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Trip Report 36 Hours in Sofia

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Enchanting. If one combined the cultures and flavors of Turkey and Greece and the Orient, and Russia and Eastern Europe and the Balkan States, sprinkled in a little exotic Gypsy character, then mixed them all together in a city it would be Sofia. I only had 36 hours to experience the city, but wanted to share my notes with others interested in traveling to Sofia, as there aren’t many related posts on this forum.

From arrival it was clear that I was not in Western Europe. The Immigration Officer asked me many, many questions, and the lack of ATM's in an international airport was a little unnerving. Taxi drivers are insane; I just accepted that and held my breath every time I entered one. Potholes and missing cobblestones abound, yet I did not twist an ankle navigating the city in my stacked heel boots. Graffiti and cigarette smoke are everywhere, too.

Yet, older Bulgarian gentlemen held doors open for me. NYC and Paris-style high end designers have stores along a few fashionable streets. Billa and Carrefour have made their way into this part of Europe from Germany and France. Fur seemed to be the new black, in spite of the 20° day. The streets along the tourist routes were clean and inviting, and I felt perfectly comfortable wearing my Canon around my neck as I wandered Sofia's "Yellow Brick Road."

Is it still considered "chain smoking" if the taxi driver has three cigarettes in his mouth at once? He didn't, but it seemed like it by the pace at which he was lighting cigarettes on our 10 minute drive to the restaurant on the evening of our arrival. Alive and safe, we were deposited at the restaurant I had painstakingly selected, one serving traditional Bulgarian fare in an old wine cellar. Four forks straight away for the decor.

And four forks for our meal. Not knowing what to order, even with English translations on the menu such as "Ewe's Milk Paste with Walnuts and Garlic" and "Lamb Guts with Mushrooms and Cheese" to help us, we surrendered to the very helpful (sort of) English-speaking server, who brought first a gorgeous salad plate. We savored every bite, and cleaned the plate with the yeasty, crispy, toasted bread at the table.

The main course was a shared kebab of pork, fabulously presented and equally as delicious. A litre of "No Man's Land" Bulgarian red wine complemented our meal, chosen of course by our server. The wine comes from a 7km region of Bulgaria that was once the "DMZ" between Socialist and Communist Bulgaria. The area is of hilly terrain and volcanic origin; the vineyard, established in 1940, is now a protected preserve. Our server also brought us Bulgarian baklava and espresso to finish the evening, and even called a taxi for our return to the hotel. The entire dinner, including the litre of wine and the taxi fare, rounded to approximately 40Euros equivalent.

The following morning I set off to see the sights. Conveniently the yellow painted cobblestones (a gift from Emperor Franz Josef to his Bulgarian cousin) link most of the Sofia's important sights, so it is conceivable to navigate the city highlights without a map. I know this because I started out without one, assuming that the hotel would have maps for their guests.

The hotel offered neither tourist information nor a suggestion of where to find any, so I navigated with a photo of a walking tour I'd taken from the Internet with my iPhone. I asked the taxi driver to drop me at the Tsar Alexander II Monument to start my tour. Of course it is undergoing restoration so I got to view the screens instead. An easy walk from the monument then brought me to the National Assembly. Protests here eventually led to the fall of the Socialist party in Bulgaria.

Nearby was Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, named for Tsar Alexander II (The Liberator). Byzantine in style, it is believed to hold up to 7,000 people. I stood inside for a while; that estimate seemed reasonable. Photos were not permitted inside, a recurring theme of my tour.

St. Nicholas the Wonderworker church is of Russian design, and its gold domes shimmered beautifully in the sun. Inside there is a small vestibule with tables and chairs, and little note pads, to allow worshipers to write their prayers and place them at the altar of St. Nicholas. Photos were permitted, but I did not wish to disturb those engrossed in their writing.

The Archeological Museum resides in a former mosque, and contains an impressive collection of Roman Balkans ruins. No photos, of course. This was the only museum open on my touring day, because I somehow took leave of my senses and planned my Sofia trip for a Monday, when most of Europe’s were closed. The two I had most wanted to visit, the Museum of Ore and Man, and the Museum of Socialist Art, will just have to wait for another time.

By late morning I really needed both a snack and a map. As good fortune would have it, the former "Central Department Store" was near, so I wandered in to search for food and direction. A small grocery in the building offered a colorful guide, complete with a street map. Yay! Armed with a snack and my guide, I took a few minutes on a sunny bench to plot my course. Only then did I discover that the sights discussed in the narrative were not anywhere to be found on the map! It seems as if two separate people made the map and wrote the narrative, and did not have a meeting before sending their work to the publisher.

So, the afternoon was spent much like the morning, navigating with little more than the yellow bricks and a tourist map that did not identify all of the tourist sites. I found St. Petka, a 15th century church that sits below street level. This is because under Ottoman Law, a church could be no higher than a Muslim on his horse. The church is striking for its wall paintings (100 Lev fine for taking photos!), and because it is surrounded by a glamorous and modern part of downtown Sofia.

Not far away, or maybe they were--the map turned out to not be all that great, either--are the Sofia Public Mineral Baths. Bulgaria is known for its mineral waters (which are quite tasty) and allegedly curative springs that feed the baths. No surprise, the bath was closed for touring because it is under restoration.

Adjacent to the baths is the Bania Basi Mosque, the only remaining active mosque of the Ottoman period. Although under restoration, visitors were permitted inside. But I chose not to go inside, because the two young boys "guarding" the shoes looked just devious enough to make off with several pair, and I did not wish to roam Sofia in my stockinged feet.

Across the street from the mosque is the Central Market, offering butchers, cheesemongers, and the like, as well as small stalls selling traditional items. And, a Biofresh Rose Oil retailer. It had been recommended to me that the Biofresh rose oil products were among Bulgaria’s finest, so I bought several to try.

Also across the street from the mosque is a McDonald’s, where one of Sofia’s “dogs without obvious homes” wore me down with his beautiful expression, so he and I shared a package of fries and enjoyed the people watching on a warm afternoon. If I had driven to Sofia, the beautiful dog would now be sharing the sofa with our resident Hound.

St. Nedelia Church, nearby, is noted for its interior woodworking. I was ecstatic that photos were permitted inside, only to learn that the church was closed for a special event. At least it wasn't under restoration.

My final church for the day was Hagia Sophia, built over a series of churches dating from the 4th century. Although plain on the exterior, the inside was an architectural timeline of history. I think the kindly nun took pity on my forlorn expression and allowed me to take a couple of photos in spite of the "No Photos" sign, but I was soon busted by another more pious nun and had to stop.

While making my way back to the hotel I came across what appeared to be another market near Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, this one selling vintage clothes. I walked through and noticed that 1) there were several benches filled with people dressed in these vintage clothes, talking and having coffee; and 2) many of the people in this "market" were staring at me. As I am often stared at in Vienna by the older generation for not being dressed up enough when I grocery shop, I paid no mind to these gawkers, either.

Continuing around the cathedral, I noticed a crowd of people holding signs and singing. I walked over for a closer inspection and found myself face-to-face with local law enforcement. Seems I had wandered onto a scene from a movie being filmed, and the kindly officer was shooing me out of the way! And that vintage clothing "market" was actually the dressing area for the movie extras! The officer did not know what movie was being filmed, so I'll just have to add the next new release from Bulgaria to my Netflix cue to see my movie debut.

I wrapped up my day with a walk through the market at the end of the hotel street. The hotel desk clerk said it was open 24 hours for snacks and the like. Not expecting more than a basic market, I walked over to investigate and felt like I had wandered into Dean and Deluca. Bright aisles, gorgeous displays, I mentally began deciding what I could have my husband bring home (he checked, I carried on). Fresh dried paprikas? Yes. Greek Olive Oil, barely 3 Euro equivalent for a half-litre? Yes. Three jars of a favorite French terrine, just 2 Euro equivalent each? Absolument.

We enjoyed our meal the previous evening so much that we returned on the second night to sample other parts of the extensive menu. Once again we were not disappointed. My husband’s “Chicken cooked in a clay egg” was a melt-in-your-mouth tagine-like dish, and my “Trout on Fire” was a perfectly wood-grilled whole trout, ever so gently seasoned. We had begun our meal with a cheese and salad plate that was large enough for four people (Bulgarian cheeses, marinated eggplant, eggplant puree and roasted paprika) and so passed on the baklava.

Sooner that I wanted my short holiday came to an end, and so I look forward to my next visit.

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