Visiting Bulgaria in 1974

After traveling south in Yugoslavia to Macedonia, (see previous post) we took a quick side trip into northern Greece and then headed north, to Bulgaria.

As we approached the border, we were made very aware that this was an unfriendly frontier.  Tank traps, barbed wire, and gun emplacements on the ridges made us a little uncomfortable.  Five or six miles from the border, a Greek outpost stopped us and asked where we were going.  When we said Bulgaria, they motioned us on.

This was 1974, in the height of the Cold War, and our first experience crossing the Iron Curtain.  Usually customs stations of the countries you are departing and entering are close together.  Here there was a no man’s land of a couple of miles between the Greek and Bulgarian ones.  As we approached the Bulgarian buildings, the road vanished into a pit about 30 feet long.  We stopped at the edge, but they motioned us on, and we cautiously managed the drop and later climb back to the road. Our car and luggage were thoroughly searched, as was my purse. A soldier even went through my billfold including the pictures.  After the search, when we prepared to leave, an officer told us that we were to report to the tourist agency in Sofia where we would be assigned rooms.

In the Sofia tourist office, we saw two windows: one for hotels and the other for zimmers.  I was delighted and immediately chose zimmer, because I wanted to see what the homes were like.

As in most cities, east or west, housing consisted of apartments.  We were assigned a fourth floor apartment which was not a surprise. However, we were shocked to find that three families already lived in the four room apartment. The tourist office had assigned the fourth room to us. One central kitchen and one bathroom served everyone. Laundry was done, by hand, in the bathroom, which made taking a shower almost impossible.  The bathtub was usually filled with buckets and pans of soaking clothes, and when those were removed, lines above the tub held dripping clothes.


Outside Sofia


Alexander Nevsky Church, Sofia  Exploring in order to avoid our room

Our room was furnished with two cot-like sofas, more narrow than single beds at home. They served for both sitting and sleeping.  Besides these, the room contained a table, and a cabinet for hanging clothes.  Since this room was officially approved for renting to foreigners, I thought it must be considered an acceptable model of Bulgarian life.


Northern Bulgaria, leaving at last

Neighbors in the other rooms spoke almost no English, which meant we could not ask simple questions on when we could bathe or fix coffee in the kitchen. Was there a rotation for kitchen use?  That seemed likely, but we couldn’t find out. I tried gestures, but the others chose to simply ignore us. Living for the three days of our visa in such close proximity without communication created a sense of isolation.  We spent as much time away as possible.  Leaving Bulgaria was a relief. My son insisted that we should, in the future, pass up rooms in private homes in communist countries.



In 1974, when I planned my first trip across the ocean, I thought visiting the Soviet Union would provide major insights for my class on Contemporary Issues. Failure to obtain a Soviet visa in Vienna, as promised, was a deep disappointment.  However, my son and I drove south into Yugoslavia, hoping to make the best of things.

At Dubrovnik on the Adriatic coast, we feasted on the beauty of the sunbaked buildings overlooking the blue sea.  At a place where the road ran only one or two feet from the water, we could not resist getting out to wade.  Not a good idea.  We had not previously met sea urchins, and the encounter was painful for some time.


Over Dubrovnik

Our guidebook said tourists seldom visited Cetinje, the old capital of Montenegro, because it is deep in the mountains.  That remoteness and the description of two museums there whetted my curiosity.  Driving over a crumbling mountain road that left me breathless with fear, I understood why no sensible tourist would venture there.  We saw only four cars that day—all Yugoslav.


Pat on the road to Cetinje

However, Cetinje was worth the trip.  We visited the palace of King Nicholai and the museum dedicated to the partisans who fought the Germans in World War II. In the museum, we saw pictures of victims of German atrocities more terrible than anything I had ever seen. We planned to stay in Cetinje that night but there was only one old hotel, and the water was shut off for some reason, so we went on to Titograd.

The drive through more mountains to Titograd was not so daunting, and we were surprised to find a very modern city with shopping centers and bright new houses.  The next morning we learned that this was, in fact, a new city, built on the ruins of another city that was totally leveled by the Germans.  Bits of rubble no more than three feet tall were all that remains of the former city.  In 1974, nearly thirty year after those events, the presence of World War II permeates  Yugoslavia.  Every mile or two, we noticed monuments, often very small, to someone who was killed or executed there.  Fresh bunches of flowers decorated these memorials, emphasizing the living memory.  Below:  Two of many memorials to partisans killed by the Germans.




Disappointment and a New Direction

When, in the summer of 1974, I planned to drive through Western Europe with my daughter and into the Soviet Union with my son, I was very aware of my ignorance on what to expect.  The fact that I would be driving on the familiar, right side of the highway gave me hope that I could figure out the rest as we encountered challenges. This worked reasonably well through France, Italy and Germany, and now we were in Vienna, ready to start the final adventure: the Soviet Union.

After my son, Pat, arrived by train from Luxembourg, I took the trolley down to the Intourist office on the Ring to pick up our visas to the Soviet Union. When they said they had never heard of our reservations or us, I was dumfounded. I protested that I had been assured the visas would be here, and the officer promised to send a Telex inquiry to Moscow

Two days later, we finally got a reply from Moscow stating that they knew nothing of any reservations.  Intourist suggested we might go through an Austrian travel agency and arrange a shorter tour.  Plans would be approved in ten days and we could pick up the reservations in Bucharest, Romania.  This sounded like the best we could do, so we asked for five days to Odessa and Kiev which was all the time left before our August 18 flight home. As I look back, I can only shake my head at how naïve I was. I did not have a clue.

Suddenly Pat and I were left with ten unplanned days. Frustrated and disappointed, we decided that heading south through Yugoslavia was our best option. We could at least see life in some of the Soviet satellite countries.


In Bosnia, near Sarajevo

The entire ambiance changed as we left the highly engineered highways of Germany and Austria for narrow two-lane roads where we once followed a team of oxen pulling a load of hay.  Farmers plowing with oxen and wooden plows, and hay being cut with scythes seemed a step into the past.  As we neared Sarajevo, the two-lane road became so narrow that if we met someone, one of the cars had to have a wheel on the shoulder.


A roadside market along our way

That first afternoon in Sarajevo was pleasantly warm and we were having tea in a sidewalk café when we suddenly heard an odd cry or chant, and then heard it again from another direction.  Pat turned to me, “What is that?”

I thought a moment, and then said, “That must be the Muslim call to prayer.”  As we looked for the source of the sound,  we noticed the prayer towers above several mosques.  That was a magic moment, made more significant in retrospect because it was the first time I heard a chant that became part of my daily life three years later.

Meeting a German Soldier

Our time in Western Europe was almost over as we left Italy.  Heading north, we crossed the Alps again on our way to Munich.  It was dark when we exited the autobahn, and we worried that we should have stopped sooner to look for a room.  Then we saw a zimmer sign which led us to a two-story house where we met the Frazers.  We intended to stay just that night and move closer to Munich, but the Frazers were such lovely people, and served such wonderful breakfasts, that we spent our time in Germany with them. The fact that they spoke fluent English allowed for many great conversations.  From their home outside Holzkirchen, we drove into Dachau one day and into Munich on another.

In their den on our first morning, I noticed the picture of a young man in the uniform of a German soldier, and asked if he was Mr. Frazer. He was. He had been an American prisoner of war, in Iowa, for 17 months and came away from that experience with  respect—even fondness—for Americans.

Talking to Mr. Frazer of his American experience made me proud of my country.   Mr. Frazer did not spend his days locked up, but helped with farm work and local construction where his interactions with Iowans were positive.  He was paid something less than a dollar a day for his labor, but was glad to be well fed, productive, and to know he would survive the war.

On to Rome

In Italy, my first shock was the AutoStrada, which had no speed limits and where most traveled more than 100 miles per hour.  I was terrified, and when I heard that Italians are excellent drivers, I understood that this must be true, since all poor drivers have been killed.  I soon resolved to take the train to Rome.

We were headed toward the American Air Force Base near Lake Garda where the parents of one of my former students, Jose Ratchford, were now stationed.  They had invited us to stay with them while we explored Venice and northern Italy.

Despite my resolution not to drive in Italy, we drove to Venice.  Mrs. Ratchford offered Jose’s fourteen year-old brother as our guide, after explaining that he had an infallible sense of direction.  The day proved that  assessment to be very true.


We wondered the little canals and crossed many small bridges until I realized that I did not know the way back to Saint Mark’s Square.  Marvin had no doubt and led us back by a shorter, less traveled route.


   Kelly inside the Coliseum

Our days in Rome were crammed with a list of important sites.   The Coliseum and surrounding ruins were impressive, but I especially enjoyed the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel.  It was fun joining others lying on the floor to study Michelangelo’s painting on the ceiling.


Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel


Paris and Beyond

People told us we wouldn’t like France. We definitely wouldn’t like Paris.  They were wrong.  Although we found the French less friendly than other Europeans, they were never unfriendly and we always found help when we needed it.

Our guidebook strongly recommended that foreigners not drive in Paris so we planned to leave the car in a parking garage and take the Metro to Partheon Square. Unfortunately this was Sunday. We did not have enough francs for Metro tickets and nowhere to change. The ticket taker would not accept dollars, so without francs, we feared we were stranded until banks opened the next day.  An Algerian noticed our difficulty and gave us two Metro tickets.  I offered him a dollar, which was more than they cost, but he would not accept it.  It was a good omen and set the pattern for the trip.  Another lesson learned: always change money on Friday.

After many disappointing inquiries, we found a hotel across from the Sorbonne and near the University of Paris that was old, cheap and almost full.  We got a room on the 6th flour, up narrow stairs that resembled a ladder.  There was no elevator.  However it was only nine dollars a night, and we were in Paris.  For three days, we learned to get around on the Metro while visiting the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, and other tourist sites.  We tried to see everything in the Louvre in one day, returning to our hotel in the evening so tired that I thought I would not have strength to climb the six flights of stairs.

From Paris it was on to Switzerland. After many good experiences,  our entry into Zurich remains a warning on what not to do. We arrived in Zurich in late afternoon without a city map—a serious mistake I resolved never to make again.  Hotels were crowded with tourists and we drove around, in heavy traffic that remains a nightmare memory, until finally, at 9:00, we sought help from the Tourist Office.  They found us a tiny attic room in a pension for eleven dollars.  As guests were breakfasting together the next morning, four American girls told us of a zimmer outside Lausanne on a dairy farm.


Our zimmer near Lausanne

We left Zurich that morning for Lausanne, and found the place described.  The house, on a hill overlooking Lake Lucerne, was the beautiful realization of every image of Switzerland.  Although the lake was ice cold, we swam in it each afternoon.  Most important, we learned to look for “Zimmer” or Zimmer Frei which means a room for rent in a private home.  Whenever possible for the rest of the trip, we stayed in these rooms because it enabled us to meet ordinary people and have wonderful conversations.

From Lucerne, we crossed the Alps through the Gotthard Pass to Italy. In Colorado, I had been paralyzed with fear when on the edge of a high mountain road, and I dreaded facing more mountains. However, the Swiss roads seemed so solid and protected, I had total confidence in their safety.

Miles of Travel Begin

Years passed, and the exciting trip to Mexico became only a distant, wonderful memory. That changed in 1974, with a trip that led—over the next thirty-five years—to travel to and within  forty countries in Europe, Asia and Africa.

After Mexico, marriage, children and teaching filled the years and the only travel was from Missouri to Illinois to visit family. Finally, twenty-seven years after that first foreign venture, my fifteen-year-old  daughter, Kelly, and I drove to Colorado to visit my sister and my passion for travel, now shared by Kelly, was reignited.

Because only the summer of 1974 remained before Kelly would be off to college, we agreed this might be our last chance for a great trip.  I was thinking, maybe to Boston and other parts of New England as our budget allowed. Finally, I asked, “Where do you want to go?”

Kelly thought a moment before saying, “I would really like to go to Europe.”

I had not allowed myself to dream so extravagantly and was momentarily speechless.  Finally, I said, “I have no idea how much travel to Europe would cost, or if it is possible.  But we will find out.”

While visiting family in Illinois, I talked to an aunt who had made numerous overseas trips in the previous two decades.  She suggested that we rent a car for greater flexibility and reduce our food costs by using an immersion heater for hot drinks and soups.  Travel books advertised Europe on $10 a Day so it seemed the major cost would be crossing the ocean.

I learned that the cheapest air fare was on Icelandic, which we could board in Chicago. After a brief stop in Iceland, we would land in Luxembourg.   This fare required a stay of 22 to 45 days, and on this point Kelly and I disagreed.  She thought three weeks would be long enough, and I thought I could not do all I hoped to do in such a short time.


                                         The Ossuary (bone repository) at Verdun

Kelly was adamant that she did not want to visit only the uninteresting historical places I might choose, and we agreed that we would each make a priority list of places to go. I listed Verdun, the bloody battlefield of World War I, and Venice and Rome in Italy. Paris was at the top of Kelly’s list, and we agreed on Dachau.  Since the Cold War was a major part of my Contemporary Issues class, I very much wanted to visit the Soviet Union. Kelly insisted that did not sound like a place anyone would enjoy.

When I could not persuade her, I asked my son, Pat, if he would go to the Soviet Union with me.  He quickly agreed.

A visa to the Soviet Union required that we submit our complete travel itinerary for approval and that all lodging and other fixed costs be pre-paid.  We were also required to complete an information sheet listing the countries of origin of our ancestors, and my work background. The local travel agency had never dealt with Intourist, the Soviet agency, and we had not allowed enough time for the visa request to be studied and approved. No problem, Intourist said. We could pick up the visas in Vienna.

With Passports and International Driver’s Licenses in hand, we sat down with a map to fit together a route: from Luxembourg to Verdun to Paris, then turning south and crossing Switzerland into Italy.

We stopped briefly in Iceland and arrived in Luxembourg in mid-afternoon. After I picked up our rental car, which turned out to be a white Renault, I had my first moment of panic when I wondered if I could read the signs and find the right road.  A man noticed my hesitation and asked if he could help.  I said I wanted the road to Paris, and he told me to drive into Luxembourg City and look for the sign to Paris.  It’s that easy.

In the first few days we survived many small crises, while Kelly and I reminded each other that one of our purposes was to learn how to travel in Europe.  We began ignorant as babes and in those early days, we learned: (a) the French speak French and almost nothing else, (b) roads in France are two lane, narrow, winding and go through villages with a right turn every block, (c) the French countryside is beautiful, and (d) the place to find inexpensive hotels in small towns is by the railroad station.  French hotels are officially classed by stars, and we found that one star hotels cost from $6 to $9 and included a washbasin and bidet, but no bath or shower.  For two dollars more, we received the key to open the locked shower.


Near Fort Douaumont, Battle of Verdun

After resting from the lost night in flight, we drove to Verdun. This battlefield on which 700,000 French and German men died is a meditation on the folly of war.  The ground was pocked with round depressions, some 10 to 15 feet wide, left from shells that exploded nearly sixty years earlier. The Ossuary is a long, solemn memorial with walls listing names of French soldiers who died here while the lower level holds the bones, German and French, picked up after the battle was over.  Fort Douaumont , which was fought over for  ten months, survives as a ruin. We climbed over what remains of the outside shell and picked our way through the dark interior almost feeling the presence of those, both French and German, who died there.