“Sorry about the smell,” said our hostess, leading us into a large, chilly apartment that stank of sewage. “There is nothing we can do about it.” She flung open a window, and the temperature began to plummet. “Unfortunately there is no heat. Heat is controlled by the building, and they have not yet turned it on for the year. Let me know if you need more blankets.” There were two cheap ones in the cupboard, none on the bed. Temperatures were predicted to drop below freezing during the night. “I must hurry, I am parked illegally.” And she was gone.
Rich and I were in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, and having just spent three days roughing it in the mountains, we’d been looking forward to such luxuries as heat and comfortable places to sit and work. I looked around the vast apartment. A few pieces of shabby, uncomfortable-looking furniture huddled disconsolately in the corners. A cheap, fake-wood coffee table with a missing leg leaned against the wall like a dying bug. “It’s a flop-house for nightcrawlers,” I said.
Since leaving home two months ago, we’ve slept in 25 beds in hotels, apartments, guest houses, hostels, night trains, and a ferry. We loved our charming bohemian attic in Prague, the Count’s guest house in Transylvania, our trendy modern flat in Bucharest, and our various other temporary homes.
We’ve found some of our best (and cheapest) through AirBnB, a website that connects individual owners with short-term renters and provides ratings and reviews that (usually) prevent hideous surprises. Checking their website a few days in advance, we look for location, features, and amenities (e.g. WiFi, heat). We read the reviews, pick five, and contact the hosts to see which are available. We try to read between the lines (rustic can mean fewer amenities) and look for omissions (no photos of the bathroom doesn't bode well). In the case of The Stinker, the clues were there, we just didn't pick up on them in time.
There were no AirBnB rentals in our first stop in Bulgaria, the border town of Ruse. Our modestly priced hotel surprised us by scattering rose petals across the tasseled bed linens, providing fresh fruit and chocolates, and serving breakfast in a dining room with crushed-velvet armchairs studded with diamonds. The clientele included lots of pretty young women with prosperous older men. “Isn’t it nice seeing so many fathers taking their daughters to breakfast,” Rich remarked. I was surprised the breakfast buffet didn’t consist entirely of oysters and chocolate.
Leaving behind the fleshpots of Ruse, we traveled to Bulgaria’s former capital, Veliko Tarnovo, known for its dramatic ruins and mountain scenery. We stayed in a hostel, springing for the 21€ ($28) private room with bath instead of the dormitory. There was a notable lack of rose petals, chocolates, diamonds, or heat in the bedrooms. But the dining hall was toasty warm, and over breakfast and dinner we spent many happy hours in conversation with interesting travelers from around the world.
Heading south to Sofia, I was immediately charmed by the city’s trendy shops, upscale cafes, and lively street life. Arriving at our rental, I wasn’t daunted by the graffiti-covered front door, knowing that the best apartments often lie behind underwhelming, even grisly exteriors. Minutes later, Rich and I were alone in the cold, smelly apartment – immediately dubbed “The Stinker” – regarding our new, pre-paid digs with dismay.
“If we’re going to be this cold and uncomfortable,” I said, “we might as well sleep in the train station.”
We left our bags in the flat, attached to the radiator (a basic security precaution which seemed doubly advisable there) and went out in search of alternatives. It took us about ten minutes to find a nearby hotel that was perfect. Well, maybe not perfect unless you like smoky glass, glitzy wallpaper, and breakfasts of instant coffee and cardboard muesli, but the room was cozy, warm, comfy, and smelled of roses.
And the happy ending doesn’t stop there; we got a full refund on The Stinker. The beauty of AirBnB is that both guests and hosts provide evaluations, enforcing fair play for those who want to continue in the system. Guests who make endless frivolous complaints find fewer people willing to rent to them. In our case, The Stinker’s owner returned our payment without a fuss to avoid a negative review.
As I write this, we’ve just stepped off the overnight train from Sofia to Belgrade, Serbia, and in a few hours will settle in to another AirBnB apartment. Wish us luck!
I’ll let you know how it smells.
Unlike some of my better-organized and more practical blogger friends, I never obtain any free services or products in return for promoting anything on this blog. I'm just letting you know about stuff we've learned that has made our travel lives easier, more comfortable, and more fun.
I’m not saying I’m jealous, but back in August, when Rich first bought his iPad, he was holding it in his lap all day, taking it to bed every night and occasionally getting into spats with it when it exhibited annoying behavior. But I didn’t get seriously worried until he started buying it gifts. “Look what I can get for it,” he’d say, showing me yet another app he’d bookmarked for his new darling. “Here’s one that has the schedules for every train in Europe. And it’s only $2.99!” I suppose I should be grateful that they don’t sell a diamond necklace app. (And if they do, for heaven’s sake don’t tell Rich about it.)
But I have to admit that Rich’s obsession with apps has paid off, as our iPad can now perform all sorts of clever tricks, such as doing currency conversions in the blink of a pixel and asking directions in 100 languages. And despite all this dazzling brainpower, we’re hardly overspending; except for iRail, which cost $2.99, all the apps on our top ten list are free.
1. For all around usefulness, it’s hard to beat Triposo, an interactive guide to 8000 locations: their history, culture, festivals, places to stay, language, health and safety issues, local time and more. The travel log feature lets you share stories and photos with family and friends throughout your journey.
2. Even with Triposo, travel research is never tidy, and we always wind up with tons of bookmarked sites and snippets of information we need to corral into retrievable form, and that’s where Evernote comes in. I find it clunky to use, and the graphics have all the warmth and charm of an old Soviet bunker, but it provides a solid, utilitarian structure for assembling information into a coherent system.
3. Many of our trips start with a map taped to the kitchen wall, but our mobile choice is the map app Galileo Offline. Its built-in GPS pinpoints your location, shows where you’ve been, determines the best route to your next destination and highlights designated stopping points – cafés, ATMs, etc. – along the way.
4. For us, with our upcoming railway journey through Central and Eastern Europe, transportation is all about trains, and iRail puts European railroad timetables at our fingertips. Rich has calculated a dozen different ways to get from here to there, and (with any luck) back again.
5. We greatly prefer colorful local places to McLuxury hotels (see A Flophouse for Nightcrawlers). So we’re excited to try the app that instantly connects us with AirBnB, the hot new system of private, informal rentals, from rooms to entire houses. Even if we do wind up at a few funky places (why does the Bates Motel spring to mind?), at least we’ll have some stories to tell.
6. Google Translate lets you type in a phrase and see the local equivalent spring onto the screen. And for places such as Bulgaria, where entering “Is this a good bar?” gives you “Дали това е добър бар,” there’s an audio button so you can listen to the correct pronunciation – if you can hear it over the chatter and clinking glasses of the place in question. The app even offers Esperanto, although I’m not sure how many Esperanto bars you’re likely to wander into.
7. If only we’d had XE Currency to check the exchange rate the last time we were in Milan, which was back before they converted to the euro. At the end of a particularly jovial evening, Rich lost track of the decimal places in the lira and left a tip larger than the bill. He was wondering why the waiters kept shaking his hand and begging him to come back soon. I’m not sure, but they may have been speaking Esperanto at the time.
8. Free Wi-Fi Finder helps you find a nearby, no-cost place to get online. This app is far from comprehensive – it fails to list tons of places I know of in Seville, for example – but it’s a useful start.
9. You can also search out wi-fi zones using Skype Wi-Fi. If there are connection fees, it will automatically deduct them from your regular Skype account. It’s very convenient, but before you settle in for an hour-long chat with mum, be sure you know how much you’re paying; some locations, such as airports, can be pricey.
10. Track My Tour lets you update family and friends about your trip using a real-time map with photos and comments. For more see my post Was Lost But Now I’m Found ... Or Maybe Not. I prefer providing you with updates via this blog, but Rich found a security purpose for this app (yes, in addition all those detailed in last week’s post!). We’ll make daily entries on Track My Tour, and a few friends have volunteered to monitor them; if we seem to be in hot water, they’ve promised to send in the cavalry.
But with any luck at all, we won’t need the cavalry, just enough connectivity to keep posting on this blog all summer. Meanwhile, if you learn of any other great travel apps, let me know! Rich and his iPad both will be celebrating birthdays this summer, and I’m looking for gift ideas.
This post was written in response to questions I've been asked about packing for long and varied trips. Unlike some of my better-organized and more practical blogger friends, I haven't obtained any free or discounted gear or supplies in return for promoting anything on this blog. I'm just letting you know what products Rich and I consider to be the most useful for our kind of travel. Watch for future posts about the gear and gadgets we consider essential for civilized travel.
I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
As we journey through the pandemic together, my blog provides a regular supply of survival tips, comfort food recipes, and the wry humor we all need to lighten our hearts on dark days.
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