To write a full review for this trip would take me days but I’m going to try to condense it into a few short paragraphs.

The entire trip was absolutely nothing I expected and everything I could have hoped for. I have no experience travelling in Eastern Europe so, as a naive traveller, I decided to add a day in Sofia with my fellow Kyokushin sister, Andry, before making the trip to Sandanski. We laughed and ate Bulgarian food, drinking Bulgarian wine, surrounded by immense mountains that you can see all around you when you stand on the streets of Sophia. There is an air of calm about the city, a mix between the western cultures of cocktails and Starbucks that are nestled into street corners of soviet buildings and next to Bulgarian bakeries. It was refreshing not to meet English speakers and hilarious trying to explain to the bakery lady that all Andry wanted was a pastry with cheese, the cheese part being essential! We found a cheap (questionable!) Air B&B right in the centre and we set out as tourists, greeted by an unfamiliar language and a wonderful Bulgarian band as we ate and drank into the evening. The following day we took electric scooters around the city, practiced our Katas by the SOFIA sign and explored the cathedrals before going to the airport to meet the rest of the team.

Sensei greeted us with giant hugs and MORE CHEESE PASTRIES! And then it was 3 hours to the gorgeous Sandanski town. It’s interesting because as a team we often don’t talk during training. There are jokes and bits of conversation but this was the first time I was spending social time with most of the team who were on the trip. I was also acutely aware that everyone was there to train and I had several warnings about the intensity. I would consider myself fairly fit (I work out a lot both in and outside of my job) so how hard could this trip really be? Plus, there was a pool and spa at the hotel so I was confident I had this in hand. That was until I was informed of the 2k run to AND from the dojo! But this was day one of my holiday, I was not to be deterred!

Our first training session was in the warm evening at the amazing Kyokushin gym in the town. We all loved the gym; it had a wrestling mat floor and a variety of weights and fun climbing things. So, we went at it, our first crazy training session. The wrestling reminded me a lot of BJJ training and we all absolutely loved it. After this we had a very sweaty run back up the hill to the hotel for dinner and resting.

So, we were now into day 3 of my trip, day 2 of the actual training camp and my experiences had been fairly relaxed so far, but NOT THIS DAY! I dragged myself out of bed 5 mins before we needed to be downstairs, meanwhile my roomie and travel partner was up at 5.30am to do meditation to feel more zen or something. I’m pretty sure the extra hour of sleep was more beneficial but she managed to prove me wrong by being a bundle of smiles and delight while I grunted my way down the stairs, devoid of any caffeine and trying my hardest not to drag my feet for the 2k ‘warm up’. I actually hate happy morning people. Which is also not allowed on a karate training camp apparently. It’s supposed to be positively character building.

The morning hit training was insane. It was so quiet outside but in the gym it was not. We split into groups and began the insane work out. I don’t know if it was the gym, or the coaches, or the other team members that made us all push hard but we were all drenched in sweat by the end of training. It’s like the mountains make you feel stronger and you want to prove you should be there. I was also conscious that some of the higher-grade team members that had been before had been on the trip when it was all boys and so all 7 of us girls pushed harder than we knew we could. I think we all wanted to prove the girls could and would fight with the boys, and that they could perhaps even learn a thing or two!

After a sweaty training session, it was back up the 2k hill jog for breakfast. The water fountains on the way back up were like liquid heaven, mineral water fresh from the mountains at perfectly spaced-out points on the run. We all tried to eat well before resting by the… oh no wait, we had ANOTHER TRAINING SESSION. By this point I’m questioning my life choices because there is a perfectly good pool outside, its 35 degrees and we have ice cream and sunbeds calling. But Sensei assured us the next training session would be special, and wow it really was.

We went to train with our Sensei’s Sensei. The master of Kyokushin himself, the man who actually frightens the man who cannot be frightened. What a training session, out in the sunshine, barefoot on the grass, he taught us high level techniques intermixed with insane fitness exercises. We discussed fighting philosophies too and it stuck with me that he would prefer to fight and win on good technique than to knock someone out. His value of the other person in front of him was to not break them physically, but to beat them mentally, to outsmart them with techniques, some simple, some complex, it gave me food for thought on my run back to the tranquillity of the spa hotel. I began to see there was more thought within fighting, it has more crossovers to my own sport than I first imagined. You read your opponent, feel them, outsmart them. You make decisions when you’re fighting, you don’t just aim to hurt them as much as possible. I needed an ice cream to process my thoughts.

Finally, we were able to relax by the pool. I think we all just went from one pool to the sauna to the steam room to the ice baths and back again in rotation. With the occasional flip in the pool, this was the holiday I came for. A holiday that involved… another training session? It did take slightly more convincing this time for the 2k run at 6pm. I’d have happily continued to lounge by the pool but I don’t think that’s the character-building Sensei was encouraging us to do. The training was tough, and I was starting to feel muscle soreness and my ankle injury.

The second full day on our ‘holiday’ was the toughest day I’ve experienced in a long time. We travelled up to Bansko to attempt Vihren, the second highest peak in Bulgaria. I grew up near the Lake District, I had this one down as far as I was concerned. Hiking up mountains? Please, I grew up in the mountains.

Wrong. Nothing prepared me for an alpine hike in the heat of summer. I was also two days tired by this point, I had an ankle injury from a rogue horse that stood on me three days before the trip and muscle aches for days. As a group we are all relatively fit, we train 2-3 times per week and most of us do some other form of work out too, but add in altitude and tiredness, we had to pull together as a team. We also lost Sensei early on as he had to help two group members descend due to injuries so we were on our own and it was tough. Our higher grades pushed us on, they lead the group and took charge, they guided us up the difficult, changing terrain. When a member of the team was struggling, there were team members who stopped, everyone shared water, food and snacks. We all had time to laugh and tell stories, we got to know each other in a different way, each person adding to the group, bringing some form of positivity. Reaching the top was such an achievement, but we reached it as a team. It wasn’t easy, but my goodness it was worth it. Standing at the top, overlooking Bulgaria, Greece, Macedonia, standing in a foreign place that made you feel so small, it was overwhelming. There is something about achieving the impossible with people that brings you all closer together. We all certainly felt that as we began the decent, which was arguably harder than the ascent! Relief at the bottom as we jumped into the ice-cold river near the bus. I think the only way I can describe the feeling is absolute joy. We were all so relieved to get to the bottom, to be able to relax, feel the icy water cool our sore broken bodies, the sun cracked over the hilltops as we giggled our way back to the bus to sleep on the way back to the hotel. One and a half hours of sleepy people meant A LOT of sleeping mug shots of people for us all to enjoy after! Even Sensei, the man who never sleeps, managed to doze off for a while!

Naturally, when you finish a day like this you would head back to the spa, perhaps a gentle swim, a sauna to work through the muscles, ice baths for your sore feet and ankles. The rest of my evening is a blur and all I can remember is arriving back and Sensei saying ‘Okay guys, you have only FIVE minutes to get changed and back on the bus for our evening training session!’. I honestly thought he was joking. He was not.

But we met the mayor of Sandanski and we had a gentle training session in front of the local news cameras. The coaches were awarded for their contributions to the sport and it was a very worthwhile moment. We did also learn that when we think we’ve reached our limits, our sensei is definitely going to push us more! You would think we would all just collapse after this but we somehow found the energy for a late-night swim in the pool.

Thankfully, on Sunday morning, Sensei Zahari convinced our sensei that a 6am hit session was not necessary and we had a leisurely morning before our 2k run. (I must admit I began to enjoy this gym commute). I was more nervous for this session, still being a low grade, utterly exhausted and having struggled to get the more complex techniques over this week I didn’t think there was much I would get out of this session. How wrong I was. Sensei Zahari worked through everything in a very simple, methodical manner. It catered for the lowest grade through to the highest grade. I really enjoyed getting to understand the combinations together and building up our attacks and defences, particularly developing on my own understanding and reflexive counter attacks.

Following this was our second leisurely afternoon. We relaxed as much as possible, helped by Sensei Yane Penkov who delivered an afternoon session on breathing techniques. He is a master in self-control and has achieved some amazing world records, all of which he attributes to breathing. Sitting in the shade of the trees, it was so nice to have some space to empty our minds. It had been so brilliantly intense but the chance for meditation was welcomed.

Our evening session was the dreaded pipe run. I had heard of this legend, I had prepared myself mentally, I even made it to the lobby of the hotel in my gym gear ready to complete this monster, but Sensei discussed this us that if we had injuries, we probably shouldn’t do this challenge. My poor ankle, which was swollen to twice its size, let out a telling throb, and I reluctantly (breathing a sigh of relief) spent the next hour by the pool…

The afternoon melted into our last evening. As it got dark, we headed to the mud baths. This was a huge highlight, the volcanic pools heating up our bodies. There was a cool breeze but even with this we couldn’t stay in the water too long. It was so hot! We all sat and reflected on our trip experience. I think we could all agree it was just not long enough! The mud felt weird under my toes, it absolutely found its way where no mud should go, and it oozed between my fingers, gritty and grey. It was so surreal, at 10pm, sat outside, surrounded by imposing mountains, laughing with strangers who had become friends in such a short time. Certainly not something I can forget.

The final morning, we did our last 2k run to the gym, far earlier than was necessary, and we did one last session with Sensei Dimitar Stoyanov. We worked on the techniques we had practiced during the camp, followed by a good cool down and stretching session. It was so sad to leave the gym, running back up the hill, filling our bottles from the water fountains. It wasn’t something I was ready to leave behind.

On the bus back to the airport I reflected on my experience, and I think I managed to sum up a few answers to the FAQ’s people might have;

It’s not a holiday, don’t be under the same illusion I was, it is so much more than a holiday.

You will need more than one pair of gym shorts.

Bring painkillers. Lots of them.

Injuries are mostly healed by strapping various bits together. Unless your leg is hanging off, you can train.

No one speaks English, it’s beyond refreshing and also hilarious trying to communicate. I’d take a fellow Bulgarian with you wherever you go for translation.

You don’t have to speak Bulgarian to be able to spar with a Bulgarian. But you will probably lose.

Cheese is an essential part of Bulgarian cuisine, but learn how to say cheese in Bulgarian

Thank you sounds the same as thank you in French but without the accent.

The water fountains are liquid gold, no one can persuade me otherwise.

You are not as fit as you think you are. Train before you come.

When going up an alpine mountain make sure you screw your drinks bottles tight, because when they leak on your food it isn’t so fun.

Boys with beats somehow give you motivation when you want to sit down and cry.

You will probably cry, it’ll be the exhaustion, but you feel refreshed afterwards.

Electric scooters are the best way to get around Sofia.

Absolutely stay an extra day in Sofia

Saunas, steam rooms and Jacuzzis are an essential part of training recover.

It’s still not a holiday.

You will become so close to your fellow team mates who will surprise you in so many ways. Discussing religion and death with blokes who you assumed were MMA meat heads is fascinating and enlightening.

Following this discussion, you will challenge your own stereotypical thoughts and views, and realise the you have more in common with those who appear less like you.

Being surrounded by mountains somehow reminds you of the important things in life.

You will probably get closer to your roommate than you ever imagined. There will be no secrets and you will regress to teenagers.

Sensei isn’t joking about 2k runs and training sessions, it will be one of the hardest physical experiences, but you have to push.

Mud baths are the best end to a trip.

Sandanski will become your home away from home, and you will know you can come back any time and you will be welcomed to the gym like you were never away.

It is absolutely not a holiday; it really is so much more than that.

Thank you, Sensei Simeon, for organising such an incredible trip.