Douglas Corrigan was a pilot who in 1938 flew from America to Ireland. The airplane he flew had very few navigation aids beyond a compass, so this was quite a feat. In the newspaper coverage of the event one of the mechanics who worked on his bare-bones airplane described Corrigan as, “a pilot who flies by the seat of his pants.” Without landmarks over the Atlantic, he would literally use the sensation of position and movement he felt through the seat of his pants in order to make navigation decisions.
We’re a little like Corrigan. As we’ve mentioned before, this family adventure has not been meticulously planned out. We started with a clear desire to explore the world but only a vague sense of how we would like to do it. We are also flying by the seats of our pants.
But unlike Corrigan who had a clear sense of destination, the way we choose our next stop is a little funny. In general, we pull up Google, look at where we are, the general direction of where we want to go, then let Google Flights swirl the Internet ether into a selection of Big Family Small World destinies. Choose your own adventure . . . just don’t break the bank.
Sometimes we end up in unexpected places.
This is how we landed in Bulgaria.
If you are like us, you know about as much about Bulgaria as you do about quantum physics. So, let me fill you in.
The head-spinning history of Bulgaria
Bulgaria is a Balkan nation. With Greece to the south and Romania to the north, it also shares borders with Turkey, Macedonia, Serbia and the Black Sea. We are here because we’re on our way to Turkey next month and there are frequent buses between the countries. Easy decision.
The history of Bulgaria is as long as it is fascinating. The capital, Sofia, is thought to be over 6000 years old. Plovdiv, another major city and recently voted the European Capital of Culture for 2019, might be one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in Europe with evidence of civilization 8000 years ago!
The land that is now called Bulgaria was settled thousands of years ago by the Thracians . . . then the Persians . . . and then the Romans. Starting with an alliance between the Bulgars and the Slavs, the last 1500 years have seen three separate Bulgarian States come to pass. Unfortunately, their existence has been interrupted as the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires took turns storming the continent. Since the fall of the Communist regime in 1989, Bulgarians are now in the so-called “Transition Era” of the third Bulgarian state.
Bulgaria as a family travel destination
What is it like to visit Bulgaria as a family? In a word, wonderful – surprisingly so.
The infrastructure is good enough to make getting around easy. Even the biggest city, Sofia, is small enough to explore on foot, although they do have a subway too. Interestingly, construction of the subway took far longer than expected because they kept discovering more and more Roman ruins and artefacts under the city. People are friendly, welcoming, and many speak English. The food is fantastic, as is the wine. And everything is cheap by Western standards.
We took advantage of the free (yes free) city walking tour of Sofia. Given the cost (did I mention it was free?) we weren’t expecting much. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Run by a non/profit group called The 365 Association, it was hands-down the best walking tour I’ve ever been on. Our guide, Alissa, was friendly, funny, and so passionate about her city that I think every single person walked away from the tour loving Sofia too, including our four boys. In fact, we happily signed up for a second paid tour the following day.
More history: Bulgaria has had a tumultuous past, even recently. In World War 2, caught between Germany and Russia and unable to remain neutral, they made the difficult decision to side with the Nazis. It did not go well. They were bombed heavily. In spite of this they were one of only three countries in the Axis who were able to avoid sending any of their Jews to the concentration camps. It was fascinating to hear a Bulgarian’s perspective on this sensitive topic.
Today surrounding the city centre are a Christian Orthodox church, a Muslim mosque, a Jewish synagogue and a Catholic church. As they say in Sofia, “Within a stone’s throw, but no one throws stones.” While struggling to establish a stable democracy post-communist regime, there is palpable feeling of tolerance and acceptance. Given recent events in America, it’s a timely and salient reminder that our world is plenty big enough to accommodate a multitude of religions. The question is whether our minds are.
A two hour bus ride south east will take you to Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second largest city. Plovdiv is a beautiful place which, like Rome, is nestled among seven hills. On top of one hill in particular, civilizations have been building sentry posts for millenia. It’s an odd feeling to walk along the tops of ancient Roman walls gazing down upon miles and miles of land just like they did 2000 years ago watching for approaching enemies.
The city centre of Plovdiv is lined with shops and restaurants and street food vendors where we can fill our ravenous family of six with mouth-watering kebab wraps for about $16. The food here is fantastic and cheap. In the middle of the city centre the ground opens up to reveal the white curved marble seating of the ancient Roman Stadium of Phillipopolis. Discovered less than one hundred years ago, the remainder of the 30 000 person stadium – 90% of it – lies preserved under the city. You can sit on the same cold hard marble as the Romans and picture the chariots and gladiators with vivid clarity.
Bulgarians are obsessed with lions, are notorious for their lack of punctuality, love their pastries and wear their hearts on their sleeves. For such a small nation it has coastlines, mountains, valleys and forests to explore. Bulgaria may not have the glamour or prestige of some other European countries, but in our opinion that is a good thing. It’s rough edges are polished with candid reflections on the past and a determination to make the future better by being neighborly and welcoming.
Whether you are flying by the seat of your pants or purposely seeking a great place off the beaten path, come to Bulgaria.