Monday, 25 February 2019

The Train To Plovdiv

old and New - the beautiful and interesting architecturestyles in Sofia.
Sofia - stray cats and uneven pavements.
A city of ruins and new life.
So far Sofia had treated me well and I have a lot of respect for this city. It's a bit rough around the edges to be honest, and crumbling in other parts, but there is still so much charm, beauty and history packed into the place - far more than many other cities around the World. Although the accommodation experience when I first arrived wasn't great, that was soon fixed and we spent the next 2 nights in a proper little hotel, where we had a private room, a bathroom to share with only 1 other room, as well as a real kitchen. Again, the price was cheap and it was a much needed upgrade. It was in the same neighbourhood, but that didn't bother me too much - for all the dodgy appearance, it wasn't dangerous as far as I could tell, just more than it's fair share of derelict buildings, stray cats and uneven pavements. Getting the tram into the centre was fun - climbing onto a rickety machine built in the 50s, completely unsure of where it's going, an ancient ticket-punch machine is the only inspector, and opening the window nice and wide so you can hang your head (and camera) out to see the city. Not many places you can do all of these things anymore - even the window! We caught a few trams around the city, not because we were in a hurry, or the heat was too much, or even because the city is that big, but purely out of joy. Walking is still a great way to see the city, as with most cities in my opinion - taking a big touristy bus is not my ideal way of seeing a new place. It may give you a quick overview of a city, things to come back to, or give you the chance to see more in 1 day of your time is limited, but for me it is too much hurrying around, too many people and not the way I want to experience a new place. I want to get on street level, walking the streets, feel the city, and stop for photos, street food or a beer if the mood strikes me. Free Walking Tours are great too.
Decorations in a local restaurant.
Great food and service - shame I can't pronounce the name.

How many people remember using these?
The city of lions.
We found a few places that were great for a break from the baking Summer heat. One, a very traditional restaurant, served lovely beer and I even considered coming back for dinner. The restaurant was heavily decorated inside, but it seemed like they really loved their country and tried to fill every square inch of it with things from Bulgaria, flags, cups, bottles, dolls, anything with the national colours on it. A small pizza joint on a busy street was a lunch time stop after the walking tour and it turned out to be great. I love pizza and was pulled into the store by the sight of huge slices in the window and the smell of pepperoni and freshly baked, crusty bread. I walked in and ordered 2 slices of the biggest pizza I'd ever seen and 2 drinks. They stuck the pizza back in the oven for a bit and then served it piping hot - it was delicious and only cost €3.50 for everything. As our last night in the city, we decided to head back to a restaurant that we'd stumbled upon the first day. Although I don't normally go to places that mention that they've been written about in various travel guide, splashed in huge lettering on their building, I did this time as it looked genuinely authentic, nobody hassled me out the front to come in, and their prices looked good. We sat down in the evening just as dusk was approaching, after a hot day of walking the city. Although busy, we were given a lovely place to sit inside and given wood-bound, thick menus immediately and the waiter quickly took our drink order. I'm sure he could just read my "I need beer" expression. The menu was as heavy as it was extensive, and I have found that the Bulgarians love their lamb, so much so that there was a whole page dedicated to the cooking and eating of lamb's heads! I settled on some fried chicken in spices, accompanied by chips and salad - I know, a little like a child's menu, but trust me, this was bigger than many 5 year olds and I struggled to finish! Man over came food and man enjoyed food also. We also ordered the traditional Shopska salad to go with our meals and pints of beer. It was a lovely evening and I found myself happily shuffling back to the room with a very full belly!

Stray cats are everywhere in this city - and they're friendlier than the people!
Even the money is called 'lions,' and its the city's animal - these beasts once roamed the hills around the city.
The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.
Tsar Samuil of the First Bulgarian Empire (997-1014).
The last leg of the walking tour is worth mentioning, as we finished up where everyone wants to see in this city - the Saint Aleksandar Nevski Cathedral. Although this is the big church and the one the tourists want to see, there were some other, smaller and older, churches that I found just as interesting and beautiful. The oldest building in the city is a 3rd Century church built by the Romans, St George's Church, which sits in the middle of the Parliament building in the centre of the city. The square is surrounded by a Communist-style office building, air-con boxes sticking out the windows, everything symmetrical, then there is this crumbling, red-brick building squatting right in the centre. Frankly, the Romans knew how to build things, to make them last and for looks as well - we have a lot to learn still. You can still see the Roman road as well as the stone columns that were used as central heating - yes, those clever Romans knew how to live and didn't like cold feet either! The 2nd oldest church in the city, the Saint Sofia church, is just opposite the far bigger cathedral. Dating to the 4-6th Century AD, it sits on what was Serdica's meeting place for its Council (Serdica is the old name for the country), and the city changed it's name from Sredets to Sofia in the 14th Century. When the Russians kicked out the Turks, they saw this as a religious moment as well as a military victory, and to celebrate, they gathered around the biggest church they could find. This was the Sofia church, but sadly there was no bell tower with a bell to ring to let everyone know how happy they were, so one was found and strung up on the tree outside the church. The cathedral, the Aleksandar Nevski Cathedral, is sitting on its own 'island' roundabout in a huge square and it can't be missed. With its white marble fa├žade and green domes, it's an impressive sight. The materials used to built it come from all around the World, the marble from Munich, metal from Berlin, the gates from Vienna and mosaics from Venice, just to name a few. Although you think it would be old, the cathedral is very recent as far as churches go - construction was started in 1882 but most of the work was done between 1904 and 1912. Inside, isn't as impressive as the outside I don't think, but it was very decorated, if a little dark. In the crypt there is a museum of Bulgarian religious icon, which the church (and our tour guide) claim to be to largest collection in Europe. Who I am to doubt?

The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.
Street Art in Sofia.
Ready to go?
Everyone loves looking out the window.
Although I'm sure there was more to explore, it was time to hit the road, or rails in this case. Yes, it was time for a train ride! I enjoyed my train trips in Romania, the old trains rattling along, windows that you could open, and just a real train trip from the past. Let me tell you - Bulgaria didn't let me down! It wasn't easy to buy a ticket, and I'm glad I did it the day before. Apart from the unfriendliness of people in general in this city, the people at the station were even worse. Then there is the bureaucracy of the place - you queue at a ticket office for ages, only to be told that they don't sell tickets to that city here, please go downstairs (they didn't say please), then queue again, get told something different. Then go back upstairs and try your luck there for the second time... eventually the tickets were bought and we were on the train early the next day. We were able to sit anywhere we wanted, and most people took a seat next to a window in the small, 6-seater cabins these trains have. Not me - I put my bag down and went straight to the window! I love a good train ride, and this one was made better by the fact that this train was a million years old, smelt like a train should (a combination of dust, grease and break pads), the windows could open and the toilet was a straight drop to the rails. I'm not a train enthusiast, just a big kid. The train left the station on its way to Plovdiv and a conductor came around to check tickets. Apparently we'd been sitting in 1st class and so had to move to 2nd class - I didn't see much of a difference to be honest, with vinyl seats instead of material ones, and the windows were only slightly dirtier. 2.5 hours later and much standing with my head and camera out the window, we arrived Plovdiv, the 2019 European Capital of Culture.

The train ride to Plovdiv

Far more interesting with your head out the window!
McDonald's written in Cyrillic.
Old-fashioned signal system.
The train station doesn't let you off right in the centre of Plovidv, but that wasn't a problem, I just followed the main street right up to find it. The walk there was interesting too - it seemed this city had also seen better days as many of the apartment blocks and houses were in similar shape to those in the capital. I can only imagine what Sofia would have looked liked it its day though! I'd been recommended to come here by a friend at work and I'm very glad I did. Once we found the city centre, we were impressed. It was clean, shops and restaurants were doing a busy trade, the sun was out and there was a fountain spurting water high into the air, the wind doing the rest to make a fine, refreshing mist. I was headed straight for the Roman stadium as I'm a big fan of the Romans - I mean, what did the Romans ever do for us? Passing lots of little shops and interesting buildings, including MacDonald's written in the  Cyrillic script (but still easily recognised), and I found the stadium sitting right in the centre of the city. It was slightly lower than the modern-day structures around it, but it has been preserved remarkably well for something that is nearly 2000 years old. Built in the 2nd Century AD under the reign of Emperor Hadrian (know for that bill wall in England), it is 240m long and 50m wide, able to seat up to 30,000 spectators to watch men and boys compete in games similar to those in ancient Greece. The site is very accessible - you're able to sit on the seats and walking around and even touch what is left. It's also free! I know touching ancient monuments isn't really giving them the respect that they deserve, and if everyone touched it there wouldn't be any left - but I love touching something that has seen 2000 years of history, seats that have had ancient Roman bums jumping up and down on, cheering their favourite gladiator, touching columns in Egypt that held up huge temples to the Gods, or being right next to one of the massive blocks that make up the Great Pyramid of Giza. Touching, I figure, is ok as these things have lasted this long, but respect needs to be paid in the way of pollution and keeping these pieces of history clean - the Stonehenge in England is a prime example of past abuse, where people actually camped right up against the stones, painted on them and even carved their names into them.

The Roman Stadium - free for everyone to explore.
Roman Theater of Philippopolis.
I love the Romans.
Cat amoung the ruins.
Next on my list was the Ancient Theater of Philippopolis. It was a bit of a hike up hills and past churches, around little pedestrian streets and cute houses, until finally I found it. I'm a lover of anything Roman, and this was no disappointment. The theatre is a huge, semi-cirle structure, marble bench seats all facing the stage and beautiful columns behind. This reminded me so much of the Roman theatre in Cartagena, Spain - I guess the Romans did really build everything like an IKEA desk, not quite flat-pack but all the same design to make things easier and faster to construct. Not that this takes anything away from the beauty of the structure - sparkling white in the hot Bulgarian sun, it's well worth the walk and even the trip to Plovdiv. I spent a fair bit of time here, touching the marble, admiring the work and engineering of such a structure, as well as trying to imagine how it would have been back then - actors on stage, lit by torches, the crowd dressed in togas and hanging on the edge of their benches as the drama unfolds. Only 5 Lev a ticket (€2.50) it was well worth it. After having a refreshing beer (€1.50 for a pint!) at a bar just outside the site (on lovely sofas no less!), we headed up to the top of the hill to see the old fort which we were told gives you a panaramic view of the city. Walking through the streets to get there though was an adventure on its own - small cobbled streets, interesting colours buildings leaning at strange angles and cats everywhere. There were a few stalls here, some museums and cultural shops, but to be honest it felt a little weird - the shop keeper outnumbered the tourists! I feel this will get very busy next year, but for now I enjoyed the walk, talking to the locals and also picking up a few souvenirs. The fort at the top of the hill did indeed give a great view, and the last view of the city before it was time to leave.
The streets of Plovdiv.
Ancient benches were ancients bums sat.

The cobbled streets of plovid's Old Town.
Cool Cat.
The train back to Sofia was a quiet one, and from there we only had time to go to bed and sleep. The next day was our last morning in Sofia and after a quick bite at the bus stop, we baorded our return bus to Bucharest. It was a long drive, but some of the sights were interesting. We drove through the amazingly green mountains of Northern Bulgaria, small windy rounds and little villages along the way. As the terrain flatterned out toward Romania, there were just fields and fields of sunflowers as far as the eye could see. Empy roads, sunny skies and green landscapes was our return bus trip - sometimes its good to spend a day on a bus to just see the countryside, rather than trying to sleep on an overnight one. We crossed the border into Romania and then crossed the mighty Danube too. My time in Romania and Bulgaria was over - it was time to return to Barcelona and spend some time in the sun before going back to work. This had been a great experience and one I'd never forget. Thank you Romania (again) and Bulgaria.

P,lovdiv - it should be on your list if you come to Bulgria.
Last sunset in Bulgaria.

Sunday, 20 January 2019

Welcome to Bulgaria

Crossing the border in the middle of the night.
Sofia's huge, Soviet-style apartments.
Romania is a great country to travel. It's still very affordable, from the delicious food and beer to accommodation and getting around, the people are friendly and welcoming and the country itself if absolutely gorgeous. But something for me that really stands out is the fact that it isn't yet full of tourists. It's not like nobody goes there or knows about it, but for the most part it is still unspoilt and not overrun. Yet. I'd visited my favourite city Brasov again, ventured to new places to explore, like Sinaia, and really enjoyed what I found. There's always something new to see and enjoy in this country. I was back in Bucharest and decided to jump on an overnight bus to the Bulgarian capital Sofia for a few days. I'd decided Sofia for a few reasons: 1. It was so close, around 10 hours by bus. 2. It was cheap to get there (around $10 each way). 3. A friend had visited Sofia a few months ago and loved it. And 4. I've never been to Bulgaria so why the hell not! Money would be changing, the language again would be different (not that I could speak Romanian anyway), and it would be something completely new - I wouldn't know the layout of the city, where to stay or how to get anywhere... just the excitement I need while on holidays! I'd done a little planning though and had booked a room close to the train station, which also doubled up as the bus terminal. The room was very cheap and looked ok, although when I looked at the address on Maps, the outside of this place looked completely derelict and dangerous. I booked and crossed my fingers that I'd find the place and that Google Maps' street view can sometimes be wrong.

Sofia's old market.

A cool, if somewhat rattly way of getting around the city.

The slightly run-down train station.
Saint Sophia - namesake of the city.
I used an Uber to get to the bus depot in Bucharest, saving a lot of time and stress and it doesn't even cost that much - far cheaper and more reliable than a normal city cab. Bags went on the bus and we grabbed a seat and prepared to bunk down for the night and try and get some sleep. It's never really easy getting sleep on a bumpy bus ride in the middle of the night full of other people, but a hot meal and a few beers definitely help the process. What doesn't help, however, is when you finally manage to drift off and then get woken up by the bus driver yelling at you to get your passports out for the border check. I'd just opened my eyes before the border, by the bright spotlights that lit up the road and surrounding area, enough warning to get my passport out and handed it to the driver, who was accompanied by an armed Bulgarian guard. He walked off the bus with a huge stack of passports and I did think for a moment that I'd never get mine back. One poor guy though, didn't quite wake up and so the bus driver had to shout at him when collecting the passports. America, as the bus driver called him, also fell back to sleep the instant his passport left his hand and so the driver repeatedly had to yell his name to return it, "America! America! Hey! Wake up America!" while pocking him as well. Slightly undignified I must admit, although I couldn't help a little smug grin. Yes, we were all called by our nationalities like we were just nameless foreign tourists. This was my introduction to Bulgarian politeness unfortunately. We woke up again at about 5am as the bus pulled into the terminal, still a bit groggy but having slept a little so it wasn't too bad. Now the mission was to get ourselves to the room and get some real sleep before the sun came up.

Office buildings - not stylish but they have air-con!

Trams run everywhere in this old city.

The New...
... and the Old.
Following the directions given my Google on my phone, we did find the hostel, but at first wasn't sure that this was the actual place. Firstly, the sun wasn't quite up and so it was still quite dark. Secondly, the place Google sent me to was exactly what it had looked like on Streetview, which was very disappointing as it was actually a dodgy looking neighbourhood that looked most likely to house junkies and drug dealers. Thirdly, the street names were hard to read, as Bulgarian is very similar to Greek and thus completely different to English. Finally, there was no hostel - there was just a glass door, no sign, no buzzer. I went up and down the street hoping to find something more like a place to stay than this place, but as I wandered up and down the street, it became very apparent that this place was the place. I peered through the glass door and saw what looked to be a small, hotel foyer, but there was some guy sleeping on the sofa. By pure coincidence, someone got out of a taxi and asked if we were looking to check in. I told the man that we were and he told us that he'll be back, then just disappeared. Nothing to do but wait, and wait is what we did - for about 30 mins until a woman turned up to open the door. We were given a 'room' just off the main 'foyer' and although I wasn't happy about the room or the guy sleeping on the sofa in the next room, sleep was highest on my list of needs so I figured I'd deal with it later. After a short sleep, the room and the hotel looked no better, so I booked another room just down the road in a real hostel (with a private room and a kitchen!), and would just sneak out tomorrow morning, having already paid for tonight's accommodation. It was time to hit the streets and see what Sofia had to offer!

Ruins in the metro.

Immortalised in Bulgarian Matreshkas.

Sofia's mosque in the 'Square of Tolerance.'
Oops! Its food! Not really the greatest name for a kebab shop.
The city of Sofia has has a long and particularly rough history full of occupation and wars. Although people have been living there since around 7000 BC, the Romans started the battles with the conquest of Serdica (now Sofia) in 29 BC, previously owned by the Thracians. It was raided by the Huns in the 4th and 5th Century, conquered by the Visigoths in the 4th Century, then again conquered by the Slavs in 617 AD. Krum of Bulgaria then took the city in 809 and Bulgarian rule last until the Byzantine Empire absorbed it into their lands. The Ottomans also took the city and held it for nearly 500 years until in 1878 the city was finally back in Bulgarian hands. There was a respite for the city until World War II when it was bombed by the Allies for being on the Nazis side. The Russians then moved in and took the city, leading to 40 years of Communist rule until the Revolution in 1989. Such a long history of fighting and occupation, you'd think that there'd be nothing left of the city, but it's quite the opposite in fact! There are ancient ruins everywhere you look - you can find the old Serdica gates under the street at the entrance to a metro stop. There are still the ruins of the old Roman Forum as well, which have been partially built over but are now being uncovered and preserved. Also due to all the occupying nations over time, there is a big mix of religions in the city and in one section of the city, aptly named "The Square of Tolerance" by the locals, there are places of prayer to all the 4 major religions, Catholicism, Orthodox, Judaism and Islam. From the centre of this imaginary square, you can see all of these churches as they are withing a few hundred metres of each other, which I think is quite amazing. During the Second World War, Bulgarian communities actually saved Jews from persecution by the Nazis, even though the country was allied with Germany. The locals (even the Orthodox members) started wearing the yellow stars of the Jews, confusing the soldiers and making it difficult to round up the real Jews, delaying the whole process and in the end saving more than 50,000 people from being shipped off the concentration camps. Many of these Jews moved to Israel in '48 after the state was recognised and only 5-10,000 Jews now live in the city. Also in this 'square' is the 5th and newest religion of the people - McDonald's! Built in 1994, this symbol of Capitalism was extremely popular right from the start and people drove for hours just to eat here.

The city centre.
Churches everywhere in this city.
Hanging out the window of trams.
A museum that was once a bathhouse.
My first impressions of the city while out and walking the streets was one of a city that has seen some very hard times, both in the distant past and not so distant. Although there are ruins and relics of the past everywhere in the centre, I found the suburbs around this very interesting. Huge, Soviet-style apartments are everywhere, rising 15 or more storeys up. Some even looked liked they'd been built at different times or in different stages, where a variety of materials had been used, going from bricks and painted concrete to metal sheeting. Although I wouldn't want to live in these massive, concrete estates, I found them very interesting and great in photos. When I arrived in the centre, the buildings changed a little, more mixed in with modern constructions which stood out against the somewhat crumbling classical architecture. Taking the city's Free Walking Tour is a great idea to get an overall feel as well as a deep and insightful history to the city by someone who is from here. Our walking guide was a chirpy and very informative man called Dimitri, who explained that nearly second guy in this country has the same name. Not only did he tell funny anecdotes and impart important historical events and dates, he also gave out sweets to the members of the group who answered his questions. Yes, I managed to score a sweet here and there too. He told us about the history, the people and how the city became the city it is today - there was so much information that I had to write some of it down to remember later and I struggled with this while trying to also take photos of what he was pointing out. I do remember that the city has a phenomenal amount of casinos, rivalling Los Vegas with more than 4,400 casinos - 40 times more than the US city! The city's Coat of Arms is very interesting too. A shield of 4 square with an overlapping part, the upper left is am unknown woman with a crown who first appeared on 4th century coins; bottom left is a representation of the mountains that can be seen from nearly anywhere in the city; bottom right is a god of healing, showing some hot springs in the city (of which none remain anymore); the top right is the Haiga Sofia (Saint Sofia) church; all of these are overlaid by a lion, which is the symbol of the city. Lions used to exist in the area centuries ago and the Bulgarians loved them so much that there are statues everywhere of the beautiful creatures - even the money here, 'Lef,' means 'Lion' in English!

Saint Sofia... and her 'offensive' nipples.
Lions are everywhere in this city - even the money is named after them!

A friendly stray.
The ex-HQ of the Communist Party.
The tour took a good 4 hours but I wasn't bored for a second. We learnt many things, like a nod here means 'no' and shaking your head means 'yes.' Tsar Alexander II could have been assassinated in this city if it hadn't been for the fact that he was always late to big events, this time for church on a Sunday - the dome wasn't so lucky though and didn't survive. A soft drink factory opened here in the 60s, the peak of Communism, and they sent an expert into the West to find a recipe to bring back - this guy fell in love with Fanta and brought it back. The head of Coca Cola for Russia later brought the World's favourite drink to Bulgaria, setting up a factory to produce it locally and printing the bottles in Cyrillic. There is a bar in the city where you can find all things Communism, including an old bottle of the sweet black stuff. Right in the centre of the city there is a huge statue of Saint Sofia, the city's namesake and favourite woman (the church is hers too). She was a Christian who lived in the 2nd Century AD whose daughter's were tortured and killed in front of her by the Romans as being a Christian was outlawed. The statue, which I found a little spooky, has offended some of the more religious residents, by the way she is dressed - a flowing black robe that clearly shows off her sizeable bosom, and nipples that are clearly feeling the cool breeze. Before Sofia got her pedestal, there was a statue of Lenin, standing there looking right at the then HQ of the Communist Party. I'm sure most people would find a Communist leader slightly more offensive than a pair of nipples, but that's just my opinion. The old building for the party was built there after the Allies bombed the square, and a large Communist star adorned the building, with the hammer of sickle of course, but the legend goes that everyone thought the star was actually made out of rubies. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, people managed to get up there to try and steal these 'rubies,' but were disappointed as it was only red glass. Even the hammer and sickle aren't there anymore, chipped off after the Revolution. Now a huge flag flies from the building - the Bulgarian flag is white, green and red, said to be coloured that way for Shopska salad (the country's favourite!), white for the feta cheese, green for the pickles and red for the tomatoes. Reminds me of Italy's flag of a margarita pizza! The tour was great and I now had more respect for Bulgaria and it's people.

Standing guard at Parliament House.

No more Hammer and Sickle on the ex-Communist HQ.
Some cool market finds.
So much more to write about this city to be honest - it was only a short stay but I felt that I'd done so much and seen so many things. How can you do any city justice in just 3 days. Walking is easy and you can see a lot here in Sofia, it's flat and easy, although quite hot in Summer. I really enjoyed catching the old trams around the city - they were cheap (or free if you don't know how to buy a ticket...) and they went everywhere. I love sticking my head out the window, feeling the breeze and getting a different perspective of everything - something you can't really do in too many countries nowadays either! I'd have one more full day here to see what I could before heading off by train to the 2019 European City of Culture - Plovdiv.

The flag - just a big Chopska salad!

The Train To Plovdiv

old and New - the beautiful and interesting architecturestyles in Sofia. Sofia - stray cats and uneven pavements. A city of ruins...