After two years, the adrenaline rush from moving to a foreign country has begun to wane, so I needed to find a new way to get the same high.
What did I decide to do?
I decided to travel through Bulgaria with a single backpack, staying in hostels, without any real plan besides plane tickets and hostel reservations.
How did I choose Bulgaria?
After two years of traveling Western Europe, it’s time I expand my horizons and try new places. Also, I’ve found myself more interested in traveling to places that I’m less likely to return to if I ever move out of Europe. And if we’re all being honest, I’m much more likely to return to Spain, France, or Italy than I am to return to Estonia, Romania, or Bulgaria.
Of course, Eastern Europe all tends to be cheaper than Western Europe and Bulgaria is one of the cheapest countries I researched. Add the fact that Bulgaria has everything (mountains, beaches, urban centers, history, nature) and I had the perfect place to spend two weeks traveling.
How did I get there?
Although Eastern Europe is geographically close to where I live, I found the trains systems are not efficient from my city. Therefore, I booked a plane ticket (with no checked baggage allowance) and packed my bag. I took a two hour flight into the capital, Sofia.
Which cities did I visit?
I started my journey in Sofia, the capital, and then headed east. I stopped in Veliko Tarnovo, the old capital with a lot of history, and then continued on to the northeastern city of Varna, which is on the coast of the Black Sea. I backtracked to the western part of the country via the historically significant city of Plovdiv. Finally, I returned to Sofia to catch my flight out of the country.
How did I get around?
When I first landed (after 10:00 PM in the dark and rain) I took a taxi to my hostel and got ripped off. I talked the guy down more than 50% of what he was trying to charge me, but I still paid about double what I should have paid. Moral of the story: don’t take taxis unless the driver is willing to quote you up front (even if he’s not completely sure how far it is).
Within the cities, though, I mostly walked. Every now and then I took public transportation, but I found it difficult. The metro in Sofia was pretty easy, although there were two different tracks, each with two different lines (why not just have four different lines?). The buses and trams were not as easy because the stops were almost only in Cyrillic, there was nothing inside the bus or tram identifying the upcoming stop, and there weren’t even signs at the actual stop that I could look at to see if I should get off. So… yeah… that was fun.
Between cities, I either took a train or a bus. The first leg of the journey, from Sofia to Veliko Tarnovo, should have been easy. I found all the information online, went to the train station early to buy a ticket, and found myself in tourist hell. I was sent to a different ticket desk, then people refused to queue with any semblance of order, and then the woman would not speak English to me. Fair enough, I’m in a country that doesn’t speak English (although many people at train stations do, in fact, speak English). But I already knew what I wanted, so no need to have an actual conversation.
Except she said, “No”.
What do you mean, “No”? I want to go from Point A to Point B on the train that leaves in 30 minutes.
Ah, hell. What now?
A nice Bulgarian man helped me (you’ll read more about him later) and I made it via train and bus to Veliko Tarnovo.
The bus from Tarnovo to Varna was much easier to deal with, though to be fair I did not buy my ticket (another American woman bought ours together). But then the train from Varna to Plovdiv proved to be difficult… again.
First I went to the ticket desk. She told me to go to a different ticket desk. I went there, with all the information about the train I wanted written down, but the woman refused to sell me a ticket.
Why? Who knows. She sent me to Information.
The woman at Information just stared at me.
“I want to buy a ticket from here to Plovdiv. For tomorrow. At 12:10.”
More staring. English was not her strong suit.
“So… I give you money… you give me a ticket?” [Author’s note: This might include miming to get the point across.]
She shook her head “no”. Of course not. She told me to go back to the second desk.
“She told me to come to you.”
The woman at Information didn’t know why she would tell me that.
“I don’t know why either. Maybe you should ask her, but I’ve already been to every desk, so I need someone to help me.”
At this point I was debating the intelligence of going to one of the police/swat/military guys to see if they could help. There were a few milling around and one of them was bound to speak English.
But the woman at information printed a list of all the trains leaving the station the following day and then circled the train I wanted. She gave it to me.
I went back to the other woman and gave it to her.
She sold me a ticket.
[Author’s note: I had the same exact information written down already!!!]
Plovdiv proved to be easier. While I couldn’t figure out how to buy a bus ticket, the train station was super easy and I had absolutely no trouble at all.
Where did I stay?
I spent the entire two weeks staying in hostels, where I shared a dorm room with other guests. Four of the five hostels offered female-only dorms, which made me feel more comfortable on my first foray into hostels, though I had absolutely no issues at any of my hostels.
What were the hostels like?
Hostels are all completely different. I had no idea what to look for when I was making reservations, but after this trip I have a much better idea for the future.
The first hostel I booked (Sofia) was on the main pedestrian street, though it was a little difficult to find because it was behind and above a restaurant. There were no actual receptionists and I had to wait quite a long time for someone to show up and let me in. Once I was led to my room, I realized that I had to walk through another room (with men) to get to my room (with women). It was a little odd and made me self-conscious every time I left my room (especially if men were changing clothes or just… lounging around…). Although there was someone in the hostel part of the day, guests were expected to use the computer to Skype with an employee if they had any issues or questions. The lack of a real person made it difficult to get information about the city, plus the wi-fi was very weak (even sitting right next to the router), so I found it difficult to plan my days.
The second hostel (Veliko Tarnovo) was a pretty lengthy walk from where the bus dropped me off, but the hostel itself was pretty amazing. The people working the front desk were extremely helpful, the common area was cozy, and the bathroom situation was well planned. There were two closets with showers and sinks, one closet with a toilet and sink, one closet with a toilet, and one closet with a sink. Essentially, you rarely had to wait to use the bathroom or brush your teeth. This hostel also had a nice patio area, plus they cooked fresh breakfast every day and a vegetarian dinner each night.
The third hostel (Varna) was a pirate hostel. No kidding! There was pirate decor and I even heard one of the hostel employees tell a man that drinking at 8:00 AM is not a sign of alcoholism, but instead a sign of being a pirate. Yeah… Anyway, this hostel was a little cramped and there were A LOT of men hanging around. It took me a while, but I realized that the hostel employees lived there, so many of the people were there friends (at least I think they were…). The bathroom situation was also a little odd because there were shower spigots in the stalls with the toilets. So imagine a small public bathroom with two or three stalls and a sink outside of the stalls. Inside those stalls, there were shower heads above the toilets. It was efficient (never had to wait to take a shower), but hard to keep anything (especially toilet paper!) dry while taking said shower.
The fourth hostel (Plovdiv) was very private. Essentially it was an apartment that the owner put a couple extra beds in and called a hostel. This, in fact, turned out to be awesome. I had a room to myself because there was only one other guest and she was in the second bedroom. There was also room in the refrigerator and freezer to keep some food to cook, plus there was a full-size bathroom. And the little things made such a difference here. For one, the toilet paper had baby powder in it. Like, there was a pink design on the toilet paper and the pink design was baby powder. How awesome is that? Secondly, there were screens on the windows! Europe doesn’t really believe in putting screens on windows, but it was so nice not having to share my room with mosquitoes while staying in Plovdiv!
The fifth hostel (Sofia) was on the outskirts of the city center and therefore a little more difficult to get to, but it was pretty awesome as well. The people running the hostel were super nice and the whole atmosphere was clearly set up to encourage mingling. The kitchen was full-size so I could cook meals, plus the common area had a television (tuned to the Olympics), board games, book exchange, computer, etc. The hostel also encouraged social gathering by taking guests to see the sun set, having locals come by for board game nights, etc.
What kinds of people did I meet?
I met so many different kinds of people. I would be lying if I said they were all interesting or they were all nice or I liked them all. I didn’t. But I didn’t have any particularly bad experiences and I was able to find something about each person to hold my attention. I’ll describe a few of the memorable people:
Sweet Bulgarian Family: So the Bulgarian man that helped me get from Sofia to Veliko Tarnovo? He and his family happened to be traveling on the same train to the same destination. He introduced me to his wife and daughter, explained how to read my ticket, and then went so far as to have me follow them on the train. I didn’t have a reserved seat like them so I was going to go somewhere else, but he insisted I stay. Luckily no one claimed the seat I was in. He proceeded to ask me about my travels, look up reputable taxi services and give me their phone numbers, feed me snacks, and give me his information so I could contact him if anything else went wrong. Of course we became Facebook friends. They were meeting a family member in Gorna, so when we got there, they figured out how I should get from Gorna to Tarnovo. There was some discussion (in Bulgarian, I have no idea what it entailed) and ultimately they found me a bus. The man then proceeded to ask the bus driver where it was going, when it would be there, where it would drop me off, and make sure that the driver knew I didn’t speak Bulgarian. The man looked at my GPS (where all my hostels were saved on a map of Bulgaria) and showed me where I would be dropped off. This proved to be helpful because I knew exactly when to get off the bus. All in all, this family was extremely kind and probably one of the best interactions I had throughout my entire trip.
Crazy Australian Woman: OK, to be fair, she wasn’t really crazy, but you’ll see why I named her such in a later post. She had quit her job in Australia to spend eight weeks traveling Europe and planned to look for a new job when she returned home. She is adventurous, personable, a little shy, but also quite genuine. I learned about her profession (geriatric nursing), her professional goals, her personal goals, her regrets, and also the best decision of her life (cutting her hair). I know it seems like a lot to learn about a stranger, but once again, you’ll probably figure out why I learned so much about this woman in a later post.
Rock Climbing American Woman: I actually met another woman from my home state! She had quit her job months ago to travel Europe and planned on finding a new one when she returned home (she’s a dental hygienist). She was nearing the end of her travels after having been abroad for a few months (I think she had one month left when we parted ways). She is athletic, open-minded, honest, and balanced. I also learned that she loves underground dive bars (more on that in a later post as well), local craft beers, and local wines. We both happened to be leaving Veliko Tarnovo and traveling to Varna on the same day, so we took the bus together.
Bubbly Canadian Student: I don’t actually remember if this kid was a student or not because I only interacted with him for a few hours, but he was the first person that really stood out to me on my trip. He is extremely sociable, kind, and generous. He wanted to do everything possible with anyone willing. What really got to me was the way he left the hostel at 10:30 at night to get a woman who had literately just arrived some ice cream because it was her birthday and we didn’t have any cake for her. As cliché as it sounds, it was kind of inspiring.
Retired Canadian Man: This man was pretty cool. He is from Canada but retired. During the winter he stays in a Canadian resort (because it’s cheap) and during the summer he travels Europe staying in hostels (because it’s cheap). His perspective was quite different from other people’s and he was really interested in talking to people and hearing their stories. He also owned his decisions and didn’t try to gloss over mistakes he has made in his life.
Middle Aged Yugoslavian Man: This man talked a lot. I mean, he talked a lot. He came in late one night while a group of us were playing a card game and just watched. After everyone else left, he engaged me in conversation about a range of topics from politics to religion to traveling to relationships to food. What is most memorable (besides talking so so much)? He misses the Communist State. And he compared communism and capitalism to a chocolate shop.
Male Canadian Students: I’m going to group these guys together and make it quick: I forgot how ridiculous university students act when they want to get into a girl’s pants. Geez Louise. Watching every single guy sitting at the table (during that card game I mentioned above) try to impress one of the women from Denmark was… actually it was quite pathetic. I couldn’t tell if they didn’t realize they were all being played or if they did realize and just didn’t care. Regardless, it was a short trip down memory lane (and thus part of the reason I did not go out with the group after the game).
Australian Cyclist: The woman I shared a hostel with in Plovdiv might be the most interesting person I met on my entire trip. She has quite an interesting back story, but let’s jump right to the cycling: she cycles the world. She started in the north of Alaska and cycled down the western coast of North America, crossed the canal into South America, and continued cycling down to the tip of Chile. She then made her way back north to Brazil, where she stayed for a few years before flying to Europe. Now she’s cycling Europe. Interested in her story? Check out her blog.
Cynical American Man: I have to include this guy because he was so… sure of his reasoning. He is currently “interviewing cities”, which is kind of a cool idea. He doesn’t believe that his job should define him and thinks he can get a job anywhere, so he’s more concerned about living somewhere that he feels comfortable, can meet people, and build a life (not around a job). OK. Cool. But this is where I started getting… confused? He hasn’t found a city yet where he can make friends (does anyone make real lasting friendships while traveling?). He hasn’t found a country where women are sexually liberated (does he really understand what sexual liberation means to a woman or is he just trying to justify his own sexual desires?). He hated dating in the United States (and he thinks moving to a foreign country where he doesn’t know the social norms nor do the women speak the same language as him will be better?). Now don’t get him wrong… he has had MANY one-night stands (does he think that makes him seem more knowledgeable about women OR relationships?), but none of them have turned into anything serious (did he really think they would?!). I mostly kept my thoughts to myself because he clearly didn’t want my opinion, but I did try to subtly suggest that instead of moving across the world (or from country to country), maybe he needs to reconsider his actions. I mean, this guy really did not seem to see any link between his behavior and his lack of success with women. “Always do what you always did; always get what you always got.”
What kinds of things did I do?
This question will be answered in the various posts about each city I visited. So stay tuned to read about free walking tours, ancient ruins, sight-seeing, hiking, cycling, sunrises, sunsets, and much more!