World Tour: Beautiful Bulgaria Part 2 – Party Hostels, Horse & Buggy + Largest LYL Event to Date!
Memorable Bulgarian Moments Part 2:
- Staying at our first party hostel in 10 years, and being 10 years older than the average guest (and loving it)
- Befriending a monk in the middle of the woods with a beard down to my belly
- Watching a farmer’s horse and buggy go head-to-head with a modern day tractor
Days on the Road: 156
WHERE WE ARE… NOW: Atrani, Italy • NEXT: Positano/Capri, Italy & Paris, France
(If you’ll be in Paris, let us know! We’ll be doing a LYL event around July 1st)
More Bulgarian Adventures…
After spending a bit of time in the off-season, we felt a little more lonely than expected, so decided to switch things up a little bit (a lot) and stay at a hostel – the first time in 10 years for the both of us! Not only was it an inexpensive alternative (a bed + delicious hot breakfast starting at 10 Euro a night), but we thought it might allow us to meet some new and interesting people doing things similar to us. So, off we headed to The Crib in Plovdiv.
We opted for our own room (and rather nice balcony) and shared bathroom, instead of the 6-person dorm (we figured we should ease back into hostel life). Each morning, the generous and jovial host, Yotsko, served a nice warm breakfast and it was over those meals where we met a lot of travelers with very unexpected stories – such as the professional juggler from the Indian circus traveling with his cello, an Aussie girl who had been exploring solo for 11.5 months and Nate and Phillipa of Yomadic who have been permanently on the road for about three years and organize group tours to Iran. We loved the communal feel and the energy of the people we met.
Oh, and Yotsko’s story of getting into the business was so fitting. A few years ago he noticed how much he loved creating places and events for his friends to hang out and have fun, but figured it was a pipe dream to be able to build a living around it. Then he discovered hostels, and he went all in!
It made us smile to hear him proudly describe things late one night in the common room…
“I get paid to meet cool new people and friends – how fun is that?! I could travel around the world and leave the wallet at home with all the friends I have welcoming me to their homes. It’s been awesome.”
And it didn’t hurt that Plovdiv was yet another incredible place, and one of the oldest inhabited cities in Europe – at 0ver 6,000 years old! Amazing ruins and street art everywhere…
It’s also known as the city of seven hills…
And with views like this, you can be sure we made it a point to visit each and every one of those seven hills!
We also happened to stumble upon a once-a-year Food and Wine festival that takes place in the old town. For about $5.00 you could buy 12 tastes of wine (although they weren’t too strict about collecting the tokens…), and you wandered along 6,000-year-old cobble stone streets to about six different locations. On top of that, there was food to pair with each taste of vino, and one of the wineries was owned by a man we befriended at dinner the night before! Made for a much longer and friendly day than expected. 🙂
Prior to knowing about the festival, we had booked a day of wine tasting where we got to visit a range of Bulgarian wineries – from very small boutiques to some of the larger, more well-known ones. It was a fun-filled day full of sipping (mostly) good wine paired with local homemade cheese at each stop. We hadn’t planned on going back-to-back days, but figured it wouldn’t be right to cancel last-minute. 😉
We had a great few days in Plovdiv and really enjoyed wandering the cobblestone streets, hiking up the seven hills and stumbling upon beautiful ruins around every corner, but we were ready for a little time to catch up, since work was a tad harder to do while at the hostel. So we decided to rent a car and retreat to a mountain-side “resort” town…
We made a little pit stop to visit Bachkovo Monastery (and even met a nice monk), hiked to a beautiful waterfall and explored a hilltop fortress – the variety of scenery in this country is unreal!
We arrived to Bansko just as the sun was setting, and to our surprise, there didn’t seem to be a soul in site, nor a restaurant open… Our apartment was inside a hotel and not only was everything completely shut down (pool drained, spa closed, etc.), but I’m pretty sure we were the only people present other than the front desk staff! Turns out Bansko is a hot resort town (during ski season), but pretty much shuts down between Easter and when school lets out in June… Welcome back to the heart of off-season!
It was actually amazing though! Our apartment had a beautiful view overlooking the mountains, and was truly a step back in time.
We woke each morning to the sound of a farmer’s horse and buggy trotting down the street (as it ironically passed tractors and cars) and our workouts in the mountains included many shepherds, sheep, goats and using rocks as our weights!
It was a nice few days to reset and refresh, but we were definitely looking forward to some human interaction! So we hopped in our car to visit the smallest town in Bulgaria. The last piece of advice we got from a local before heading out was, “Be careful in Melnik. Very generous people, very strong wine.”
Given that Melnik has only 200 inhabitants and you can walk through the town in about five minutes flat, we had planned to only stay for one night and possibly make another stop on our way up to Sofia… but that all changed as soon as we arrived to Lumparov’s House.
The guest house we were staying in had about six rooms, but upon arrival, it seemed we were yet again the only ones staying there (which turned out perfect). I wonder if that had something to do with us having to traverse our rental car through an unmarked rocky riverbed to find the place!
We were greeted by Toni, who spoke Bulgarian, French and very little English. We later met her husband, Ventsi, who spoke Spanish, Bulgarian and zero English – so while we were only able to communicate with them in a mixture of four broken languages, we had some of our best and most welcoming days all year.
Breakfast was included (insane fresh-baked Bulgarian cheese pastry!), but we decided to have dinner there both nights (yes, we extended an extra night because we couldn’t help but spend more time with these two amazing people). Everything they made came from within 20 km of the property and was all handmade (including the yogurt, cheese and bread).
Not only did we get to sample traditional Bulgarian dishes made from scratch (and lessons on how to make them), but we also got to spend a lot of time with Toni and Ventsi. We enjoyed evenings out on the patio as the sun went down, long “conversations” about pre and post-communist life in Bulgaria, and how dramatic the change has been over the years. We truly felt like we were ‘home to mom’s house over the weekend’ as these two filled us up in so many ways – of course with their delicious food, but also with their love, generosity and hospitality. It was a window into rural, simple Bulgarian life – an experience we will never forget! And such welcomed timing as the homesickness of months on the road was starting to set in.
Beyond our amazing Bulgarian family, Melnik itself was stunning! It’s also a region known for its wine (as is so much of this country – you can’t escape it!), so we of course found ourselves on long hikes that managed to lead to hilltop wine cellars buried deep in the mountains.
We also took on the challenge of hiking to the Rozhen monastery. It was a sketchy path along what are known as the Melnik pyramids – we were told, “just follow the riverbed to the monastery…” There were some wrong turns, steep eroded cliffs, beautiful lookouts and of course the unexpected set of ruins! We enjoyed our days exploring and our nights at home with our new family.
We also met another very inspiring friend, who yet again showed us a lesson in Bulgarian hospitality. Pavlinka lived just below Lumparov’s House. She’s an 85-year-old woman who we’d see working in her garden at 7am, as we were waking to the chirp of swallows (felt like being inside a birdhouse!). Then come 7pm, as we’d be sitting on the porch for happy hour, she’d still be out there tending her crops!
Out of curiosity, we finally asked Toni about her. Toni explained,
“I keep telling her to stay inside and take it easy. But she says if she stays inside and sits still, she will probably die.”
Purpose is powerful medicine. Such a great reminder from the oddest of places.
We decided to get friendly with Pavlinka and throw out the few Bulgarian sentences we knew. Before we could blink, she invited us down for a very proud tour of the garden, which included several tastes of her fresh veggies. The next morning she dropped off her homemade goat cheese, which we enjoyed alongside our Mechitsas, a Bulgarian breakfast donut, served by Toni.
All in all, our time in Melnik was one of the most incredible travel experiences we’ve had to date (only to later be rivaled by a family farmhouse stay in Tuscany, which we’ll explain soon). It was a window into a local’s life and some of the most amazing care (and food) we have ever had. We were very sad to leave these people and this funky little town (Scott felt like a kid driving off to college)… but at the same time we had some exciting things to look forward to in Sofia!
We stopped by the Rila Monastery (the most famous in Bulgaria) on our way up to Sofia. That (and the goat traffic jam) caused us to return our rental car a whopping six hours late (whoops!) but it was a worthwhile pit stop. The size, beauty and surroundings of the monastery were very impressive, and we got to enjoy a nice lunch along a beautiful rushing river.
Upon arriving in Sofia, later than we would have liked, we were surprised how much we liked our little neighborhood. Everyone told us we only needed two or so days in the “big city.” We’d booked six and were kind of afraid that we’d feel a little culture shock after our time in sleepy and tranquil Bankso and Melnik, but were delighted by a charming and hip neighborhood with everything within walking distance!
We were happy to see fruit and vegetable stands everywhere, and the availability of fresh, healthy and even vegan food was a welcomed treat! We did a free food tasting tour in addition to the free walking tour we enjoyed in the other cities in Bulgaria. And just a short jog from our apartment we discovered a cool gym inside a forest (pull-up bars and rings hanging all over the trees!). This city definitely felt progressive on the health and wellness front.
Scott also held a Live Your Legend event, which ended up being the largest to date!
Who would have thought that Sofia, Bulgaria would bring together 100+ LYLers?! And a record number of high school kids! The room was buzzing with possibility.
While most events this year have been more casual meetup-style gatherings in co-working spaces and cafes, to our surprise, our amazing Sofia LYL Local hosts, Steffan and Plamena, had booked a theatre in the heart of Sofia and marketed the event as an “Inspiring Talk from Scott” (their words, not ours 😉 – pressure is on! The unexpected crowd and setting may have added a few last-minute nerves for Scott, but made for an incredible night that surpassed any possible expectations. Surreal in so many ways.
We spent our final night in Sofia celebrating and reflecting on our surprising and remarkable month in a country we had no real plans of visiting. At first, our detour from our planned month in Italy seemed like a pain, but it led us to discover an untouched and magical place that blew us away on so many levels. We’re grateful for the unexpected – and the wonderful hospitality that came with it. As Chelsea mentioned: “This was a part of the trip we never planned on, but it may easily end up being the most memorable.”
- Trying to see too much, while SO tempting, is not a smart long-term travel strategy (obvious, we know – but we still seem to need to learn it the hard way!). Slow feels better. Save some for next time.
- Renting your own apartments is great in a lot of ways, but can feel a lot more isolating.
- Hostel living is more fun than we remembered, and a nice way to switch it up (even if you’re 10 years older than the average guest).
- Stay with locals as often as possible. The real-life experience is priceless.
- Check the off-season!
How We Were Feeling:
An unexpected slump and loneliness came upon us midway through Bulgaria, which was probably a combination of the vacant off-season ghost towns, being more isolated in our apartments than expected, trying to do way too much and having been on the road (and homeless) for longer than we had in over a decade. By far the biggest challenge is not being around all the friends and family we’re used to spending so much time with at home. Logically, a feeling like this would be expected, but it’s still a different story when the emotions hit, and odd to feel while out on such an adventure.
But thankfully, it mostly passed after a couple weeks of switching things up, although we still miss you all lots! 🙂
Onward to finally fulfilling our decade-long dream of living in Italy…
– Chelsea and Scott
P.S. If you’ll be in Paris near the end of June, let us know. We’ll be there from June 28th to July 5th, and we’ll definitely be hosting another LYL event – and eating a lot of chocolate croissants!