I’d be lying if I said that I had ever once in my life looked at a map and picked out Bulgaria to ponder. As a geography buff, I was aware of its existence in Eastern Europe, south of Romania and bordering the Black Sea, but I couldn’t have told you a single fact about the country’s people, history or culture. So I was fascinated when my brother got stationed there with the United States Army.
My mom and I were already planning on indulging in some European travel that year (2018), so it only made sense to add Bulgaria to our itinerary and pay Cy a visit. To us, when you’re handed an excuse to travel to a new place or have a new experience, there is only one answer - heck yes.
Though the excitement was there, I can’t say I backed it up with much preparation. At the time, I was impulsive and in my early twenties (as opposed to now, when I am impulsive and in my late twenties); doing homework on a destination wasn’t my forte. I arrived in Bulgaria with no idea what language the people spoke or what kind of currency they used (it’s Bulgarian and the lev, by the way). What I lacked in preparedness I made up for in enthusiasm. I was given four days to embrace a place I had never imagined seeing, and I was determined to make them count.
I should point out that our flight from Modlin airport in Poland to Burgas, Bulgaria, cost only nine dollars. Attention budget travelers, this is not a drill. According to Google Flights, I could take the same flight next week for twenty-five dollars. To me, you can’t put a price on seeing a new country, but I’ll also do it for nine dollars! Bulgaria was starting to seem like the best travel decision we had made…
We arrived at night and found our first hotel, which was seemingly in the middle of nowhere. The rickety building sat on a lot next to an abandoned construction sight, and the utter darkness was not helping its ominous nature.
As solo female travelers, intuition is a vital tool. Though our hotel was offputting, we made a calculated decision to see the inside of it before rearranging any plans. Once inside, we found the unexpected: a slew of traveling athletes, filling the lobby with pleasant chatter. The crowd of people eased us a bit, and we decided to follow through with staying the night.
In the light of the next morning, our hotel was looking a lot more charming (though it was still plenty rickety). Gut feelings shouldn’t be taken lightly, but we realized that our internal alarms had more to do with the late hour of our arrival than anything else. Looking around at breakfast, we felt we might have been the only hotel guests who weren’t there to play tennis, though. Unlike our fear, this feeling - of being outsiders - was not misplaced at all. We were about to learn that Bulgaria is a truly rare destination for American tourists.
Burgas is in the eastern part of the country, which runs along the Black Sea. We first drove north up the coast to Nessebar, an ancient city with ruins still standing amidst its modern-day shops. My sister-in-law, Shannon, had come to Bulgaria a few months before us, to spend time with Cy as the newlyweds they were. She had picked out Nessebar as her favorite spot in the country, so naturally, we wanted to check it out.
Shannon’s spot did not disappoint. Nessebar offered a gorgeous view around every bend. The early October weather was truly perfect. We strolled under a sunny sky and alongside a pleasant breeze down the winding cobblestone paths on that dreamy morning.
After soaking up the quaintness of Nessebar, we headed back down the coast to Pomorie. We stopped for a late, leisurely lunch (as one does in Europe) and spent a few hours at an outdoor table next to the welcome waterfront of the Black Sea.
It’s tricky to explain just how delightful that afternoon was. I sipped a beer that served as the perfect solution to the sunny weather and my tired walking legs. The seafood pasta that arrived next was one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten, and the sparkling sunlight on the water had such a magical quality it might as well have been pixie dust.
We were downright giddy to be there. We actually couldn’t stop laughing about how lovely everything was. How was this real life? Was I truly on this sunny patio, in a place I’d never thought to go, laughing with my mom over food and drink by the sparkling sea?
That meal is a top travel memory for me, and I am so grateful to have it cataloged in my heart (and now on a page as well, how about that?).
At our hotel in Pomorie, we learned that we were only the third American tourists the building had seen that year. Again and again, eyes widened in response to hearing our country of residence, including those of a friendly concierge who invited us for coffee the following morning.
This coffee date brought some cultural context I was certainly not anticipating. After an hour or so of easy conversation with our concierge friend, the young woman nervously confessed her desire to move to America. I almost fell out of my chair when her next sentence included the idea of me legally marrying her boyfriend to help him attain a green card. She apologized for the scope of what she was asking but explained how she felt she must, with American tourists being so uncommon.
Now, in case you haven’t been proposed to by a Bulgarian stranger, I can tell you exactly what it feels like - a punch to the gut. I was filled with a combination of shock, guilt and pity. Wrestling with the privilege I hold because of where I was born, the utter boldness of such a request, and the softness I felt for the kind woman before me, who was about my own age, and seemingly desperate.
I won’t speak to life as a Bulgarian local because it is simply not my place. I will only add a reminder that traveling to a destination is far different from living in one. As romantic as I find the idea of life in the place where I ate that seafood pasta, it would be unfair of me to assume that my experience in the country resembled the everyday experience of the people who call Bulgaria home.
Rocked by this unexpected turn in our morning, we declined to marry me off to the concierge’s boyfriend as politely as we could, considering the bizarre circumstances. Then we packed up the rental car and headed inland to collect Cy.
The thirty-six hours we were given with my brother were a whirlwind. We found an affordable room with a rooftop view looking out over the city of Stara Zagora.
Exploring on foot took us to an outdoor market, where we practiced our pantomime skills with the vendors and sampled foods that were as delicious as they were tricky to identify. In central Bulgaria, our language barrier was more evident than it had been on the coast. We made it through our market experience with hand gestures and apologetic smiles, which the local people received warmly.
The real test came at lunch the following day. I headed to the restroom to find two doors marked with the letters D and H. Hm… I thought, was I a D or an H? With no stick-figure icons to guide me, I made my decision at random. Nobody was inside, so to this day, I’m unsure if I chose correctly. This is why you do your travel homework, kids.
We said goodbye to Cy, who thought us equal parts impressive and insane for coming to visit. To offer one last taste of home (and thinking we were funny), we took him to the most American fast-food chain restaurant we could find. And while I hold that first afternoon’s seafood pasta in such high regard, I have to confess that eating Kentucky Fried Chicken with Cy that day was, weirdly, just as special.
In total, we spent time in eight cities as we traversed the country from east to west before flying out of Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital. We had navigated language barriers, foreign highways, military rules, marriage proposals and rental car scams. We encountered street markets and ancient ruins, lively festivals and quaint places to sit by the sea. We tried new food, connected with strangers and attempted to pronounce Bulgarian words. We resisted the urge to pet about a million stray cats - sort of.
I had arrived on the momentum of a whim. I was leaving with revere for a destination I had never even considered. It got me thinking about how big the world is and how many places there are left to explore.
My Bulgarian adventure served not as a travel checkmark, but as an ellipses. I now had a keyhole of understanding into what you may find when you take the road less traveled, and I could imagine a future where I did so more often. Bulgaria had invoked a sense of curiosity in my traveler's heart that sparked a question I want to spend the rest of my life answering: how many more hidden gems are out there?
Sherpani Team Member
The above post is part of an ongoing segment of the Sherpani Travel Blog. We want to highlight personal travel stories from the women in our community. Would you like to share your travel story with Sherpani? Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. We can’t wait to read about your adventure!