I had always assumed that Romania was the cheapest place in Europe, which is a damn good reason for living there (other reasons are that they’re friendly, honest, loyal, multilingual, flexible, fun-loving and great to work with).
Then someone told me that Bulgaria is much cheaper. How is that possible? Romania’s prices are already way lower than Britain’s and to go lower than that would imply people aren’t being paid at all. I had to find out.
I got the night train from Bucharest to the Danube city of Ruse (spelt PYCE in Bulgarian) and booked into a wonderful family-run hostelry called The English Guesthouse. Finding it at 4am wasn’t easy but when I did the wonderful lady who runs the place didn’t grumble about being dragged out of bed or me coming inside with my dirty great touring bike. The price? Only 21 Euro for a nice little room and a much-as-you-can-eat-pigout breakfast.
The next morning I asked the 22 year old son about where to find lunch and he produced a fancy restaurant menu that was bound in wooden covers. I glanced at the prices and couldn’t believe them: all puddings and drinks were under a quid and the local brandy was about 50p a shot. This is where I’d come if I was an alcoholic.
My initial plan was to get up early and cycle round the vast national park that follows a network of limestone gorges and reaches up to the city limits of Ruse. But I was knackered and I told myself that I deserve a day off!. After all I was on my own and who cares if I stay in bed all day? I slobbed in front of the TV and read an amazing book called Utz.
Eventually the demons of guilt and hunger drove me outside and I followed the 22-year olds words of advice about this cheap restaurant called Cheflika. I really wasn’t expecting much, after all I was in a small provincial town, but I just needed to fill a hole and anything would do.
En-route to Cheflika I passed through the centre of town and realised that Ruse is a beautiful place. What particularly struck me was the large number of streets that were shaded by avenues of mature trees. There’s something rather magical about Ruse and it’s so quiet it’s almost eerie. I wondered why nobody in Bucharest had said to me over the 15 years I’ve been living there that Ruse an amazing place for a weekend! After all, it’s only 80km away.
I got to the restaurant and thought it was closed. The outside of it was covered with rough wooden paneling that had faded in the sun. “Aha” I thought, “one of those old fashioned Communist-style places where the waiters are burly, the service bad and the prices low.” I’d been to many of these in Romania and appreciate them for what they are.
But Cheflika is something else entirely. Shabby it may be on the outside but stepping inside is like going into the Tardis – literally four times bigger than you expect. It’s a vast labyrinth of rooms which have been done up in what they call the “rustic” style – wooden panels and beams everywhere; old fashioned tiles on the floor; muscular waiters carrying big wooden trays over their heads and brilliant folk music playing in the background. The barman shook his head (which means yes in Bulgaria) when I asked if I could bring my bike in.
The waitress spoke Romanian and I ordered bean stew (“Monastery Style”) at €1.53; half a kilo of “Shopska” salad (mixed salad with grated cheese, a staple all over the Balkans) at €1.85; a bottle of mineral water and a portion of roasted nuts (€2.47) for later (by this stage I had decided to do a bit of cycling after all). She insisted on bringing some home-made bread, baked with cheese, and it was unbelievably delicious – as was the whole meal – and by the end I considered proposing to the waitress and never leaving.
Fired up by deliciousness and a new found energy I rode south to the national park, ten miles to the south. I wasn’t impressed with the old church located in the cliff – shown in all the touristy leaflets I’d seen lying around – as it had been over-restored with EU funds, but I followed a track into the gorge and ended up in the most perfect wilderness, with a chain of small lakes, limestone cliffs on both sides and thick forest. The only person I saw was an old fisherman.
By evening I was back at Cheflika where I splashed out on a fish platter, one of the most expensive items on the menu, at a total cost of €5.40 and the following evening I was back in Bucharest, having checked out Giurgiu, the Romanian town that faces Ruse. I remembered Giurgiu as being one of the most unattractive towns in Romania and it’s as ugly and depressing as ever. Perhaps my bad impression of Girgiu led me to assume that Ruse would be the same.
Later on I came across the Berlitz Guide Book to Bulgaria and, to my surprise, the country is packed full of interesting places to visit. I need to come back to this small Balkan nation and explore it properly. Back home I asked Google what was the cheapest place in Europe and the Daily Mail confirmed it – and therefore it must be true – Bulgaria is the cheapest holiday destination in the EU. I’ll be back.
By Rupert Wolfe Murray