Europe’s Most Affordable Capital

Sofia!

Many of the memorable experiences I had while living in Bulgaria were in Sofia, the capital, even though I spent relatively little time there. Besides being a city with fascinating architecture, museums, monuments, sophisticated nightlife, chic shops, old markets, Roman ruins, ornate churches and mosques, it is the seat of government and the site of the recent peaceful demonstrations pressing to unseat that government. It’s a happening place. Moreover, a recent article in USA Today described it as “affordable” for travelers. (Thanks, Harlow, for sharing it.) The article (click here) is headlined with the title, “Is Europe’s most affordable capital worth the trip?” The writer then goes on to answer the question with a resounding “Yes!” The many delights and surprises of the city are listed with a sense of wonder and I hope you’ll enjoy reading about them. What I am moved do muse about here, though, is the business of affordability.

The article describes amenities and luxuries available to the well-heeled tourist. This means, I want to tell you, just about anyone who travels. If you can afford to travel, you are rich. Even if you travel on the cheap with an airline pass from a pilot uncle and you stay in dormitory-style hostels with the bathroom down the hall, if you have leisure time to travel, you are rich.

In A Breeze in Bulgaria I explained the two-tiered pricing structure we found at hotels and tourist attractions, where travelers with a national identity card (lichna karta) were charged lower prices for a night’s stay or admission. At first I thought this was unfair, or at least a little underhanded, even though with our status as Peace Corps volunteers we carried the card. At the beautiful ski resort of Pamporovo. . .

With our lichna kartas Linda and I got the Bulgarian rate of 16 leva [$8] for the lift, instead of the tourist rate of three times that. The rental skis were ten leva instead of the tourists’ twenty. We had learned to look for these deals. In hotels and tourist attractions such as museums and recreation facilities all over the country, a sign would show “Admission” in English, with the pricing details for adult, child and so on in large letters. A smaller sign with lower prices, for card-carrying residents, would be below or off to the side with the words in Cyrillic. Most foreigners didn’t see it.

On another occasion, checking into a hotel where we stayed near the picturesque Rila Monastery, we got a little different perspective since someone in our traveling group was a tourist without the card, and she had to pay a higher rate. . .

This was no longer surprising, but it hardly seemed likely to draw tourists to Bulgaria. On the other hand if the hotels had to charge the same for everyone many Bulgarians couldn’t afford it, or the foreign rates would be so cheap it would be ridiculous, or beneath notice, to most travelers. They wouldn’t really care about the savings since the hotel bill was not a major part of the cost of a big vacation. It would seem to be easy to get huffy about that as a foreigner, but really. . . the Bulgarians were right. It wouldn’t matter because foreigners who travel are rich, whether they act that way or not.

Our friend bore this observation out, since she was pleased as could be with the cost of the room at the published price. On our budget as volunteers living on the local economy, though, it was reasonable at the residents’ rate and would have been a big strain at the foreigners’ rate. That’s what came across to me in the USA Today article; even though the hotel and other prices mentioned as examples seem impossibly high according to my then-standard-of living, and certainly must be the same for most Bulgarians today, they’re a stunning travel bargain for travelers from all over the world.

My friend Dimitar, the snack stand economist, would remind me to tell you: “You don’t know how rich you are.”

Comment, reply, agree or deny? Love to hear from you!