I had come to the Bulgarian coast for a vacation from adventure, and I vowed I'd grant myself at least a day of that before finding myself atop another ruin. The rails arrived at the Black Sea around five, and stepping out into the crisp air of the quiet town, I was quickly struck by just how quiet it was. Varna was Bulgaria's third largest city, but it was deserted: it felt more like a beach town in winter. And yet, it was the height of summer, it was a Friday night—where was everybody?
I walked the empty streets and arrived at an empty hostel; though I had booked a bed in an eleven-bed dorm, I was informed at arrival that I was the hostel's only guest that night, and thus I'd have all eleven beds to myself. The privacy was nice, I suppose, but it was also a bit of a bummer—seaside nightlife is a tad more fun with the accompaniment of other travelers. Yet travelers eerily missing, I left the hostel and headed to the shore alone, stopping at one of the dozen beachside bars and ordering dinner and a few drinks. I watched the waves crest, and I ate and I drank and I read, and I was glad to see others on the beach, too. Long after the sun set, I rose to ask for the check, then remembered that I'd forgotten to withdraw some Bulgarian bills from an ATM on the way over. The restaurant didn't accept card; almost nowhere in Bulgaria did.
The waitress and I worked out an arrangement through a game of charades: I'd head into town to find an ATM, and meanwhile I'd leave my credit card and my Kindle with her as collateral. Easier said than done, I realized as I walked through town. There were few ATMS, and those I found were either out of order or seemingly close to it. I'd insert my card and ask for money and the machine would tell me it didn't have much money left, and it'd spit my card back out and tell me to insert it again and I'd try to do so but it'd freeze up and say "wait, wait, I wasn't ready," and I'd take it back out and wait and it'd say "okay, try again," and I would, and then it'd once more say "no, wait, that's not right," and this awkward intercourse would carry on for a few minutes until at last the machine would grab my card and not let it go, and I'd have to yank with all my might to free it, knocking the ATM out of commission in doing so.
I had some luck with the fifth ATM, and returned to the beach bar an hour later with a fistful of lei, which I happily exchanged for my Kindle and card. I wandered the beach a little more, and though there were people to be seen in the clubs and bars, there were so very few of them. Establishments with seating for hundreds would sit on the sand deserted, empty chairs and empty recliners and empty beach beds, yet with heavy bass pulsing at no one in particular. Further down I found live music, solo singers commanding entire open air restaurants as their stage, singing to no one—the restaurant wasn't serving a soul—but the occasional passerby. I never really found out why it was so empty. It was early by European standards, maybe just after eleven when I left the beach, and Bulgaria had fallen victim to some heavy flooding a week before that may have caused some overly cautious travelers to cancel their plans, so perhaps a combination of the two was to blame. Not that I minded; I liked it quiet.
I headed back to the beach the next morning and there they all were: thousands of them, wherever they'd been hiding. I squeezed in amongst them and laid in the sand, and passed just about the whole day doing much of nothing: finishing Lolita, starting The Brothers Karamazov, digging a deep trench in the sand with the heel of my right foot. Relaxing.
I'd had enough of relaxing by that evening, so I headed to a new hostel—one I hoped would feel a bit less like The Shining—and was pleased to find living, breathing people occupying its beds. The dorm I'd chosen was a suite with two rooms and about ten bunks, and seeing the majority of that first room cluttered with suitcases and packs, I headed through the door to the adjoining quarters with its lone occupant. He wasn't there at the moment, no one in the dorm was, so I unpacked a little and headed to the showers to wash up.
Returning to the dorms a few minutes later, I greeted a girl now sitting on a bunk in the first room with a simple hey.
"Hey," she said, "where are you coming from?"
It was great to hear fluent English; I found almost no one in Bulgaria spoke a word of it, and I'd gone almost twenty-four hours without really opening my mouth to speak. I said the States, and she asked where, and I said DC, and she said, "oh, cool, I'm from New York," which I suppose I'd figured out by that point, somewhere between the "whea are you from" and "I'm from New Yawk," that famed New York accent sounding so beautifully familiar way out in Bulgaria. I asked what part, and she said Brooklyn, and I told her I was born in Brooklyn, and we quickly began chatting about the hospitals we were born in and the high schools we attended as teenagers in Staten Island and the parts of Jersey we both knew, and it struck us both as so very odd to meet half a planet away on the edge of the Black Sea ... of all the gin joints in all the world.
Alyssa had to head downstairs to send a message, and I headed back to the adjoining room to plug my phone in for a quick charge. A moment later, my bunkmate entered, a lively Greek who welcomed me enthusiastically, if not a little drunkenly, and asked where I was from. "The States," I said.
"Ah, America!" he shouted. "America, you want to get a drink with me?"
"Uh, maybe," I replied, not really wanting to but not wanting to be rude either. "What time?"
"How about now, America?" he responded in jagged English. "I just shower and change and then we go."
He seemed harmless, but he also seemed blitzed or high or both, and I wasn't feeling great about our chances of finding common ground, so again I demurred.
He turned toward his bed. "Hey America, you want to see the sword I bought here?" He brushed a few shirts aside and revealed a large rusty sabre, picking it up by its black handle and cutting it through the air with gusto. "Nice, right?"
"Ah, yeah, really nice," I said.
"Here, America, you want to try? Feel it." He handed me the sword and I humored him by holding it for a minute, then handing it back. He lifted it high into the air and began swinging it wildly around the small room; it smacked into bunks and dinged against the door and poked at the ceiling as I backed into the seemingly safe cave of my lower bunk. Suddenly, he seemed a little less harmless ... not that I feared him intentionally slicing me with the rusty sword, but with his faculties impaired by whatever he was on, I didn't really trust his control of the weapon. "So ... I thought you were going to go shower," I suggested.
"Yes, yes! Let me just change." He closed the door between the two rooms ("can't let the bitches see me changing," he explained), and having entered without a shirt, now removed his only remaining piece of clothing with his free hand, a pair of tattered shorts that fell to the floor at his ankles, leaving him standing completely naked in the center of the cramped room, still brandishing that sword.
It got a little weirder. He became very focused on his penis, informing me that it was like a Transformer, that it grew like Megatron, and as the Greek once more resumed swinging of the sword, this time stark naked, I hurried out of the room without much in the way of an excuse. I headed downstairs and found Alyssa and told her all about the crazy Greek upstairs, who she'd also met a little earlier. She suggested we head out for a walk to get away from him—I loved the idea—and fifteen minutes later we were on our way, leaving the Greek and his big sword and his little sword swinging around aimlessly upstairs.
We stopped at a market outside the hostel to buy two cups of raspberries; as we waited for change, two familiar faces appeared across the street. It took a moment to place them, but they recognized mine as well and helped me out—"you were just in Bucharest, yeah?" We'd be on the same walking tour! Their names were Ed and Claire, a young couple from England with a really great energy, and it seemed such an odd coincidence to catch them again so many hundreds of kilometers southeast. As it turns out, they were staying in the very same hostel, in the very same suite ... they also knew of the Greek.
The four of us chatted for a minute and then parted ways, Alyssa and I stopping for dinner and sorbet and later going for a walk along the beach. We shared a love of cycling and travel and living an examined life, and we talked for hours until the night grew old and cold, and then sometime after midnight we left the waves for the hostel. Somewhere along the sand, we realized that we were being followed. Two dogs trailed us quietly about fifteen feet back, mid-size black mutts, gentle. We didn't really pay them much attention, but they had taken a liking to us nonetheless, passing right by other people without a care and following us straight off the sand and onto the street. As we walked, they would jump out into traffic and chase cars with loud barks and gnashing teeth, biting at spinning hubcaps while startled drivers slowed down or sped up to avoid running them over. And though they'd chase the cars for hundreds of feet in the other direction, they'd eventually turn around and rush back to us, sometimes slowing to a walk behind us and sometimes sidling up to walk alongside us, one on each side, and sometimes jostling along up in front.
It was a tad unnerving. They were good at following us while making it seem like they weren't. They'd rush up ahead and pick at garbage and make it seem like we were following them, but then we'd turn unexpectedly and they'd blow their cover and come racing after us. They'd protect us from other dogs—"back away," they'd bark, "these humans are ours!"—and of course any car with the audacity to spin its wheels, and they escorted us the half-hour home without really asking anything in return, leaving us feeling guilty as we shut the door behind us and left them out in the cold.
I said goodbye to Alyssa the next morning—thankfully, the Greek had been kicked out during the night and he wasn't around for a goodbye—then left for central Bulgaria.
I had a stop to make on the way, of course. I didn't know what to expect when arriving at Provadia (Provadia, not Ponrovia as I called it earlier). I didn't know what the town would be like or what state the ruins would be in, whether I'd have to climb or scramble or hike through brush to reach that fortress on the ridge, whether I could reach it at all, but I was determined to at least try. I'd looked for more information on the area while in Varna and found next to nothing, and I was excited at finding such a seemingly unexplored wonder, so off-the-beaten path that guidebooks, the vast Internet, didn't even make mention of it. In well-explored Europe, it had been tough to come upon bits of history uncorrupted by the tourism industry, yet there in rural Bulgaria, I had hope I'd be one of the first Westerners to make my way across those mysterious hilltops.
The train heaved to a stop at the unmarked station and I lumbered off it, wandering through the town toward higher ground. It was a larger town than it seemed from the railcar, a medley of small shacks and low-rise Soviet apartments that filled the valley like candle wax. I felt like an intruder, clearly out of place in a community where everyone surely knew everyone else, and on top of it, my hair was shorter and my skin darker, and my eyes too, and my clothes more western and probably my very gait different as well—I felt like there was little I could do to even try to fit in, so I hurried to the hills hoping not to offend along the way.
I found them, a little dismayed to see what was clearly an established trailhead. The steep switchbacks terminated at a winding staircase, and I climbed that too, further disappointed at the safety of the stairway and the presence of the few others I saw up on the ridge. Of course, I hadn't expected to discover anything, and I knew the dangers of even using the word discover to denote what a Westerner does when she stumbles upon a non-Western thing of note, be it a land or a ruin or something else entirely. But I had hoped, remote as it was, that the fortress on the hill was something the locals had just grown with and chose to leave to its ruin, the way the three dozen inhabitants of Xizhazi Village, at the foot of the Jiankou Great Wall, seemed to just let it be. These were selfish sentiments, I admit, and I'm obviously glad that Provadia makes use of its nearby treasures, but to communicate my feelings of the moment, I was hoping for adventure and found, instead (at least to begin), a pleasant walk akin to that of an out-of-the-way state park.
Nonetheless, what a walk it was. The fortress wasn't much, just a well-preserved stack of stone and an old wooden bridge spanning the plateau, but all along the ridge were strange shapes in the bedrock, man-made geometries that had clearly been bored by human and weathered by the centuries, circles and squares filled with puddles of rain or sprawling moss. What were they? I could make out the notches separating the exposed dwellings, just small stumps marking the end of one family's piece of rock and the beginning of another, and elsewhere the crumbling foundation of a church, but those holes in the ground mesmerized me: baths, maybe?
The plateau was an oval, maybe two kilometers at its widest radius, and it gave way to trees in its elevated middle. The rest was grass, some trodden down for a walkway and all else tall and weedy, and along the very edge of the cliff, hard rock exposed itself for maybe a meter across. I followed this rock, peering down at the abyss below, and walked as much around the plateau as I could before it all disintegrated into itself, and then I rounded the other way, back past the few other visitors and the fortress to a wilder section where the walkway disappeared and the rocky edge battled in wins and losses against overgrown brush.
Up ahead, on the top of the hill at the south end of the plateau, I caught sight of an odd rock. It capped the hill like a cherry does a scoop of ice cream, and, pretty please, I just needed to climb it. It was no ordinary rock: perhaps it is best described as a plateau riding a plateau, and I could make out irregular depressions in its base, and these strange rods coming out of it in every direction. And in front of it, dozens of evenly spaced posts sat rusted in the ground, three full rows of them, as though they supported a fence with invisible pickets. It all looked very strange.
Separating me and the posts were about a hundred feet of wild brush set at a fifty-degree uphill climb. Challenge accepted: I charged through it at a diagonal run, prickly weeds cutting at my ankles and shins and knees and thighs, and at some point along the charge it occurred to me that there might be snakes, or otherwise poisonous spiders, or maybe poisonous plants, that maybe this blitz into the unknown wasn't the best idea. Halfway in, I continued on anyway.
I stopped, panting, at the old rusted posts. For the first time, I worried what they were there for. My instinct screamed land mines!, and that was surely silly, but I didn't understand what other purpose they served, all spread out like that. And then there were those strange pegs in the rock face, foot-wide squares with a thin cylinder poking out from the center, scores of them all along the rock. Rusted with time, they were a mystery that gave me the creeps.
The whole place gave me the creeps. I felt, for the first time in a long while, the pang of physical fear, like maybe alone on a remote plateau in a remote region of already-remote Bulgaria wasn't the best place to try my luck against snakes and spiders and whatever man had done to the rock in front of me. I turned and descended, more scrapes at my shins. Getting back onto level (though still hopelessly rocky) ground, I nonetheless continued onward, not back toward the safe staircase but further along the unexplored rim, rounding it until it once again disintegrated and forced me back. On my return route, I again eyed the odd chunk of earth atop the hill, and sighed heavily. Okay, round two.
Here's the thing: I knew this was a reckless way of life, I know it is. I know it's foolish and arrogant and dangerous, that I have mortal limits and those limits will find me one day, that one day my wings will melt and I'll hit the ground hard. I know that one should stick to the trail and travel with a buddy and not charge headlong up steep hills on crumbling cliffs. I know this all, but here's the other thing: I knew that if I didn't see what was up there—like, really see it—I'd wonder and regret it for all those extra years of my life. So I sighed, and I breathed back in, and I once again bounded up the hill.
Blood dripped from cut knees, and everything itched. But soon I was right back where I'd been, and land mines be damned, I waltzed right through the three rows of posts, which, it seemed so obvious that second time, was not to keep people off the rocks but to keep the rocks off the people, sturdy steel to prevent landslides and rockslides from tumbling onto the Provadians far below (at least, I think). I walked past the posts and I scrambled up rocks and emerged victorious at the foot of the plateau-on-a-plateau. As I expected, I didn't actually see much. I still have no idea what purpose the pegs served (maybe just rebar to hold the whole thing together?), and the niches at the base, though clearly ancient cave dwellings, were littered with beer cans and rubbish from explorers past with less respect for the sanctity of the place. I read later that archaeologists several years back had discovered dwellings "near Provadia" that seemed to signal man's earliest settlement in Europe. Were these them? Or maybe the bachelor pads of that settlement's first outwardbound sons?
I liked the mystery of it. No nearby sign to give a clear answer, no guidebook to tell me about established fact. These just were. Satisfied with my "discovery," I left them in peace.
One more scurry down the hill brought me to that rocky edge with its overgrown weeds, and as I walked, my left foot hit a weak point in the rock and it gave way, pebbles tumbling off the precipice and my left heel sliding out with them right over the edge. Instantly, instinctively, I spun my hips to the right and folded my right knee down and over, striking my shin into the ground and pressing my toes firmly into the rock with a raised heel as my left shoe hooked the very ledge of the cliff. I froze, pumping adrenaline demanding silence from the pain in my right leg. Deep breaths, steady motions. Slowly, carefully, I dragged myself off the edge and heaved myself up onto my bloody legs, leaving some extra space between myself and the ledge for good measure.
I don't really think I saved myself with that maneuver; I think there were maybe ten other ways I could have fell without tumbling off the cliff, but the eleventh would not have been pretty. Rising to my feet and walking much more carefully back to the stairs, I nonetheless thanked good fortune and good reflex, glad that I had found a dash of adventure in Provadia after all.