The road to Malko Tărnovo is a long one, whichever route you take. My own journey there was by way of an early morning minibus from the port of Burgas on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast. Less than 24 hours earlier, I had been in Dimitrovgrad in south-east Serbia catching a train over the border to Sofia, from where I would connect with an overnight service to take me on to the coast. As we waited on the train at the Bulgarian customs post for the border officials to work their way along the carriages, the sun broke out unexpectedly from behind banked clouds to fill the compartment with warm golden light, an event that prompted a nightingale in the bushes outside to suddenly burst into joyful song. Birds are indifferent to political frontiers; customs officials less so.
I wake at dawn just before we reach Burgas. There is a hint of coal gas in the air: the chimneys of the port’s industrial outskirts are already billowing yellow smoke into the sky as striated clouds glow pink against the blue. Walking out of the handsome neoclassical station, I find the city just starting to stir into life as early-shift trams glide along almost empty streets. In the small park next to the station, another nightingale sings from its hidden perch as screaming swifts swoop for flies overhead.
The minibus to Malko Tărnovo skirts the bay and is soon passing through rolling wooded countryside interspersed with a few scattered villages. This south-eastern corner of the country constitutes a region known as the Strandzha (sometimes spelled ‘Strandja’) — a tucked-away area of modern-day Bulgaria that was once home to powerful Thracian kings. The kingdom of Thrace, as was often the way in the ancient world, did not correspond to modern political boundaries but spanned what are now three distinct countries — Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece. These days, because of its biodiversity (the Strandzha was never glaciated and so has unique Tertiary-period flora), the same region is a designated national park: Strandzha Nature Park (or ‘Priroden park Strandzha’), the largest protected area in Bulgaria.
Arriving in Malko Tărnovo, half of the passengers decant immediately into a café that seems to double as a community centre. I join them for a coffee before heading off in search of my rented apartment, which turns out to be on the top floor of a four-storey Communistera block — about as elevated as it gets in this low-rise backwater.