Before traveling to Bulgaria last year, I was searching the web for information about the country in general. I came across a line on a website that said Bulgaria is like Spain 30 years ago.
When I was in my early teens, I traveled around Europe with my younger brother and my parents every summer. We’d just get off with no definite plans as to where we’d end up and just a vague idea of when we’d return. The latter usually happened when we were down to our last pound note!
We didn’t have the luxuries that I or my children take for granted as experienced travelers today, such as crisp, clean hotel beds and room service. We usually had an over-ladened roof rack, packed high with our camping equipment and clothing. Sometimes, if we were a little better off in that particular summer, we traveled in a second-hand caravan attached to the back of our old car. I recall that the caravan was always sold on our way back to tide us over when Dad went back to work.
I recall vividly one summer when I went traveling to Bulgaria. My father had ingeniously welded two bread vans together – yes, bread vans, you read correctly — and converted them into a camper van. The really clever bit was that when we arrived at the campsite, the back of the van slipped out, doubling the living and sleeping area twice.
My point is, we’ve seen and lived plenty of adventures as kids, some of them in the regular tourist spots of Europe, but most of them in Spain.
So, going back to the issue at hand: is traveling to Bulgaria like visiting Spain 30 years ago? Well, in my humble view, I would say yes. And here’s why:
The Bulgarian roads
In Spain, their motorways were simple dual carriageways, poorly maintained, and infrequent. Until recently, Bulgaria’s roads were very similar: where you’d expect to find a decent highway, you would instead find a two-lane, pothole-ridden road, unfit for donkeys — nevermind cars. Inland, donkeys seemed to be more popular anyway! In recent years, though, I was pleased to notice that with EU support, many of the major roads got redone. However, the “four-by-four” transport still most widely used in the quaint rural areas is still the donkey or the horse! So traveling to Bulgaria on some roads still reminds me of the Spain I knew as a teenager.
The toilets you avoid
I recall a lot of tears in my youth, where I had the humiliation of squatting down behind a tree, on the side of a dusty Spanish road, with my nether regions exposed to any passing insect or giggling doe-eyed Spanish child because I just couldn’t travel any further looking for an English style toilet to sit on!
We traveled miles after miles because I stubbornly refused to use the typical Spanish “squat pot” – a smelly hole in the ground, a porcelain tray with filthy footprints on either side, giving you a hint of where to place your feet! Yuck! Yuck! However, looking back, sometimes I wonder if the tree was actually a better alternative.
In the last years, I’ve traveled the length and breadth of Bulgaria on my business trips. I stopped searching for a proper toilet to sit on, but I sure wished I would find one! Mile after mile, I declined to visit their squatting toilets. However, I’m happy to say that while traveling to Bulgaria, you’ll now find that many of the tiny roadside cafes and bars in rural areas have been refurbished. You can now find “proper” toilets mostly everywhere. And, in the Bulgarian tourist resorts, it would be very unusual to go looking for a private bush or tree when you’re traveling to Bulgaria!
The locals you meet while traveling to Bulgaria
One of the things that stand out from my childhood holidays is the memory of the people of Spain. They seemed always so eager to please, particularly when you went to the countryside. I recall many times when we were given fruit from the trees and drinks from the villagers, even though there was no cafe around. The locals always wanted to meet us, talk to us, and shake hands. Then, they could brag to their friends and relatives that they made friends with strangers! Traveling to Bulgaria’s countryside today is a very similar experience.
As I was traveling to Bulgaria, moving from village to village with my work, I have the good fortune to meet many Bulgarians. Most of them were from the older generation, the grandmas and grandparents left behind to tend the crops. You can see them in the warm days, doubly bent over from the years of hoeing the land that their fathers and their grandparents tended before.
They work in their cut-off wellies, and when their daughters bring them a glass of homemade raki or beer they take a break to tell you proudly how many generations have plowed those fields and how many brothers and sisters they have left. Then, they thrust upon you the fruits of their labors: the biggest garlic bulbs I’ve ever seen, oranges, plums, carrots – you think it, they grow it!
They get a really small monthly pension, so they have to produce anything and everything they can, either to eat themselves or to share with their neighbors. It is an old, harsh, and uncomfortable way of life. However, it’s also a quiet and uncomplicated one, too. Those of us hurrying from one task to another, always with an eye on the clock, struggling with the bills, look towards this kind of calmer lifestyle for our early retirement.
Many of the people I know are definitely looking for the peace and tranquility that comes with rural living, although they’re not looking to spend generations farming the land. The opportunity to settle in some of the little villages located just 30 or 40 minutes away from the coast has never been greater.
The British who went traveling to Bulgaria and fell in love with the country settled in these villages without breaking the bank. They breathed life back into these havens, renovating, and building houses, alongside their thankful and welcoming neighbors.
You may have a comfortable four by four, while your neighbor has a horse and a cart. And you may have a nice pool, while your neighbor has an old tin bath. And while your pension can buy a whole year’s grocery supplies in one month, your neighbors won’t mind. They’ll always share with you what they have, look out for you, and they will greet you with a smile and a handshake.
So is traveling to Bulgaria the same as visiting Spain 30 years ago? Well, in my view: yes. However, Bulgaria is changing quicker, learning faster, and has a certain honesty about it that Spain seems to have lost along the way. Try traveling to Bulgaria to see for yourself: this amazing country has lots to offer to everyone!
Suzanne Jones is a solo female traveler from the UK. Working as a digital nomad, her goal is to explore as many places in the world as she can. When exploring a new place, she enjoys learning about its history, getting to know the locals, and trying the traditional cuisine.
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