“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.
This summer, when the 700-year-old remains of Krivich The Crooked were unearthed at the monastery of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker in Sozopol, Bulgarian officials were overjoyed to discover a metal rod in his chest. According to a quaint local tradition, impaling a man in his coffin during the first forty days after his death insures that he won’t rise again as a vampire. "The practice was common in some Bulgarian villages up until the first decade of the 20th century," says Bozhidar Dimitrov, chief of the National History Museum in Sofia, which displayed the bones of Krivich and a second “vampire” discovered nearby. Bulgarian tour operators were thrilled to report a sudden boom in queries about vampire vacations and clearly have dreams of turning Sozopol into a sort of Disneyland for the ghoulishly inclined.
That was the first news story that popped up when I googled Bulgaria as part of my research for an Eastern European train trip Rich and I are planning to take next summer. Obviously we’d have to add Sozopol to our short list. How often do you get to see a real vampire grave? We wondered what else Bulgaria had to offer. After five centuries under the Ottomans, four decades in the USSR and five years as members of the European Union, what is daily life like for the common people? More to the point, what is it like for visitors? The CDC still advises against drinking the tap water, but how’s the food?
Unable to locate a Bulgarian restaurant in our immediate vicinity (go figure!), we decided to whip up some of their culinary favorites in our own home kitchen. The website Find Bulgarian Food provided recipes for two of the most popular dishes, kavarma and shopska salad.
Kavarma is a rich pork stew with a curious difference: you brown the pork and carrots first, then marinade them. After that, you simmer them with wine and spices until they become a thick, delicious stew. Shopska salad is much like a Greek salad, a mix of tomatoes, cucumbers, onion, parsley and feta cheese. My sister Kate and her husband agreed to taste test these dishes with us (actually, we sprang the meal on them without warning when they showed up for dinner), and they gave both an enthusiastic thumb’s up.
After dinner, I shared snippets of Bulgarian folklore I'd found on the Internet, starting with birthing customs. “The pregnant woman is isolated in a basement, a sheep pan or a barn,” I read aloud. “The woman drinks the water that her husband used to wash his hands and a tea from a special herb. When she gives birth at her home the navel string is cut with a reaping-hook by the grandmother . . .”
Obviously, the Bulgarian Festivals and Folklore website had been developed sometime around the 14th century. I decided to check out YouTube to see what more modern Bulgarian minds were posting. I found this 2008 footage of a “real ghost” taken by a security camera at a gas station convenience store near the town of Petrich. A priest was consulted, and it was discovered that not only had the gas station never been officially blessed, but it was built on an old cemetery. I guess a spectral apparition was pretty much inevitable. It became the lead story on the major news channel.
I love Bulgaria already. I’m only sorry we won’t be there for Halloween.
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As my regular readers know, I never get free or discounted goods or services for mentioning anything on this blog (or anywhere else). I only write about things that interest me and that I believe might prove useful for you all to know about. Whew! I wanted to clear that up before we went any further. Thanks for listening.
I'm an American travel writer based in Spain, to which I've just returned after a 16-month absence due to the pandemic.
As I resettle in Seville, my favorite city on the planet, I'll keep you posted on how the pandemic has reshaped the landscape and where to go to find fun, adventure, and great food in this quirky, engaging city.
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