When I first started to have the idea that I wanted to do long-term travel, I didn’t imagine it would involve a country like Bulgaria or anything out of the highly romanticized European destinations like Paris, Rome, or Athens. Yet, as I learned in Belgrade, there is a certain appealing charm about former Eastern Bloc countries. Though unlike Serbia, Bulgaria wasn’t a part of Yugoslavia. Not wanting to cede their new-found independence for the Serbian-heavy federation, Bulgaria remained separate. Still, Bulgaria found itself among the socialist states after WWII. Fast forward to today, Bulgaria is a now a market-based economy and European Union member. It’s a far cry from the past its been through, but throughout its history remains an important cultural destination in Eastern Europe.
Namaste: Yoga Retreat in the Mountains
One of our city leaders, Laura, was a yoga instructor at a studio near to the co-working space. A fellow yogi and peaceful person, she led a weekend retreat at Bakyovo Retreat Center, which was located in a very small village in the outskirts of the Vitosha Mountains. Laura’s own father helped build the house we stayed in, which was complete with a yoga studio, large kitchen, spacious common area, and even an outdoor pool. The goal of the weekend was to eat delicious vegetarian (and mostly vegan!) food, practice our yoga, and be more mindful of our lives around us.
The first arrival, however, didn’t go so smoothly for me. We took some winding roads to make our way up and around the mountainous terrain. I have never gotten carsick before, and I’m not sure if that was it or if it was a panic attack, but I began to feel highly nauseous and uneasy during the vehicle trip to the retreat center. By the time we were almost there, I started to feel dizzy and lightheaded, and my arms and muscles fell asleep. We couldn’t arrive to the retreat house soon enough. Looking visibly ill, I had to be escorted inside the retreat house where tingly feelings persisted the entire walk from our parking spot to the house. I plopped onto the couch that was located immediately in front of the entrance. I was shaking, nauseous, and definitely confused as to what was going on. I sent Laura and some of the fellow retreat goers into mild alarm. I attempted to sleep or nap it off for an hour or so before re-engaging in group activity.
Thankfully, the mysterious illness did wear off after a few hours, and I was able to head downstairs and join the gang for a delicious first dinner of the weekend. On the food, we had a chef who was creative and knew what she was doing. Each meal at the retreat center was filled with delicious, filling fruit and vegetable-based dishes. This was a key part of the retreat – to have healthy food prepared for us. It paid off! I had okra for the first time and fell in love. It was not slimy. I need to get the recipe she prepared it using.
Saturday morning, we awoke and dove right into our practice. Laura led us through some gentle and then moderate yoga to wake ourselves up. My wrist was feeling a lot better at this point, not emitting nearly as much pain as it had when I fell at the airport in Barcelona. This allowed me to fully participate in the yoga activities. Yay!! I’m glad this healed up. I did some yoga briefly in Prague, and it was really difficult to execute some of the maneuvers (such as planks) with only one fully functional wrist.
Later in the day, some of us embarked on a hike up the mountainside to get a panoramic view of the village and our retreat center below. While the previous night was cool, it really warmed up that day, with highs near 90. So needless to say, the hike was hot! We started near the center of the village and followed our guides Asen and Laura upwards. Taking some breaks to catch our breaths and cool down, we observed the picturesque nature around us. The green of the trees provided much-needed shade relief from the sun’s intense rays.
Some parts along our hike trail were not as obviously carved out. Heavy rains from the season washed away the trail, so at times we had to forge our own trail. We made it, though! While we did not climb to the very top of the mountain this time, we still had an impressive view of below from where we ended up.
We stopped for lunch and enjoyed the elevated views of the Bulgarian countryside. After chatting and eating our meals, we headed back down. The way down was much easier, as we took a back road down instead of climbing down rather steep inclines that were partially or wholly washed away.
We made it back to the retreat house, sweaty and dirty from a long few hours in the mountainside. I took advantage of the lovely outdoor shower, washed off the sweat and dirt, and proceeded to dip into that outdoor pool. Oh how great it felt! The cool water was in stark contrast to the hot conditions we had endured on our climb. I waded around for a little while before prepping for our next yoga session in the evening during sunset.
We practiced our poses and stretching once again with Laura at the helm. Our yoga sessions were casual and open, meant to enlighten those who hadn’t done much yoga previously and serve as a more gentle yet still mindful workout for those who were more experienced. Afterwards we had more delicious dinner thoughtfully prepared by the wonderful chef. Following dinner, as a group we played games of charades and bonded over sharing some of our goals and experiences on not only this retreat but Remote Year as a whole. This was a really nice time for bonding and learning more about our fellow Kubs and yogis. The weekend really helped us get in touch with our spiritual sides and helped remind everyone what they came here for. Some even found new epiphanies and realizations, which was fantastic! That was the whole point after all, so I’m glad they found those. I also was able to clarify and distill my thoughts – reflect on why I am on this journey, why here, why now.
A few parting shots from outside the house
The next morning we had our final practice followed by our last lovingly prepared breakfast and then some leisurely activities to wrap up the weekend. Some of us participated in rock painting! We fetched some rocks from the little stream nearby and brought them back to the house to paint. I don’t fancy myself a super creative or artsy person especially when it comes to painting or any sort of visual art, but I wanted to participate anyway to have a keepsake from this retreat weekend.
The afternoon waned and we eventually boarded our vans back to Sofia. This time, I sat in the front seat so I wouldn’t end up feeling nauseous or anxious again. That did the trick! We arrived back to Sofia without incident and made our ways back to our apartments.
Natural Hot Springs
A few days later, Asen offered to take a group of remotes on another trip to the hot springs located around the mountains. These naturally occurring hot springs are common around the mountain areas. They are said to have a number of therapeutic effects, including relaxation and warding off disease. We set off in the morning to take a dip in these hot springs before getting some lunch and headed back.
On our journey up the mountain, a dog found and followed us! We encouraged him to come along, and he dutifully never left our side even as the terrain was a bit unforgiving to feet, much less paws. He traveled with us over 30 minutes to our hot spring location, where he explored nearby while still headed back to hang out with us.
The hot spring itself was a unique experience. It was still cool in the morning, mind you. And despite the name, the hot spring was relatively mild. The mossy, slippery rock at the bottom defined part of the experience, as well as the consistency of the water which was very clean and clear. Small but noticeable amounts of steam arose from the spring as we immersed ourselves. A pipe let some of the water out from our hot spring onto a set of rocks below. We took turns showering in this deluge of spring water. It felt great!
After our time in the spring, we headed back towards civilization – our canine friend dutifully following. When we arrived back at the van that took us there, it was tough saying goodbye to our new dog friend. However, I am sure he’s gone through this before, standing watching us drive away then retreating back into the trees from where he emerged.
Our stay in Sofia was slowly winding down. The last week or so, I participated in our monthly Junction, a Remote Year function meant to bring remotes in touch with the local business and entrepreneur scene.
A traditional Bulgarian dance performed at our junction event
Aside from all the nature walks and mountain hiking, other highlights of the month include:
- Playing Settlers of Catan at a board game cafe near the workspace while sipping on some delicious gin & ginger ale
- Discovering the awesome local vegetarian and vegan cuisine, including Kring Cafe (which I went to so many, perhaps too many times…), and Soul Kitchen, which even non-vegans found highly delectable with their variety of dishes prepared fresh and full of flavor
- Enjoying a fun night out at Bar Friday, with an electric atmosphere and live music
- Conquering my fear of small, old elevators by consistently using the partially manual lift located in my apartment building
- Injuring myself by having a loose lid drop a jar of chocolate-peanut butter on my leg at Lidl, causing it to bleed and be a noticeable bruise on my leg for several weeks
Overall, Sofia was a great experience and one that I wouldn’t have anticipated. I knew very little coming into most of these countries, and one of my goals of doing Remote Year was to learn more about the world and more about the histories of the places I went to. It was eye-opening to be in a place like Bulgaria and feel totally comfortable in your environment. And of course, who could forget our lovely companions at the workspace!
These dogs kept me happy inside, with the golden reminding me of my Buddy back home.
Time really does go quickly. I realized it was soon time to head back home to Michigan, but not before embarking on a couple last side trips while I was still in Europe. To meet up with a former co-worker of mine, I found my way to Munich to experience Oktoberfest first-hand. After, I made my way to London, my final European destination before boarding a plane back to Detroit.