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Trip Report Bulgaria - Rila Monastery, Sofia, and a few restaurants

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I just returned from a short trip to Bulgaria on business. Before I left I posted here, and searched the boards, looking for a bit of info. There wasn't much, and I promised a few posters that I would post my experiences.

This really isn't a full-fledged trip report as it was a business trip, but hopefully there will be a few helpful points.

Travel Information:

United Airlines, KC-DC-Munich-Sofia Outbound, Sofia-Munich-Chicago-KC return. Nothing outstanding to report, a reasonable ticket of $1069 roundtrip.

The only thing to note is that there aren't many flights out of Sofia, and they seemed to run late. Munich is not a small airport, and a group of us barely made the connection. I do admit to being surprised that Lufthansa from Munich to DC did not have seatback videos at every seat. I thought every international flight had those these days!

Lodging: Holiday Inn Sofia 100 Euros, including breakfast, exclusive of VAT and city tax.

Our meeting was here, thus the choice of hotel. It is in the Business Park Sofia, so while convenient for business, you need to have a car or use taxis to go to the city center.

The hotel is quite nice, however, with a very nice pool and spa, restaurant and bar. The buffet breakfast was substantial, so if you can get a rate with breakfast included it is a good deal. The staff was outstanding. Shuttle service from airport 10 euros.

Holiday Inn Sofia
111, Alexandar Malinov Bvld
Sofia, 1766 Bulgaria
tel +359 2 8070707
www.holidayinnsofia.bg

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    Vodenitzata Restaurant (The Watermill)

    I was able to find a few restaurant recommendations on Chowhound, Lonely Planet, and google search, so when the concierge mentioned this restaurant I remembered it and said yes, let's go! I'm so glad I did as we had a great time.

    We took a wild taxi ride up the mountain to the restaurant. It was about 15 minutes, and with a small tip 10 levas - 7.50 USD. The restaurant is at the foot of the cable lift up Mt. Vitosha. It was all stone and wood, with Bulgarian folk clothing hung on the walls as artwork. There was also a rather large boar's head!

    With some of my looking about, I knew we wanted to try a few traditional Bulgarian dishes, and we started with the shopska salad. This was the start of some truly fresh and tasty meals in Bulgaria! The shopska had chunks of fresh cucumber, tomatoes, red pepper, green onions with sirene (white cheese) mounded over the top. Thank goodness we shared! It was so good.

    We shared two dishes, one called the pork tenderloin watermill style and the other a Balkan lamb dish. The pork dish was okay,not spectacular, with slices of pork covered with a cream sauce with corn, broccoli and carrots. The lamb was mouth-watering. The lamb was pounded thin then wrapped around a filling of spinach, mushrooms and cheese, then grilled over an open fire. Unbelievably good. As it turns out, the open fire was a grill just behind us, so it was fun to watch the cooking as well.

    They brought us a basket of grilled bread. Simply grilled with no garlic,no butter, just the flavor of the smokey wood fire. Very tasty.

    With all these, and a shared bottle of Bulgarian red wine (don't remember what it was, but a very smooth, mellow red) still water and coffees, and the total came to 93 levas ($70 USD) for two.

    The meal was great, and just reading the menu a blast, but even more fun was the entertainment! We had no idea when we chose to go there that there would be traditional Bulgarian entertainment. We were treated to dancing and singing, in full folk costumes, and then had asked for a taxi to be called.

    We thought the waiter was waving us through a door to the taxi, and came to find out he was pointing us to the next bit of entertainment, firewalking! There was a round fire pit with hot coals arranged in a cross.

    There was a woman in a white sort of caftan, holding up a religious icon, and a man with a big black handlebar moustache who proceeded to rake out the coals to cover the entire circle.

    Very ceremoniously they began walking on the coals. She would hold up the icon, turn to each side of the area, then walk around the circle. He would throw the coals up into the air, or kick them about.

    He picked up a small girl from the audience and carried her out over the coals. He pretended to drop her and she squealed a bit, and he carried her back. It was quite an ending to the evening. The night we were there we didn't hear any other English speakers, only the our Australian and American accents.

    There may be better restaurants, better entertainment, better deals, I don't know as this is the one I went to. All I can tell you is we had a great meal, and great entertainment.

    Vodenitzata Restaurant (The Watermill)
    info@vodenitzata.com
    www.vodenitzata.com
    +359 2967 1058

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    Renting a car, and the Rila Monastery

    We had Sunday free since we had come in early, so I convinced my friend Fiona to rent a car with me so we could drive to the Rila Monastery. She wanted to work, silly girl.

    We rented the car through Choice for the day. The concierage made the arrangements, and the car rental place brought the car and paperwork to us at the hotel, which was great. By renting a car with a manual gearbox we saved about have the cost, and ended up paying 60 levas for the day. (about $45 USD)

    After some amusing miscommunications about directions, and getting the desk staff to write the sign post names in Cyrillic so we could understand where to turn, we got on our way. After we got out of Sofia, which lived up to its crazy driver, pot-holed roads reputation, we made it onto the highway through the mountains and it was smooth-sailing.

    We had been warned about such things as having the headlights on (tickets if you don't) and traffice police, so I drove safely and at the speed limit. We did see some of the traffic police with their stop wands at the side of the roads, but didn't get pulled over for traffic violations or document checks thank goodness!

    The countryside is spectacular. We would make an ascent and level out in a mountain valley, make another ascent and level out, and so on. We passed orchards, and shepherds tending their sheep, sellers parked at the road with bags of potatoes or card tables with jars of honey for sale.

    We passed through a few small towns, with gardens filled with roses and often grapevines climbing over pergolas. As this is now November, we can only imagine how beautiful it is during spring, summer, and early fall.

    The town of Rila especialy seemed like every house had grapevines in their gardens, and frames stretched out over the sidewalks, again with grapevines draped all over.

    Once we got through Rila, we started climbing up a winding mountain road alongside a small river (or large stream if you prefer). We were quite startled by a few cows in the road, so needed to watch carefully. We started passing tour buses headed the other way, so knew we were on the right track.

    Parking at the Monastery was minimal, but we got luck and were able to park right at the entrance. There were parking attendants, which was quite helpful.

    You might want to google this monastery as there are no words I can come up with to describe how completely cool this place was. The setting in the mountains, the colorful murals painted on the inside of the church, ceilings, pillars and more, the red and white striped painted exterior, the incense inside the church, the devout visiting the icons.

    We eventually passed through to the other side and spotted a restaurant. Time for lunch! Or so we thought. I had read that having a trout lunch at a restaurant along the mountain stream was the thing to do after visiting the Monastery so we thought this was our chance.

    We were seated, I ordered a coke, then excused myself to the loo. I came back and Fiona said there wasn't any trout on the menu! Oh no! All there was was one tiny trout appetizer and I had promised her trout, so we were going to have to leave.

    After I assured her it was a Western style toilet, she excused herself to the loo while I waited to pay for my Coke. I paid, I waited, and waited, and then I saw some people head to the loo. Then there was a commotion, and I noticed a text message on my cell phone...Fiona was locked in the loo! After some consternation and commotion she was released and we left after having entertained a large table of family celebrants.

    We needed a treat though, so stopped at a stand a few steps away and got beignets. Nothing like hot fried dough and powdered sugar to make you feel better.

    We were to regret this later, but while we looked at souveniers both inside and outside the monastery, we did not buy anything except postcards and a history of the monastery. The quality just didn't look that good.

    We headed back down the road and stopped first so that Fiona could buy a jar of honey. We may have paid too much, but she got a small jar with mixed nuts inside, for 8 levas. ($6 USD) We saw a lot of the honey had nuts mixed in with it. I have never seen that before.

    Then we stopped at the next hotel/bar we saw, just on the right side of the road. I don't know the English name for it, but it had two trouts on the sign, so we knew there would be fish!

    We were seated right in front of the fire, the waiter came and started to tell us the special was trout, and we said we'd take it! He seemed amused by us and went away to bring us our meal.

    He first brought us shopska salads again. This may have been even better than the night before. This time there were red onions, no green onions and no red peppers. They were huge, but so good!

    Then he brought us a basket of bread, grilled again, this time big thick slices of crusty bread.

    And then! The star of the meal, a whole trout on a plate with the other half of the plate covered with buttery potatos. The fish had been caught that morning, was simply grilled, and just soooooo good!

    The meal and a shared bottle of still water came to 31 levas (23 USD)

    Back to town, we tried to drive to the city center, that did not go as well. I hadn't studied the map first and between being tired by the drive (by the way, about two hours to get there from Sofia), the unfamiliar street signs in an unfamiliar alphabet, and the aggressive drivers, this just wasn't a good idea. If you can avoid driving in Sofia itself, do so.

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    The Russian Church and Alexander Nevski Cathedral

    Unfortunately I now had to start working. I did take a break mid afternoon and took a taxi to the Alexander Nevski Cathedral. It was 8 levas for the ride.

    The hotel had called the cab for me, and told me to make sure to use the OK cabs coming back. The shuttle driver had also told me the first day to only take OK, and if not to be sure to look at the rates posted on the window. If it was above.60 levas, don't take it as they are too high, and if they have posted it they can legally charge you that amount.

    The Alexander Nevski is quite grand. It was built I think between 1904 and 1913 as a monument to Russian soldiers. It has got multiple domes, and the floors inside are laid with beautiful patterned stonework. The murals again are quite beautiful, the chandeliers quite grand, incense is burning. I light two candles, then leave to find The Russian Church.

    Just a few blocks away is this very small, very beautiful church. I wish I had the beautiful words some of you do to describe it. The gardens it is set in must be quite beautiful when in bloom.

    I couldn't take much time and needed to go back to work so just walked through a few market stalls before grabbing a cab back to the hotel. I now wish I had bought a few pieces of embroidery, but I didn't to my regret. It was a bit rainy and drizzly, I was hungry, those are my excuses.

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    Thank you for taking the time to provide such a vivid trip report. I've been researching Bulgaria for next year some time and your report is really making it more enticing for me.

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    Yes, thank you for this.

    I am skiing in Bulgaria early in January, and have been considering taking a day off to visit the Rila Monastery - I have previously researched this place, it looks wonderful, and you have confirmed this.

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    Toucan2-Great report - and refreshing to read as there aren't many posts about Bulgaria-yet! The vivid descriptions of your events really enhanced your report. Funny reading about your friend getting locked in the loo!

    Bulgaria is on our very short list of destinations we're considering for next year-just when we think we've decided on a destination, a report like yours appears and we start rethinking our decision! It seems like the time and effort it takes to get there is really worth it!

    Is English widely spoken and/or understood - of course I'm making an assumption that you don't speak Bulgarian?? How long of a trip is it from Sofia to Rila Monestary?

    Thanks for sharing!

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    Hi Deb, it was about 2 hours to the Rila Monastery from where we were in Sofia. No, I don't speak Bulgarian(: We managed fairly well. The hotel staff all spoke English, it was limited elsewhere, but you know you always manage.

    Some of the cab drivers spoke English, some didn't. I wrote down the addresses of places I was going and when they didn't speak English that seemed to work.

    There was a handy little guide called Inside Sofia at the hotel, and it was quite a help. It had some standard Bulgarian words so at least I could say please and thank you, look at the numbers, that kind of thing. It also had some basic questions such as who what where when how and why, greetings, eating out, etc.

    It also had the Cyrillic (I think I just misspelled that but I'm going to claim I am still jetlagged and be too lazy to go look it up) alphabet, and if I was going on a longer vacation there, I would want to spend some time with that in order to read street signs and other signage. Another source for that is http://2cyr.com/

    The guide was free, and I have simply never seen a better one supplied in a hotel as this one.

    It's www.insidesofia.com and is printed in Sofia. If you can request one before going, I would.

    It had quite a bit else about the country, people, and some somewhat frank observations! They have even now printed a book. I couldn't find a Fodor's guide, so this book worked out quite well!

    Julia t, I hear the skiing is fantastic. The folks from Sofia say it is just 30 minutes for them to get to skiing. There was snow on the mountaintops as we departed, so it is on it's way!

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    One last restaurant

    The rest of my time there is working, so no more adventures to the city center or the mountains. On the Tuesday night we did have a group outing to a Bulgarian restaurant in the city center. I am going to fail you on the name, location, and exact menu items as I did not make the arrangements.

    However, it was quite a night! It was a very very large restaurant, and apparently there is quite a large outdoor area as well. Tables were huge, and almost all the parties were very large. At each of our tables we had 15 people.

    Again, the food was amazingly fresh, and full of flavor. Each table had gigantic platters that had a base of something like pita bread, and huge mounds of what seemed like raita, one that was a cheese of some sort (at first I thought it was hummus, but there was a lot of cheese flavor) and another of a bean mixture. There were huge slices of cucumbers with basil in olive oil, roasted red peppers, roasted tomatoes with basil, a roasted small green pepper of some sort, some feta, and big crusty loaves of bread.

    They served raki to start, but I admit to chickening out. The alcohol nearly set my nose on fire just from sniffing it. They described it as schnapps, but it smelled an awful lot like brandy. We were also served another nice red Bulgarian wine.

    Service was, leisurely, shall we say! This was fine with us as we are having a fun evening out, as are all the other parties about. There are people of all ages, and it seemed like celebrations of all sorts going on. We all noticed how many people came in bearing huge bouquets of flowers for their companions.

    The original platters are taken away (and believe me, you noticed the muscles on those guys lifting the platters as they had to be three feet long) and replaced by platters of meat. I don't even know what all was on it. All sorts of grilled and marinated meats--chicken, pork, etc.

    It was hard to notice because now the entertainment had begun! It started simply enough with two beautiful young women singing a duet, in clear soprano voices.

    It progresses to the men dancing on the drums, then women dancing, followed by an instrumental quartet, followed by two women in diaphanous white gowns, followed by many more women in much more ornate belly-dancing type outfits. These women actually started stepping up on the tables and dancing down them, and this went on all around the room.

    At last they then started grabbing the hands of the restaurant patrons, and line danced throughout the restaurant. This went on in several waves. The entertainment finally ended with a final soprano solo with a large Bulgarian flag dropped behind her.

    As the evening ended, it was fun to watch the children trying to imitate the dancing.

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    Some final impressions

    Sofia itself is growing rapidly. The infrastructure (roads) has a ways to go, but don't let this stop you. Either be patient with it, or take cabs. I didn't have much time to visit the city itself, but had other friends that came in early and spent their time in the city.

    They really enjoyed it and said that the center is quite compact, and you really can walk most of it. There is some magnificant art, and they seem to be trying to save any antiquities discovered. I think Sofia has much to offer.

    Many of the apartment buildings and other buildings really looked beat up. It is hard to tell if part of this was the time of year, as I know some of our midwestern towns don't look quite as attractive as the trees shed their leaves, lawns get ragged, and flowers die.

    One of the things I did notice was how many flower stands there were, it seemed like everywhere. Between flowers on the streets, flowers in the gardens we saw in the country, and the large bouquets borne by guest in the restaurant Tuesday night, I got an impression of a certain sort of love for natural beauty.

    It is true as I had read, that there are stray dogs wandering about. But, they weren't in packs, and I didn't have any trouble. I did watch one chase a cat up a tree in the garden of the Russian Church!

    One thing that is hard to escape is the smoking. I ended up taking out my contacts every evening before we went to restaurants. It's their world, their country, deal with it and wash your clothes later(: I found a travel bottle of Febreeze came in very handy.

    I have spent a lot of time on the food I suppose. To me it is a lot of the cultural experience, and I try to sample local dishes. I love to visit grocery stores too!

    I don't know if this is true or not, but a man seated next to me on the flight to Munich said that they don't use any chemicals or fertilizers so that explained the freshness and the full flavor. He had been there for several months and had also been very impressed by the Bulgarian cuisine. He felt when they tried to gussy it up they didn't do well. He also mentioned that in the big grocery stores they handled their grocery carts much like they drove! (:

    Lastly, from what little I did see and from what I read, the Bulgarian countryside is outstanding. It is an inexpensive place to visit (once you get there) and if you are slightly more the adventuresome type, get on a plane!

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    Some resources, and final notes on some dishes

    It was harder to find information on Sofia and Bulgaria than some other places I have visited. I didn't have a lot of time for research either as I really have mainly been gearing up for my Australia trip next week and Bulgaria was a business trip. That said, in hopes of helping a few others out, here are some resources:

    www.bulgariatravel.org

    www.travel-bulgaria.com

    www.insidesofia.com

    www.hostelmostel.com

    http://2cyr.com

    There were plenty of tours to take out to Rila, although we enjoyed driving ourselves. The cheapest was probably Hostel Mostel at 40 levas. You don't have to stay there to go. Others were

    City Discovery - Rila 129.20 USD, walking tour of Sofia 3 hours, 18.24 USD

    Alexander Tours, 40, Pop Bogomil Str, 1202 Sofia, + 359 2 983 5258,

    Select Tours 359 2 973 1751

    Sights not to miss in Sofia if you have time:

    Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (don't forget the art gallery in the crypt of the church. I forgot it was there and could have kicked myself!)
    The Russian Church
    Church of St. Sofia (patron saint of sofia, the symbol of divine wisdom)
    St. George Rotunda
    Boyana Church
    Banya Bashi Mosque and nearby turkish baths
    Cov3red Market
    Alexander Batenburg Square
    Kristal Square
    Mount Vitosha - I forgot to mention the beautiful setting of Sofia, surrounded by mountains. Our hotel faced Mount Vitosha. You are able to get there by tram or bus in about 20-30 minutes.

    Some restaurants that were mentioned and/or recommended, I did not get to but just sharing the information

    Pri Yafata - folk style, fish restaurant, in a 3 story house. 28 Solunska Str

    Bay Gentcho
    15 Kniaz Dondukev Blvd 81 74 74

    Bulgaria
    4 Tsar Osvobediel Blvd
    870 202

    Krasimir Brankov 359 888 510 675

    Peter the First

    Some dishes to try:

    Shopska salad (description above, seems to be served everywhere.

    The ovcharska and selska salads seem to be variations, with additions such as eggs for example.

    Cheese boreks

    Eggs Panagyurski Style - poached eggs topped with yougurt and paprika and garlic.

    Sirene po Shopski - cheese baked in a clay pot

    Kapama - meat, sausages and stuffed wine leaves in a claypot, sealed with dough and left through the night on low coals.

    Banitza - cheese or cheese/spinach pastry

    Tarator - cold soup - yogurt, water, cucumbers, garlic, parsley, then I can't read my writing(:

    Kavarma - I had my last night at the hotel. Excellent, a sort of red stew, it had pork, paprika I think, mushrooms, and was topped by a poached egg.

    Lots of pork, cheese, and potatoes abound. There are influences of all the surrounding countries in the flavors.

    Well, that is it. Again, I hope it is helpful, and if you go too, please report back so we can hear about your trip!

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    Toucan2-You're right about making an attempt to learn a few basic words of the local language-just that small effort means a lot and goes a long way. Hope you enjoy your upcoming trip to Down Under half as much as you did to Bulgaria - and yes, you did spell Cyrillic correctly!!

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    Toucan et al:

    I'm an old Bulgarian hand, having driven most of the country long before it or Romania were at all
    popular (late 70's and in the 80's). Most recently, I escorted 16
    of my readers through Romania and Bulgaria. They couldn't imagine why I scheduled to take them through parts of Bulgaria..and then they all fell in love with the natural beauty, especially at Veliko
    Tarnova, Varna and vicinity and the countryside between the two.(I had last been there during rose season and the fields were magnificent).

    That restaurant Watermill you mention at foot of Vitosha...I was at a similar place (may have been the same )around '83, and there were absolutely no tourists of any kind except for a few stray Russians at the resto and roaming the streets of Sofia.

    You're right, Bulgaria HAS been discovered. Notices appear in all European papers regarding cheapo land and homes for sale in Bulgaria...the parade has begun.

    Stu T. (ah, for a crisp shopska salad!)

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    Stu, yours was one of the few posts I could find here when I was planning! I think it was from a few years back, but it still popped up when I did a search.

    Gary, just trying to do a bit of payback for all the wonderful folk on these boards whose help I have benefited over the years. Hoping my posts help someone else out there.

    Debs, yep, cannot wait for the Aus. trip. We went in 2003 and immediately started planning to go back. We will be gone 3 1/2 weeks, and I sorely need the break. It's great to have the long time off, but a long stretch between vacations to get there. I last took an entire week off in April ):

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    There is a lot of good information in the postings above. Just in case you are looking for some info on places potentially less traveled in Bulgaria, I have some of that and photo albums on my blog at
    http://travel.chinafinds.com

    Just look for the category - Bulgaria...

    I have posted info on Kazanlak (valley of roses), Sozopol, Bansko, Varna, Veliko Tqrnovo

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    Nick, yours was one of the few trip report postings I could find (along with Stu's). I enjoyed your pictures--from both trips! (as well as Monterey and more(: )

    Since I set up a Picasa album now, I have uploaded my Bulgaria pictures. Just a few, and before I had learned to use the new camera...so not always the best but still fun.

    You can see them here:

    http://picasaweb.google.com/Toucan2MD/BulgariaSofiaAndRilaMonastery

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    Thanks for the great info. I too am interested in the possibility of a trip to Bulgaria in the next couple years. When I'd researched in the past, particularly on Lonely Planet I think, I read some negative things about the country. This sounds encouraging for those of us who enjoy different destinations.

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