Things To Do In Ruse (Bulgaria) When You’re Dead

13 Sep

Don’t ask me why the title of this piece is what it is. It was literally the first (and only) thing that came to my mind.

By the way, Part One of this story can be read by clicking HERE

We followed the road away from the border crossing for a couple of minutes until we came to the place where lorry drivers parked their vehicles on the dust and disappeared for food and drink; unregistered taxi drivers touted for extortionate business; prostitutes paced up and down, freezing in their open shoes; and a little bureau de change exchanged money at a less than fair rate. Despite this, I exchanged £10 for some local currency and we drank hot fruit tea as we stood in the side of the road, shivering, with outstretched thumbs. The local men masquerading as taxi drivers seemed intent on testing my patience, with one approaching us every two minutes, saying, “Where from?” followed by, “Taxi? Taxi? Sofia? Varna? Very cheap.”

“How many times? We don’t want a taxi!”

Along with these persistent car owners, there were also scruffy young lads whose sole purpose in being there seemed to be to bum cigarettes and to check out how easy the pickings were for a bit of theft. They would approach us, ask me for a fag, then stare at our bags intently as I handed them a smoke. Once they realised that we were aware, though, they soon moved on. The taxi drivers were a different story. They were beginning to piss me off. The colder it got, the more frustrating it became standing in the road, being ignored by the driver of every vehicle that passed. After an hour and a half of standing in the same spot, we accepted that we probably weren’t going to have any luck. We were so cold that it hurt to breathe. We squeezed each other tight and jumped around on the spot to get the blood flowing, and then we picked up our bags and began walking along the side of the road, away from the border and towards what we hoped was the city centre. After about ten minutes of walking in pitch darkness along the muddy verge, we reached a petrol station and I went inside and asked the peroxide blonde working behind the counter to call me a taxi.

“Strange request, but okay – You’re a taxi!” she said.

No she didn’t. She picked up her mobile, dialled a number, and a couple of minutes later a cab pulled up outside. We arranged a fee of 5 Euros with the driver, and he took us the fifteen minutes to the city’s railway station.

From the very moment we had first come up with the idea of taking on this challenge to hitchhike around the Black Sea, Adriana had been adamant that we would not resort to taking trains or buses. She had 100 per cent faith in hitchhiking, not to mention a severe lack of monetary funds at her disposal. We were to do this trip on the tightest of shoe strings. It helped that when it came to hitchhiking, she was practically a professional. She had thumbed lifts all over Eastern Europe, and she had done it alone. I, on the other hand, was a novice. It had been five years since I’d last put myself at the mercy of European drivers, and even then I had lacked the will power necessary to take rejection for a long stint of time and remain positive, usually opting instead to blag a free ride on a train. But I had been a lone male back then. Lorry drivers hadn’t been so keen on my companionship. Travelling with an attractive woman at my side would, I was sure, make getting picked up and transported long distances a whole lot easier. Adriana’s entire budget for the trip was about 400 Euros. I had a bit more, thanks to a highly profitable two-week period at the poker table of a Brighton casino, but had agreed to travel as if with empty pockets, to keep us on a level playing field.

The large white stone building of Ruse’s railway station stood over us. Up the steps and between the three large pillars we walked, through the heavy wooden doors, and into the huge main hall that resembled the interior of an old and magnificent Gothic church. The marble of the floor was so shiny you could see your reflection in it. Up above, a lone security guard strolled around the gallery, looking down on us over the balcony. At the back of the hall, more large wooden doors, leading out to the platforms. People, young and old, sat on the benches, wrapped up in thick coats and hats, chatting quietly to each other or reading a book. The departures and arrivals boards displayed times and destinations, written in Cyrillic only. Fortunately I had learnt this alphabet some years ago, whilst starting out on a course in Serbian, and so was able to see that there were no trains leaving for either of the two largest cities on Bulgaria’s Black Sea Coast, Varna or Burgas. We approached the information desk and asked the stern-faced 50-year old woman behind the glass if she spoke English. She didn’t.

“Varna?” I asked.

“Utre,” she said.

I had enough knowledge of other Southern Slavic languages to know that this meant, ‘tomorrow.’

I then asked for the Black Sea, “Črno more?”

The woman took a piece of scrap paper and began writing, in Cyrillic, whilst speaking quickly. Her words were wasted on me, I understood nothing, but figured it best to wait until she had finished, in the hope that we could decipher her message when handed the bit of paper. When she was done she passed it underneath the glass to us and then got out of her seat to go and make a cup of coffee. We took the piece of paper over to a bench, not feeling confident. A tough-looking man in his forties, wearing a knee-length leather coat and with slicked back dark hair stepped in front of us.

“Taxi?” he growled.


“I take you to Varna,” he responded in a heavy accent, “40 Euros.”

“No thanks. We don’t want a taxi.”

The man didn’t look convinced by my answer, and continued to hover around us as we tried to work out what was written on the piece of scrap paper I was holding. Written in messy handwriting that made it even harder to decipher, was:


Adriana, who was always going to be the brains of the operation, was quick to crack the coded message.

“That says ‘Ruse’ in Cyrillic, right?” she asked, pointing at the word for Ruse.


“And that one, I’m guessing, is Varna. Correct?”

“It is.”

“Well then this is quite simple, isn’t it? A train leaves here at 11:45 tonight and arrives in that funny looking place at 1:48am. And then just under an hour later, a train leaves that place for Varna, arriving there at 6 tomorrow morning,” she explained.

“Go away!”

I was shouting at the taxi driver, who had now lowered his price for a lift to Varna to 35 Euros.

I was glad for this little interruption, though, as it meant I didn’t have to lie to Adriana by saying, “Yea, that’s what I thought it meant, too.”

The truth is, I could have studied that piece of paper until my 40th birthday and I still wouldn’t have worked out its meaning. I am, after all, something of a dope. What I could do, however, was tell Adriana that the name of the station at which we would change trains, if we did decide to go against her initial wishes and travel by rail, was Gorna Oryahovitsa. A map of Bulgaria’s rail connections was pinned to one of the walls, meaning we were able to ascertain that Gorna Oryahovitsa was about 65 miles directly to the south of us, and that Varna was 135 miles directly east of there.

“No train tonight. You will be cold here. Taxi to Varna, I take you for 35 Euros.”

“Adriana, this guy is starting to get on my tits. Let’s go and find something to eat; I’m starving. And seeing as how we have three hours to kill before our train departs, how about we buy a bottle of something and get drunk while we wait?”

We made our way out of the station and into the darkness. The man in the leather coat followed us, lighting a cigarette with a match as he asked, “How much you pay me to go Varna?”

I thought for a second before saying, “15 Euros.”

The man laughed.

The streets of Ruse were quiet at this time of evening. Leaving the area of the station behind, passing the closed shops and offices, we found ourselves on Alexasandrovska Ulica, the city’s main street. A friendly hotel receptionist gave us a free map of the city, but his employer didn’t have an exchange office. Before we could eat or drink anything, we needed some Bulgarian Leva. The receptionist drew a circle in red pen on the map to indicate where we could find a late-night bureau de change. Off we set, passing a fast food vendor with a large queue of locals lined up at his window. Outside a supermarket, a group of teenagers stood, chatting, laughing and smoking.

“Do any of you speak English?” Adriana asked them.

There were giggles. The biggest boy of the group stepped forward.

“A little,” he said with a friendly smile.

“How do we get to this place? We need to change some money.”

The team of adolescents all conferred with one another, before the alpha male explained to us in detail the path we needed to take. Some 20 minutes later we were back at the supermarket. The teenagers greeted us. We now had the Leva we needed. We filled a basket with two large bottles of Bulgarian beer, a bottle of vodka, a carton of juice and some packets of crisps. After completing the purchase, we walked back up Alexasandrovska Ulica to the fast food vendor. The lady behind the counter in the green cap pointed to the picture menu on the wall. I was to let her know what I wanted by pointing to one of the photos. I couldn’t tell what anything was, so just stared at her blankly until she said or did something.

“Pile?” she eventually asked, pointing at what looked like a chicken fillet.

“Da, pile.”

She smiled. I smiled. And the bloke stood next to me demolishing a chicken and coleslaw sandwich smiled. Unfortunately he wasn’t the type that smiled with their mouth closed. I inhaled my  dinner of chicken, cheese and sauerkraut in a bap in one motion and we took a quick stroll around the city’s Old Town, circling Ruse Regional Historical Museum, as well as the regional library ‘Lyuben Karavelov’, decorated with baroque ornaments – leaves, pearls and rosettes. Ruse from the outskirts of the city had looked bleak and depressing. Ruse in the city centre was pretty, clean and quaint. Sadly it was too cold to do any more night time sightseeing. We made our way back towards the station, stopping along the way to buy a steaming cup of hot chocolate each from a vending machine on the street. Advanced race, the Bulgarians.

“Okay, we go Varna for 30 Euros!” pleaded my mate, as we re-entered the station’s complex.

“Is he still here?” I sighed.

We had two hours to kill until our train was due to leave. We sat on one of the free benches inside the hall and opened the bottle of vodka. A dark-haired girl of university age approached us tentatively and asked something in Bulgarian.

“I’m sorry, do you speak English?” I asked her.

“Ah yes, sorry. Do you have some change for the telephone, please?”

In her hand she held out 1 Lev, which she wanted to break into some Stotinki – Bulgaria’s equivalent of pennies. I nodded my head to let her know that I did indeed have some change, and I reached for my pocket. Before I’d had a chance to pull out the coins, she’d walked away apologetically.

“Where’s she going? I said ‘yea’”.

Adriana was laughing. “You forgot, didn’t you?”

“Forgot what?”

“Bulgarians. They’re different to the rest of the world, remember? A nod of the head means no here!”

“Oh yea! What a weird country!” I said, before calling the girl. “Hey, sorry, there was a misunderstanding.”

“Ah yes, let me guess,” the girl replied, grinning. “Your nod meant ‘yes’, right?”

I nodded. Just to fuck with her.

She said, “You Americans are so strange!”

“Americans? But we’re not……” I cut myself off mid-sentence, nodded and said bye to the girl as she walked towards the payphone.

Our tickets to Varna, thanks to the seller believing just our word that we were both students, cost 9 Leva each, around £3.80. We spent the next couple of hours drinking. Well, I did. Adriana read silently, while I worked my way through the cheap, fizzy beer. By the time we took our seats on board the 23:45 to Gorna Oryahovitsa, I had a nasty headache. Somehow, my hangover had started before I’d even finished drinking.

To be continued soon…….


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