The Balkans with Brill

By Paul Otto Schneebeck
This item appears on page 24 of the December 2015 issue.
This mural of a funeral feast can be found in the Thracian Tomb of Kazanlak in central Bulgaria. Photo by Paul Otto Schneebeck

Deciding to visit Romania and Bulgaria, a friend and I found an interesting small-group tour, Sept. 21-Oct. 4, 2014, through a higher-end company with which we had previously traveled, Travcoa (El Segundo, CA; We placed a deposit on the tour and secured the air, which was nonrefundable. Just days before the final payment was due, Travcoa notified us that the trip had been canceled.

We didn’t want to lose money on the airfare and we still wanted to visit the area, so I did what I had done before and got on the Internet to look for companies offering tours to Romania and Bulgaria.

When I heard back from companies offering tours to the same places Travcoa would have taken us, I sent a brief prospectus based upon the original tour so they could devise a tour for us. Three companies did this. I tweaked their offerings, adding the qualifier of 5-star or best-available accommodations.

The ancient Roman theater in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. Photo by Paul Otto Schneebeck

One company, Brill Travel (1 Khan Asparuch Str., Sofia 1463, Bulgaria; phone +359 2 8520764,, came through with what seemed to be the best match for what we wanted. 

Not only that, but with hotels as good as and often better than those of our original luxury tour, Brill was charging 2,730 (at that time, about $3,400) while Travcoa had charged from $6,245 per person (with air add-on intratour and previous-traveler discount). And this would be a tour for just the two of us.

(One precaution I’ve always taken when arranging trips is to use a credit card for all payment transactions. It is my impression that, if something goes wrong, it is easier to get your money back if you have used a credit card.)

The hotels turned out to be better than advertised. The included meals were good, and the guides were outstanding. Ion was our driver/guide in Romania. He was 30-something, energetic and extremely knowledgeable.

In Bulgaria, we had a driver in addition to our guide, Katja Melamed. Katja had master’s and doctorate degrees and was in the Department of Medieval Archaeology at the National Institute of Archaeology with Museum, in Sofia. 

Both Ion and Katja loved their countries and expressed this fact. Both also were very willing to adapt to our needs to assure we had a good experience.

Fortified Saxon church in Biertan, central Romania. Photo by Paul Otto Schneebeck

Ion was a photographer and pointed out excellent spots for photos. Katja provided us with in-depth historical insights into the places we visited. She even ended our tour by personally guiding us through the Bulgarian National History Museum in Sofia. 

On our last day, the owner of Brill Travel, Irska, took us to the airport so she could make sure the two weeks had been good for us. I would recommend Brill Travel to anyone interested in the Balkans.

It was an outstanding experience. The areas we visited were beautiful, and history was there at every turn.


Saint Louis, MO