On The Trail Of Discovery In The Poorest Country In The EU
“I’m in Bulgaria because my friend Ivan wanted to attend a birthday party here,” writes Intrepid Correspondent Paul Terhorst. “Ivan lives in Scandinavia and knows a Scandinavian diplomat here in Sofia who’s having a birthday party. Ivan suggested I meet up with him for it.
“I’ve never been to Bulgaria, and a birthday party seemed as good an excuse as any to make a first visit. We later decided to get a jump on the party and run around Eastern Europe together for a month beforehand. Our friend Vinnie, from Houston, decided to join us for part of the trip.
“Yesterday I arrived in Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital. To picture Sofia, imagine a city built of Formica, Naugahyde, cement, and cheap plastic but without the charm. The only major city in Europe without a river, Sofia at first glance seems the only major city without anything. Even the trees seem reluctant to bloom, although spring has already arrived in cities farther north.
“Yet, I find I’m enjoying myself immensely in this drab, gray, Soviet-bloc city. Well, I’m with two good friends I haven’t seen in years. That helps. The diplomat friend told us of Sofia’s finest restaurants, including an Armenian place named Egur Egur. We took a free walking tour, and our guide pointed out Sofia’s strong points: underground springs, a pretty city garden, Roman walls, and Orthodox churches . I love the snow-capped mountain that sparkles over the city below. And we’ve enjoyed sunny spring weather, as good as it gets.
“Add to this the joy of discovery. Rain or shine, I’m here because I love the adventure. I love to look around and wonder. Our first morning I noticed, for example, that center-city coffee shops open around 9:30, stores an hour later. Those late openings surprise me. I’d like to understand why…
“I asked our walking-tour guide how many Bulgarians long to return to communism, to the security state of the Soviet years. He told me about half, including nearly all the elderly.
“I also learned that the Danube delta, in Romania next-door, has become one of Europe’s best places for bird-watching. I like to look at birds. I may make another trip here with binoculars.
“Our guide guessed that apartments here cost maybe 2,000 euro a square meter. I’d guess that prices for lodging, food, and beverage come to about a third or a half of what they cost in the rest of Europe.
“My friend Ivan told me that Bulgaria is the poorest country in the European Union. I had pretty much guessed that before Ivan mentioned it.
“The luxury hotel where we’d booked rooms messed up our reservation. I volunteered to look elsewhere, as I prefer simple hotels. Ivan and Vinnie chose luxury. I found a simple place in the city center that is costing me only 13 euro a night.
“When I was checking in, I asked the landlady when I should pay. Very properly, very formally, she said, ‘Whenever you wish.’ But her eyes betrayed her. I thought they showed a hint of desperation. I had already noticed that I was the only guest in the four-room hotel.
“‘I’ll pay you for the first night now, I said.
“Her whole body relaxed. Her world was round again. I got the sense she needed that money right then, that day, maybe even to buy food. ‘Thank you so much,’ she said, with palpable relief.
“Since we three guys came to look around and enjoy, we find ourselves strolling through parks, having a beer on the street, and lingering over the great food. We sit around the gorgeous lobby in the luxury hotel and chat. If we miss a church or two, or a museum or two, so be it. I love churches, I love museums. I hope to see more when we return to Sofia in several weeks. At the same time, I think travel revolves around discovery, leisure, and joy, rather than running from one famous sight to another. For me, seeing renowned places, and taking pictures of them, is overrated.
“In Los Angeles last week my niece told me she works at a hotel near Disneyland. She estimates about 85% of her guests are miserable. They seem hot, strung out, exhausted, headachy, anxious… They’re spending too much, doing too much, in too little time.
“I submit that showing up and looking around makes more sense, even in a place that doesn’t appear to have much to offer, like Sofia.
“The message here: When a friend suggests you meet him or her somewhere, even if you can think of no reason to go, go anyway. You’ll probably enjoy yourself. You may even have more fun than at Disney.”