There isn’t a right or wrong way to plan a trip. It depends on the funds, the time available, your interests, perhaps family commitments, but mostly on your character. I’d love to go back to the days when I could walk out the door and just go wherever the wind blows.
But those days are over, my other half likes things planned, paid for, knowing what it going to happen when. And he likes his home comforts – our campervan sits in the driveway, mostly doing nothing, but occasionally getting short trips to pre-booked campsites in the UK.
As I get older, I’m beginning to agree with him.
So, how do we plan a trip now.
Our interests lie in natural history. Birds, butterflies, botany, hiking in interesting places, and taking photos. Effectively, that means mainly birds in winter, and everything else when we can fit it in.
We aim for self-catering accommodation with access to public transport and places to walk and watch wildlife. The Algarve is ideal. Lanzarote worked well, as do some parts of mainland Spain.
Bird-watching along the Algarve railway
How to get the most out of bird-watching in the Algarve using the railway service.
Walking from Peurto del Carmen to the Playa Quemada with views of the Monumento Natural de Los Ajaches.
It is often difficult to find information about other areas – especially the public transport part. Of course, we could hire a car, as most people do. But then we’d have the extra stress of driving on, what is to us, the ‘wrong’ side of the road. We have, at times, found ourselves staying in the middle of a busy holiday resort – definitely not somewhere we’d want to be driving. And if there is a language problem, it can be even more complicated. So, we have to plan differently.
Eastern Bulgaria – the Black Sea Coast – is such an area. Not only is the language different to the Germanic and Latin languages of western Europe, but the alphabet is different. You can’t just look at a word and get a vague idea of what it means. I’d travelled through the old Yugoslavia and Greece back in 1989, and learnt the sounds of some of the Cyrillic letters just by the road signs that had place names in both alphabets. But that was a long time ago and it takes some practice for the sounds to come easily.
Public transport? It exists, but not necessarily going to the sort of places we are interested in visiting.
There were organised natural history trips to the area, but we were persuaded to try one of these to Poland a few years ago, and realised that they were not for us. We like to have time to watch birds, look for butterflies and plants, to take photos, to walk, etc.
And then there is the problem of food – eating in different places when you have specific dietary requirements (even a simple dietary requirement of low fat for gallstone problems) and trying to make the most suitable choice from a menu – if indeed, there is a menu at all. Hence a preference for self-catering accommodation.
Getting down to it
But Eastern Bulgaria still looked interesting. It is the only place in Europe for Red-breasted Geese in winter – they breed in Siberia. There were likely to be a few other species we hadn’t seen before, or at least hadn’t photographed. So how to solve the problem.
Amongst all the literature (paper brochures collected at Birdwatching Fairs over the years, adverts in wildlife magazines, as well as information from the internet) I found the Branta Birding Lodge right next to the red-breasted geese wintering grounds. The birds are only there in January and February, and in January they are much disturbed by hunters. Hunting officially ends at the end of January, and the birds start to settle down. It was now early January, could we stay there in February?
An exchange of emails with the owner, Pavel Simeonov, said yes. He would meet us at Varna Airport, be our guide for the time we were there, his rates included accommodation, food, guiding, a trip to the Danube Delta, and a couple of days based near Burgas at the south end of the Black Sea Coast. Although his website suggested a seven-night itinerary, I asked to extend that to nine nights – no problem as he had no-one else booked in after us. (The top photo shows the sunrise from the lodge)
This is how we had organised our trips to Nepal and Sri Lanka 20 and 15 years ago – using local ground agents rather than organised tours meant we could be more flexible, say where we wanted to go, and how long to stay there.
With the accommodation etc sorted, the next problem was transport. There are some direct flights to Varna, on the Black Sea coast, operated in winter by WizzAir. They flew from London City or Liverpool, and arrived in Varna in the early hours of the morning – not very convenient. We knew nothing about WizzAir, except that they had just pulled out of using Cardiff Airport. Did that mean they were risky? We had just avoided being stuck when another airline collapsed a few years ago, and didn’t want to take such chances.
A bit more googling showed that there were all sorts of routes available, often via a strange combination of airports, and often cheap. But did we really want to change airlines en route with the attendant risk of losing luggage? Then I discovered that SwissAir went to Varna via Vienna, leaving Heathrow at 6am (not much fun) but arriving and leaving Varna at more convenient times. That was that flights sorted.
But Heathrow is still several hours travel from home. We could drive there and leave the car at the hotel or airport parking. Or we could take the train. Given the recent rail staff strikes, I wasn’t sure the train was a good idea, but Bob disagreed. So, we went to the nearest train station where we could get tickets in person – and came away with Senior Citizen railcards, and seat reservations, as well as a personalised printed timetable that showed when we would be on the train, and when we would be using a bus replacement service due to work on the rails. We’ll have to use the train at least once more this year to get the full benefit of the railcard reductions.
Almost done. We booked a Premier Inn at Heathrow for a short night before the flight, and a taxi for the airport – the hotel hoppa buses didn’t start until 4am, and we were supposed to be at the terminal to check-in by then.
That leaves packing.
I’m a pretty minimalist packer. Basically, just enough clothes to last the duration, plus one complete change in case of a soaking. A basic toiletry kit. A pair of indoor shoes of some kind (slippers this time) and a set of waterproofs. Bulgaria is supposed to be quite cold in winter – snow across most of the country, but not so bad on the Black Sea coast. So we made sure we had clothes for cold weather. But how cold? Pavel had mentioned that the winter had so far been very mild – up to 20C – and the red-fronted geese had not arrived, he would take us north into Romania to see them. Hmm, perhaps not too cold. Then two days before we left – 300 Red-breasted Geese just arrived with the cold weather. Hopefully they will stay until your arrival. OK, perhaps very cold. We added wellies and insulated snow pants, just in case. It was the first time I’d ever had to sit on my suitcase to close it.
As it turned out, the cold weather meant a couple of days of snow that was more or less gone by the time we arrived. The lake was still iced over, and there were cold northerly winds. But we did not actually need or use that extra clothing. But as I hate being cold, it was worth being prepared. The geese stayed around for a week or so, and we did not go to Romania.
As I said earlier, we like to take photos, and photographing birds requires long lenses and heavy cameras. For a winter trip with birds as the main focus, I took one camera with a long lens (Nikon Z6ii with Nikon 100-400mm lens), and one small camera (Fuji X100V) for scenery, and any flowers that might be showing. There was no point in including everything for close-ups of flowers and insects. Bob took more equipment, including an even longer lens, than I did. I’d like to have taken a tripod and sound recording equipment to make some videos, but that would have meant more weight and more bulk (and anyway, I’ve tried it before and not had a decent opportunity to use the equipment).
Fitting the equipment into a bag that is within cabin baggage requirements is often a bit tricky. SwissAir said 55x40x22cm. We had only one camera bag that was within the 22cm, so Bob bought yet another new one. By the time we had added our laptops and binoculars, the weight was just below the 8kg limit for each of us.
Back to that language ‘problem’. With Pavel and his wife Tatyana (the all-important cook and housekeeper) speaking good English, it wasn’t going to be a problem. But, as always, I tried to learn a few words/phrases.
Thank you – Merci – yes, they really do use the French word and it is simpler than the Bulgarian phrase (Благодаря ти Blagodarya ti). Goodbye – Ciao – yes, the Italian word.
Then there was hello (Здрасти, Zdrasti), yes (Да, Da), no (He, Ne), Okay (Добре, Dobre), and please (Моля, Molya)
But I never did master the Bulgarian habit of nodding the head to say no, and shaking it to say yes!
Well, we survived the trip, all the travel went smoothly, except for the one thing I hadn’t booked in advance. A few days before we left Bulgaria, I tried to book a hotel at Heathrow. I tried several times, got a sorry-something-has-gone-wrong-please-try-again-later message, and eventually gave up. Same response when we arrived at Heathrow. Bob was back in worrying mode, but we went to the hotel anyway. They told us to try booking again, as they still had a room, and this time it did work. I still don’t know what the problem was, but I guess it served me right for not doing the whole job properly to start with.
We came back home to what seemed like colder weather than we’d had in Bulgaria. Now, it’s time to look through the thousands of photos, and the hastily scribbled notes, and get the trip stories written down before they are forgotten.
More winter bird-watching ideas
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2 thoughts on “Planning for Bulgaria”
I do plan all our trips, though some days are usually left free…it’s great when you find locals to guide you around and your hosts sound amazing…Love the photos thank you
I did take a look at your site, and picked up a couple of useful reminders from there, so thank you too.