A guided tour of Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. Old-fashioned hospitality in the communist D
Crumbling communist monuments. Precarious mountain roads. Forests and lakes, concrete superstructures, totalitarian palaces, abandoned prisons, and a plethora of Brutalist hotels. On this 13-day tour we’ll explore the physical legacy of communism across Romania and Bulgaria, travelling thousands of kilometres as we compare and contrast two historic dictatorships divided by a single river.
Bucharest to Sofia
13 Days & 12 Nights
2-14 December 2018
Founded in 168 BC and 681 AD respectively, Romania and Bulgaria are two of the oldest and most storied countries on the European continent. Even since joining the EU however, both remain woefully underestimated in the West – the travel series Lonely Planet even manages to squash both countries into one single guidebook!
Over the course of this 13-day tour, we’ll show you hidden wonders that Lonely Planet never even dreamed of. You will see firsthand how complex and nuanced these two nations really are… and though for half a century they were united, ideologically, by the politics of communism, we will witness how differently those same ideas manifested on either side of the Danube River.
Read on to find a full itinerary for this unique tour of 20th century communist heritage in Romania and Bulgaria.
We’ve packed a lot into this tour. Here’s what you can expect to find included in the price:
Guides. Since 2015, I have been introducing groups to communist-era monuments in Bulgaria – they’re the subject of my ongoing PhD – while just next door, my good friend Ovidiu Neacșu specialises in giving historical tours of Romania. We’ve travelled together plenty of times already, but this will be our first time working together on a tour… with Ovidiu leading the Romanian half, me taking over in Bulgaria, and both of us with you throughout the whole trip.
Transport. Over the course of the tour we’ll be visiting a diverse range of destinations in southern Romania before crossing the border, and making a complete circuit of Bulgaria. We’ll be exploring more than a dozen cities along the way. Comfort is a priority – so we’ll have our own private bus for the journey, a modern, heated vehicle with a professional driver.
Hotels. All 12 nights of accommodation, Sunday 2nd December up to and including Friday 14th December, are included in the price. Some nights we’ll get to enjoy traditional, rustic settings, while other hotels are architectural attractions in their own right.
Food. The price of the tour includes a daily breakfast, either at the hotel or on the road – as well as group dinners every night of the tour. Over the week we’ll try a range of different local specialities, exploring two very different national cuisines, with vegetarian and vegan options available on request.
Sunday 2nd: Arrive in Bucharest
Bucharest is a scintillating marriage of the old and new: from 18th century Gothic turrets peeking out of ivy, to the Socialist Realist corridors of power constructed during Ceaușescu’s reign.
Arrive in the day, and by nightfall we’ll gather in the Old City Centre for our first group meal together. You’ll get to meet your guides, and your fellow travellers for the coming two weeks – over a traditional-style Romanian banquet.
Monday 3rd: Ceaușescu’s Capital
We begin with a visit to the People’s Palace. This colossal structure is the second largest government building in the world, and a perfect example of communist-era excess.
After that we’ll take a walking tour of communist heritage in Bucharest. You’ll see the balcony where Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu gave his final speech, and the bullet holes leftover from the revolution that ushered in democracy – with a final stop at Ceaușescu’s own personal villa.
We meet our bus on Tuesday morning and head out of town to visit the Jilava Prison – a place where fascists, communists and later, anti-communists, were once locked away.
Later, back in Bucharest, we’ll make a stop at Ceaușescu’s grave. We’ll visit the communist-era Nation’s Heroes Memorial in Carol Park after that, before returning to the centre for dinner.
Wednesday 5th: The Romanian Siberia
From Bucharest we drive to the Monument of Youth, on the edge of a rural community near Constanța. This area was busy with forced labour during the communist period, something we’ll discuss at the nearby Monument to the Deportees.
After a stop at the National Museum of Agriculture we drive into Ploiești, the county seat of Prahova County, for Brutalism, dinner, and an overnight stay.
Thursday 6th: Crime and Punishment
Today we drive straight to a notorious abandoned prison: Doftana Penitentiary. For many years this place held a reputation for its cruel treatment of inmates, mostly political prisoners, and even Ceaușescu himself did a spell inside.
After exploring the ruined penitentiary we head to Târgoviște to visit the military base where Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife were executed in 1989. We sleep in Pitești tonight, at an authentic communist-era hotel.
Friday 7th: Vidraru Dam
This morning we visit one of communist Romania’s largest infrastructure projects – the dam and hydroelectric plant at Lake Vidraru. In addition to dramatic views, we’ll admire the Monument to Prometheus raised for the dam’s completion.
In the afternoon we follow the winding Transfăgărășan Highway to Poenari Castle. This 15th century fort is connected to the history of Vlad the Impaler, and as we visit we’ll learn some of the truth behind the Dracula story.
Saturday 8th: Across the Danube
Today we bid Romania farewell, crossing the Danube to Ruse, Bulgaria. Sometimes referred to as ‘Little Vienna,’ we’ll explore this city’s curious mix of Neo-classical and Brutalist architecture before heading south to Bulgaria’s medieval capital: Veliko Turnovo.
We’ll stop at an 11th century monastery, before driving to a communist-era memorial in the city centre. Our hotel tonight is as bizarre as anything we’ll see on this tour.
Sleep: Veliko Turnovo.
Sunday 9th: Founders of the Bulgarian State
Sunday morning is set aside for exploration. We’ll be a short walk from the 12th century Tsarevets Fortress, with dramatic views all round and an Old Town bristling with flea markets, craft shops and good coffee.
After lunch we drive to Shumen, and the Monument to the Founders of the Bulgarian State. Prepare to be blown away by the size and intensity of this unique, cubist memorial complex, sat on a mountain plateau above the city.
Monday 10th: Concrete by the Sea
At Varna, Bulgaria’s ‘Summer Capital’ on the Black Sea coast, we’ll see the imposing Monument to the Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship. After that we take a guided walk through the city, exploring the Sea Gardens and stopping to admire various architectural oddities along the way.
You’ll get some free time in the afternoon, to spend as you please – before we meet up later for cocktails and a seafood dinner down by the beach.
Tuesday 11th: The Southern Plains
We leave Varna early, following the coastal road south to Burgas – where we’ll stop to admire a few noteworthy monuments in this sleepy port city. In the afternoon we head inland, making a couple of interesting stops along the way before we finally reach Stara Zagora.
Here we’ll see the gloriously Brutalist Monument to the Defenders of Stara Zagora… before heading into town for a night at a local music club.
Sleep: Stara Zagora.
Wednesday 12th: Buzludzha Peak
The Buzludzha Monument sits atop a mountain peak, abandoned since the 1990s and now one of the world’s most famous modern ruins. The views are incredible… but the monument itself is more impressive still.
In the afternoon we continue to Plovdiv: one of the oldest cities in Europe, with some 5,000 years of history. Here we’ll have dinner, then enjoy an evening stroll through the colourful streets and Roman ruins of the lively Old Town area.
Thursday 13th: Sofia
Before leaving Plovdiv, we’ll stop to take in the ‘Fraternal Barrow’ memorial complex. We eat lunch halfway to Sofia and then later, as we drive into the Bulgarian capital, we’ll visit the Banner of Peace Memorial to ring ornamental bells gifted by former allies such as the USSR and Yugoslavia.
After that we’ll visit the sculpture garden at the Museum of Socialist Art, before heading into the city centre for one final group dinner and farewell drinks.
Friday 14th: La Revedere, Dovizhdane, Farewell.
Your final breakfast is on us, and after that we’ll all begin to go our own ways. We are going to be on hand to help you plan the next stage of your journey, while if you’re hoping to extend your stay in Sofia I’ll be delighted to provide you with a list of additional things to see and do.
This tour is the perfect way to understand Bulgaria’s relationship with its past – through its communist-era monuments, modernist architecture and abandoned buildings. Darmon’s knowledge and passion for the country, its architecture and monuments, is incredibly extensive. It’s an absorbing and fascinating week.
– Phil R.
You simply cannot do a trip to places like this at a better price, and Darmon is someone I would be happy to travel to the ends of the earth and back with.
– Hans K.
We saw incredible things which you simply wouldn’t find on the usual Lonely Planet style tour. To this day the UFO monument at Buzludzha stands with the most incredible things I have seen and visiting it with Darmon meant we got the full impact.
– Aram B.
The combination of breadth and depth of information, knowledge of hidden places, genuine warmth, and affordable prices is hard to beat. 100% recommended!
Darmon is an excellent guide, and this tour has become one of the highlights of my travelling experiences. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
– David J.
There’s such a huge amount of knowledge, time and love gone into the planning. I saw buildings and monuments that I never thought I would be able to visit… and stood in places that were more moving than I thought possible. It’s a fantastic experience, you should go.
– Matty M.
The Small Print
Still got questions? You might well find the answer below… but if not, feel free to just send us a message.
So I’ll need to fly into Bucharest, Romania, and out of Sofia, Bulgaria?
That’s right. We thought about connecting the circle, and bringing the group back to Romania at the end of the trip – but it adds a needless extra day, and would also have raised the price. Both capitals are well connected by air, and served by a number of European budget airlines. If you need any help planning your travel, feel free to get in touch.
What if I only want to do the Romanian / Bulgarian half?
We would love to have you join us for the whole journey, but if you’d rather just do half then that’s fine too. You could join us just for 6 nights, Bucharest to Bucharest – or else meet us in Ruse, or Veliko Turnovo, to join us on the Bulgarian leg through to Sofia. Get in touch and we can figure out prices and pick-up / drop-off points.
What does the price not include?
We planned this tour so that you’ll rarely need to reach for your wallet. The price includes all your transport inside Romania and Bulgaria, it includes 12 nights of accommodation, any applicable entry fees, a breakfast every morning and a full meal every evening. But it does not include:
– Travel insurance.
– Lunch and snacks.
– Alcoholic beverages.
– Other costs… this should go without saying, but just to be clear: we can’t help you with any additional airline charges, Paypal fees, credit card fines or bail payments.
What makes this tour so special?
This tour is like nothing else on the market. It’ll take you to places that don’t feature in guidebooks, and in some cases, places that even the locals have never heard of. The 13-day itinerary represents the work of two dedicated history geeks, on either side of the Danube, and these routes have been tried and tested across countless weekend road trips around Romania and Bulgaria.
Will I be sharing a room with someone?
Yes – for the standard price you’ll be sharing a twin room with someone else. Naturally, we’ll try to pair you with someone you get on with… or if you’re travelling with a friend or partner already, then that’s even easier.
Alternatively, if you’d like a room to yourself just let us know. There will be an additional €350 charge for having your own single room throughout the tour.
Will I have a chance to take photos?
I’ve been on a few of those tours in the past where groups are rushed from one place to another so fast that there’s barely time to set up a tripod. This isn’t going to be like that. If you follow this site then you’ll already know that I’m passionate about photography – and there’s no way I would bring you to places this photogenic, without ensuring you’ve got plenty of time to capture the experience.
Can I go off exploring on my own?
Sure. There’s absolutely nothing stopping you from heading out on your own some days, if you want to. We can gladly recommend walking routes, shops, markets, museums, parks and various other places of interest. We’ve already factored some down-time into the itinerary, and we’re not going to be offended if you feel like you need a little more.
Just please, keep an eye on the schedule – we’d hate to keep the bus waiting because one of our crew’s gone missing.
But I’ve heard that Romania / Bulgaria is dangerous…
Anyone who has already travelled in this part of the world will already know how crazy this sounds – but nevertheless, I’ve met people who haven’t been, and do actually have concerns like this.
Having travelled extensively in this region, I can assure you this is the safest, friendliest corner of Europe that you could ever hope to explore. By the end of the tour, I’m confident you’ll feel as comfortable here as I do.
What happens if I need to cancel my place? Can I get a refund?
We don’t want your money if you’re not coming with us… but at the same time, the moment you commit to this tour we’re going to start planning things around you. It’ll cost us money to receive your payment, and so 10% of the tour cost is non-refundable in order to cover these handling fees.
If you want to cancel your place more than a month before the tour starts, then just tell us – and I’ll send you back the full price minus handling fees right away. The closer we get to the tour though, the harder it’ll become to fill your place on the bus. For this reason, if you cancel less than a month before the tour starts then we’ll need to hang onto 50% of the amount as security against empty seats.
In the highly unlikely event that it’s us who cancel, then you’ll get everything back – I’ll refund you the whole lot, including any charges incurred during the transfer.
How do I sign up?
Your place on the tour is guaranteed the moment you put down your first payment.
The tour costs €1,900 per person. If you want a single hotel room throughout the tour, it’ll be €2,250. We’re also happy to take the payment in two instalments, if you prefer… though in this case there will be additional handling fees to consider.
For any more information, or to talk about reserving your seat, just get in touch.