Step By Step In Bulgaria

Page 1

Free Sofia Tour is just the first project of the Free Sofia Tour Association, the brainchild of Kristian Mitov, Vanya Nikova, Teddy Zareva and Boyko Blagoev – four enthusiasts who had recently returned to Bulgaria. 2012 sees the Free Varna Tour and Free Plovdiv Tour. So far there are 40 people on the team, and more than 30 000 people from 125+ countries have been welcomed to Bulgaria by members of the team. The tours are number one attraction in Sofia according to TripAdvisor and most importantly – they have helped thousands of guests discover Bulgaria in a way that makes them want to come back. Free Sofia Tour Association continues developing other initiatives to achieve their main goals:

The co-founders of Free Sofia Tour n ia ir st tov K Mi

o yk oev o B ag Bl

y dd va e T re Za

a ny va a V iko N

1. Turn Bulgaria into a popular destination for tourism and culture 2. Improve the quality of tourist services in Bulgaria 3. Engage young people into active civil participation 4. Create conditions to encourage multicultural exchange 9 786199 009512

Bourgas 2013

The co-authors:

Anna Antonova

Petya Miteva

Stefan Ognyanov

Bourgas 2013

Step By Step in Bulgaria Š VIA Publishers 2013 5 Lyuben Karavelov Street 8000 Bourgas Bulgaria

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ISBN: 978-619-90095-1-2

introduction Free Sofia Tour is a Bulgarian non-profit non-government organization that aims to con­tribute to Bulgarian tourism and culture. Its flagship project is the Free Sofia Tour, a daily free walking to­­ur of Bulgaria’s capital city. The ini­ tiative started with a single person’s en­t­hu­si­asm for his city, but over the last two and a half years it has grown into a recognizable model for novel tourism practices in Bulgaria. Without significant financial resources, Free Sofia Tour has managed to expand dramatically in scale, boasting over 30,000 visitors


from 126 countries and six continents, running free tours in two other Bulgarian cities, and developing multiple other projects. Yet the organization’s most significant expansion has been in its cultural and educational impact. The free tours pro­­­mote multicultural interaction and un­der­standing, they uphold the values of modern society, and are exemplary of entrepreneurial spirit, inclusivity, and sus­­tainable expansion.

Pictured here and on page 5: the FST team as of early 2011. Back row, left to right: Dima Alexandrova, Niki Pynev, Vanya Nikolova, and Krassimir Yankov; front row, left to right: Mihaela Georgieva, Boyko Blagoev, Kristian Mitov (lying in front), Denitsa Todorova, and Dimitar Valchev


entrepreneurial spirit Or in the beginning, there was Kris

It all started with a single man’s love for his city. In 2010, Kristian Mitov had just returned from his studies as an industrial engineer at the University of Applied Sciences – Mannheim, Germany and was working as a sales engineer and project manager at his uncle’s business for automaton technology. But it wasn’t enough for him. He felt the urge to start something different of his own. Having seen free English speaking tours in other European cities, he considered importing the idea home. Sofia lacked such a tour, while Kris missed interacting with people from diverse nationalities and cultural back­­grounds. The notion excited him since the project combined his passion for entrepreneurship, his wish to con­tribute to his hometown, and his desire to exchange ideas and experiences with various people. He believed in the idea of a free tour: he wanted to open his city up to the tourists, who might be otherwise lost in a world of Cyrillic signs; he wanted to show them sides of Sofia they may not have been able to discover themselves; and he wanted to make them feel welcome during their stay in Bulgaria, in a friendly, realistic, and, ab­ove all, accessible fashion. Somewhat shy, Kris felt he needed to pre­sent himself with several points of no return in order to begin. In August 2010, he printed out 2,000 flyers advertising the Free Sofia Tour (FST) with a banner design by his brother.


The flyers featured only the meeting place and time, and no contact details or personal information. He paid to print the flyers – at a price that amounted to 14% of his monthly salary – an investment serious enough to prompt him, as he had hoped, to gather the courage to begin. He deThe first flyer of Free Sofia Tour had an improvised cided on a route, researched some indesign by Kris’s brother. formation for his talk, and conducted a practice tour with some friends. The tour began, as it does to this day, at the Palace of Justice – a popular meeting spot in the city center. Kris had originally intended for the walk to finish at the same spot, but it became apparent during his test trial that this would make the tour much too long. He fixed the finish point at the Parliament, where his friends had finally gotten tired of listening to him on the practice tour.

The Palace of Justice

Having decided on a starting and a finishing point, Kris distributed his flyers around local hostels, restaurants, and clubs in the evening of August 12th,


2010, which for him constituted the ultimate no-going-back point. The following day, August 13th, Friday, marked the first Free Sofia Tour. Lucky number 13 Kris started Free Sofia Tour on August 13th, 2010, which happened to be a Friday. Despite the superstition, the tour was extremely successful. Since then, Friday 13th has become a lucky date for our association. Both of our other city tours were started on a Friday 13th to try and maintain the luck: Free Varna Tour on April 13th, 2012, and Free Plovdiv Tour on July 13th of the same year. As already mentioned, Kris didn’t consider himself an especially extroverted person. He approached his first tour that night with apprehension, hiding behind a tree near the meeting point, fumbling with the flyer in his hands. Eventually he noticed a person at the Palace of Justice also fumbling with his flyer and dared venture out to greet him. Free Sofia Tour’s very first guest was an American, who was not staying at any of the hostels but had gone through them all to pick up flyers for different activities in Sofia and he had stumbled upon Kris’ initiative. Later in the evening, in the middle of the tour, the two were joined by Vanya Nikova, who was there to train for a guide. She spent the entire tour meticulously taking notes on the content and paying close attention to the route. A friend of Kris’ from Mannheim, where she had been involved in AIESEC and in the establishing of “Bay Ganyo”, the biggest Bulgarian student organization abroad, Vanya was well-qualified for the project – apart from the insignifi-


cant detail that she was born and raised in Varna and was still getting lost on the streets of Sofia. She was one of two trainees along with another acquaintance of theirs, Teddy Zareva, whom Kris knew from Tuk-Tam, an organization for young Bulgarians with work and study experience from abroad. For the first three weeks while they trained, Kris was the only one leading the tours. Every night at 18:00, regardless of the weather, he would stand at the Palace of Justice with a handwritten sign that said “Free Sofia Tour” and wait for tourists, even if they did not show up. He felt this commitment was important, that it was imperative no guest should lack the opportunity to be shown aro­und the city for free, and in English, should they wish it. The very first tour had only one guest; the second, a group of ten. There were also many nights when nobody showed up. One of Kris’ most fortunate nights, however, came in midSeptember, when a young Bulgarian brought his guest, a Venezuelan girl, to the tour. The Bulgarian host was Boyko Blagoev, who was to become the organization’s fourth and last cofounder and to introduce much of its current structure. Whether Boyko himself foresaw or could even imagine his future level of involvement with FST at the time “Boyko was active, Kris was overflowing with enthusiasm, Teddy introduced order, and Vanya was trying to be the diplomat who brings everybody together.” Niki Pynev, Member Free Sofia Tour since December 2010


is questionable. He had found Kris’s tour through the flyers, which he actually considered quite dubious. The lack of any contact information was just as suspicious to him as the featured map, which, as he points out, could only have been helpful to someone who was already within two blocks of the meeting point. Luckily for Kris, Boyko had himself attended a free tour like this in Prague and liked the idea, so he decided to bring his guest to this Free Sofia Tour despite the “criminally looking” flyer. He was reassured upon arrival at the meeting point, since Kris and Teddy struck him as decent and responsible guides. It was then that he shared with Kris his interest to help out with their project as far as he could. Boyko’s father was a professional tour guide, so that the field in general interested him (although he had never considered becoming involved in it before). It help­ed, too, that his guest enjoyed the tour. Boyko ended up joining the cause and Map On Original Flyer: The map on the first Free Sofia Tour soon began leading tours himflyer was not too helpful unless you were already 50 steps away from the initial point of the tour. self. His very first tourist was recruited off the street: as he was making his way to the starting point, Boyko saw a man holding the map of Sofia, approached him, and convinced him to join him on the tour.


Like Kris, Boyko claims to have been quite shy at the time. He dreaded waiting at the Pa­lace of Justice with the Free Sofia Tour sign. Interestingly, Boyko’s shyness, like Kris’s, quickly bred productivity. It was his em­bar­rassment that prompted him to plead with the others to print and laminate their sign so as to look more presentable. Once he became involved with organizational improvements of the sort, he kept going. At first he helped collect additional information for their guidebook (called Guide for the Guide). The first Guide for the Guide, comprised with Kris’s brief Wikipedia research and written up by Vanya, was exactly four pages long. Considering that the route, even in those early days, went on for two hours and covered over twenty of Sofia’s main sights, it seemed crucial that more information be gathered, or at least that the facts mentioned during the tour should be cross-checked with some reliable sources.

In the fall of 2010, therefore, Boyko spent a long time looking up facts about the city, “delving deep into libraries I would wish nobody to have to visit,” and reading historical books from the turn of the 20 th century. His notes were all organized and translated to create a more comprehensive Guide for the Guide. Meanwhile, after his first or second tour, Boyko decided it might be a good idea to transfer the tour guide roster and visitor stats online as opposed to continuing them, as before, in a notebook. The first tour on digital file dates from September 20th, 2010.


At roughly the same time, several other important events occurred. First, Kris attended the initial preselection round for a startup conference in Sofia, where he had to present his idea in front of a room full of people in under one minute. He ended up qualifying for the event. All four FST guides (Kris, Boyko, Vanya, and Teddy) attended the conference where Free Sofia Tour was the only non-technology related startup. The appearance won them an article from the magazine OK Tourism, their first publication. Meanwhile, as they began thinking mo­­­re and more about marketing the project, they decided it might be a good idea to have their flyers in the Tourist Information Centers. As it turned out, this required that they sign a statement for collaboration with Sofia Municipality as a legal entity and therefore they had to form an official organization. Thus, the NGO “Free Sofia Tour” was established on October 22nd, 2010, in the coffee shop on the fourth floor of an Orange store. It was signed by Kris, Boyko, Vanya, and Teddy, and marked the beginning of the Association we know today. (Though rumour has it that Teddy only showed up for the signing and then rushed out to conduct interviews for the TEDxBG presentations coming up in January.) The first bylaws of Free Sofia Tour were signed at a coffee shop by the four co-founders.


creativity In the fall and winter of 2010, the four co-founders became convinced that they needed more people to keep the project running, especially since they were all unavailable in the morning but wanted to launch daytime tours. New people started joining the project through various, and often random, chan­ nels. For instance, Boyko met Dima Alexandrova at a conference where she gave him a business card with the title, “Tour Guide and Translator”; naturally, he drew her for the cause. Niki Pynev was a friend of Boyko’s already considering to get involved in tourism and getting a professional tour guide license, which made it easy for him to become excited by the idea. Other new members, like Misha (Mihaela Georgieva) and Krassi (Krassimir Yankov), were recruited in a similar fashion.

The original team, Boyko, Vanya, Kris and Teddy presenting at a startup conference in Sofia.


Meanwhile, Deni (Denitsa Todorova) was introduced to Kris through a common acquaintance.

Deni meets Kris The lawyer Kris happened to have con­sulted on the establishment of the or­ ganization knew Deni and her in­te­rests in tourism and put her in touch with Kris. They met under a couple of mis­conceptions. First, Deni believed she was attending a job interview for a paid position. Second, Kris had told her he would be recognizable by his green sweater, which turned out to be gray, so that Deni’s first words to her presumed future employer were, “And you call that green?!”. And third, Kris could not resist employing some of his quite specific sense of humor and tried to convince Deni she was applying for a professional companion’s position. Luckily, none of these blunders dissuaded Deni from join­ing the project. Deni grew up in Varna where she had been involved in tourism since the age of fourteen. She enjoyed the contact with people from different cultures, who, as she points out, invariably enrich you and fill you with their positive energy. She was impressed by Kris’s enthusiasm and his desire to change something in Bulgaria for the better. “My own sister was studying abroad,” she shares, “so I had this ingrained belief that nobody ever returns.” The passion of Kris, someone who had returned


and made the choice to build his career in his home country, really moved and inspired her. She quickly became one of FST’s most active new members. At the time, half the tours were “zeroes”: that is, no visitors showed up. “I keep telling our new guides,” Boyko says, “what it is like to stand there with the sign in your hands and have nobody come. But we we­re convinced that it had to happen every day, no exceptions. Despite the zeroes, we were always there.”

Despite the zeroes, we were always there. The low attendance had one positive outcome: it stimula­ted them to work harder on mar­keting. It became Boyko’s main occupation to look up hostels and other ac­commodations around the city where flyers could be distributed. By then, an improved version of the flyers had been produced to avoid the “criminal look.” This included contact information, a more useful map, and Teddy’s photographs of the city. The intention was to distribute the flyers rigorously, although initially this was difficult. At first, hostel and restaurant owners did not unThe second FST flyer was designed by another derstand or trust the brother: Boyko’s.­


project and refused to carry the flyers or recommend the tour. It was a real challenge to convince them, or the general public, otherwise. Guides would often ask their guests on the tours to share positive impressions with their hostels or hotels. Another big challenge for the association’s marketing efforts was the lack of funding. As a completely voluntary organization, Free Sofia Tour was rich in enthusiasm but distinctly short of cash. Tour guides would occasionally receive donations from their visitors, but those were decidedly insufficient for supporting a truly comprehensive marketing campaign. In the beginning, the tour’s popularity would increase mostly through word of mouth and online social platforms like Facebook and TripAdvisor. Oftentimes, the organization also relied on acquaintances and friends for help. Such was the case with both the newly redesigned logo and with the FST website http://freesofiatour. com, both developed with the help of well-meaning friends during the first few months of 2011.

We even won the BG Site Award for our website’s design. The award is pictured here along with Boyko, Daniel, and Nikeca.


The progression of logos Free Sofia Tour’s very first logo had been designed by Kris’s brother and displayed on the first flyer. When Boyko joined the team in September 2010, he was appalled by the flyers, which he found to be very uninformative and conspicuous, and insisted on improving them. For this purpose, Boyko’s brother produced a second variation of the original logo. Despite the family connection, Boyko remained unsatisfied with the design and initiated the no-reward design contest for FST’s new logo in early 2010. Twenty-nine versions were ultimately submitted for discussion. Here are some of the runners up:


The logo we have today was one of those 29. It was designed by Margarit Ralev. But above all, the tour employed creativity in its marketing. In 2011, the group decided to mark the tour’s starting point in front of the Palace of Justice in some way. However, it was a difficult and expensive task to obtain Sofia Municipality’s permission

Ralev’s design, which is Free Sofia Tour’s logo today

for a plaque on an official building like the Palace of Justice. Other options were considered and discarded as unaffordable without a generous donation. One such idea was to install a lamp post with an arrow pointing in the direction of the tour. The idea was embraced by all members, and a design was prepared, but no benevolent donor ever appeared. Istead, the guides came up with a creative solution. A much more af-

The imaginary design of a lamp post at the starting point of Free Sofia Tour, which never materialized.


fordable option, it turned out, was Misha’s idea to brand a bike and tie it to the bike stand by the Palace of Justice. Soon enough, Boyko found a second-hand sales and repair shop, where he was offered a great price and supplied with a handwritten receipt to account for the purchase. Then the bike was taken apart and The branded Free Sofia Tour bike before it became branded.

the frame entrusted to Niki Pynev for branding. Niki’s original ambition to put stickers and paint a top coat over them proved impossible, so he contented himself with traditional paint in Free Sofia Tour green and the newly developed logo. Finally, the bike The design for the FST bike was again done by our favorite Ralev.

was reassembled and locked with two chains to the bike stand at the starting spot. FST members held no illusions regarding the fate of long-abandoned bicycles, which is the same everywhere in the world. In fact, they placed bets on the bike’s life expectancy at that spot. To their utter surprise, it lasted

The Free Sofia Tour bike survived some of the winter months.


there for almost half a year. Eventually, parts of the bike did start disappearing. Krassi managed to ward off the first attack – imagine the audacity of a couple of thieves who tried to take the bicycle apart while he stood there with the sign, waiting for his group to appear. In a feat of bravery, he chased them away and saved the The last surviving part of the branded Free Sofia Tour bike for the time being. But little by bike. little parts of the bike were disappearing at night, until eventually there was nothing left of it. However, the 75 Euro investment provided for half a year’s advertisement; and if you take a peek at the side of the Palace of Justice on Google Street View, you can still see a shot of the long-forgotten bike ad.

Google Street View has captured an image of the FST bike for eternity


“Every single day, holiday, national holiday, rain, four seasons, there is always a tour and there are always tourists and we have not stopped since then.”Boyko Blagoev, Co-Founder of Free Sofia Tour

The tour’s real success, however, came with the attention of the media. There was an early article in the OK Tourism magazine after FST’s appearance in the startup conference in late 2010. In March 2011, Boyko’s connections in the Bulgarian News Agency resulted in the first Englishlanguage article about the tour. Soon after, other media showed interest in the project, interviewing members on and off the street, writing and shooting reports of the free tours. Most were amazed that the tours were really free.

This media buzz increased visitor attendance but it also helped improve relationships with hostel and restaurant owners, who slowly became more willing to advertise the tour. It was truly a snowball effect. “Starting March 2011,” Boyko shares, “there were rarely any ‘zeroes’ anymore – since then, the tours without visitors could in fact be counted out on the fingers of one hand.” In March 2011, they were finally able to implement tours in the morning as well – tours now began at 11:00 and at 18:00 every day. And tourists kept coming. “Our popularity,” says Deni, “grew at a dizzying pace.”


cultural heritage

Tracking down urban legends Although the tour is aimed mainly at foreign visitors, it’s not uncommon for Bulgarians to join the tour and learn a whole lot about their own town or their history through the visitors’ eyes. “A great discovery for me in my home­town! Thank you, Free Sofia Tour! :)”, Nadejda, Bulgaria (on TripAdvisor) The excitement of discovery is contagious. FST guides have always been surprised by positive responses from the tourists to the city’s green spaces and apparent cleanliness. Many Free Sofia Tour guests share that what made the biggest impression on them about Bulgaria’s capital is its cleanliness and the abundance of green spaces.


We learned new things – favorite places or stories – about the city through our guests. Sometimes, the tour uncovered secrets of the city as well. For instance, during their research at the very beginning of the tour, the original four guides had come across some information that the bell of the Saint Sophia church was hidden on a tree nearby, since the church does not have its own bell towCan you spot the bell of the Hagia Sophia Church? er. But they were long unable to locate the bell and would often finish the story with the legend that the bell is still somewhere around but nobody has any idea where exactly it is. Until one day in the fall of 2011 a tourist pointed to a tree directly in front of the church and said, “Isn’t that the bell over there?” The bell had been harder to see in the summertime, when the tree’s lush leaves were hiding it from sight, but it had become easy to spot with the change of seasons. Free Sofia Tour also became known for popularizing yet another city legend. In late 1990, when Bulgaria had just started the transition from Communism to Democracy, the Communist red star on top of the Party Headquarters’ roof was famously replaced with the Bulgarian flag. However, despite the popular


The red communist star of the communist party HQ was a spectacular event. Source: “20 Years Democtratic Change in Bulgaria” (original title: 20 години демоктратични промени в България), Bulgarian National Radio. 10 November 2009. < Lifestyle/Life/Pages/20god_10112009.aspx>

footage of a helicopter lifting the star off its pillar and carrying it away into the distant sunset, a moment observed and remembered by millions of Bulgarians the location of the red star after its removal was long unknown to most. Many suspected its destruction, or else its theft, as there were rumors that the star was made of real ruby.

However, while doing background research for the Guide for the Guide, Boyko came across some curious information about the red star’s rumored location. Following the lead from an online forum, he visited the place and discovered it all to be true: the famous red star from the Party Headquarters had just been dumped and abandoned in the backyard of the old city Central Bath, where it had been lying unnoticed for two decades. As it turned out, it was not made out of ruby at all, but was instead a completely valueless piece of plastic and steel. The red communist star from the top of the ex Communist Headquarters building used to be part of the Free Sofia Tour route for some time.


Naturally, the tour was redesigned to stop by the star so that visitors could take a peek at it from beyond the fence and hear its story. Over the following eight months, the rumor that Free Sofia Tour knew the star’s location became so widely spread that in one of the interviews Boyko gave on television in early 2011, his host’s closing question addressed the missing relic. (In response, Boyko simply looked at the camera, quasi-winked, and invited everyone to visit one of our tours if they wanted to uncover the mystery.) The red star naturally quickly became one of the most remarkable stops on the tour, reflected by the comments of many guests. “Personally, I find that very interesting from a cultural perspective. I believe that in Germany such symbols would be either destroyed or put into a museum. The Bulgarian government doesn’t seem to care though that this historical object is rusting and falling apart somewhere...” Karnis Fernweh, Online Blog, 19 January 2011

And the guests who visited the morning tour on July 11, 2011, were fortunate enough to see history in the making. Mitko (Dimitar Valchev) was leading the group on the usual route. When they reached the Bath, he began building toward the revelation of the red star. Yet when the time came and he turned around, he was forced to change his story mid-sentence: “And now I would like to show you something... although I am not sure if I will be able to.” The view of the star was blocked by a big truck with a crane. “It’s a bit hard to make your point about ‘this world famous symbol of communism’ without people being able to see the world famous symbol of communism, isn’t it?”.


He tried to make the most out of the unfavorable situation and explained that they happened to be the unluckiest people to ever join Free Sofia Tour because they were the only ones not seeing the star. As he was preparing for his miserable retreat, however, the truck slowly moved away. A mighty cheer from the guests accompanied it but... sur­prise! The star was nowhere to be seen. At that point it struck him. The truck had been there to pick up the star and take it away. “That revelation just happened to slip out of my mouth,” Mitko recalls, “and the next thing I remember was us chasing the truck.” Luckily it paused just around the corner. Excitement was in the air and people were grinning when they realized the star was indeed in the truck. Laughing and joking, everybody climbed to have a look at it and Mitko leading the FST group to the historical monument. take photos. A helpful lady appeared on scene to explain that they were taking the star to the new Museum of Socialist Art, which would be unveiled in Sofia in September of that year. Apparently, Free Sofia Tour had brought so much attention to the red star that we like to believe this contributed to Bulgarian authorities deciding to do something about it. And while Sofia and the tour script both lost a small part of its charm, it was important for this piece of history to be recognized.


The red star’s story is a micro version of Bulgaria’s transition as a country during the first two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Perhaps, if it were somewhere else, the red star would have been placed in a museum years earlier. But just like Bulgaria as a whole, it had to wait for its turn to be taken out of the transition’s chaos and to find its place in the newly democratic state.


modern society

Or the present of FST – the new member integration saga The demand for Free Sofia Tour grew steadily throughout 2011. In the spring of 2012, the association held a (comparatively) large-scale recruitment and training, after which its manpower was doubled by the addition of 10 new members. During the pre­ paration for their admission, the necessity for in­troducing structure to both the project and the organization became obvious. The tour’s growing popularity had meant a simultaneous increase in administrative workload, but there was no structure set in place yet One of the new guides while still in training, doing her best to impress. to constitute the tasks’ equal distribution among members. As a result, their enthusiastic creativity could not be channeled productively. With a new batch of guides coming in, many of the old members saw an opportunity to introduce some division of labor, which would make the tour easier to manage.


Multiple suggestions were made, discussed and promptly discarded. Over a period of two weeks, old members of the association met every morning for two hours to discuss options. The challenge was to make the project self-sustainable and thereby allow the organization to progress forward with new ideas, while simultaneously preserving its members’ enthusiasm and their ability to feel included in its projects. In the end, it was Deni who proposed the structure currently in place. She had come up with it at 01:00 one night and turned her light back on to write it down. Fortunately, the idea appeared just as practical the next morning. “It was simple, really,“ Deni remembers. “We needed people to: 1) guide the tours; 2) come to the tours; and 3) coordinate all of this. And there it was! We needed three units: the Personnel Unit to recruit, select, train and develop tour guides; AgitProp to do marketing and PR; and Core to perform all administrative tasks.” Each team was named, in good humor and for general entertainment, with Communist administrative terms. And each unit had a leader appointed to manage and develop both the unit’s project and its members. This new structure was quickly accepted and introduced to the newly included members in early June 2012. New members were immediately assigned to a unit according to their wishes – a practice that continues today. Internal terminology A bit of amusing internal terminology: the Spring 2012 recruits are now referred to as “the old new ones.” The “new new ones” were admitted the following fall. When the Spring 2013 training is completed, there will be “newer new ones.” After we exhaust all possibilities with the “newest new ones” in Fall 2013, we might need a change of terminology.


Several months later, the Free Sofia Tour Association voted on an Executive Board to run the plethora of new projects fueled by the enthusiasm, creativity, and various interests in the organization. The elections were held in the beginning of 2013, when three of the tour guides – Boyko, Deni, and Rossi – campaigned together as a team and won the vote. Truth be told, they ran without any competition (perhaps comically reminiscent of our country’s notso-distant past) but they still received a massive vote of confidence from the newly instituted General Assembly (everyone else). With this structure in place, much of the Association’s activity has been running much more smoothly. Free Sofia Tour is now a self-sustainable project, with administrative tasks equally distributed between all tour guides. New guides are admitted on the expectation that they will, too, take on administrative duties along with their guiding responsibilities. Meanwhile, the Executive Board can concentrate on supervising the Association’s overall activity, set goals for the institution’s progress, and work on developing projects in accordance with this vision.

Executive Board members (from left to right): Rossi, Boyko and Deni


expansion The restructuring of the Free Sofia Tour was rendered more imperative since the association’s most prominent new ideas were to start free tours in other Bulgarian cities. With the original project now largely self-sustainable, the activity was quickly expanded to Plovdiv and Varna as well (and there is more to come!). Reaching the Black Sea coast – Free Varna Tour Varna and Plovdiv were started almost simultaneously, but Varna was a natural first choice as two of the organization’s earliest members, Va­ nya and Deni, were both born and raised there. Varna was also a logical destination as the largest coast town in Bulgaria, boasting a steady flow of tourists vacationing on the Black Sea. Free Varna Tour’s launching deadline presented itself as something of a joke: there was a Friday 13th on the 2012 calendar (April 13), so they decided: why not? Deni and Vanya


contacted some friends in their hometown, got them electrified with en­ thusiasm, wrote a plan of action, exe­cuted the necessary preparations with local tours, and so Free Varna Tour (FVT) started on the designated day as the association’s second ever project. The second free tour learned from the mistakes of the first, and ran much more smoothly. In just one season, Free Varna Tour was visited by tourists from six continents.

Due to the specifics of tourism on the Black Sea coast, however, Free Varna Tour only happens during the summer season (April-October). As this text is being put down, local members are busy recruiting and training new guides for the coming summer; when you read it, they will already be welcoming guests in the sunny and salty atmosphere of our sea. In the summer of 2012, Free Varna Tour started welcoming guests to our Black Sea capital.


The day trip - Free Plovdiv Tour At almost the same time, it was becoming imperative to launch a free tour in Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second largest city, because of its popularity as a tourist destination. The only other Friday 13th in the year of 2012 was fast approaching in July, in the middle of high tourist season in the summer, so there was much enthusiasm for the project even though at the time no active members of the association were Plovdiv natives. There were only three months between the tour’s conception and the launch, so work was really intensive. New guides were recruited, injected with the spirit, flair, and the know-how, and trained in time for the grand opening of Free Plovdiv Tour (FPT) on Friday, July 13th 2012. Once again, the proverbial Friday 13th didn’t betray us. Coincidences are not accidental Stella, one of Plovdiv’s most prominent members, joined the organization entirely through the whim of fate. When the idea for a free tour in Plovdiv was still quite vague, Stella was working at the Plovdiv Airport. It Stella was there that she accidentally met a friend of Vanya’s who was flying back to Germany - one of the few destinations Plovdiv airport operates flights to. The two girls met at the souvenir


shop by complete chance and got to talking. Vanya’s friend told Stella all about the Free Sofia Tour, Stella thought that it would be a great idea to have something like this in Plovdiv as well, they exchanged contact information, and a couple of weeks later Vanya called Stella to schedule the first ever planning meeting for Free Plovdiv Tour. To this day, Free Plovdiv Tour welcomes guests to their city every day of the year, no matter how hot, cold, wet, or dry the weather is.

The Ethnographic museum of Plovdiv is perhaps the most iconic symbol of the city and an important stop on the Free Plovdiv Tour walk.


social responsibility As an association, we feel the need to become involved in service projects and give back to our society. We are largely inspired by a particular tale in Bulgarian history that we love sharing with our guests on the tour. It makes us extremely proud to be one of the very few countries, involved in the war in Europe, to have saved their entire Jewish population du足 ring World War II. At that ti足me, there were approximately 50,000 members of the Jewish community in Bul足garia, but no足ne of them were ever sent to concentration camps due to the protests of Bulgarian people, spearheaded by the Bulgarian Orthodox Patriarch, and the


clever political maneuvering of our Tsar. Because of its involvement, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for 2013. Free Sofia Tour has chosen to share this story at a square in our capital that illustrates it very well. We have informally named it The Square of Tolerance, where at a stone throw’s distance from each other stand a Bulgarian Orthodox church, a Catholic church, a mosque, and a synagogue. We take pride in sharing this story with our guests , and showing how various religions have coexisted peacefully in Bulgaria for centuries. We try to live up to this story. As Denitsa says, “the modern European society is a tolerant society,” and we try to teach tolerance not just by telling the tale, but also through leading by example. One of the criteria we use for selecting our new members is Tolerance and Open Mindedness. And we try, through our social responsibility projects, to construct a better, more understanding, and more equal society.


A little bit of kindness goes a long way – charity tours Free Sofia Tour Association runs cha­rity tours once a month to collect monetary donations for our Social Program. In constituting our Social Program, we set a goal to only sup­port causes whe­ re our contribution would make a sizeable impact or causes that outright would not have been possible without our aid. Our partnership with an institution for underprivileged children in the small village of Doganovo is a good example. Although the children there are well provided for their basic needs, the institution rarely has the resources to support them for anything beyond. Our role is to ensure these children have the opportunity to have a more fulfilling life and to follow their dreams. We have used our donations in ways meaningful to the In the summer of 2012 some Free Sofia Tour members took the kids from Doganovo to the Festival of Animation where they made paper cards. children themselves: for instance, when a boy recently wanted to play football on a team but had no way of buying the necessary shoes, we purchased cleats for him. Our Social Program also funded a project started by former Free Sofia Tour guide Kiril Zahariev. His dream was to help young people from small towns and villages in Romania and Bulgaria integrate into the EU.


A daunting task, given that oftentimes people in such towns have never had the opportunity to learn English or the principles of democracy and civil responsibility. Called ACT for Democracy, the project targets the low level of civil life participation in Bulgarian and Romanian rural The session in Romani of ACT for Democracy which Kiril attended in order areas. It helps young to start his rural Europe integration project funded by Free Sofia Tour. people practice democratic concepts and processes through mini-projects and encourages them to communicate and engage with each other in order to “become solidary in ACTion.� Tradition turned into responsibility We have also supported an initiative by the Social Workshop Dreams Unlimited aiming to integrate children from Bulgarian minorities and Our favorite tree in Sofia to demonstrate the martenitsi tradition. It’s adorned with dozens of martenitsi from years past.


socially disadvantaged families. The project allows them to discover their professional vocation through creative workshops in groups. For their partnership with us, the children worked on creating martenitsi for our visitors in March. The exchange of red-and-white thread bracelets, called martenitsi, is a millennia-old local custom for celebrating the beginning of spring in March. The bracelets are worn for good health and good luck and finally tied to a blooming fruit tree to ensure its health and fertility. On our tours in March, we like giving visitors martenitsi to share in the tradition – some of them later place their bracelets on a fruit tree along our route.

Some of the Free Sofia Tour guests in March 2013 were lucky to receive a martenitsa made by the kids at Dreams Unlimited workshop.

The children from Dreams Unlimited had the opportunity to experience the tours in March, learn new facts about their city, and, above all, meet the guests on the tour in person. Their interaction with our visitors helped expand the children’s horizon for the world outside their isolated social environment; and their involvement was even more engaging for the fact these people wore their bracelets.

Krasi Komneva, a psychologist involved with the project, shared her impressions after the first visit to the tour of the kids: “Meeting Kristian and walking around Sofia with him was a huge event for the kids and they kept talking about it for a long time. When we left, we met two Asian girls and the kids immediately wanted to take pictures with them.


After that, they would come back to those pictures and discuss which countries they came from.”

Kids from Dreams Unlimited were really excited to meet the foreign guests of Sofia on the free tour we organized for them as part of our Social Program.

Bonding through helping When Niki Pynev first had a visitor in a wheelchair come to his tour, he came to realize how unfriendly our capital could be to people with disabilities. The guest remained undaunted by the high and sometimes uneven sidewalks, and kept up with the group perfectly well until they had to descend 20 steps into an underpass. Unfortunately, many of Sofia’s multiple underpasses were built without adequate ramps or elevators to help disabled citizens get by; and more unfortunately still, underpasses are an unavoidable part of the tour due to Sofia’s historical layering. Yet before Niki could think of what to do or say upon approaching the first stairs, four men stepped forward without a word exchanged or a moment’s hesitation, lifted the wheelchair, and carried it down. They repeated this feat


whenever there were steps during the remainder of the tour. “I was deeply moved, almost on the verge of crying,” Niki remembers. “It was like everybody had united, like they felt closer to each other in their effort to overcome a common obstacle.” Integration – Refugee tours In coordination with the State Agency for Refugees with the Council of Ministers, and with the help of the Multi Kulti Collective, Free Sofia Tour offers free tours to people seeking refugee status in Bulgaria, mainly from Arab and African countries. The first two tours under the hat of this project were led by Krassi and Dima, in Arabic and French respectively. Fortunately, Krassi holds a B. A. in Arabic studies and had fal­len in love with the language, the people, and the culture of the Arabic world. For him, it was both educational and fun to be able to practise his language skills while helping these people learn more about their new home, open the town for them, and open them for the town. At the same time, Dima speaks fluent French and is thus able to lead the tour for French-speaking refugees.

Dima’s first group of refugees on March 16, 2013, was really impressed by all the lions scattered all over Sofia (the lion is one of our national symbols, so it is quite a commonplace sight).


“Some of them are as young as 16,” she shares. “Others are a little older than 30. But they are all very intelligent and thirsty for knowledge. Some are even trying to learn Bulgarian so they can go to university here. For me, it is really important what we do for these people because, having worked with them, I know what conditions they live in.” Her hope is to be able to conduct tours like this once every month – in French, Arabic, and English. Tour Guide Integration When he is not studying or running tours, Filip occupies himself with a culture Our token Macedonian guide In a way, our Association has experienced modern Europe’s mutual integration processes on a small scale. Initially, the concept for the Free Sofia Tour required that all tour guides be locals, the idea being for tourists to experience the “insider’s view” first hand. The notion of a “local” tour guide, however, was redefined when Filip Lazarevski joined the Association. Born in Macedonia, Filip had arrived in Sofia to pursue a degree in graphic and interior design and had grown to know and love the city. When he ran into the Free Sofia Tour, he quickly proved more adept at Sofia city knowledge than many locals, and as a result he was emphatically admitted into the Association, redefining our expectations for new tour guides. He first started showing people around his new home in January 2012. center he established himself. He says that the underlying motivation behind everything he does is the desire to see a society of higher culture, education, and mutual respect. Since Filip’s admittance, others have followed suit and contributed greatly to our cause. Originally from Germany, Sahra Aboudarar has lived in Sofia for


the past few years. She currently coordinates yet another work in progress – a project fitly called the Culture Shock Tour, introducing some of the more unexpected sides of Bulgarian culture to tourists (like the fact that a nod means “no” in Bulgaria). And it seems that she is far Filip, our only non-Bulgarian guide, is also one of our most creative and from the last: a compacheerful members. His tours are always fun and relaxed. triot of hers, Folke Eikmeier, has recently expressed his interest to join our growing team.


humanitarianism Or the future of FST

The Association’s biggest challenge remains to grow efficiently and sustainably without losing its entrepreneurial energy and spirit. As Boyko Denitsa Todorova, current memputs it, it remains important to conber of the Board of the Free Sofia tinue inspiring our members’ creativTour Association ity and enthusiasm, and to ensure that their positive input is used to the benefit of the organization and its projects. Luckily, we are all united in our strife to contribute to tourism, culture, and education in Bulgaria. “The future of Free Sofia Tour is on the moon”

NDK (National Palace of Culture) Our largest new project is a specialized tour of the National Palace of Culture (most often referred to with its Bulgarian acronym, NDK). The op­­portunity for this project arose thanks to the free tours’ success. As Vanya recalls, a project manager from the NDK’s staff called the association in 2012 to propose col­laboration. The building’s management had been im­pressed with our free walking tour project and wanted to work with us on creating a regular tour of the NDK. At first, many in the FST team were skeptical about the idea


because they did not know much about the building. Still, they agreed to a meeting, and three members of the association went to check it out. They were then shown around the NDK by representatives of its management. The improvised tour in the heart of the building sold Deni on the idea. A relic of late Communism, the NDK is unexpectedly exciting. It was completed as a cultural and congress center in the early 80s, and has remained prominent in Bulgarian cultural life during the last 30 years, hosting endless events, concerts, and festivals. Besides a rich history, repre­ sen­tative of its period, the building also boasts fas­­cinating ar­chitecture and beautiful cus­tom created artwork. It also inspires interest because of its many “secrets” like underground passageways and what used to be the private apartments of the last Communist dictator. Our tour will strive to open up this Bulgarian architectural heritage to visitors on a regular basis, revealing its many sights and secrets. Currently, the project is supervised by the Executive Board, while a team of five FST members and external specialists is conducting rigorous research to develop the route. The tour is on schedule to launch over the summer months, when the most visitors come to Sofia (per­haps on a Friday 13th if we’re willing to wait until September). However, the project has encountered a whole new challenge re-


cently. Our original contacts, along with many other NDK staff members, no longer work there. The new building management is keen to move the project forward but the tumult of change has slowed the process down.

Our team was pleasantly surprised when they visited the National Palace of Culture for the first time.

The name drama At some point in the summer of 2012, it became apparent that the organization’s original name carried a paradox now that FVT and FPT were successfully running. Finding a new name, however, turned out to be quite a difficult task. After a multitude of unsuccessful attempts on our own, involving brainstorming mishaps such as “Walking Baby Lions with Bagpipes,” we decided to ask fans and supporters for help. We even invited the audience of a TEDxBG event – a series of talks


We enlisted some friends from TedxBG to help us in the search for the perfect name to describe all the activities of our organization currently and for the future.

inspired by the world-famous TED events – to join us for a full-day naming workshop. Little did we know this would bring a different challenge. Our original project was so famous that it made it hard to convey that we do more now than just the free tours, and that our vision is to expand our activities even further. Into the future - imaginary tours With so much accomplished, we can never stop dreaming of what we can achieve next.

Deni dreams about developing a train tour to a small monastery two hours outside of Sofia, a trip that would introduce tourists to Bulgarian monastic architecture and religious heritage, to the flavor of local sights and rustic dishes, as well as to the beauty of nature on the way, since the monastery lies in a stunning river gorge north of Sofia.

Boyko dreams about a virtual tour of Bulgaria created by a photographer, a blogger, a cameraman and a project manager all tra­vel­ing together around the country in a van for 40 days.


Petya dreams about unveiling the wonders of Bulgarian wi足ne to our guests. Si足milarly, Ina dreams about a culinary to足ur of mouth-watering traditional Bulgarian dishes.

Anna dreams about a boat tour on the Kamchia River estuary, exploring the scenery and sampling traditional buf足falo yoghurt in the area.

Stella dreams about creating a comprehensive Plovdiv online portal to serve as the ultimate handbook for any foreign guest.


“These kind of tours doesn’t exist yet. Forward thinking is what distinguishes FST from many other organizations in Bulgaria and makes it decidedly European,” Deni thinks. Exciting book projects And finally, when else would we have had the opportunity to write a book for the European Parliament members?

The proud authors of the book (from left to right): Anna, Stefan and Petya



Having started as a small and more than a bit disorganized project, Free Sofia Tour’s development over the last few years is quite remarkable. This change has been carried through mostly by the enthusiasm and the energy of its members, who are united in their desire to do something for the better, to improve their society, and to contribute to their country’s integration into a modern European society. Of course, we would be lying if we said we didn’t enjoy it. In a way, it has been like playing a game and discovering the game could be useful; and sharing this message with 30,000 others from all over the world. No matter what the future might bring us, it is all worth it.

Together the Free Sofia Team left its beautiful message on the steps over a weekend in March 2013. “A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step” is a Chinese proverb turned into our organization’s motto.


Free Sofia To


our Itinerary


Free Varna To


Tour Itinerary


Free Plovdiv Tour Itinerary


FROM THE KITCHEN - FST AS A HOT LINE Free Sofia Tour has become such an authority on tourism in Sofia that our phone number now often acts as an improvised traveler’s hot line. We often receive calls that are not necessarily related to the tour but have something to do with tourism, the city, or international communication. In December 2012, for instance, we received a puzzling call from the receptionist of a hostel who was calling on behalf of a lost tourist. The tourist in question, an Argentinian lady, had stumbled into the hostel lobby searching for help: she was lost, had no idea where she was, didn’t know the name or the location of her own accommodation, and spoke very little English. Because of the latter, however, the receptionist at the front desk only recognized the words “free sofia tour” and called us. As it turned out, the tourist had never even made it to the tour - she had been planning to go but had gotten lost first. Fortunately, on that day it was Petya who was responsible for answering the phone line. Petya had lived in Argentina and speaks fluent Spanish, so she was able to speak with the lost woman, calm her down, and get the full picture. The tourist then explained what she remembered about the location of her own

hostel. When she mentioned a market, Petya correctly interpreted this to be Lady’s Market. Going by the only word from the hostel’s name the tourist remembered and looking in the list of hostels nearby Lady’s Market that recommend Free Sofia Tour, Petya was able to puzzle out the correct accommodation and send the woman safely home. In fact, by that time there were two police officers who were ready to go on a quest all around the city with the Argentinian lady looking for her hostel but it turned out to be unnecessary after Petya’s correct guess. So they just escorted her straight there and she was extremely grateful. Another time, we were contacted by a couple of German businessmen looking to sell Persian carpets in Sofia. They were seeking advice on how to find a proper exhibition space in the city and were also searching for a business consultant who could help them set up their business in Bulgaria. No problem! As an already experienced entrepreneur and a fluent German speaker, Kris took on the task. After exploring several possibilities for exhibition venues, including embassies, those carpets are already on display in Sofia and Kris has turned into an almost full time carpet consultant!


VOICES: What others say about us Eastern Europe Adventures (Blog), “Sofia,” 22 October 2010: ...Then we had a “Free Sofia Tour.” There’s a group of four people in the city who give free tours in their spare time, and you can give them a tip or donation at the end of the tour if you liked it. At 6pm we met our guide, Boyko, on a street corner downtown. We waited a few more minutes to see if anyone else would show up, but no one did, so we basically had a private tour. For two hours Boyko walked us around Sofia’s “centrum” (in Turkey and Bulgaria that’s what they call the centre or core of the city), pointing things out we would never have noticed on our own, and giving us a very knowledgeable and entertaining history of the city and its important landmarks. We learned that Sofia has been inhabited for a very long time, and every time the city does some excavation or other they end up finding Roman ruins or other important archaeological sites. We even saw the latest example - a new subway line, a new Roman ruin brought to light. Sofia is situated near some hot mineral spring water, and in the middle of town there


are public water fountains where you can go and just fill up your water containers with the hot water and drink it when it cools down. It tastes good - clear and fresh, almost sweet. We learned that, despite fighting on the side of the Germans in the second world war, Bulgaria never sent its Jewish population to the death camps. By putting off ratifying that agreement with Germany, Bulgaria saved the lives of 50,000 people, according to Boyko. After the war, however, most of the Jews in Bulgaria left and went to Israel but hey, they lived to do so. After the tour was over, Boyko asked us what our plans were. We needed dinner; so did he. He made a couple of calls and we ended up at the most remarkable restaurant. Its name in Bulgarian, Manastirska Magernitsa, translates to “Monastery Kitchen.” It’s a restaurant where they have 161 dishes from 161 Bulgarian monasteries! ...I’m sure Boyko’s English was better than mine... Read more:

Karnis Fernweh (Blog), “Some more hidden and not-so-hidden impressions from Sofia,� 19 January 2011:

on top of their party headquarters. The Bulgarian red star still exists and can now be spotted forgotten behind a fence at the public bath which is not operating anymore. Personally, I find that very interesting from a cultural perspective. I believe that in Germany such symbols would be either destroyed or put into a museum. The Bulgarian government doesn’t seem to care though that this historical object is rusting and falling apart somewhere...

...Eventually I managed to take part in the Free Sofia Tour organised by volunteers who show people around Sofia every day at 6PM and additionally at 11AM during the weekends. Definitely worth it! During those two hours walking around with a small group I got to know many interesting things that were not in my guidebook!

Read more: some-more-hidden-and-not-so-hidden-impressionsfrom-sofia/

...Our guide also showed us some trivia that not many people know about Sofia. One of them is the big red star that all communist countries used to have


Karolinka in & around Bulgaria, “Sofia and Easter Weekend,” 23 April 2011 “They’re great. Really great I might add. They were organized. Thoughtful. Knowledgeable. Well-spoken. Good looking. And they made sure that no one got lost and no one got hit by a car. That last one is pretty important considering the nightmare that is traffic in Sofia and the huge amount of construction happening downtown these days.” “The tour did a great job balancing history, culture and place. My guide was very fluent in English and knowledgeable about the city. He did a really great job navigating the various interests of our diverse group.” “Mostly, I went along to take pictures and to check out the quality of the tour. The quality you might ask? Top-notch and I’ve been on my fair share of tours in Eastern Europe.”

Free Sofia Tour Blog, “Trip Advisor Certificate of Excellence,” 30 May 2011: Free Sofia Tour won a 2011 TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence because of the consistently excellent ratings of our guests! Thank you, everyone! Your opinion would continue to be the most important thing for us and would inspire us to perform even better! Looking forward to seeing you (again) in Sofia. Read More:


“I was really happy with the 2 hour (more like 2 and 1/2 hour tour by the time we got started). Moreover, the tour seemed to hit the right note for older tourists in their 50 and 60’s as well as twenty-something backpackers. That’s not an easy balance to strike. All in all, I had a great time.” “So, if you’re new to the city, visiting the city for the first time or looking to brush up on Sofia’s main attractions, I’d recommend checking out Free Sofia Tour. They were great. Professional. Funny. And they gave pretty good advice on restaurants to check out and places to grab a beer outside.” Read More: sofia-and-easter-weekend/

David Meerman Scott, “In a world of commercialism Free Sofia Tour goes social,” 9 November 2012:

It’s not just me. Free Sofia Tour is ranked the number one activity to do in Sofia on Trip Advisor with 188 “excellent” ratings out of 200.

For the past several days, I have been in Sofia, Bulgaria [...]

In a world of commercialism (think the Big Bus Tours that operate in many cities), sometimes the personal approach works best.

I always want to poke around when I’m in a city for the first time. So when the good people at Free Sofia Tour tweeted me, I knew I had to be on their tour.

Do check out the excellent Free Sofia Tour web site as well as their @FreeSofiaTour Twitter and Facebook. And if you ever find yourself in Sofia, you know who you should have show you around.

I love how Free Sofia Tour embraces social media while the other tour operators use traditional marketing. I see the other guys’ brochures in the hotel lobby. They have ads at the airport and in the tourist magazines. Free Sofia Tour uses social media including Facebook, Twitter, and good old-fashioned word of mouth [...]

Read More: in-a-world-of-commercialism-free-sofia-tour-goessocial.html

I just love how this organization works. If you’re social, it’s easy to find them. They make you feel welcome, and follow up after the tour.





Free Sofia Tour IS US

Portraits by Henry-Wu

Free Sofia Tour is just the first project of the Free Sofia Tour Association, the brainchild of Kristian Mitov, Vanya Nikova, Teddy Zareva and Boyko Blagoev – four enthusiasts who had recently returned to Bulgaria. 2012 sees the Free Varna Tour and Free Plovdiv Tour. So far there are 40 people on the team, and more than 30 000 people from 125+ countries have been welcomed to Bulgaria by members of the team. The tours are number one attraction in Sofia according to TripAdvisor and most importantly – they have helped thousands of guests discover Bulgaria in a way that makes them want to come back. Free Sofia Tour Association continues developing other initiatives to achieve their main goals:

The co-founders of Free Sofia Tour n ia ir st tov K Mi

o yk oev o B ag Bl

y dd va e T re Za

a ny va a V iko N

1. Turn Bulgaria into a popular destination for tourism and culture 2. Improve the quality of tourist services in Bulgaria 3. Engage young people into active civil participation 4. Create conditions to encourage multicultural exchange 9 786199 009512