Traveling after the pandemic: Our first trip to Bulgaria

Although at the end of March and throughout April we did not believe that we would be able to travel anytime soon, here we are – we just took our first trip to Bulgaria in mid-May 2020. Gone are the days of isolation, depression, police checkpoints, and several ‘state of emergency’ briefings a day, when we were wondering if and when we would be able to leave Sofia, when we were overwhelmed with what to believe and what not from all this hysteria around the pandemic. And while we are now (hopefully not only temporarily) in better times, let’s use this opportunity to hit the road!

We were wondering how travel would change, what it would look like, and whether we would like to be travelers in its new forms and shapes. Well, after our first domestic trip (and even during the second one), we are ready to tell you about the new features of traveling, those we managed to experience first hand. Expect a serious amount of thoughts and opinions, supported by examples from our first domestic travels in the country.

Balchik promenade with two rainbows

Our first trip to Bulgaria

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Here is our first trip since March. We started with Omaya ecovillage, well hidden in the forest, farther than Gotse Delchev and just neighboring the border with Greece (check out our article about this amazing place). This kind of isolation in the wild (with a restaurant, though) worked well for us. We returned to Sofia, did a virtual trip to Nepal (we recently started online travels to support our community in tough times), and set out to the seaside. Tsarevo welcomed us with a completely different world, in which we were the only visitors. We toured the nearby beautiful beaches of Sinemorets, Varvara, Ahtopol, Silistar, we waved to Turkey in Rezovo. The view of the sea had a very productive effect workwise. For the long weekend around May 24, we headed to two wineries. First, we stopped at Zaara Estate, where we can only recommend the views and delicious food in the restaurant, and then – arriving at the second winery – it turned out that nothing is open and therefore we left.

After a few days in Sofia, we started to get really bored so we went to the seaside again, this time we headed to Balchik. On the way, we stayed in Tarnovo (where our last trip before the state of emergency was) and passed through the Madara Horseman. On the North Black Sea coast, we combined exploration of beaches, salt lakes, wind turbines, and other attractions in the area with work from an apartment with a sea view (here’s our article with recommended apartments on the Bulgarian seaside). Then we decided to move to the guest house of our friends in Kavarna, where we could continue in the same spirit. We are currently planning where we will open the camping season in Greece. And we are waiting for the lavenders to bloom!

Responsible and sustainable travel

Will people move to more environmentally responsible travel, having already appreciated the absence of access to natural environments while staying at home? We really want this to be the case, but usually, change happens from within. If you haven’t realized that you can reduce your waste and that riding elephants is not OK, then no pandemic will teach you something like that. And until many more people begin to sustainably apply the principles of responsible travel and life, we will read about oceans clogged with plastics (and more recently, disposable face masks and gloves).

Ahtopol, Black Sea coast, Bulgaria
Ahtopol

Cleaning procedures and safety standards

Will safety standards, including clean-up procedures and anti-epidemiological measures, become a major competitive advantage for accommodations, airports, stations, transportation, restaurants, and so on? While we were looking for hotels and apartments in Bulgaria for our first trip after the pandemic, we did not find any special disclaimers or explicit messages about compliance with any measures in the reservation systems. But let’s say we decided to trust them and booked something.

In many places, there is chaos and a lack of rules, as it was before March 2020. At the gas stations, on the front door, it says to wear a mask, but many people go in with no masks and there’s nobody to enforce that rule. Many people wear masks with their noses outside, which makes the whole point meaningless. Although in one restaurant, we were very grateful that at least the mouth of our waiter was covered.

In one hotel, we were delighted with gift masks to wear in the closed common areas of the hotel. Great, but if only the staff cared to wear masks… In general, restaurants demonstrate higher hygiene – we feel much better to enter a restaurant that has a table with at least 10 antibacterial sprays. And the fact that those naughty noses protrude above the masks might be just a fashion statement.

Do we value traveling with our closest people more?

After being stuck home with our loved ones for 2 months (and even more), we have probably developed and deepened our relationships with them. So we should also appreciate the opportunity to travel with them more. We agree, but if you’ve followed this blog for a while, it probably doesn’t surprise you – we love to travel together as a couple!

However, there is another aspect – “alone” time has been reduced to a minimum or to zero. And we also appreciate the opportunities for solo travel, to be alone with yourself. Everyone needs at least one such trip in their life.

Silistar beach, Black Sea coast, Bulgaria
Complete happiness on Silistar beach

Everything must be booked online and in advance

This is not only about booking hotels, cars, transportation tickets, etc., but also about booking tours, museums, parks, and everything that has a regulated entrance. The gathering of many people in one place and staying in lines are just anathema in these times of pandemics. And that’s quite understandable. But we are much more worried about what will happen to the opportunity to travel spontaneously, to decide things at the last minute, to book a place just because you saw it while walking around, to sit in a pub you liked at first sight.

Note that in most cases, we do book our accommodation in advance, but for eating out – in Sofia, for example, it is clear that even in the unpretentious restaurants you can’t simply drop in and expect a table waiting for you. Many attractions already have already imposed the maximum capacity of people who can be there at the same time. In the first winery (which we are wondering whether or not to include in the list of recommended wineries in Bulgaria) we tried to arrange a wine tasting, but their “world-class” experience meant you had to call in advance for that. In other words, the wine guru was busy and there was nobody else to taste wine with.

But booking something in advance does not guarantee you anything. Our experience with the second chateau-hotel was a lot of fun. We booked it online, it said that everything was open. When we arrived, we found a closed hotel and several workers in the garden. We called the phone number kindly put on the door and someone came to meet us. The pool was empty, the garden was under renovation, the restaurant – not working, and the hotel was dark. We asked to cancel the non-refundable reservation, because what exactly were we going to do for two days more or less in the middle of nowhere when nothing is open or functional? They showed some understanding and returned our money. Yes, in Bulgaria not getting your mоnеy back is a valid scenario as well…

The good thing is that there is plenty of self-sufficient accommodation on Booking.com. Try the platform and find out where your next place to stay is.

Booking.com

Flexible cancellation policies

Here we come to a very hot topic. For years, we have had the feeling that cancellation policies are just messing with travelers. And after a few canceled trips because of you-know-what, I think we will all learn to look at cancellation policies even more carefully. We expected that after this wave of the pandemic many hotels will rethink their policies, at least because they need more guests to recover from the crisis faster.

Yes but no. We were looking and could not believe our eyes. Free cancellation up to 14 days before the first night. In a “normal” world, this may not even impress us. But now we live in “interesting” times. Within a few hours, they may decide to install the checkpoints again and forbid us from leaving our towns. Anyway, when the time approached (read 2 days before), we booked an apartment in Tsarevo (which we highly recommend) and two wineries for later. Successful reservations – 2. Successful cancellations – 1.

View from the terrace, Zaara Estate winery, Bulgaria
The view is wonderful – in stark contrast to the reception staff.

More land travel, less flying, and cruise ship sailing

It is not clear whether the cruises will continue to exist after all that has happened. We hope that in some form, they will become available again because we really like cruises. Will people avoid flying? We’ll find out. For now, we have nowhere to fly anyway, so we load the trunk and hit the road. Oh, and we dream of a big train trip, someday soon…

Self-sustained life on the road

Road trips will become a trend again (yey!). And perhaps many people will buy campers, caravans, and other such independent RV units for living and traveling. Or at least they will rent one to try it out! The campsites by the sea seemed surprisingly full for the month of May, which makes us happy. Maybe RV life will become a thing in Bulgaria.

A slightly more real estate aspect of self-sufficient living – especially if you combine travel and work as we do – private apartments with good Internet and well-equipped kitchen will become increasingly popular. Many restaurants have not opened yet or will not open at all, you may want to avoid restaurants and dine in privacy or takeaway might not be an option where you intend to stay. So kitchen + Internet are two of the mandatory features of apartments we rent, for short- or long-term stays.

View from the terrace, Zaara Estate winery, Bulgaria
Working from a terrace overlooking the sea is definitely more productive.

The end of the buffet

We know you love buffets, and we love them too! But they also carry a lot of risks, especially when they serve many people. During our first trip, we did not come across this phenomenon anywhere, and now many hotels and accommodations brag about how they have avoided the buffets. Remember the last time someone sneezed on the salad bar if you need help with dealing with the buffets’ loss?

Traditional Bulgarian breakfast, Omaya ecovillage
What is a Sunday morning without mekitsi and banitsa?

The packing list update

The face mask is the first new addition to our luggage. In fact, it is with us in our daily lives as well. We bring a little more hygiene products because the prices of antibacterial gels can triple again and it’s useful to have one of those at hand.

In addition to safety and cleanliness products, we now carry laptops with us on every trip. Even if we are somewhere for a day. That’s how if we get “stuck” there, we can continue to work.

Outside and in nature

Social distancing is much easier when we are outdoors and in nature. We expect a boom in interest and visits to campsites, national parks, gardens, mountains, and beaches. We follow the updates on traveling to Greece every day because the campsites and beaches of Halkidiki and Corfu are calling!

Walking and hiking will become everyone’s favorite outdoor activities. Of course, it’s not bad to try some lesser-known trails, because if you’ve ever been to the Rila Lakes in summer, you know what we’re talking about.

During our first trip after the pandemic, we jumped back to the Omaya ecovillage, where each house is in a different part of the forest, and we have long dreamed of such solitude and isolation. At the seaside, our favorite activity was walking around the secluded beaches in the morning.

Omaya ecovillage, clay house in the woods, Bulgaria
“The Walnut Shell”

The airfares

Even the most optimistic speak modestly when it comes to air ticket prices. Given that some airlines have already declared bankruptcy, leaving others the opportunity to become monopolists on some routes, things do not look great. We are still waiting for refund money from canceled flights and from time to time and we naively check the airfares to some destinations.

We can only recommend the same as with hotels – it is best to book as close as possible to the date of your flight and pay attention to cancellation and rebooking policies. Positive note – we noticed round trip tickets from Sofia to Iceland for 300 euros with a non-low cost company. But all this might have been temporary. However, Iceland is preparing to receive guests in the summer, and we want to see this amazing island even when it is not winter.

Travel insurance

We expect that travel insurance will become more expensive, or at least will have an optional supplement, which will be quite expensive. This supplement, as you assume, will be about coverage during a pandemic, Coronavirus disease, and related stuff. And of course, you’ll not be allowed to enter some countries without such insurance. For example, this is the case with Thailand and the Thai Health Certificate. So, expensive or cheap – if we want to travel abroad – we will pay and that’s it.

Balchik Palace and the sea promenade, Bulgaria
When you are not afraid to walk in the rain …

We will not take anything for granted

Big crises often remind us of how many things we take for granted. I wake up, I feel like having a coffee in Plovdiv – I jump on the bus and in two hours I drink coffee in the Old Town. Do I feel like I need Vitamin Sea? I jump in the car and in a few hours, I’m on the beach. Do I want to go to a Christmas market in Germany? In half an hour I have a ticket for my flight and I’m already planning my visit. And so we can go on for a long time … Until a pandemic comes along and shows you that nothing is granted to you.

Is there anything good about this then? We think this will lead to more authentic experiences when we travel. Whether it’s to meet relatives in a neighboring city, to drink coffee in Plovdiv, or mulled wine in Cologne. We will appreciate every moment we have, we will be happy that we are somewhere different than home, that we have met new people, and cultures, and that we are on the road again! This will reduce (hopefully) our narcissistic desires to show off, posing in the same way and in the same places as tens of thousands of other people. Traveling “for Instagram”, even living “for the ‘Gram” will lose meaning.

Walking on an empty beach, Sinemorets, Bulgaria
Barefoot on the beach in Sinemorets. The whole beach is just for us!

More independent travels

And this is perhaps our favorite new feature of traveling after the pandemic. Packed buses will be gone, as well as crowded cruise ships. In general, a group of 30-40-50 and more people will disappear as a concept. Mass tourism will not be so mass. And whoever wants to continue traveling will have to do it in a small group, with very very close people or solo, and that will make them more independent. All people will start to plan and organize their own trips, to experience new places in their own way, to transform themselves by traveling! We can’t wait for this to happen!

Those were the major new features of traveling after the pandemic, as well as moments from our first trip to Bulgaria (we are already on the second). We look forward to every next one, as well as the first time we will go abroad!

Post-pandemic travel and our first trip in Bulgaria
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