A street near the town’s center, looking northward to the nearby hill. You can see the edge of town from here. 

Nikolaevo is a 2,800 person town to the north of Stara Zagora at the foot of the Sredna Gora Mountains. While not a standard tourist destination, it is home to Stoytcho’s aunt and grandfather. Stoytcho’s grandfather, also Stoytcho, was the school’s math teacher and principal during the communist regime and his aunt, Lela Stanka, teaches Bulgarian there today. Together, they also still farm the plot of land that belongs to the Stoytchev family.

Lela Stanka, Stoytcho elder, and Stoytcho younger.
We offer to help Stoytcho elder with chopping firewood.

We stay with Lela Stanka in two-bedroom apartment at the northern edge of town. The school is still on summer holiday, so we take long walks with her in the remaining days of the countryside summer. She points out landmarks and updates Stoytcho on life here. Nikolaevo was once a larger town, with most inhabitants employed by a factory that made ceramic parts for electrical wires. “A competing Turkish company bought the factory and shut it down,” she tells us, “and most people left.”

Old equipment lies in an empty lot near the town’s edge.
A snake slithers through leaf litter at the edge of town.

Now, the people living in Nikolaevo are predominately Roma, but each year brings something new. British expats started coming a few years back, not just pensioners but also families with children, lured by the cheap cost of living. Bulgarian families have also moved in, lured by cheap fertile land on in the surrounding area that is ripe for planting vineyards. Winemaking is a growing industry in Nikolaevo, evident from the rows of grapevines stretching from the north edge of town and up the nearby hill, where Stanka says ancient Roman ruins lay buried in underbrush.

Wine grapes in a vineyard to the town’s north.
Two Roma men greet us as they pass. 

Nikolaevo is a small town like so many others in Bulgaria; things move slowly, things change slowly, and for now at least, things continue.

A herd of sheep and goats wander beneath Nikolaevo’s highway overpass.

Taumarunui: An adorable non-touristy NZ town

Sitting at the start of the Forgotten World HighwayTaumarunui is a drive-through town for most New Zealand roadtrippers. The main road is armed with a McDonald’s and a gas station, meaning most people stop there and never venture further. But in exploring the town for a few hours, we found that it has small-town NZ charm without the touristy kitsch, and we loved it. Here are some photos, a reminder of why it’s great to sometimes stop at places not on the tourist docket:

NZ police officers stop by a stall selling clothes and plants during the weekly market.
A stone memorial with a top hat is the chance to take cute pictures.
Local meat pies! This one is the chicken and vegetable, a salty chicken stew encased in a crisp, crusty pocket.
Taller than you: Stoytcho (193 cm) stares up at a giant moa sculpture sponsored by the Rotary Club and constructed of found wood pieces.
A lighthearted PSA in the town’s park
The park playground, which has PERFECT swings that fit children and children-at-heart (like us)