Sunday, 20 January 2019

Welcome to Bulgaria

Sofia!
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!

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