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August 31, 2010
A memorable (and nerve-racking) encounter in Bulgaria’s capital
My visit to Sofia, Bulgaria, was definitely a memorable experience—but I’d be hard-pressed to describe a single thing I saw during my time in the city.
Let me explain: It was the 70s, and my girlfriend and I were celebrating our college graduation by backpacking through Europe. We were traveling by train from Geneva, Switzerland to Ankara, Turkey, and stopped briefly in Sofia en route. My friend and I were excited by the prospect of spending a few hours in Bulgaria’s capital, which sits in the foothills of Mount Vitosha.
As we prepared to disembark for a whirlwind tour of Sofia, the train’s conductor came over to our seats and asked for our passports. Glancing nervously at each other, my friend and I handed them over—and then watched in stunned silence as the conductor abruptly walked off, our passports in hand, without saying another word. I remember being absolutely terrified: I was certain we’d never see our passports again, that we’d be stuck in this unfamiliar, communist country for the rest of our lives if we took even one step off the train.
Somehow, my friend managed to convince me that we’d be fine, that we’d get our passports back—this was just the way they did things here—and that we would always regret not taking advantage of the opportunity to see what life was like in Bulgaria. So we did leave the train to explore Sofia … but I was so preoccupied by the prospect of not being able to leave the country that I couldn’t really appreciate anything I saw.
Back on the train, we searched eagerly for the conductor who’d taken our passports. My heart was already beating a mile a minute, and when we finally caught sight of him, I felt as if it were going to pound itself right out of my chest. My fear must have been written all over my face, because as he handed us our passports, he looked directly into my eyes … and the stern expression on his face suddenly gave way to a smile. “It’s okay, it’s okay,” he said in his broken English as he ushered us to our seats. Then he hustled off to the dining car and quickly returned with two bottles of ice cold local beer. Smiling at us warmly, he handed over the bottles with a flourish, saying again, “See? It’s OK.” I’ve never been so relieved in all my life.
While I will always remember this experience, I do regret not being able to focus more attention on the sights and sounds of Sofia. But I have been able to appreciate its charms vicariously, thanks to Grand Circle travelers who have visited the city as part of our Eastern Europe & the Black Sea River Cruise. For 8-time traveler Phyllis Pringle, of Fullerton, California, Bulgaria was “a pleasant surprise … a beautiful country with friendly people. Learning about its history and progress since communism was fascinating. And the trip to Rila Monastery was especially delightful, as we passed through lush mountains” to get there.
Beth & Howard Detro—10-time travelers from Minden, Nevada—offer similar praise for Sofia. As they told us, “After a morning visit to the Museum of Natural History (a beautiful building, by the way), we had some free time. Our Program Director, Kalin, offered to take anyone interested to the Boyana Church, which was nearby. The church, which is known for its frescos, is small and situated in a park-like setting. It was a wonderful experience.” They also add, “We loved all the shopska”—the famous Bulgarian salad made with tomatoes, cucumbers, onion, and fresh cheese.
Do you have special memories of your own travels in Bulgaria? If so, I’d love to hear more about them. You can share your thoughts with others by posting your comments below this Journal entry, or you can email me directly at
In the coming weeks, we’ll be featuring Holland and Belgium and our River Cruises along the Rhine, Main, and Danube, and China. If you’ve explored any—or all!—of these fascinating destinations with Grand Circle, I hope you’ll send your stories and pictures to me at email@example.com.