Our three hour bus trip across to Sofia (from Veliko Turnovo) took us across lush green mountains, through lovely fields that looked like they had been carpeted with yellow flowers and villages littered with rubbish! Rubbish of every kind – household rubbish, building materials, old broken vehicles, bikes, mopeds and just about anything else you can imagine. I know I have gone on endlessly about the rubbish, but it is what we see and although we have seen amazing things, in the most beautiful places, I can’t pretend that we don’t see the rubbish!
Once we arrived at the bus station in Sofia we caught a taxi to our hotel for the next three nights. We had a nice room, on the 4th floor with a door opening onto a small balcony. It was a 20 minute walk into the city centre, so we headed out for a walk to sort out the ‘lay of the land’ – it was very easy to get around. We had buses, taxis and trams at the end of the road, but as it turned out we actually walked everywhere.
Our first afternoon took us to the Sofia Cathedral. Because it was Saturday it was busy in and around the Cathedral, so we decided to visit again another day. Instead we wove in and around the ‘yellow brick road’, which is a brick road, that King Ferdinand received as a wedding present back in 1893 and the road were finally paved in 1907 – travels east / west. It has a lot of the ‘must see’ things and it is yellow for an easy point of reference for visitors to the city and was intended to transform Sofia into a fashionable city, up there with the best in Europe. Two world wars, a communist regime and a century later Sofia is fast becoming a must visit destination.
We came across a protest at the Tzar Liberator monument [it is to honour the Russian Emperor who freed Bulgaria from the Ottoman Rule and it is made from granite]. There was approximately 300 or so people and nearly as many Police [slight exaggeration with the Police numbers!]. It was seemingly peaceful, although there was a few people being arrested. I did notice that they didn’t resist being arrested but then I suppose with the Police are fully armed you might think twice about pissing them off!! This is the second time we have come across a protest here in Bulgaria and the second time that we have had no idea what was happening. I tried to Google the protests but never actually found anything out – even our walking tour guide had no clue!
As we carried on along the yellow brick road we came across St Nicholas, the Russian Orthodox Church. We popped our head inside for a look and found ourselves at a baptism. The family themselves had a roped of section, but there were a few dozen onlookers [tourists!!] watching. The baby (approx 7/8 months old) was not to impressed with the proceedings [she had just had her warm bath!] and she screamed, and screamed, and screamed, and screamed! The acoustic’s of the Cathedral were pretty impressive – I think maybe she scared herself with the noise [or maybe she didn’t like the sound of her own voice!]. Once she was dressed in her finery she did settle down, so I stood for a while and observed the happiness of the family while their priest gave blessings. You didn’t really need to know what they were saying to know that, that wee girl was being promised love, faith and protection.
The next day we joined the free walking tour of Sofia. These free [they are not really free … although some people don’t make a donation, so for them it is free!] tours are such a great way to get an insight in the local area. We have done a few of these now in different cities and it is a great way to learn about the memorials and buildings, and glean the local facts. Mostly we have had students taking us on these and they are usually pretty passionate about the places the live.
As we were heading to start our walking tour, I tripped on the uneven footpath and did a spectacular roly-poly and ended up lying on my back on the main street!! I had my left hand in my pocket so landed very heavily on my left elbow/upper arm/shoulder, stubbed my left toe, bruised my left ankle and bruised my right thumb/wrist (as if I don’t have enough trouble with them [my thumbs!]). Looking for that silver lining – I didn’t bust my watch or my phone!! Anyway a few tears and a harden up pill later, we carried on to meet the walking tour group! Keep on keeping on … stoic till the end!!
Sofia has some incredible history and it was interesting to note that in the time of the Roman Empire the east /west road was in the same place then as it is now, although it [the original Roman road] was only uncovered in 2012 when they were building one of the city metro stations. Archaeologists, anthropologists and historians were delirious when they uncovered the Roman city buried beneath the existing one.
The ruins are quite incredible and as we walked on a part of the original road which they kept and is used to connect the east and west side of the station [below current ground level] the current yellow brick road above ground is in virtually in the same place. It was one of the most fascinating things to be walking above ground in a seemingly modern city and then head down to the Metro and be walking on the original road from the Roman Period. There are several places where the ruins have been uncovered and they have designed the metro station to incorporated them and it is all free! These ruins are of course linked to the other famous sites in Europe – think the Parthenon, Collesium.
Continuing on our walk along the yellow brick road past, the communist buildings that were built in the 1950’s – huge beautiful buildings for those in parliament, while they built stark, bleak buildings for the people!! Several young people [our tour guides] we talked to in Bulgaria just can’t even imagine how their parents/grandparents lived without all the conveniences of a modern world (our lovely Veliko Turnovo guide had told us that her grandparents had never left Bulgaria, and were amazed when she travelled to the USA for a year during her University studies). Even her parents hadn’t really travelled. Coming from a country where most people travel, it is hard to believe that you had Europe on your doorstep and yet you had never even seen it!
We walked past the National Art Gallery and through the beautiful Battenberg Square, which is where the National Theatre Building was – such a beautiful building and one of the buildings that we had seen [as a scale model] at Mini Bulgaria, along with the Cathedral which was where our walking tour concluded.
We then took our time to walk back along the yellow brick road and saw some more of the Roman remains, visited the market place and then had some lunch and resorted to our favourite pastime – people watching. It is fascinating doing this in another country – you can only imagine what they are saying but with the ‘shouty’ voices and oratorical gestures, it somehow doesn’t come across as friendly!
As we walked back to our hotel, we window shopped – Bulgaria has lovely shops and shopping in not too badly priced. There is so, so many bag and shoe shops, that I sorta wished we were a bit closer to heading home, then I may have filled my suitcase with them! Although I think one of the reasons I don’t venture into too many shops is because more often than not the shop keepers are lingering in their doorways smoking or two of them are stood out the front between two shops smoking.
The smoking is unbelievable – everyone smokes … young, old, men, women, the Police and even the army was smoking while they were ‘at ease’, and smoking inside cafes is just the norm! It is so ingrained in the culture and it is sooooooo cheap, that just everyone is smoking. The cigarette butts form an almost litter like carpet – I didn’t notice this when we were travelling in the 80’s but maybe that is because I was wearing ‘rose coloured glasses’. Anyway back to the shopping! I bought two new tops and it is just so nice to have something new, albeit only tops (look out for these new tops in my photos – I am sure that I will wear them heaps!). I may have purchased something for ‘the baby’ too!
We had dinner in a traditional Bulgarian restaurant that had dinner and music, but we missed the music!! I passed on the braised ‘sinews’ and had an amazing pork dish with mushroom sauce. Anyway my arm was throbbing (actually I was sore all over!!!!), so it was back to the hotel for a cocktail of painkillers and anti-inflammatories.
The next day we had decided to go on the [free – not really free!] graffiti tour. Another walk around the city, but not on the yellow brick road. The young girl who took us around was incredibly knowledgeable and we are much more enlightened about graffiti as an art than we ever were before. The history of cave drawings conveying messages, to today where pictures on buildings convey messages is so similar, although today graffiti is a variety of many other messages and art. From ‘taggers’ [messy ‘litter’ graffiti] to ‘Kings’ [professional artists] there is a hierarchy and mostly a respect for ‘Kings’. In Bulgaria as they left the ‘regime’ graffiti became a ‘voice’ for young people who were ready to welcome change. A totally fascinating tour, with some incredible graffiti to be seen. It was nice not to be in the busy streets – unless a piece of ‘art’ is commissioned the graffiti is usually off the beaten track as the artists [even emerging ones ie: taggers!] need a bit of time to complete their work!
So that was a snapshot of Sofia – it is a lovely city, feels safe and has the most beautiful pedestrian walkway lined with trees covered in new lime green spring leaves, with tulips and springs flowers popping up everywhere, lovely restaurants, cafe and shops and the hills covered in snow in the near distance. Just so picturesque and so very European. It won’t be long before this is a city that you have to see when in Europe – you will include Sofia in your places to visit as easily as you do Paris, Rome, Barcelona, London, Berlin or Athens.
So that is us from Bulgaria … our adventure then took us to Dubai, will tell you about that next time!
“Life is a journey … make the most of it”