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The Dangerous Business of Going Out Your Door I am often tired of myself and I have a notion that by travel I can add to my personality and so change myself a little. I do not bring back from the journey quite the same self that I took. - W. Somerset Maugham

Role Reversal in Bulgaria and the Numbers

BULGARIA | Tuesday, 19 April 2016 | Views [496]

Bulgaria had the mysterious power to line up external circumstances and ambiguous expectations in such a way that provided us with a fabulous time. It started in my husband's childhood. He had a calendar that featured a different European capital each month, and Sofia was pictured for his birthday month. The beauty of the picture as well as the name of the city captured his young imagination, and now our trip was the fulfillment of his dream to see it in person. For me, after traveling solo for almost 3 weeks, I was very much looking forward to my husband joining me, and I think I would have been happy to be with him just about anywhere. I didn't have a particular interest in Bulgaria per se, but it was a new and exciting frontier that I would have never attempted by myself, so I was only too happy to go with him.


Sofia and the Train

Neither of us knew exactly what to expect from Sofia. We thought it might be a little rough around the edges, and it was, but that was almost a relief. The overly sleek and complex infrastructure of big Western European capitals can be tiring sometimes because very little feels intuitive and the cities seem like big machines whose functionality must be learned through either careful study or frustrating trial and error. Sofia was more down-to-earth, more manageable, and we liked that. The Cyrillic signs combined with the intersection towers manned by traffic police gave our imaginations the perfect fodder to feel the chill of the old iron curtain. We did not expect so much English, nor so many lovely tree-lined streets, nor such a vibrant cafe culture. Everyday, we found five more cafes that we wanted to sit in, most of which we would unfortunately never have time for during our short visit. I was thrilled to have company and to go to cafes again after practicing more austere solo dining habits, and my husband was able to find the same view that he remembered from his childhood calendar, so we were both surprisingly fulfilled.

We took a train across the country from Sofia to Varna. It was a 7-hour ride with no food or beverage options whatsoever, even in first class. But we expected that, so we brought our own and it wasn't a problem. The train was very basic, pretty slow, almost completely empty, and the conductors spoke no English. The journey would have been slightly faster by bus. But we enjoyed it. We had so much room, and hours and hours of leisure to nap or watch the beautiful hills roll by. We expected a dirty, rough, and dangerous ride based on things we had read online, but it was nothing like that. It was clean and comfortable enough. The bathroom even had soap and toilet paper (though I had brought my own just in case)!


Varna, the Black Sea, and Ovech Fortress

Varna was smaller than Sofia and had less English, but it was still surprisingly nice, and it had two major things that Sofia didn't have: The Black Sea and Ovech Fortress. For my husband, the Black Sea was a Dracula-related pilgrimage, but for me it was a meaningful boundary of the furthest east I had gone in Europe. The late-day fog played well into our ideas of what this place should look like. My husband could imagine Vlad's ship passing by and I could dream about the mysterious lands on the other side. We returned to the sea at night for my husband to take some long-exposure photos while I marveled at how few stars were visible. It was such a sharp contrast to the sparkling Norwegian skies that were filled with so many stars you could almost touch them, and I took the moment to appreciate that I had seen both, as well as all the skies in between. But the Black Sea horizon that night was the most amazing. The sky and the water both looked completely black until you noticed the line where they met. Impossibly, the horizon was even darker, even blacker, than the sky or the water. We stared and stared, our eyes unwilling to accept the eerie degrees of darkness we were witnessing.

And then there was Ovech Fortress, a place that my husband had found online while researching Varna. It is located in the small town of Provadia, about an hour bus ride from Varna. In the same way that he was captivated as a child by the photo of Sofia, he had become captivated by a photo of Ovech Fortress. Information was not easy to find about how to get there without a car and we didn't have time for a full-day tour group trip. Bus schedules were not available online. Neither our Airbnb hosts nor the Varna tourist information center knew much about it, and they did not seem to think it was possible to do without a tour group. That was enough for me to give up the idea, and it would have normally been enough for my husband too, but not this time. He is almost never more adventurous than me, but very rarely will he feel so drawn to a place that he will suddenly develop the ability to overcome any obstacle or hardship to get there. It usually involves a body of water, and for example, while I'm looking for a safe path to it, I'll see that he has uncharacteristically already managed to clatter down a rocky cliff to get there.

Without much hope of a response, I contacted the Provadia Museum of History by email. They sent me a wonderfully detailed response back with bus schedules to and from Varna and mentioned that we should stop by the museum if we decided to come to Provadia. I didn't think we could quite trust the schedules without seeing them printed on something official, but my husband insisted, again very uncharacteristically, that we should just go and figure it out on the way. So we did, despite my misgivings that we would end up stranded in Provadia with no means of getting back to Varna. We arrived by bus in Provadia and followed our Google Maps directions to the museum, even though the same app had failed to guide us to the correct location for the Provadia tourist information office. This time it was successful, and we met the person with whom I had been communicating via email, a young lady who was an archaeologist. She was so impressed that we had made it there without a tour group, and she offered to personally show us around the fortress. Imagine - we had our own private archaeologist showing us around a fortress dating back to the 3rd century! The site was still in the process of being discovered, though archaeological efforts had stalled due to financial constraints. She told us that they mainly only had Bulgarian tourists and that the few foreign tourists who come there only come with tour groups. She was the only person at the museum who spoke English, so it was purely coincidence that she received my email rather than another colleague. It was further coincidence that she was there when we arrived, unannounced, at the museum and that she had time to spend a few hours with us. We tried to pay her at the end, but she resolutely refused and insisted that it was just part of her job. We were so grateful and so humbled. She even pointed us in the right direction for the bus back to Varna. Still, we had trouble finding the exact stop. I was looking for a bus station that didn't exist while my husband, (need I say it again?) uncharacteristically, just starting asking people on the street until we were pointed to the unmarked bus stop. I was nervous that a bus would never come, but my husband was completely calm and confident.


Role Reversal

This was quite a role reversal for us! Normally, I am the one with plans, agendas, and expectations, but in Bulgaria, I was in the unaccustomed place of just tagging along with whatever my husband wanted to do. If I had had an agenda for Bulgaria, or if I had had any clear expectations, I think I might have been disappointed. I know that I would not have gone to Ovech. Likewise, if my husband had not had his own deep motivation for going there, I think he would have been disappointed as well, or at least frustrated with my overplanning. Even though we didn't know it or do it on purpose, Bulgaria worked so well for us because we stepped away from our familiar roles. We arrived safely back in Varna from Provadia, very happy with our adventure and proud of ourselves. Seeing Ovech Fortress with a private Bulgarian archaeologist guide was definitely one of the crowning achievements of our travels, and a memory that we will always treasure. Neither of us would have ever tried it alone, but somehow together, we had just he right combination of skills, luck, and perseverance to make it work.


The Numbers

Even though my husband was with me, I'm reporting only my expenses for consistency, so these are still numbers for one person rather than two. It includes 5 full days.

  • Airfare from Berlin to Sofia: $98.28
  • Airbnb apartment in Sofia with one bedroom for 3 nights (my half): $46
  • Train from Sofia to Varna (one way): $22.50
  • Airbnb apartment in Varna with one bedroom for 2 nights (my half): $42
  • Airfare from Varna to Sofia (one way): $131.09
  • Guidebook (for Eastern Europe, expense divided among the countries I'm visiting): $3.50
  • Daily expenses: $84.79

Total: $428.16

Average: $85.63 per day

It should be noted that while some things can be cheaper when traveling with two people - usually accomodation is a little cheaper per person and food can often be split - it can also be harder to stick to a budget with two people because the mood is more celebratory. This was a clear-cut vacation for my husband and I took it as a vacation from frugal traveling for myself, so we ate out a lot and didn't worry much about money. Given that, it is amazing that my daily average was not much higher than in Part 1 ($66.93/day), and it was still significantly lower than in Scandinavia ($130.16/day). It would certainly be possible to keep the daily average under $50 in Bulgaria if you wanted to.

Tags: black sea, budget, bulgaria, ovech, provadia, sabbatical, sofia, travel, varna


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