway, with similar time results and positive feelings. The GPS did it again and chose a more scenic route running through small villages like, for example, Sindel. I shouted "Fatality!" when we exited the village, to my wife's dismay. Even so, it was a good quality road, which in Romania you rarely see in small rural areas and we enjoyed the wilderness.

Ok, we got there. The Cliff hotel is located just outside Obzor and is a four star hotel. That means... at the moment I have no idea what it means, I just assumed it would be way better than a three star hotel, but it appears it is about the same, only with a pool and a lot more expensive. Actually, I want to spend some time discussing The Cliff. It is one of those hotels that have so much potential and yet the experience is being spoiled by little details which I suspect are the fault of greedy little owners not understanding that they are serving people, that's their job, not just owning stuff and getting richer.

About The Cliff hotel in Obzor, BulgariaThe hotel is situated on a cliff (surprise!) and is in fact a complex of buildings having a system of interconnected pools at the center. The buildings are nice and the pool almost great. Imagine this medium sized pool that has between 1.3 and 1.7 meters in depth, that connects to a smaller one via a jumping point which doubles as a waterfall. Then a small canal takes the water to an even smaller pool, designed for small children. Somewhere in the middle of the meandering canal there is a small jacuzzi. This pool alone and the way it looked make The Cliff a beautiful hotel. One can get to a rather isolated part of the beach via a long set of stairs or by going with the car in Obzor. A taxi can be employed, charging the enormous sum of 10 leva for a 2-3km run, or one could walk the same way.

The beach is one of those great fine sand beaches, only there are some unexpected rocks further into the water. This freaked me out a little, as I was starting to swim and I found myself hugging a gigantic boulder. The rock was covered with algae, not with razor sharp shells, so it was more of a psychological shock. I suppose that makes that part of the beach so remote and isolated. We didn't even try the commercial part of the beach because of all the people, the noise and the fact that we had a perfectly fine chlorinated pool inside the hotel! I didn't have to suffer floating garbage, stinging eyes or the smell of decaying algae and seashells, which other people find so endearing. I don't know about that, wouldn't the same effect be obtained with a bit of garbage in a salt shaker? But returning to the subject of the beach, can you imagine that 10-20m from the edge of the sea, the depth was still around my waist?

So, The Cliff is a beautiful hotel, isolated, with few people and a great pool. What could possibly go wrong? Everything else, of course.

The staff had almost no knowledge of English or Romanian, except maybe some of the folks at the reception. Even so, the others were morose unhappy people that kind of drifted, like some ghosts from The Shining. The reservation included free breakfast and my wife tried to drink the coffee, only to notice it was instant coffee. She asked for an espresso and was told she had to go to the bar and buy one.

Nobody can stand between my wife and her coffee! Civilisations rise and fall when she gets angry. I am an engineer, I can easily find what is the weakest point in a system and make it break, but she is the destroyer of worlds! She is like a cute sexy Dalek. She exterminates anything standing in the way of her daily coffee.

Also the prices from the restaurant were impossible for the quality of the food. I had to pay 25 leva for 5 shrimps in a plate. For the same amount of money I get a full platter of all kind of seafood at the Regina Maria hotel in Balchik, around 80 kilometres above Obzor. (BTW, I can't recommend that hotel enough, also four stars, but one feels good there).

The room had a TV, an old AllView with only 20 total channels that showed anything 10 seconds after you turned it on. That's OK, since we could only get 15 channels anyway with only BBC World in English and the rest in Bulgarian. Two of those were music televisions, but one had horrible audio and both had horrible music. Seriously, Romanian music television is no bastion of good taste, but that was utter crap. There was wireless Internet, only it only worked when not many people were using it and was slow as hell when it did work. We had air conditioning, but the windows could not open, just the main balcony door. There was easy access from other balconies and even from the hotel stair to our balcony so, in the interest of personal security, we had to choose between torpid fresh air and insects and no security or cool air conditioned stale air in a little safe cocoon. The bath was big and had these retro looking finishes, only they went too far. The bath curtain bar was rusted and stained all towels placed on it and the shower head was like a gardening implement with small pressured water jets that hurt rather than cleaned. The insect repellent smell of the bath went away in about three days.

The hotel also had a spa. That included massages with expensive cosmetics, colon cleansing, sauna, etc. The prices were huge, though. Imagine that you had to pay 80 leva for an hour of massage. What bothered me even more is that, after two days, a "promotional" price list was left under our door. They took 25% off some of the procedures. So if you are stupid enough to pay from the first two days, no promotion for you. So you go to a hotel with spa, you pay 80 euros a double room per day and then they tell you the prices are different for any spa procedure so they don't offer you any in the price of the room.

Now, all the hotels have those little annoying cards that double as keys. You have to place them in a slot in order to have electric current. So you can't charge your devices or leave the air conditioning on while you go to sun tan next to the pool. Unless you have a different, similarly shaped card, which I had, the only possible use for those spammy fidelity cards you get at various medical or shopping facilities. But that's like a general rule when going on holiday: always have a standard shaped card to leave in the electric current slot in the hotel.

To summarize: if they bought a little more Internet bandwidth, paid for satellite TV and upgraded the TVs in the room, made some sort of window that you can open without letting everyone in and, above all, didn't think to rip you off at every opportunity, the hotel would have been great! Instead, it felt like a below average overpriced tourist trap.

We also had an unexpected surprise from them. You see, in order to book a room there, you authorize them to take half of the staying sum from your account. For all practical purposes you pay that sum. You then go to the hotel and pay the rest of the sum. Then, they take the sum you authorized them to take when making the reservation, then the rest of the sum, then they "unblock" the authorized sum when you leave the hotel. That means you pay 1.5 times the actual sum until the original half is returned to you. We left on Sunday, and we were kind of... disconcerted... when we noticed a negative balance on our purely debit card. So take that into account (sorry for the pun).

Getting back. A few hundred meters below The Cliff there is the yooBulgaria resort. One could probably go over the Net, find this hotel and choose it, just like we did with The Cliff, to spend their holidays. We went there. It looked nice, but the entire hotel was surrounded by abandoned buildings, victims of the economic crisis in times of great investment in the tourism business in Bulgaria. Seriously, it looked like the hotel was the lucky building that survived a full aerial bombardment of the entire zone. I am talking about empty concrete scaffolds with graffiti on them. Horror movies and parkour videos could be made there.

The town of Obzor was actually a village till 1984. Then it was promoted and then the Communist era ended and the tourism took hold. As a result it is a combination of greedy tourist corporations, small family owned businesses and a tourism oriented management.

We searched the Internet on the best restaurants there and we found: "Starata Kushta", recommended by three different sites that had the same text in them. We couldn't find this restaurant and so we went to recommendation number two: the Tania restaurant. It is a nice little thing, but rather expensive. The guy recommended the pizza there; he probably never went to Romania. Their pizza is mediocre at best. Try the fish things, but do not, under any circumstances, ask for sauces. They are horrible. Then we tried our luck with what was there (and this is my recommendation for anyone visiting Obzor: try your luck, eventually you will find something you will like) and found Morska Perla, or the Sea Pearl. There was this deliciously looking waitress there. We were, of course, served by the old ugly one that didn't know English. The fish was OK, the prices reasonable, but they had this apricot brandy that was really something. We also tried Dionisi, right next to Tania. The pizza in Tania was about 14 leva and rather small. The one at Dionisi was the same size and 4.5 leva. Unfortunately you paid for what you got: pizza from supermarket dough and some cheap stuff sprinkled over. The spaghetti were floating in oil.

The last restaurant I want to mention was almost great: it's called Rai (Heaven) and it is also located around Tania, about 500 meters from it. They have this Rai Calamari dish that has 500 grams and costs 27 leva. I thought it sounded OK, but I really expected some piece of fried cephalopod and instead got a squid filled with a mix of onions, oyster and small shrimp and served with four jumbo shrimps. So, even if the menu didn't advertise it (bad for them) the dish was actually a seafood plateau, something I had been searching for unsuccessfully in Obzor and went up to Balchik to have at Regina Maria (did I mention the hotel and the restaurant are great? They have sushi!)

The only problem with Obzor restaurants and bars is that they don't have dark beer. None of them! I also asked for lemonade and none of them had any! It's water with lemon and something sweet, for crying out loud... I drank a lot of Grozdova Rakia (grape brandy), a Bulgarian speciality, and Kamenitsa, their beer.

That's about it. We visited close by Nesebar, which is nice, but filled with tourists. There was a cool restaurant there, called Hemingway. Not in any way connected to the writer, but good food. We never got to Burgas and we only passed through Varna a few times. Bottom line: Obzor is a nice see side town, but I wouldn't want to be housed in that cacophony of noises, music and smells. The Cliff was a good option, remote as it was, although the sounds from Obzor occasionally made their way there, as well, but it had its flaws.