“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.
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Winner of the 2023 Firebird Book Award for Travel
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I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain and my home state of California.
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