When it comes to travel, there are so many different ways to mess up. I’ve made a couple of unintelligent moves while traveling in my travel years, but this one deserves its own blog entry for certain.
Upon having to leave the Schengen Zone (read more about my abrupt exit from the EU here), I had to make a quick decision. My visa extension was denied, leaving me with just two days to leave the Zone. With Leros being located an overnight ferry ride away from Athens, and with ferries not leaving on a daily basis, I had to quickly get together a plan for what I would be doing in the next few days.
At this point in time, I had a flight booked out of Scotland for the 16th of April, but no other travel plans, not even a plan for how I would be getting to the UK. With 48 hours to leave before overstaying my visa, and having to catch the 9-hour overnight ferry to Athens to fly out of the nearest international airport, I scrambled to figure out where I would be going in the next two days.
Under the pressure of the time crunch, I made quick decisions about what I would do. I checked flights out of Athens, and saw that the most affordable flight was to Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. I next checked for accommodations and saw that it was a very affordable country to stay in. I checked to make sure the country uses the Euro, as I had a significant amount of euros left in my pocket. I also checked to make sure there were no travel advisories and that the United States isn’t an indirect enemy of the nation. Everything seemed kosher. So, with no time to spare, I booked my ferry, flight, and a place to stay in Bulgaria for one week.
And therein lied my problem. Both the ferry ride and the flight out of Greece were difficult emotionally, but landing in Bulgaria and tracking down the place I would be staying proved to be the real issue. When searching for a place to stay online, I knew that I wanted to stay in Sofia. It was the capital city, the largest city in the country, and it was where I was flying into. It just made sense. This is why it was a complete bummer to come to the realization that my place of accommodation was, in fact, booked in the city of Pernik, not Sofia.
I didn’t realize this until I was on the ground in Bulgaria, taking taxis and hoofing it around in the middle of the night with my backpack dragging me down every step of the way. I was in the wrong city, and I realized this at about 10pm. At that point, I climbed into another taxi and drove the 30 kilometers out of the capital and over to the neighboring “suburb”–or something. It was in this neighborhood that I had booked a six-night stay, thinking this would be an adequate amount of time to figure out my next step.
As my cabbie shuttled me out of Sofia and through a winding mountain road, I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed. I really didn’t mean to book myself a spot so far away from the main city of the country. When the cab actually arrived in Pernik, it was the middle of the night, but I wasn’t impressed with what I was seeing. And then, finally, after making my way to my accommodations, I slept and then awoke to my new home for the week.
The town of Pernik was described in a guidebook I had in my room as “dismal industrial urban sprawl.”
Four of my least favorite words, all strung together.
And, indeed, the town presented itself in just such a manner. When I woke up and began to wander around my new surroundings, I quickly realized I was not in a picturesque location. I was stuck in a place with nothing to see and nothing to do. I didn’t know the language. There was no one to speak to. And so, with my reservation already locked in for the week, I began to meander around this strange little city, resting uneasily on the outskirts of the capital.
The single major positive piece of the place I was staying was that it was located just down the street from a small grocery store. I made daily trips to this place, to give myself a bit of a routine, but also to be around other people who were doing the same things that I was. I think it helped to center me.
On my first day, I meandered north, walking alongside a major road until the cracking sidewalk turned into a dirt path. The path ran alongside an abandoned factory and a couple of lifeless looking trees that were likely still dormant in the final winter weeks. Eventually the path ran out and there was nowhere else to go, so I turned back. I recall a man walking his dog happily down the path, but I couldn’t fathom where they would have been heading.
On my second day, I checked out my immediate surroundings a bit more closely and then headed east, traveling on a pedestrian and bike path alongside a river. Par for the course, the river ran brown, somewhat resembling chocolate milk, with debris and expelled garbage on the banks. On the other side of the path was a row of apartment buildings. They looked run down, which was inline with every other building in the city, but it was obvious people occupied the buildings by the laundry hanging from the clotheslines that were tethered to the windows and the children playing on the scraps of playground equipment in the courtyards. There wasn’t much to look at in the way of scenery, but the protective pedestrian path was enticing, so I went a ways before eventually turning back. Despite roaming around at midnight my first evening in Pernik, I opted to make it back to my apartment before dark fell completely. I figured I didn’t need to continue to push my luck in a country I knew so little about.
On my third day in Pernik, I went south. I discovered the city center, which was actually a step up from what I had been seeing the previous days. There were some shops and stores, lined with stone paths and benches, and there seemed to be a large number of people gathered in this area whenever I walked through. I wondered if it was because it was the only nice place that the population had to congregate. Each time I went through this specific area, I wasn’t sure if I blended in or not. Could the people recognize that I didn’t belong? It was amusing to think about.
Further along, I followed the river in the other direction as it flowed through the center of town. Eventually, the town became more residential and then, further along, it petered out into a wooded park area. It wasn’t nice, but I preferred the dead trees and overgrowth on the sidewalks to the industrial sprawl.
With plenty of time on my hands, I continued my journey through the park as it ascended up a hill that overlooked the city. At the top of the hill, the trees parted and I discovered the single gem of the area of Bulgaria that I was in, an ancient fort.
I spent the next three days treating this fort as my refuge from the dismal sprawl of Pernik. I would wander through the city and park, up the hill and onto the grounds in an attempt to make sense of my life which felt nothing like it ever had before. These days in Pernik were, perhaps, the closest I’ve ever felt to being an alien. I just really didn’t belong. I think that’s why climbing out of town and into an open space brought me so much comfort. The fort was simple, just your average ancient rows of rocks and a couple of artifacts, but I loved it. The surrounding still-snow-covered mountaintops that enveloped the area were well visible, and the sun seemed to illuminate the greenery a little bit more than in the sprawl. There were a couple of benches, too, which gave me the opportunity to journal and think and stare up at the clouds and wonder what the point of existence is.
After six nights, my run in Pernik was over. With still two weeks more until my flight out of Scotland, I booked myself a new place to stay in the capital city of Sofia. On my final morning in Pernik, I packed up my few possessions and walked to the local train station where I boarded a two car train, covered in graffiti, that would carry me the thirty minute ride to Sofia. The journey cost about $0.60.
And that was that. My time in Pernik ended and my time in Sofia began, ultimately beginning yet another chapter and yet another adventure of my European excursion.
What came of my time in Pernik? I learned a couple of things:
- Be more careful when making reservations, even if they need to be done last minute. Forgo sleep if necessary to avoid falling into intense, drawn out situations where I could be…screwed.
- Take advantage of crazy situations where I feel isolated to catch up with people far and wide who need to be touched base with. I had numerous surprising and moving conversations via the internet while sitting on the windowsill, staring curiously out into the city.
- Just like anywhere else, Pernik is a place in the world. Despite not having overly enjoyed myself, I’m grateful to have been where I was. It’s now added to a list of experiences I have had in my life and I believe that piece is just as significant as any of the others.