A Travellerspoint blog

Bulgaria

Sofia

previously known as Serdica, Triaditsa and Sredets.

sunny 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.

5114428875_55d815c233.jpg

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!

-Arwyn

Posted by arwyn 10:15 Archived in Bulgaria Comments (3)

Midnight Express

A Bulgarian border crossing

overcast 13 °C

The original "plan" was to meet up with my friend Ahmet in Istanbul after the sailing/Ephesus tour, however he's in London on business, so we'll have to defer the meeting for some other time. We've decided to leave the tourism of Turkey behind and continue the journey through Eastern Europe which begins in Bulgaria. We have EU rail passes to get from Bulgaria to Germany but we need to get to Bulgaria first. The standard options are plane, train and bus. Flying in would probably be too expensive for the average budget traveler and we read that taking the train from Turkey to Bulgaria would be slow and sketchy in parts. Not especially wanting to deal with sketchy or slow, it seemed that the bus is the way to do it. So without knowing anything of Bulgaria, we booked an overnight bus to Sophia which is the capital of the Republic of Bulgaria. The bus ride was mostly uneventful with the exception of the Turkey - Bulgaria border crossing.

Leaving Turkey was pretty easy. It was around 1:00am when we got to the border and A Turkish border control person came aboard the bus and took everyone's passport. He mumbled something like "Kanada" as he read the passport and took it from me. A short while later one of the two bus drivers was handing the passports back and we moved on. We moved on about a few hundred meters and stopped at some large dimly lit, nondescript building and everyone started to get out. I thought this was part of the border control so I stepped off the bus with passport in hand and asked the driver what to do. He said it was a smoke break so I got back on the bus. A little while later I realized that it was a duty-free shop that we were in front of when I saw most of the passengers and the second bus driver coming back with bags filled with cartons of cigarettes. While all this was happening, the first bus driver was taking out black plastic bags from a compartment and getting them ready for something. We sat around waiting for a about another 20 minutes while the two bus drivers talked quickly in Turkish and started tearing apart the cigarette cartons and stashing them all over the bus. The smokes went under the stairs, in the top luggage rack and covered with blankets, behind empty seats and basically anywhere else they could stash them. All this happened while Arwyn and I looked at each other with raised eyebrows. When the drivers had finished stashing the smokes, we moved on towards the Bulgarian border entry. This part took a long time as we were about 8 busses in line and it seemed like every car and bus was being searched. The first bus driver headed off with another passenger towards some building off the the left which had a sign that might have said traffic control or something like that. Its tough to tell because the Bulgarian language is part of the Slavic linguistic group and it has letters much like Russian. Anyways, these two took off and we never saw the passenger again. (There might have been an issue with his passport or something).

Eventually we piled off the bus and we started to go through the border crossing. Once we all passed through we stood around waiting for the bus to come through and get searched. This appeared to happen in two stages. First, a border crossing guard came on the bus and looked around a bit and chatted with the second bus driver who was moving the bus along at this point as the first driver was still MIA. We saw the second bus driver quickly slip something that looked like a pack of smokes to the border guard who quickly pocketed it, got off the bus and opened the gate. The bus moved to the other side of the gate and stopped. About this time the first bus driver returned and the bus got searched again by more officials with flashlights. They checked through all places I mentioned earlier but only seemed to come off the bus with a few bottles of water that I suppose couldn't be brought across the border for some reason. We all got back on the bus and headed on towards Sophia. A little while later we noticed that there was a black plastic bag with a carton of smokes in the seat pocket of our seat, as well as in the seat across from us where a Turkish girl was sitting. I'm assuming that some stuff got moved around while the second bus driver got some quick advice or something from the first border patrol.

Around the end of the trip when were were in the city limits of Sophia, the second bus driver came round looking for his stash. When he had collected it all, they made a quick stop at the side of the road and dropped it off with some guy who I think was a taxi driver.

That's about the extent of the excitement for the over night bus ride. I get stressed out at border crossings and if you've ever seen the movie "Midnight Express" you'll know why this one was a little sketchy.

Anyways, it's about 3:00 in the afternoon and much colder than Istanbul and the Aegean coast by about 10 degrees. I might need another sweater. Time to find some information about the country...

DSCN2277.jpg

Here is a quick photo from outside our hostel window. Apparently the red lettering says "Garage"

-Jason

Posted by jcobham 04:15 Archived in Bulgaria Comments (2)

(Entries 1 - 2 of 2) Page [1]