previously known as Serdica, Triaditsa and Sredets.
20.10.2010 - 22.10.2010 5 °C
So far, Bulgaria's great! When we first arrived I was tired and the Cyrillic alphabet totally boggled my mind, and I wondered how we would ever be able to do anything in a country where we couldn't even read the street signs, let alone speak the slightest bit of the language. We wandered around the city centre, gawking at the gold onion domes of the Russian Church and the cathedral. We found the Tourist Info office with the help of some other travelers at our hostel and a map they passed on to us, and we got instructions on how to get to a couple of other places. Then we had a "Free Sofia Tour." There's a group of four people in the city who give free tours in their spare time, and you can give them a tip or donation at the end of the tour if you liked it. At 6pm we met our guide, Boyko, on a street corner downtown. We waited a few more minutes to see if anyone else would show up, but no one did, so we basically had a private tour. For two hours Boyko walked us around Sofia's "centrum" (in Turkey and Bulgaria that's what they call the centre or core of the city), pointing things out we would never have noticed on our own, and giving us a very knowledgeable and entertaining history of the city and its important landmarks. We learned that Sofia has been inhabited for a very long time, and every time the city does some excavation or other they end up finding Roman ruins or other important archaeological sites. We even saw the latest example - a new subway line, a new Roman ruin brought to light. Sofia is situated near some hot mineral spring water, and in the middle of town there are public water fountains where you can go and just fill up your water containers with the hot water and drink it when it cools down. It tastes good - clear and fresh, almost sweet. We learned that, despite fighting on the side of the Germans in the second world war, Bulgaria never sent its Jewish population to the death camps. By putting off ratifying that agreement with Germany, Bulgaria saved the lives of 50,000 people, according to Boyko. After the war, however, most of the Jews in Bulgaria left and went to Israel - but hey, they lived to do so.
After the tour was over, Boyko asked us what our plans were. We needed dinner; so did he. He made a couple of calls and we ended up at the most remarkable restaurant. Its name in Bulgarian, Manastirska Magernitsa, translates to "Monastery Kitchen." It's a restaurant where they have 161 dishes from 161 Bulgarian monasteries! The menu is about 35 pages long, with descriptions of how to make most of the dishes. Some of the items on the menu had hilarious names, too, like "Male Marrows Against Divorce." The food was very good. The rakiya (grape brandy) was very strong, and so was the complimentary cognac at the end of the meal! And the prices were reasonable (in Canadian terms). I think for Bulgaria it was something of a slightly more expensive restaurant, but dishes were about the equivalent of 10 or 12 Canadian dollars, which isn't that bad. It was a really great evening, all around. I'm trying not to talk about nothing but food all the time, but there were these cheese-and-garlic stuffed roasted peppers which were so delicious I feel they deserve at least one or two sentences. I don't know what they did to those peppers, but mmm! So good. Reverse engineering needed.
And it turns out that Cyrillic isn't that terrifying, once you realize you have to throw out what you think the letters are and accept that what looks like a "P" is actually an "R," etc. The word for "restaurant" looks like "pectopaht," but it is pronounced like "restaurant." I've been figuring it out and reading signs like mad and can find my way around downtown just fine. Interestingly, you can never tell who in the city will speak perfect English and who will give you a blank stare. We went into a cheap sub sandwich shop on a corner and the guy behind the counter ended up asking us which university in Canada we would recommend to him if he was going to do a Masters in Business Administration. I'm sure Boyko's English was better than mine, and even in some shoe stores in non-touristy areas I was able to ask for a size and try it on (sadly, my feet are too big for Bulgarian boots). But just when you think "Wow, everyone here is so good at English!" you walk into a cafe and the cashier starts trying to use food sign language, holding up different shapes of buns for you to choose from.
Today we took a minibus to the South city limits and went for a hike up the slopes of Vitosha Mountain. The mixed deciduous forest (beech, birch, aspen and alder) on the lower slopes was absolutely stunning - golden fall colours, black tree trunks, emerald green mossy rocks. See photo above. I like Bulgaria. We're staying one more night (tonight) in Sofia, and then we are thinking of going South to the Rila Monastery. Apparently you can actually stay in rooms at the monastery, for about $15 USD per bed. We'll find out!