Notices

36 Hours in Sofia

Reply

Nov 14th, 2012, 05:38 AM
  #1
Original Poster
 
Join Date: Nov 2006
Posts: 1,864
36 Hours in Sofia

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.
fourfortravel is offline  
Reply With Quote
Nov 14th, 2012, 07:57 AM
  #2
 
Join Date: Aug 2003
Posts: 1,574
I love reading your report of Sofia!! You are a great writer, & Sofia sounds so interesting and different and affordable! May I ask why you were in Sofia for only 36 hours? Did you see other parts of Bulgaria? My husband would love the adventurous & unique cuisine!
Kwoo is offline  
Reply With Quote
Nov 14th, 2012, 07:58 AM
  #3
 
Join Date: Nov 2012
Posts: 3
Time runs so fast, when you have fun xD
DoDoMina is offline  
Reply With Quote
Nov 14th, 2012, 09:03 AM
  #4
 
Join Date: Nov 2012
Posts: 22
Great post, sounds like you had a lot of fun!
nikkiblast is offline  
Reply With Quote
Nov 14th, 2012, 11:53 PM
  #5
Original Poster
 
Join Date: Nov 2006
Posts: 1,864
Thank you all for your comments. I was only able to join my husband for a couple of days (he was there for a week) because of obligations at home, but I would have liked to see more of Sofia as well as the surrounds. There's always next time, I guess.

Sofia is a very affordable city. Our 10 minute taxi ride from the hotel to the restaurant was only 3 Euro equivalent, and eating out (except at McDonalds) was very reasonable. I purchased handmade table linens from the street markets and they were inexpensive, too, and of very good quality.

We became huge fans of Bulgarian cuisine while there. The breakfast yogurt was like the Greek yogurts I've tasted from the grocery stores, only way better. The cheeses ranged from feta-like to mild and creamy slices much like Swiss, and the eggplant we had was amazing. Neither of us are great fans of the aubergine, yet we almost came to fisticuffs over our dinner salads while trying to enjoy the last bites of the puree. There is also, according to our waiter, a special kind of Bulgarian tomato that was part of our salad; it was not nearly as acidic as most tomatoes and was quite pleasant tasting. Later in the week my husband enjoyed several lamb dishes, as well.
fourfortravel is offline  
Reply With Quote
Nov 16th, 2012, 08:17 AM
  #6
 
Join Date: Sep 2005
Posts: 6,818
Began traveling Bulgaria in the 80's...the changes in demeanor since then was exceptionally noticeable in, first in 1993 and later 2005. There is a substantial-looking restored sinagoga not far from the Nevsky Cathedral. Speaking to one of the congregants I was told that the government backed the entire restoration cost. Not the first time the government helped its rather small Jewish population. When Hitler insisted that King Boris begin deporting his Jewish population to the "east", the King immediately drafted Jewish adults and even teenagers to serve the country in railroad and roadbulding battalions...in effect refusing Hitler's demands. Boris's dangerously heroic action has been well documented over the years and his name has been duly honored in Israel.

"4 for travel" Sofia in the 1980's was nowhere near what you report in your beautifully written reports of today. Even then, costs were the lowest in the region. Food shortages were a factor to consider, but we lived on that great-tasting yogurt with diced vegetables and their famous chopka salad. My folk-dancing wife participated in Bulgarian dances wherever we came across the opportunity. A "nightclub" in the hills overlooking the city put on some very colorful and sprited shows and we were taken there by an embassy employee.
stu
tower is offline  
Reply With Quote
Nov 16th, 2012, 08:28 AM
  #7
 
Join Date: Aug 2003
Posts: 1,574
tower, I enjoy reading your comments! I know nothing about Bulgaria so your comments are very informative and educational! I've read your other posts, sounds like you've had an interesting career!
Kwoo is offline  
Reply With Quote
Nov 21st, 2012, 10:03 PM
  #8
Original Poster
 
Join Date: Nov 2006
Posts: 1,864
Tower, thank you much for your history narrative. I did not expect Sofia to have the instant "wow" factor of cities like Paris or Rome, but I also did not expect the city to be so enchanting. I am enthusiastically awaiting my next opportunity to return and spend more time in both Sofia and the rest of the country.
fourfortravel is offline  
Reply With Quote
Jan 15th, 2013, 06:33 AM
  #9
 
Join Date: Jan 2013
Posts: 1
Excellent report of a short visit to colorful Sofia. My wife and I lived in Sofia for two years and enjoyed exploring and tasting and learning about the culture and meeting Bulgarians. We documented our two years on a very active blog = Ellis and Jodie's Bulgarian Adventure. Your report brought back many vivid memories and makes me want to go back and explore Sofia some more!
ellisshuman is offline  
Reply With Quote
Jan 18th, 2013, 06:20 PM
  #10
 
Join Date: Sep 2005
Posts: 6,818
kwoo, ellis/jodie, fourfortravel, here are Bulgarian pix, 1980's, 2005-08
tower is offline  
Reply With Quote
Jan 18th, 2013, 06:29 PM
  #11
 
Join Date: Sep 2005
Posts: 6,818
I'm still hunting up my scanned and digital folders..be back soon...Kwoo, we've been booking some of the same lodgings all over the world, it seems. You would lovbe Bulgaria...it sure isn't the Boston Commons!
tower is offline  
Reply With Quote
Jan 18th, 2013, 06:38 PM
  #12
 
Join Date: Sep 2005
Posts: 6,818
https://picasaweb.google.com/stuartt...a1980SAnd2005#

There were few if any western tourists in the 80's...a few Russians and other Eastern Europeans...seemed like we had the country to ourselves. An American Embassy official hosted us in Sofia and took us to the "folk dancing" nightclub high in the hills overlooking Sofia..he was from Wyoming.
tower is offline  
Reply With Quote
Jan 19th, 2013, 07:51 AM
  #13
 
Join Date: Sep 2005
Posts: 6,818
Ellis and Jodie..outstanding blog! Email coming your way.

stu tower
tower is offline  
Reply With Quote
Jan 19th, 2013, 10:32 AM
  #14
 
Join Date: Apr 2005
Posts: 3,083
Thank you for this, I must have missed it first time round.

I'm flying to Sofia next Saturday, but transferring straight off to Borovets for a week of skiing. This will be my 5th time to Bulgaria, but I have yet to see anything of Sofia apart from the airport, and indeed anything of Bulgaria other than the ski resorts of Borovets and Pamporovo.

Every time I tell myself I will at the very least take the time for a day trip to the Rila Monastery, but then I cannot tear myself away from the slopes. Even last year when my flight home was cancelled I didn't go to Sofia, preferring to stay in Borovets, mostly because I knew where all the internet places were so I could try to rebook my flight home. I regret that now.

The snow isn't so good this year, so perhaps I will get to the Rila Monastery. And if the conditions are too icy for me I will seriously consider returning to Sofia a day or so early so see this apparently beautiful city.

I shall print off your report, just in case.
julia_t is offline  
Reply With Quote
Jan 19th, 2013, 11:18 AM
  #15
 
Join Date: Feb 2006
Posts: 22,506
Hi julia_t - did you read the Bulgaria section of my Balkans TR?

http://www.fodors.com/community/euro...d-bulgaria.cfm

Sofia is certainly worth a look, as is Rila. If you could manage it, Veliko Tarnova is really worthwhile.
thursdaysd is online now  
Reply With Quote
Jan 19th, 2013, 12:47 PM
  #16
 
Join Date: Apr 2005
Posts: 3,083
Hello thursdaysd. I had read all your posts on your B trips but had forgotten, so thank you for reminding me about Sofia and the Rila Monastery. I really do want to go there.

At the moment I am doing my usual thing and saying of course I will take even a half day trip to the Monastery. I've said that to myself for the last 4 years. But then I get out there and the mountains take my breath away and I just love the snow and the skiing.

I've never yet posted a Bulgaria Ski trip report, because virtually all people here on Fodors would not contemplate Bulgaria as a ski destination if they were planning a European ski trip. However there may be a few British people and the occasional gap year traveller for whom a bit more info on skiing/snowboarding in Bulgaria may be of possible interest. Right now a young couple from Perth, Australia are in Borovets, and working in my favourite bar. They are hosting an Australia Day party next Saturday, complete with barbecue in the snow, and a paddling pool so we guests can pretend we are on the beach lol! People from all over the world do go to Bulgaria to ski, it's just not well known as a ski destination.

So this year I will do it. Not a run-by-run report, but just some general info on the resort, hotels, restaurants, etc.
julia_t is offline  
Reply With Quote
Jan 19th, 2013, 01:56 PM
  #17
 
Join Date: Feb 2006
Posts: 22,506
Hi julie - that would be interesting, although I have never skied and don't ever expect to. Apres ski, now....
thursdaysd is online now  
Reply With Quote
Jan 21st, 2013, 07:50 PM
  #18
 
Join Date: Sep 2005
Posts: 6,818
Julie...I second Thursday's Veliko Turnovo rec...been there twice..a very likeable town..once capital . See my pics above if you wish to get some idea of it and other places I've been in two visits to Bulgaria. Happy skiing, Julie....may you encounter great powder!
stu
tower is offline  
Reply With Quote
 



Thread Tools
Search this Thread
Posting Rules
You may not post new threads
You may not post replies
You may not post attachments
You may not edit your posts

BB code is On
Smilies are On
[IMG] code is On
HTML code is Off
Trackbacks are Off
Pingbacks are Off
Refbacks are On



All times are GMT -8. The time now is 10:29 PM.