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Bulgaria Tour (part 3)

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.

Posted by
961 posts

Wow - Teresa - what a marvelous series of reports. I enjoyed each one and would now consider this tour! Thank you so much!

Posted by
408 posts

Great trip report, Teresa and glad that you enjoyed the trip so much. I loved the monastery also. Now you'll have to do the Scotland trip. It's a great one.

Posted by
876 posts

Thanks, Nance and Leslie. I absolutely, positively intend to take the Scotland tour ... but the description of the Portugal tour in the tour catalogue is catching my eye!

Posted by
2357 posts

Great reports Teresa! I especially liked the word "stotinki" and hope you brought home some of those "stotinki". Did any of the stops on the tour stand out as the most outstanding to you? The excellent and very experienced guide on my RS England Tour this year said the Bulgaria Tour was especially good, but that you should really be into religious sites to thoroughly enjoy it. Do you agree with that? My own next tour will be the Best of Spain next spring.

Posted by
672 posts

Wonderful report, Theresa! We had Stefan the first Bulgaria tour he led and he was wonderful. So fun to reminisce while reading your posts.

Posted by
727 posts

Excellent report! Thanks for posting.

Posted by
2329 posts

Thoroughly enjoyable and very informative trip report, thank you so much! I've been toying with the idea of visiting Sofia on my own and your insight about the country is quite helpful.

Posted by
876 posts

Thanks for the nice comments, and thanks to Harold for providing links.

Larry asked a couple of questions. "Did any of the stops on the tour stand out as the most outstanding to you?" Hard to answer, actually! I really loved staying overnight at the Rila Monastery. Walking into the courtyard the following morning, being completely alone for a few minutes with only the sounds of nature and, faintly, the monks singing in the church, was a memorable moment for me. I also thoroughly enjoyed watching the crafts-people in Veliko Tarnovo, who create beautiful objects in a matter of minutes. I'll definitely remember all the parks -- there were far more public green spaces than I had expected -- and the fact that people were actually using them to relax, and visit and watch their children play; I especially enjoyed the big park in Varna and being able to walk out to the Black Sea. The stop in Kazanluk was special, as was the cultural performance in Veliko Tarnovo. There were quite a lot of "This is so cool!" moments on the tour!

"The ... guide on my RS England Tour this year said the Bulgaria Tour was especially good, but that you should really be into religious sites to thoroughly enjoy it. Do you agree with that?" Yes and no. Yes, because the tour goes to several Orthodox churches, a mosque and a synagogue, and you may get a little churched out. No, because you don't necessarily need to be into the religiosity of these places to enjoy them. The Orthodox churches are covered in paintings (icons), and you could probably spend an hour at least in each one trying to interpret the pictures. The synagogue and mosque also had their own specific beauty; in fact, in some ways they were a breath of fresh air compared to the churches. If I start to get a bit tired of the religious aspects, I just look at these places as art stops. Also, if you get to a point where you think you simply cannot look at one more house of worship, you can always choose to stay outside. Most of our church stops didn't last longer than 10 minutes.

Posted by
6877 posts

Teresa,
First off, thank you so much for posting such a thorough review! If you wouldn't mind, please PM me to share a link to your blog - I'd be very interested in reading it. I have a few questions for now:

1) Was the meeting with the government officials worthwhile in helping the tour members understand the country's economy, political challenges, future, etc? Did you think they answered questions in a frank manner (same for the Tour Guide)?
1a) What are the key challenges? Poor economy, political corruption, etc?
2) Of all the people-to-people interactions, which did you learn the most from, and which were your most and least favorite and why?
3) Is there any reason why the tour actually stayed in the monastery (with its lack of showers and the like) - was it to give everyone a truly monastic experience and to be there first thing in the AM? I know there is a town somewhere nearby with other types of lodging, although maybe not set up to accommodate tour groups.
4) It seems like the bus traverses a very long distance (long hours spent on the bus)..was the scenery a good offset to that?
5) Which was your favorite museum or archaeological site?
6) Have you been to any other Balkan country that you can compare Bulgaria to?
7) What did you find most surprising about Bulgaria?

Thanks again for your generosity in sharing info about this tour..the tour reviews don't have this level of detail. Your tour reminds me very much of the only RS tour I took - Village Turkey - which was last offered in 2011 and probably won't be resurrected. There was a lot of people-to-people interaction with locals on that tour.

Posted by
127 posts

Teresa,

Thank you for your very thorough report. I've signed up for one of the June tours in 2016 and your comments really help in knowing what to expect. I'm excited!

This will be my 5th RS tour and it strikes me that this particular tour is a bit more "rustic" than some of the other RS offerings. That's great!, I'm looking for that "temporary local" experience. I looked at this tour (or a similar one) a couple of years ago and then it seemed to disappear from the offerings. I did enough research to know that Bulgaria has an unbelievably rich history that years of being a Soviet satellite has hidden from Western appreciation.

Again, thank you for your reporting.

Posted by
876 posts

Agnes: I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to answer your questions. Some of them required some serious contemplation!

1) Was the meeting with the government officials worthwhile in helping the tour members understand the country's economy, political challenges, future, etc? Did you think they answered questions in a frank manner (same for the Tour Guide)?

Yes, I do think the meetings were helpful. That being said, our first meeting took place on the second evening of the tour, the room we were in was warm, I was hungry and getting tired, and some of Mr. Stanchev’s answers were number-heavy. Therefore, I unfortunately tuned out a bit (which you may have figured out from reading my blog!). A couple of times, Mr. Stanchev hemmed and hawed for a few seconds before answering -- in the way that politicians do -- but I didn’t feel that he was trying to hide anything or that he dodged any of the questions. I admit that I can be naïve, however. As for the mayor in the small village, he also seemed to be forthcoming, but it’s hard to tell when everything is being translated. One of our members asked what his educational background was or what his qualifications were for the job. Stefan then translated for the mayor. When he translated the answer back to us, he prefaced it by saying that he asked the mayor a slightly different question, as the original question would be perceived as somewhat rude. Whether or not these meetings are helpful or interesting will depend entirely on the questions asked by the group. (Tip: We were able to submit written questions for Mr. Stanchev ahead of time. He speaks English very well, but do make sure to print your questions instead of writing in cursive. Stefan referred to it as using our “typing letters.”)

1a) What are the key challenges? Poor economy, political corruption, etc?
The economy seems to be ticking along okay but -- as with any political system -- there is definitely corruption that needs to be dealt with. Something you’ll notice in Bulgaria is the amount of stray cats and dogs. It’s definitely a problem and when asked why the government didn’t have any programs in place to deal with the animal population, Stefan responded that the government’s priority was still taking care of the people. Maybe someday it will have the luxury of earmarking funds for animals. I did see a sign in Sofia for a private organization that catches, neuters and releases dogs, but that was about it. Fortunately, I personally didn’t see anyone being cruel to any of the strays.

2) Of all the people-to-people interactions, which did you learn the most from, and which were your most and least favorite and why?
The person I learned the most from was obviously Stefan. I also quite enjoyed our hostess in the Roma neighborhood, who provided some interesting insights into a marginalized population (and who also provided a delicious lunch!). My favorite, which wasn’t really one-on-one, was the cultural performance on our last night in Veliko Tarnovo. The dances were fascinating and the singing was beautiful. Being onstage afterward and dancing with the performers was also a nice bonding moment … and I don’t dance!

3) Is there any reason why the tour actually stayed in the monastery (with its lack of showers and the like) - was it to give everyone a truly monastic experience and to be there first thing in the AM? I know there is a town somewhere nearby with other types of lodging, although maybe not set up to accommodate tour groups.
I suppose it was strictly for the experience. Also, we got there rather late in the afternoon, so it made sense to stay the night. There are showers, but the water temps can be unpredictable. I know other people managed to wash just fine, but with the handheld thing in a corner of the tiny bathroom, I elected to take an abbreviated shower. :) (continued below)

Posted by
876 posts

(continued from above)

4) It seems like the bus traverses a very long distance (long hours spent on the bus)..was the scenery a good offset to that?
Yes and no. Generally, there are pretty rolling hills to gaze at, fields of crops, the occasional small herd of cows or sheep. On the other hand, there can be quite a bit of ugliness on the outskirts of cities where it looks like most of the buildings were abandoned two minutes after communism ended. Personally, I find that kind of “scenery” fascinating, but it’s definitely not pretty. Something to note is that the ride up/down the mountain going to/from the monastery was a little tough for those susceptible to motion sickness.

5) Which was your favorite museum or archaeological site?
Oh, so hard to choose! I really liked the museum parts of the monastery, the Iskra Museum in Kazanluk, and the amazingly well-preserved Roman theater in Plovdiv.

6) Have you been to any other Balkan country that you can compare Bulgaria to? Unfortunately, no.

7) What did you find most surprising about Bulgaria?
Hmm … I suppose that it wasn’t as culture-shockingly foreign as I had expected. Sure there’s the language/alphabet obstacle, but the polite words and phrases aren’t difficult to learn; even the alphabet isn’t that bad, and you’ll soon find yourself sounding out written words letter by letter. On the whole, though, it’s a lot like western Europe in that there are lovely, family-friendly green spaces, beautiful buildings (alongside the imposing Soviet-style architecture), seaside towns that are like seaside towns the world over, and people who are friendly and helpful when approached. I would quite happily go back.

Posted by
6877 posts

Teresa,
Thank you so much for your patience in answering all my questions! I learned A LOT about this tour from you, so I am very grateful.