Communism Tours of Bulgaria

   
Under this label the Bulgarian tour operator nvision travel offers packages that largely, though not exclusively, follow a "communism theme". That is to say, they are a bit "retro" but not really celebratory of the bygone era of communism. It's thus less for those dyed-in-the-wool communists who wish the "good old times" back, but more for those who are intrigued by the subject, especially Westerners who would like to get a good first-hand glimpse of what life was like in communist Bulgaria and what has changed – all from a balanced contemporary perspective.
 
Some tongue-in-cheek elements are included, however, like being greeted with red scarves (like the young pioneers of the era wore) at the pick-up at the airport … or being chauffeured around Sofia in a vintage Russian "Chaika" limo – the type of big black representational car that only the top party functionaries would have been driven around in back then. It's certainly an eye-catcher on the streets today! Inside the car you also get a pile of old magazines and brochures from the time to browse through – and while being chauffeured outside Sofia, music from the communist era is played, old slogans explained by the guide and so forth.
 
But the remainder of the package is more serious sightseeing – with the predictable thematic emphasis; very interesting in my view. Overall it's a good balance between history tourism, educational travel, off-the-beaten-track exoticness and plain good fun including a bit of tongue-in-cheek black humour, of course. Not least, there is also a culinary element, as you will be encouraged to discover national delicacies too (and astonishingly good wine as well!).  
 
A range of tours are on offer – half-day tours in Sofia, more elaborate 4-day programmes taking in the surrounding area as well, and even more comprehensive 8-day tours of the country. Prices range from a mere 20 EUR for a half-day tour of Sofia as part of a small group to ca. 1500 EUR pp for the full monty 8-day package if done as a private tour for a single client. The latter may sound a lot, but you also get a lot for your money.
 
It's especially the longer packages that include visits to not only major communism-related monuments, architecture and museums (which you could also have seen on an independent basis). On top of that, and much more intriguingly, you also get to see some more unusual and normally far less accessible places. Consider these: an old, crumbling cultural centre and library in Varshets, exploring an old, now mostly empty pre-fab housing block, lunching in the former residence of party leader Todor Zhivkov in Arbanassi, a visit to a technical high school, and even a tour of a Russian-design nuclear power station (Kozloduy)!
 
When I used nvision I picked the very longest programme, the 8-day tour, in the spring of 2011, travelling with my wife, i.e. not as part of larger group, just with one guide and a driver. So the service was very personal. We also shared lunch and dinner times for those meals included in the programme with our guide (as well as a wine tasting), so it was a very friendly setting – we got on with her fabulously. For other meals not included in the tour price, we had time on our own. Also in a couple of places we had the odd afternoon "off" for our own leisure. Again, it's a good balance: full of stimulating offers but not too intense all the time.
 
We were put up in hotels mostly built during the communist era – and some do indeed flaunt that stylistic/architectural quirkiness you'd expect from this period. But the rooms are all pretty modern standard these days, some had even only recently been upgraded or renovated. So it won't be like in the real old commie days of power cuts, no water, broken facilities … just a bit "grim" in places, with regard to interior design as well as, occasionally, in the services department (I remember one totally unenthusiastic barmaid especially well … who was constantly just rolling her eyes as she rudely pointed out that almost everything we tried to order was "off" – it was just like back in the 1980s in the GDR!). You have to have a certain tolerance/liking for such things and handle it with good humour. That's part of the point of these trips.  
 
Not all sights visited on these programmes really are communism-related and/or dark – part of our programme was also the old regal town of Veliko Tarnovo with its old fortress or an ancient Thracian tomb in Kazanlak. Likewise in Sofia you will also be shown the standard prime sights such as the cathedrals and archaeological sites. That may seem off the given topic, but again it can also be seen as providing a more balanced picture of the country.
 
From my experience I can wholeheartedly recommend these most unusual tours. They are professionally put together and provide an experience you won't find on every corner. Unusual, exotic and fun – and with just the right dose of dark elements to make the tours suitable for not only dark tourists (for die-hard, pitch-black tourists it may actually not be dark enough!) but also for a more generally interested clientele with an open mind.
 
You can check out more up-to-date details on the dedicated Communism Tours in Bulgaria website (external link). If you decide to contact/book with them, say you've found it through dark-tourism.com (here's why). If you want to ask me more questions about my own experience on this tour you can also contact me first.
 
 
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