How I, An Incredibly Anxious Traveller, Solo Travelled Through Bulgaria
Nobody really asks, but I can see their eyes secretly wonder “why” when I tell someone I’m travelling to Bulgaria for a little holiday. The short answer is … I don’t really know. It wasn’t because I have some ever-present burning desire to visit Bulgaria. My going to Bulgaria was just a holiday booked on a whim, because Ryanair had a sale. It ended up working out well, but I didn’t have many expectations, let alone knowledge about Bulgaria before I went. I booked it quite simply because I had never been before, and because I had never thought about going. Usually people opt for the opposite.
The short of it is: I booked this holiday because I was homesick. I was still at home when homesickness struck. I was looking out at seven months without a hug from my mom, seven months without laying eyes on my dad, or my dog, or my sisters or brother. Seven months of solitude in Scotland, before my family planned to visit in July — planned but had not (and still have not!) booked yet. And I was sad, and I already missed everyone, and I wanted to go to New York over March Break, so I could meet up with my mom and sister. (It’s cheaper to fly to New York than Thunder Bay, not cheap, but cheaper).
Then, my sister told me not to. Not because she didn’t want me there but because, in her words: “If you live in Europe you should be going somewhere in Europe that you’ve never been to before, and take advantage of how close you are to new places, and how cheap it is to travel, rather than spending a lot of money to going across the Atlantic to somewhere you’ve been to tons of times.” So I went to Skyscanner and I saw a cheap flight to Sofia and I thought, ‘huh, I’ve never thought about going to Bulgaria before,’ and then I booked it.
The flight cost me 52GBP. I then started looking at Airbnbs and came across the most beautiful little apartment, with glowing reviews, for $32CAD/night and booked it. I was set. A little holiday in Sofia, Bulgaria. I pictured old Soviet style buildings mixed in with Orthodox churches. I envisioned a quaint, old town style city that was quiet, calm, and comfortable.
I started to look into things to do and realised I could do day trips to Macedonia and Serbia! I realised how close Sofia is to other Balkan countries and immediately started looking into getting my International Drivers Permit so I could rent a car and road trip. I looked at doing the day trips, but they were too pricey for one person (I’m talking like three hundred pounds!). I went through the process. I took passport pictures, I sent them to my dad, he took them to CAA, he got my IDP, he sent it to me, I booked a car. I planned on spending a day in Sofia, and then doing day trips to Skopje, Niš, and Thessaloniki. And then I got to the rental pick up and they said I couldn’t cross borders. Cool.
As planned, I spent my first day in Sofia. It was weird. I remembered as I was leaving that, while I haven’t been really badly anxious in awhile, I have a long history of travel anxiety. Exactly five years ago I was just south of Bulgaria, in Greece. It was a school trip, and I almost didn’t go because I was so anxious. I spent seven months before that trip going to counselling specifically so that I could go on it. I threw up the morning we left, I spent the day crying to my family in Toronto, and then I got on the plane headed overseas, and in the end I was fine. The first time I actually properly travelled alone was in October 2018, when I went hiking in Ireland. Except one of my closest friends lives in Dublin, so it hardly counts because I knew I could go to her if I needed her.
And then I found myself alone in Bulgaria, apparently in my homesick, adventurous spirit state, I forgot to factor in my anxiety disorder. Weirdly, it was relatively OK. I walked around the city centre, I bought postcards, I sat in the sun, in a park, I went and got coffee, I sat in the park some more. I bailed on all of my walking tours because my feet hurt, (but lowkey because I was afraid to talk to people) and I went back to my Airbnb early. I ate granola and yogurt for dinner because I was too stressed to go out and try to tackle the language barrier to get myself a proper dinner. Try again tomorrow.
The second day I picked up my car. I went for groceries at Lidl and then I tackled the metro, taking it out to the airport, and then I realised I could easily have just managed with the metro alone. But the car was already booked, so off I went! I picked up the keys, sat in the drivers seat, gave myself a pep talk, reminded myself of the ‘how to drive in a roundabout’ videos I had watched on Youtube the night before, started the ignition and drove off. And it. Was. Fine. Since I couldn’t cross borders, I drove to the Rila Monastery. Tucked into the mountains, it’s one of the oldest (maybe the oldest) Orthodox monastery in the world. I’m not religious, I was raised Catholic, and I don’t majorly care about these things but I thought it might be cool so I went. And it was cool.
I drove on the highway (very fast, might I add!) and I drove on tiny side streets and I drove up the mountain and it took me two whole hours because I took so many wrong turns. I was constantly stressed about my phone (my navigation) dying. But I made it. There was snow on the ground that people were ice-picking at so that it would melt. I went into the church, I saw monks, I paid to visit the museum and saw some icons (housing some relics!), and I got to be in the mountains and breath in the forest air. I bought some postcards, then I did one whole sign of the cross and then I left. I think I spent less than an hour there, but I was tired and hungry so I went back to my Airbnb, it took me only an hour and a half to get back to Sofia that time around. When I got to the Airbnb, parking was a total nightmare. My driveway backed on to a tiny side street, I had to back in, through the gates of the drive, while not hitting the car parked on the single lane street. It took a solid 10 minutes, and after I was thoroughly humiliated by anyone who might be watching, I decided not to take the car out again until I was leaving.
On my third day I explored Sofia some more. I gave myself a morning pep talk, consisting of a lot of ‘you’re only in Sofia for today, make the most of it, just barrel on full steam ahead, don’t let the language barrier get to you. It’s fine.’ So I googled ‘best coffee in Sofia’ and headed off to the first hit. I walked through new parts of the city centre, saw new churches, new parks, new shops, and I walked far and wide. I shopped a bit, I ate a bit, and then I went for a nap. But I would not be defeated by the restaurant situation, so I forced myself to go out and get dinner. For context, I am realising as I write this, restaurants are a no-go for my anxiety. Nowadays, after a lot of hard work, I don’t really think much about eating out, but when I first went to counselling it was the first thing we worked on in exposure therapy, and suddenly it makes sense to me why I was so reluctant to try to figure out how to eat out in Sofia. Regardless, it happened, I had a yummy salad and hummus and coffee and it was grand.
Sunday was my fourth and final day. I woke up exhausted. Tired of having to figure everything out myself, tired of having so many thoughts and no one to express them to, and just tired because the hosts of the Airbnb had been listening to salsa music late into the night. I decided to try driving to Plovdiv for a bit to explore. It took about an hour and a half to get there, and then about another 45 minutes to try to find parking. I found a spot that I’m not sure I was allowed to park in, and when I got out I felt defeated. I didn’t want to try to find fun things to do, I was already looking forward to going gas station shopping on the way back to Sofia so I thought ‘that’s it, you’re enjoying driving, just drive.’
So I drove through Plovdiv, and then I headed back to Sofia Airport, I enjoyed the gas station stop, and then I returned my car. Then I spent the rest of my last day at Sofia Airport, reading one of those airport-mystery books that I had picked up in Edinburgh Airport on my way out. It was a quiet, cozy Sunday, very relaxing, and it just so happened that I spent it at Sofia Airport.
Moral of the story: There is no ‘right way’ to travel, it’s YOUR holiday, just do whatever you want! If you’re tired at three pm and you want to have a lay down, do that. It’s okay. You’re not missing anything other than hurting your feet and making yourself kind of miserable and grouchy for the next day. If you’re somewhere and you decide you’re done, if you want to sit in a park, or a cafe, or all you want to do is food tour after food tour, do it. Don’t bother with trying to do what other people are doing when they’re travelling, unless it looks like something you want to do. If you try it and realise it’s not what you want to do: that’s okay. Loads of people will read through this and think “well that’s kind of a waste of time” but I feel like I made the most of my trip! I saw tons of new places, had new experiences, but I don’t feel drained now that I’m home. I had the right balance of adventure and exploration, and rest and relaxation.
So what was Bulgaria like?
In terms of Sofia + Bulgaria
Sofia is nice, Bulgaria is nice. Sofia is so much bigger than expected, and Bulgaria even more so. Sofia did have Soviet architecture, and Orthodox churches, but it also had very Cuban-esque run down architecture, and a handful of western shops and then a lot of random other shops. It had a lot of greenspace, and a lot of people, but not a TON of tourists (at least not English-speakers). There are mountains everywhere, and it was warmer than expected. Not everyone speaks English, in all the touristy areas they’ll try, or they’ll do what they can to make it work. I found that people, generally, weren’t super friendly like I’m used to, people don’t smile at you in the street if you don’t smile first, and check-out workers are generally in a bad mood (but who can blame them).
In terms of driving
Don’t drive in Bulgaria if you are not a confident driver. I have anxiety problems, yes, but I’m a good driver. I am a bit of a risky driver, but I’m a good driver, and those are the two things (it turns out) that you need in order to not die or crash while driving in Bulgaria. Highways are lawless, you need to know how to use them, and you need to simultaneously be both an aggressive and defensive driver. It was actually kind of perfect for my driving style. There are tons of beautiful views everywhere, and tons of wild drivers doing weird things too, which constantly made me want to have someone in the passenger seat.
Have you solo travelled? Are you an anxious traveller? Have you put the two together yet? Talk with me about it in the comments!
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