From a distance, it looked like any other tour group.
But right from the start on Monday, guide Petar Stanchev let his audience know things would be different.
“You’re free to leave at any time,” he told them. “Free to ask questions. Free even to correct my English.”
That operative word gets flung around quite a bit on the Free Sofia Tour, a year-old venture in the Bulgarian capital that doesn’t cost a single stotinka.
And it’s not just about the price. Unlike paid guides, who might feel bound to a just-the-facts approach, Petar freely offered his opinions and perspectives during a casual 2.5 hour tour of the downtown sights.
He criticized the government for knocking down the mausoleum of former communist leader Georgi Dimitrov in 1999. (“Erasing your history is not a good way to deal with it,” said the 22-year-old university student.) And he said it wasn’t a good idea to allow the Arena di Serdica Residence Hotel to be built atop newly-discovered Roman ruins. (“I personally believe that wasn’t the best way to attract tourists in Sofia,” he said.)
It’s an approach that seemed to work on Monday for most of the nearly 20 tourists in his group. While a few slipped away after the first hour, most soldiered on through the mid-morning heat.
To be sure, there were plenty of facts. Petar opened the show with a head-spinning overview of Bulgaria’s 7,000-year history, and threw in just enough detail to pique visitors’ interest at each of the 34 stops.
A few of his citations might prompt debate, such as the assertion that “not even a single Bulgarian soldier really fought for the side of Germany” during the country’s complex efforts to survive World War II in the Balkans. But his argument that Sofia’s heated mineral waters are “very good for your stomach” was amply supported by a crowd of pensioners lined up with bottles near the Banya Bashi Mosque for their daily fill.
There’s a long tradition of free tours in European capitals, with at least half a dozen in Prague alone. Guides will often accept tips for beer money or a trip to the grocery store, but the pay-what-you-can ethic is firmly ingrained. Established tour companies might feel an initial threat, Petar said, but they soon realize that the walkabouts often reach a different crowd — backpackers, last-minute visitors, and the budget conscious, some of whom might never have taken an organized tour before.
“It’s informal, the way you communicate with people,” he said. “I don’t personally feel this is a job. It’s a pleasure for me.”