THE TOUR: I thoroughly enjoyed the tour. Bulgaria is the farthest east I’ve ever been and also the most “exotic” place I’ve visited. Most people were able to speak at least a little English, and the occasional mime helped too (e.g., some of us at dinner one night, not being sure what the meat was on our plates, pointed questioningly at it and started to flap our arms and cluck at our driver until his eyes got really big and he said “chicken”; I think we may have frightened him a little).
Personally, I love seeing churches of all types. If you think one church is more than enough, then you may not be overly enthusiastic about this tour (of course, you don’t have to go in if you don’t want to). The Orthodox churches are particularly beautiful inside, as nearly every surface is covered with icons and Bible stories.
My only tiny complaint was the number of archaeological museums we visited. It seemed like one too many. But looking back, I’m not at all sure which museum I would drop—they all had something to recommend them. I wouldn’t have minded one more ethnographic museum or house museum though. Archaeological finds are fascinating, but I really like to see how people lived.
My favorite cities/towns were Plovdiv and, even though it was touristy, Nesebar. In Nesebar, do make time to walk around the peninsula (in the evening just before sunset if possible) and across the isthmus to the new town. I also really enjoyed Veliko Tarnovo and the craftsmen (-women).
Part of the reason I took this tour instead of going to Scotland as I had originally planned was because I realized that my mental picture of Bulgaria came from Cold War-era movies and weightlifters in the Olympics. There is definitely evidence of Soviet-style architecture and there are some depressing areas where it looks as if nearly everything was abandoned 20 years ago, but on the whole I thought the country was lovely (though the government really needs to invest in the roads) and the people welcoming and helpful.
This was my tenth RS tour and felt, in a comforting way, like any other RS tour. However, there were some elements that I hadn’t experienced on tour before, like visiting the two schools and meeting with a couple of politicians. I’m not especially kid-friendly, so I was surprised by how much fun I had at the schools. The kids were darling with their singing and dancing, and the teachers seemed appropriately anxious to show off their young charges in the best light. At the end of the kids’ performances, we were asked to sing for them. Oy! Listen, if you take this tour and someone suggests that you sing “Old MacDonald,” do your best to dissuade them. Sure, it’s fun making duck and cow noises, but a more tuneless song there could not be. Both sets of kids listened politely and sometimes clapped along, but I’m sure they wondered what on earth we were droning on about. ;) Anyway, since our guide didn’t interpret our song for the kids, you could sing “Mele Kalikimaka” or whistle the theme tune from “The Andy Griffith Show” and it wouldn’t matter.
GUIDE: Stefan was our guide. He was marvelous! Patient, informed, smart, energetic, enthusiastic, and smiling like a happy Buddha 99 percent of the time. The welcome packet that he (and Lyuba) put together was amazing and really set the tone for the tour. He was also extremely understanding and unfazed on our last full day (driving from Veliko Tarnovo back to Sofia) when nearly half the tour members came down with some sort of nasty stomach bug. He was prepared with plastic bags and made sure we stopped for bathroom breaks more than we would have otherwise. He was just a really, really good guide and a nice guy.
TO SUM UP: There’s a lot of standing and listening on this tour, and I got a little “museumed out” archaeology-wise. That being said, I wholeheartedly recommend the Bulgaria tour.