Tag Archives: Sofia

Beyond the Comfort Zone

One of the things for which I’m most grateful about serving in the Peace Corps is how it’s made me less fearful about traveling to places that seem exotic or dangerous to some Americans even though they’re actually safe, beautiful, fascinating and cheap.

I’ve been reminded of this during our recent trips to countries near Moldova, where Champa and I are serving as volunteers.

This past week we visited Sofia and Bucharest. If we’d traveled instead to London, Rome or Barcelona, we probably would have seen Americans on every corner. But in these two cities we saw very few.

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The photo above shows what I mean. The tourists are listening to the guide in the purple coat, who led us on a free walking tour through Bucharest’s old town, which is filled with lovely churches and Parisian-style architecture. They came from Australia, Canada, Germany, India, Italy, Netherlands, Russia and Serbia. The only Americans were Champa and me.

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Here’s a photo of another walking tour we took, this one through the heart of Sofia, where we received a fascinating history lesson from the woman with the blue bag. We viewed beautiful churches, a mosque, a synagogue, the presidential residence, the former Communist Party headquarters and more. Joining Champa and me were 23 other tourists, who came from the Basque region, Bulgaria, Canada, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Netherlands and Spain, plus one other American.

The same was true on our tours of Bulgaria’s Boylan Church and Rila Monastery,  and of the ancient city of Plovdiv, the country’s second largest. You can see these above. The only American in the photos is Champa.

Likewise when we visited Armenia and Georgia a few months ago, shown below, touring monasteries and ancient sites in Armenia and Georgia’s capital city, Tbilisi. The only other American in our groups was a software engineer from Boston who came to learn about his Armenian roots. The others hailed from China, Dubai, Germany, Italy, New Zealand, Philippines, Russia and other countries. All of our tours were in English, with the Armenian and Georgian guides also speaking in Russian.

It’s possible we just happened to be in groups without Americans. Certainly I didn’t expect to see swarms of American tourists in these Eastern European countries, as I might have in Cancun, San Juan or Toronto. Americans who search for flights to Europe look first to London, Paris and Rome, and to familiar places such as Dublin, Madrid and Frankfurt. Destinations in Central Europe such as Prague and Budapest have become popular, too.

Moreover, people travel abroad for many reasons. The two of us enjoy exploring new cultures but others prefer shopping, fine dining or resorts, or hiking, or visiting friends, pursuing a special interest or something else. A 2015 New York Times article said “nearly half of overseas travelers are from the East Coast, and they make trips within the Western Hemisphere or to Western Europe, to places that are more affordable and easier to reach (with shorter and direct flights) than those farther afield.” Tourists from other countries have their favored destinations, too.

IMG_8532Fair enough, and I certainly understand why so many Americans love visiting London or Paris, since I enjoyed these cities, too. Even these tourists are more adventurous than Americans who won’t venture further than a summer beach house. Moreover, millions of Americans lack the resources to do even that and can only dream of foreign adventures. I know how lucky Champa and I have been to pursue our lifelong passion for travel.

I also know serving as an older Peace Corps Volunteer in Moldova now affects my perception of what’s interesting and reasonable. But for goodness sake, I’m not suggesting Americans forego the Eiffel Tower to visit North Korea. I just wish more of them were joining all of the other foreign tourists we saw in experiencing these amazing countries instead of defaulting to the same predictable list, like ordering only vanilla or chocolate ice cream cones in a shop offering many flavors.

Serving as Peace Corps Volunteers, living and working in an unfamiliar culture, has made us even more comfortable with travel alternatives. But you hardly need to have served abroad to expand your horizons a bit, especially with so many companies now offering trips to “exotic” destinations and the internet making it easy to find reputable local travel companies and guides for almost any budget.

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Champa and I hope to keep exploring both familiar and less-familiar destinations in the years ahead, assuming our health and circumstances make this possible. Our current wish list includes Sri Lanka, the Baltics and other places we can visit easily with a limited budget, just as we have recently.

I hope we’ll see some of you out there or perhaps somewhere else off the beaten track. There’s a big world waiting beyond the American comfort zone.

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Homes on the Road

We stayed at an Airbnb apartment instead of a hotel when we visited Sofia, Bulgaria last week. We also stayed at Airbnbs when we visited Tbilisi, Georgia and Sibiu, Romania in 2017.

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The living room of our Airbnb in Sofia, Bulgaria. (Sorry for the mess.)

All three apartments were central located, with kitchens, living rooms, washing machines and comfortable beds. All cost much less than hotels, although more than local hostels. IMG_0302All three hosts were helpful and responsive. The woman who welcomed us to our apartment in Sofia told us about a wonderful local Nepalese restaurant, Gurkha, where we ended up having a delicious meal and conversation with the owner, as you can see in the photo.

Champa and I still use hotels, such as when we stayed in Bucharest for a couple of nights last week and weren’t sure when we would arrive. But we now prefer staying in Airbnbs because they provide us with extra room and a local contact to help us learn about a city.

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Our Airbnb in Tbilisi, Georgia

Many of our fellow Peace Corps Volunteers in Moldova use Airbnbs, too, when traveling or coming to stay in the capital, Chișinău.

I describe all of this because some Americans are still uneasy about staying in a private home instead of a hotel, whether through Airbnb or another service. Others include HomeAway, Couchsurfing, FlipKey, VRBO and Roomorama.

The concept may seem especially novel to some older travelers. As one wrote on the Senior Planet website, “At first glance, Airbnb looked to me like a site for freewheeling hipsters.” That writer tried Airbnb and became a fan, saying, “I’ve learned something new about myself: I really enjoy staying in a ‘real’ neighborhood and being a traveler, not a tourist.”

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Champa and our guide, Florin, at the Airbnb we used in Sibiu, Romania, also shown in the photo at the bottom of this post.

We feel the same way and are not unique. Airbnb says more than one million of its users are now over 60, as are 10 percent of its hosts. Its 2016 report said some older Airbnb hosts now depend on this extra income to remain in their homes.

This past year, the Freebird Club launched an Airbnb-like service especially for older travelers and hosts. More broadly, older Americans have begun turning to a variety of flexible gigs and part-time jobs. In her latest list of 100 Great Second-Act Career Resources, career expert Nancy Collamer (my sister) identifies many of these.

One of my favorite blogs, The Senior Nomads, describes how a retired Seattle couple, Michael and Debbie Campbell, has spent several years staying at Airbnbs while traveling around the world. They explain: “As we were closing in on retirement, we felt we had ‘one more adventure in us’ so in July of 2013 we rented our house, sold our sailboat and one of our cars, and reduced our stuff until it fit in a small storage unit. We waved goodbye to our family and friends and set off to explore the world!”

 

This past summer, when we visited home, Champa and I experimented with the “sharing economy” in another way, by using a car-sharing service. We rented a blue Toyota Camry on Turo from a guy in Virginia for about half of what we would have spent with a car rental company. We had a great experience and would use the service again.

Serving as older Peace Corps Volunteers has opened our eyes in so many ways, and not only about Moldova. We’ve also become more comfortable with new online travel resources favored by people our children’s age. It turns out they work nicely for us, too. If you’ve had an interesting experience of your own with these resources, good or bad, I invite you to share them with a comment.

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Sofia and Bucharest

If you can’t find two European capital cities, Sofia and Bucharest, on a map, much less say why they’re great places to visit, don’t feel bad. Before I began serving nearby as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Moldova, I didn’t know much about them either.Screen Shot 2018-01-04 at 1.43.58 PM

Sofia is the capital of Bulgaria. Bucharest is Romania’s capital. Champa and I visited both this past week during a holiday break, using Sofia as a base to explore western Bulgaria and then making a quick stop in Bucharest.

Neither city is as beautiful as Paris or Venice. They still have plentiful Soviet-style apartments and government buildings. But they also have magnificent churches, lovely parks, modern hotels, excellent restaurants and interesting places to visit, all with prices much lower than elsewhere. Together with Krakow, Poland, they were the cheapest tourist cities on the latest European Backpacker Index.

We were very glad to visit both.

We toured Sofia and the surrounding area for four days, beginning with a free walking tour of the city. It’s a laid-back capital that Lonely Planet described as “a largely modern, youthful city, with a scattering of onion-domed churches, Ottoman mosques and stubborn Red Army monuments that lend an eclectic, exotic feel.” You can see some of its sights in the photos above, including the stunning Alexander Nevski Cathedral,

On our second day, we joined a group that visited the Boyana Church, a medieval Bulgarian Orthodox structure with striking frescoes on the city’s outskirts. We continued on to Rila Monastery, the largest and most famous Eastern Orthodox monastery in Bulgaria.

Snow began falling during our visit, making the setting even more beautiful, as you can see in the video clip.

Next we visited Plovdiv, an ancient city straddling seven hills, with an amphitheater, stadium and other ruins dating back to Roman times. Today it’s Bulgaria’s second-largest city, blending museums and tourist attractions with shopping and nightlife.

We shifted gears with our final visit in Bulgaria, this time to Koprivshtitsa, a historic mountain town known for its traditional architecture. We visited several of the town’s colorful houses and churches before taking a break in a charming local restaurant to sample some of Bulgaria’s famous soups, salads and breads. We arranged this and the other tours with Traventuria, a local company that provided great service. We stayed in a nice Airbnb apartment two blocks from the cathedral.

On Monday, we took a bus from Sofia to Bucharest, arriving in the evening at an out-of-the-way bus station where it took us several minutes to flag down a taxi. Eventually we arrived at our hotel in Old Town, where we strolled for a late snack and view of the many clubs, which were pulsating with music and, in a couple of cases, scantily clad dancers in the windows.

The next morning we walked across the boulevard to Unirii Square for a two-hour walking tour that provided a great overview of the city’s complicated history, which ranges from the Roman and Ottoman Empires to Vlad the Impaler (also known as Dracula), as well as the more recent Communist reign of Nicolae Ceaușescu, who was executed with his wife in 1989. Nearby was his People’s Palace, the world’s second-largest building after the Pentagon.

On Wednesday, we flew back to Moldova, where our host family welcomed us with a great dinner and lots of questions about our travels.

All in all, it was a fascinating week, and fun, too. I know now why Sofia and Bucharest are great places to visit. Maybe you should find out, too.

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