I’m a bona fide introvert, and I really prefer to travel solo, but every so often I get the urge to take a tour. Let someone else do the work, I think. It would be nice to have some traveling companions in the middle of a trip, I think. Sometimes it works out well, sometimes not.
Looking back, I’ve mostly used just two companies: Intrepid (Beijing to Islamabad, Laos, Cambodia, Lombok, Morocco), and Rick Steves (France, Turkey, Greece and Sicily). Intrepid has great itineraries, and great prices, but accommodation can be basic. RS tours are more comfortable, but the groups have gotten bigger and the prices higher, and now all the tours go to places I’d as soon visit on my own. But then he added a new tour to Bulgaria, and the feedback was good.
So I had come into Sofia prepared to switch to group mode, in which I try to be a good sheep. My hopes of being able to check in early at the tour hotel, the rather upmarket Crystal Palace, were dashed, but they did record my passport details and held my bag. Having missed breakfast, I set off down Sofia’s yellow brick road (yes, it’s real, although a bit on the pale side) looking for food more than sights. I did appreciate my first look at the main cathedral, and at the Russian Orthodox church, and was interested to see that a large and lively children’s fair was sponsored by an American friendship organization.
After good mushroom soup and a not so good sandwich at the Bulgaria cafe I returned to the hotel to find the new person on the front desk had no record of me, and took a good quarter of an hour to decide I really was supposed to stay there. Then I had to get them to fix the AC.
At the start of tour meeting I found that we had 22 people on the tour – fewer than my last Rick Steves’ tour, but more than I had hoped. All were well-traveled – one was a travel agent – and I got on really well with a couple of the other singles. However, I was surprised to find several extreme right-wingers in the mix – previous tours had been rather more left of center, and I found it annoying that a number of people clearly thought that “no photo” notices didn’t apply to them.
The tour leader, Lyuba, had prepared welcome packets for us, with background information on Bulgaria, each day’s itinerary, and a page on the Cyrillic alphabet. That was well beyond what any previous leader had done, and she was to prove a very engaged and informative guide. I had already been coping with the Cyrillic alphabet in Serbia, but since I’d used it on previous trips to Russia and Ukraine I wasn’t having too much difficulty. Once you realize that “pectopah” means “restaurant” you’re off to a good start.
That first evening we retraced my route from earlier in the day, on the way to dinner, and the next morning we set off on a more extensive and very ecumenical walking tour, taking in the Bulgarian Orthodox cathedral, the Russian church, a mosque, and a synagogue, along with a number of official buildings and source of spring water popular with locals.
I really wanted to see the Boyana church, not included on the tour, and after a quick lunch in a nearby indoor market, I set off with one of the other singles. Unfortunately, we got “taken” by our taxi driver – I wanted to negotiate the rate, but my companion was happy with the meter, which turned out to be rigged. However, the church, and the nearby Museum of History, were absolutely worth the trip. The frescoes in the church were painted in the mid 13th century, and their custodian – a real character – was eager to point out that they predated Giotto, while showing the same realism. I found one of St. John of Rilla, whose monastery we would visit the next day, particularly arresting.
Visitors only get ten minutes in the church (no photos allowed), and we were very lucky to be able to go right in – the day before the wait had been very long. We also had the museum pretty much to ourselves, and I had a nice time admiring the Thracian gold, as well as the building itself, an interesting holdover from the Soviet era.