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Do you dream of escaping, of a thrill of freedom? So do I.
That's why I've organised a trip with my friend.
But it turned out to be much more surprising than what I expected...
<h2>March 2018, girls trip decision:</h2>
Chloe and I decided to go on a girls trip. Overexcited at the idea of traveling and living together for 2 weeks, we were planning everything to leave in the middle of June before the tourists arrived. I started to look for cheap places to visit in France and then chose to expand to further countries.
We were looking for the best place to go with our first desire to get out of our comfort zone and treat ourselves a little more exotic destination.
Chloe then came with an idea: Bulgaria. For me it was a no. I've heard far too many bad stories about Eastern Europe, about women being kidnapped and never coming home. It was certain that this destination didn’t attract me at all.
So I started looking for other destinations for this girls trip but Chloe comes back:
"Please, Bulgariiiia, it looks really beautiful! And these kidnapping stories are in the past, it was then, now I'm convinced that it's even safer than France''. She exposed all the attractive points of the city to me as if she was passing an exam with photos showing beautiful places and undeniable arguments.
After thinking about it, it's true that it looks very beautiful... and then I wouldn't be alone, it's the opportunity to go there because travelling alone or with travel buddiesin Bulgaria, the question doesn't even cross my mind.
I finally accepted her proposal and here we are looking for plane tickets for June and activities to do.
Bulgaria being very vast, we decided to rent a car to do a kind of road trip. We book our first two nights in Sofia to give us time to organize ourselves and plan the rest of our trip according to the destinations of each day.
<h2>June 2018, may the adventure start:</h2>
It was finally the big day, overexcited at the idea of discovering Bulgaria, although still a little stressed by my personal prejudices, I joined the impatient Chloe at the airport. A big suitcase and a backpack for the excursions, we had everything planned for this trip with friends, at least I hope so.
From Paris we spent just under three hours on the plane before landing in Sofia. The airport is so big that we had trouble finding our way around and once outside we headed to the rental car service to pick up our car.
In our super Citroën C3 we leave for the Central Point Boutique Hotel and enjoy the view of the city as we pass by.
A small suite with three bedrooms, terrace and view of the city, what a pleasure... No, I'm kidding, we are students not Crésus, so it will be a basic room with a double bed to share.
We were exhausted after the whole trip, but we still managed to get motivated to go out to eat. Between Chloé who doesn't want to eat pizza and me who only eat pizza, it was difficult to find a place that suits us both. But derived by hunger, we finally agreed on a small restaurant, the Izbata Tavern, offering typical dishes of the region.
Once we were full, we walked home for the night, enjoying the mild summer weather.
<h2>Discovering Sofia with friends:</h2>
Woke up at 8am in the aim of visiting as much of Sofia as possible during the day before taking the car to go to the East of the country towards Sozopol the next day. We started by walking around the city to discover its centre, with its wide avenues, while heading towards the sumptuous and imposing Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. Once in front of it, I was speechless, the architecture was really incredible, this girls trip was a good idea after all.
We then discovered the Russian church of Sofia where the legend says that if we put a small paper with our wishes written on it in the urn provided for this purpose, they will come true.
Out of respect for tradition and the desire to comply with it, Chloé and I each placed our wishes inside the wooden urn.
We then spent the afternoon strolling through the streets of the capital taking advantage of the surrounding parks and squares such as Saint Sofia Square where we could see a magnificent statue of Saint Sophia (Sveta Sofia), emblem of the city.
Returned to the hotel around 8pm to get some sleep before heading back east in the night.
I drove towards our destination, Chloe asleep in the passenger seat. Between the fast-moving landscape and the calm of the night, I enjoyed the moment.
We arrived in Sozopol, a beautiful city with a peninsula, surrounded by the Black Sea. After dropping off our luggage at the hotel we booked the day before, we went to explore the city. The mix of architecture between the old and the new centre was simply magnificent.
<h2>An unexpected twist:</h2>
We spent the end of the week in Sozopol, visiting the surroundings and cities like Bourgas less than an hour away. Everything was finally going very well. Until then Chloé and I had had no problems, everyone was very nice and no one had tried to kidnap us. I was feeling pretty good in Bulgaria after all.
We were coming back from a small restaurant when Chloe got a call from her mother. She stayed a little on the phone and Chloe stopped suddenly. With tears in her eyes she said a few words and hung up before bursting into tears in my arms. After she comes back to her senses she explains the situation to me: Her uncle who had been fighting for several months against tumours had just died and was going to be buried the following Monday. She then told me what I expected, but wasn’t ready to hear: "I'm gonna go home for the funeral. I'm sorry, they're counting on me there. I can't let them down".
Disappointed but understanding the situation, I agreed, ready to go home with her as well. We then looked for a flight from Sofia where we could return the car.
<h2>A difficult decision:</h2>
The more I thought about the idea of going back, the sadder I got. I was just starting to get used to the country, I didn't feel like going back at all... But staying here alone? It would really push me out of my comfort zone...
I went to sleep with the idea of maybe staying here. After all, as we say, things always look better in the morning.
When I woke up, I made my decision. I announced it to Chloe and we left for Sofia where we will spend one last night.
Here we were in front of the airport. I hugged Chloe goodbye, wishing her good luck and let her go.
I’ve decided to stay.
Once I'm alone I realise what I've just done and I panicked. I was all alone in this city, with no overnight accommodation, no budget and no tips on how to organise a solo trip... I’d better move on.
I was heading back to the city centre to look for a place to eat when I came across... a French crêperie!
Nostalgic, I entered. A young dark haired woman welcomed me with a smile and started speaking Bulgarian to me. I stuttered a few words trying to make her understand that I didn't speak her language and she exclaimed "aaah but you're French, what a pleasure, I'm Maria". So happy to find someone who spoke my language after the departure of Chloe, my last reference, we chatted a little.
After having told her about my first week of this trip with my friends, I was about to leave again. Just before I walked through the door, I asked her for advice on where to stay. She told me that there were hotels nearby but that prices could go up quickly, especially at this time of year. She offered to provide me a place to stay for the rest of the week in exchange for a little help at the crêperie on Wednesday and Saturday.
At first suspicious and not really knowing her after all, I ended up accepting. She'd been so nice to me and she seemed to know so much about the city. I was sure my stay would be much more enjoyable if I spent it with her than alone in the hotel.
Back home Maria introduced me to her husband and co-founder of the creperie, Timotei. Like her, he was very kind and welcomed me with kindness.
She showed me my room and let me settle in. I put my things away in the cupboard and went to the kitchen to join Maria, from where a delicious smell emanates. Smelling the air, I walked forward and exclaimed: "Wow, it smells great in here! What are you cooking?" Maria turned around and smiled at me. "Sarmis" she said in a Bulgarian accent.
We took advantage of this moment to discuss everything and nothing, she explained to me that sarmis were stuffed vine leaves, a local speciality.
Timotei joined us and they explained to me in a dreamy way where this project to create a creperie in Sofia came from while we were having dinner.
I went to bed thanking them both for their generosity. In one evening alone with them, the locals, I had the impression that I have learned much more than in a week visiting the city.
Just the fact that I was sleeping at a local's house and not in a hotel made all the differences. I felt much more immersed in the local culture - I was really looking forward to seeing what the rest of the week had in store for me.
<h2>Beginning of the real adventure, the solo adventure:</h2>
When I woke up I found Maria in the kitchen preparing what seemed to be banitsa, a traditional Bulgarian pastry. She then offered me to help her. I accepted with pleasure, curious to learn how to cook this speciality.
I listened attentively to her advice "for me, what makes all the difference is the work of the dough, but each one has his grandmother's trick. Some will put more cheese, others will bet on their choice of yoghurt. It's a very personal decision.”
She then explained a tradition to me: "To celebrate the New Year, the tradition is to write wishes on small papers that are rolled up on branches of dogwood and then slipped into the dough. During the tasting, the banitsa is rotated and each person takes the piece in front of him. The written wish is then seen as a promise for the coming year".
Captivated by what she told me, I realise that only a local woman could have taught me this kind of thing and although I regretted Chloe's absence, I was very happy to have stayed.
She then offered me a guided tour of the city to discover the secrets I might have missed on my first short day in the capital.
We returned home in the evening tired from that day but delighted with everything I learned. For the next day Maria recommended two cities to visit, located about 1h45 from Sofia: Plovdiv and Rila.
After a good night's sleep, I decided to venture to Rila to discover its superb monastery. I was amazed by its originality and splendour. Its large, sumptuously decorated vaults and the setting in which the monastery was located left me in awe.
I took advantage of this solo day with only the sounds of nature (and of the few tourists already present) and realised how happy I felt at this moment. I was there, alone, in another country than mine and yet: everything was fine. Goodbye to the daily mental loadof always having to plan everything. I felt free, strong and capable of anything. It was so different from a girls trip.
I breathed in deeply and felt this feeling of fulfilment (yes, I know it sounds a bit like a movie) but that's what I felt. I took advantage of this beautiful setting and headed back to Sofia, excited to share this great day with Maria and thanked her for the idea.
The week went by little by little and Maria gave me every day some ideas of activities, places to do and visit. As planned, I honoured my two days at the crêperie in exchange for her accommodation. I also took advantage of her culinary talents to learn more about the typical dishes of the region while listening to her share her memories of her life in France and the difference with life here in Sofia.
At the end of my stay I was moved at the thought of leaving again. I don't know if I've respected the 10 commandments of homesharing but in any case this week with my hosts went very well. I would have stayed a little longer in the end...
Maria and Timotei accompanied me to the airport under my many thanks and took me in their arms before saying goodbye. I thanked them one last time for everything they had done for me and offered them to come and visit me in France whenever they wanted.
I left for my plane with my head full of memories that, even today, push me to travel again and again to discover other Maria around the world thanks to all these couchsurfing platforms that have been developed over the last few years.
So thank you Maria, you have allowed me to live an unforgettable adventure that will have surpassed my trip with my friends, as pleasant as it was.