29 September, 2023
Dessislava Mihailova (photo: Dessislava Mihailova)

Interview with the founder of the free tour of the Danubian city about the balance from the last three years’ activity, the problems before volunteering out of Sofia, the presence or the absence of the free spirit today and the need for realisation of Rousse’s potential

Vladimir Mitev

Dessislava Mihailova was born in Rousse. She attended the English language school in the Danubean city. A few years later she graduated from the University of Veliko Tarnovo, where she studied Applied linguistics with English and Arabic language. After that, she entered a completely new profession and worked in the financial sector of Bulgaria for eight years. More than seven years ago she discovered her vocation and started by creating and supporting technical documentation for end users. She works in one of the largest and most useful American firms in the software business in Bulgaria.

She is the founder of the pedestrian Ruse Summer Free Tour and is the president of the association “Kulturtur Ruse”, which is the legal entity behind the Tour. Ruse Summer Free Tour represents a free pedestrian walk in the centre of Ruse, which is made in English. The first edition of the tour comes on 22 July 2016. At present, it is made every Saturday from May to September with a starting hour 18:00 and starting point the Statue of Liberty.

Dessislava Mihailova develops also a blog about her hometown Rousse – Rousse City Guide”. On 3 december 2018 Ruse Summer Free Tour received the municipality’s prize for original tourist initiative for 2018.

Mrs. Mihailova, in 2018 for a third successive year the Ruse Summer Free Tour offered pedestrian tours of the centre of Rousse for its visitors in between May and September. What is the balance for the year 2018? How many tourists did participate in it? Where are they from? What are their impressions from the tour and the Danubian city?

The number of visitors to the Tour grows slowly, but steadily.

We started in 2016 in the middle of the season – the end of July, and until the end of September, we had only 23 visitors. In 2017 the number of visitors grew to 52. In 2018 they were 83. It is not so bad, given that at this stage the tours take place only on Saturday. Every year we have regular visitors from the European Union – Germany, Netherlands and Sweden, from neighbouring Romania. We also have visitors from the United States. This year there were tourists from Uruguay, Egypt and the Philippines too. A lot of Bulgarians come too – e.g. from Plovdiv, Shumen, Veliko Tarnovo. People from Rousse also come. On one hand, they want to learn something more about our city. On the other hand, they are curious about the Ruse Summer Free Tour. It happened that the same people from Rousse first come alone, and then, a few weeks later, they come with their guests from abroad. I think this is an excellent sign of recognition for the quality of our pedestrian tours.

Rousse has a unique atmosphere and urban nature. This is what always impresses our visitors. In spite of that, our guests often share their worry about the state of some of the old and emblematic building, along which the urban tour passes. For one or another reason, they are in a neglect or openly decaying state. For our visitors, this neglect can’t be understood, even though the reasons for it might have their grounds. The architectural heritage in countries such as Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Italy and others is a big priority for the local authorities because the good renovation and the care for it support tourism and respectively increase the profit for the entrepreneurs and the working people in the zone. That is how the standard of living gets higher for the local people.

This year our guides had to explain in details about the reconstruction of the quay and the overall renovation not only along the Danubean boulevard but along one of our favourite streets ”Slavyanska”. Anyway, we hope that the inconvenience would have its merits. We will see that next year when the renovation is over.

The Ruse Summer Free Tour is a voluntary initiative. What are the problems that you and your team face in your attempt to realize this initiative in a city different from Sofia, in a city, where income is lower, half of the population are pensioners and the young are relatively few? What support do you receive by state, private, nongovernmental organizations and media?

Yes, our initiative is voluntary. It means that none of us receives any payment for the efforts and time we spend on the Tour’s realisation. Similarly to the free pedestrian tours of the cities in the country, such as Sofia, Plovdiv, Veliko Tarnovo and Stara Zagora or in the world, If the tour’s visitors are willing, they can give us a small sum of money, but this is not obligatory and no one expects it from them.

All of us, who try to spend some time and put efforts in the Tour, do that because we love Rousse. All of us, with the exception of two of our colleagues in the Association “KulturTur Rousse” – the legal entity behind the tour, are from Rousse. We have spent a lot of time walking along the quay, in the Liberty Park and in the Revivalists’ Park, at places such as “Lainoto”, “Daniel, “Club 21” and others. We remember the time, when Rousse had underground culture – the skaters of Rousse used to be guests of the skaters of Varna and vice versa; there were dark wavers, skinheads; metal music was admired in the city; in the times of grande culture’s spread Rousse seemed to be a resurrected Seattle with its foreign and elegant outlook.

The city has formed our personality with its history and cultural heritage, with the realisation what incredible persons have carved out its spirit. That is why around four years ago when the idea for a free pedestrian tour of our city was born, I wanted to give back something of all I have received to my city of birth. I am very proud that I found people, who not only love Rousse the way as I do – or even more, but also they accepted the idea and wanted to make something more, to shake the reality around them.

We have grown together with a part of these people. We met others along the Tour’s realisation. What unites us is that we do love our city and see its great potential, which I believe is far from being realised even in half. This is valid even the two men, who are not born in Rousse, helped us very much from the very beginning when the Tour was simply “a crazy” idea.

What matters for a voluntary initiative is that people who make it happen are important. Their motivation matters, exactly because at least in Bulgaria and in Rousse, the people who run the institutions don’t quite understand that to run a voluntary event is even greater responsibility and engagement. If your work for a salary, you can always decide today to be in one firm and the next day in another. While you work for a cause, you have no other option – you follow your heart and do what you believe in. That is why voluntary brings enormous meaning for you, it makes you feel useful indeed – for yourself and for the society. You simply now that you make something, which you want and which you consider meaningful.

This year we considered making a pedestrian tour of the city in English and in German for students from a school in the city and thus to let them practice the foreign language they study and gain experience about the profession of the tourist guide. With this idea in mind we applied for financing at the program ”Knowledge and growth” and the Foundation Econt and the Municipal foundation gave us 1163 leva (595 euro), which covered not only the two student tours, but also the advertisement expenditure from the tours themselves under the form of flyers, stickers, a banner and paid time for our commercial video about the tour at one of the LED screens in the city for the period of four months. If we omit this one-time financial support, everything we have done so far was done by use completely alone, and the financial expenditures have been paid for completely by me.

That is why in general my experience shows that even the few occasions, we have had to ask the local authorities and the municipality for concrete support have remained without result. All we have accomplished so far was done alone and without the support of the municipality or the local authorities. For example, three years ago it turned out that the posters we were sticking at the publicly designed places, were disappearing no more than two hours after they were placed there. At their place, the uniform advertisements of certain discos for chalga music were being placed (e.g. for a concert of Tonny Storaro – a chalga singer – a Bulgarian popular music, influenced by the Balkan and Oriental music). We informed the municipal entity, which is responsible for control, public order and security. They assured us that this problem doesn’t make a part of their obligations and directed us towards the municipality. In a letter to the municipality, we explained the case and asked for free usage for a few days, chosen by them, of one of the small billboards who have a glass closing, where we wanted to place our poster. The municipality redirected us towards the Municipal Entity “Rousse Art”, which sent us their list of prices. It is good that we didn’t take it personally – it is very funny, even ridiculous, and unfortunately it is also very telling how state institutions act a bit like the banks – they want to give you a credit when you no longer really need it.

As far as the media are concerned, we are supported by the Rousse-based blog “The Bridge of Friendship”. One of the publishing houses of Rousse – Parnass Press, contacted us in order to publish a material about the tour. We also have a partner in the face of a national online media – Peika.bg. It turns out that we meet more understanding in media out of Rousse, rather than among the people, who have the greatest interest in our event to get more and more recognisable for the tourists.

Given that in their concept the pedestrian tours are designated to the foreign visitors of the city, the quality of life of the local people doesn’t quite influence their realisation. The citizens of the city can only benefit from the fact that there is such an option for foreigners. That is why I am partially surprised that people treat our initiative with suspicion and irony because it is free. There is a conviction that if you don’t pay for something, it has no value and brings no value. This is not true, of course. In Germany, 28% of the population is active in a voluntary initiative. The realisation of the personal responsibility for the overall improvement of the certain situation leads to action in the name of a cause. Whatever we think in Bulgaria it has been proven historically that the paradigm “I win, you will lose!” doesn’t work in the long term neither for the society nor for the winner.

Rousse is said to be the city of the free spirit, even though many treat this definition ironically. What traits of the free spirit do you see embodied in the Tour? How does it contribute to our city’s transformation into a modern European city?

For me the free spirit is carried in the heart and mind and honestly said, man can be poor, hungry and thirsty, and be still free. There are many examples of that in human history. The freedom of spirit cannot be taken away by anyone. That is why I think that if the people who live in Rousse believe that this definition does not show the truth about the city, it is right, in my view, to think on questions, such as: “What do I do personally, in order to improve the social medium I live in and change the things that prevent me from dreaming, from realising my ideas, from feeling free? What is the example I give to my children? Would I like to support a good idea of somebody else and help make it happen?”. Only through the conscious personal responsibility of every member of the society, the circumstances, which limit us, can be changed.

My personal observation is that in Rousse there are not a lot of initiatives like ours – a group of people who unite around a certain idea without being paid and working together for its accomplishment. There are of course terrific representatives of the NGO sector in Rousse. E.g. there is the centre for children care “Equilibrium” or the Bulgarian-German Society for Help of Animals. But at least part of the people with big hearts, who develop these incredible initiatives is paid for their efforts. It is ok to be like that if this is their basic job. At the Tour we have a regular job and the tour is an addition, an expression of our free will to put efforts in the name of the city, so that we could tell that Rousse is the home of the only Nobel Laureate, born in Bulgaria – Elias Canetti, that Rousse is the birthplace of one of the laureates of the first technological Oscar for Bulgaria; that the city contains the traces of brave and strongly-spirited men, who devoted to something they believed in – the freedom! This is what I call free spirit – and this is something, which no one can take away!

The very idea for the Tour is abstract and an expression of the free spirit, namely – the realisation of an event, which brings something different from the immediate profit or material gain – to help Rousse approach its potential and indirectly to increase the well-being of its citizens. If a tourist knows that he/she has the option to spend the summer evening of Saturday in such a way and to learn interesting things, if it is indeed funny for him, he may recommend the tour to somebody else and can even prefer to spend some 2-3 days more in Rousse and not in another city.

The Ruse Summer Free Tour has received the award of the Rousse Municipality for an original tourist event of 2018. What is the place of this tour among other similar initiatives in the big cities in Bulgaria? What are the plans for the development of the tour in the next years?

We are very thankful for the nomination and thank all who have voted for us and with whose support we could win in our category.

There are plenty of things we can and want to develop – e.g. the frequency of the tour. Such initiatives in other Bulgarian cities and abroad take place every day and even a few times a day. Of course, this is a function of the flow of tourists. We can’t compare ourselves to the tourist flow in Sofia or Prague.

The underestimation by authorities of the need for a highway up to Rousse is a factor, which influences the situation negatively. If you have three days in Bulgaria, no matter how great things you have heard about Rousse, the very thought that you have to travel from Sofia to Rousse at least 4 hours, would make you think twice.

The access to the city from the river has also been consciously neglected – both at local and at the national level. While river cities such as Hamburg use the river for cheap urban transport and tens of small ships circulate every hour from Budapest, Vienna, Warsaw or Bratislava to close river towns, in Rousse we have only the ship “Roustchuk”. It is terrific to have it, but from the standing point of the foreign tourist, it doesn’t lead from one place to another and doesn’t help his/her tour of Bulgaria.

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