Down the Rabbit Hole in Sofia

Alexander Nevsky CathedralSofia is the capital city of Bulgaria. This city has been pegged as the number one tourist destination in Bulgaria. I am sure that to some people it is a great place to visit while for others it may be too far down the rabbit hole they are willing to go. Before and during my stay I was warned about traveling as a tourist there and to keep a careful watch over my cash.

Cyrillic

I can handle Slavic languages to a tourist degree yet almost everything in Sofia is written in Cyrillic. This makes navigating, finding the right train platform when leaving the city or ordering food from the menu a challenge. I did manage to identify early on the Cyrillic word for cappuccino, ha ha.  Only touristy, larger and more popular restaurants have a handful of menus translated into English. Others have it all in Cyrillic and whatever English menus you read from do not have prices on them. If I did not befriend any locals while there I can only speculate how much I would be paying for my meals and drinks.

Transportation

Skopje to Sofia overnight vanMy overnight ride from Skopje to Sofia was in a small twelve seat van and helped prove that at any age you can do yoga. I spent most of that time in an inverted lotus pose with my back on two seats, my head on the armrest and my legs crossed against the window.  I was more comfortable than the few other passengers. And a week later I was in the same position leaving Sofia on a train headed to Istanbul.

Sofia Bus Time Display BoardBuses and trams around the city are frequent and some major stops have electronic displays indicating when your next bus will arrive. Yet their fare system is unnecessarily bureaucratic. I bought a ten ticket perforated strip numbered from 1 to 10. These tickets can only be used for buses and trams but not the metro. At all times you have to keep with you the last ticket (#10) even if are using any of the first nine tickets otherwise an inspector would give you a fine. The fine is 20 leva (10 Euros) but it’s alleged that they will tell unsuspecting tourists to pay 30 leva or more and pocket the difference. Also, the cashier at the ticket counter may “forget” to give you your change when buying your tickets and won’t tell you about the #10 ticket rule since it’s obviously written on the tickets…in Cyrillic. The best thing to do is pay in cash buying a ticket directly with the driver of the bus or just walk.

Sofia Taxi with WiFiBuses and trams do not run after midnight so in some cases you’ll have to take a taxi. Some taxis have WiFi and there is a company that offers eco-friendly “green” cabs charging a little more for environmental conservation. Other taxis include unregistered cabs with fake company names and rigged meters despite prices prominently displayed on the side window. I took a taxi four times. During the first time the driver took a slightly longer route in getting to my destination. He wasn’t aware that I already knew the city streets. So I told him to pull over slightly before getting to my destination and paid less fare then he hoped to rip me off for. This happened again with another driver and with the potential for a much longer route so I told the driver to immediately pull over as he tried to take a detour and I yelled at him as I was getting out of the cab. The third taxi ride took the quickest route and had a correct fare for the length of the trip. The fourth taxi I took to get to the train station when leaving Sofia did not return all my change. Which was tolerable since I had almost the exact fare and I considered that change a tip.

Accommodations

Small Cafeteria Complimentary Breakfast from HostsOne of the best things I experienced in Sofia was the hospitality of my AirBnb hosts. The apartment I rented from them was in an ideal location close to buses and the metro which offers a short trip to the centre of the city. The hosts even picked me up at the bus station upon arriving in Sofia, had a complimentary bottle of wine waiting for me in the apartment and they ran a small basic cafeteria so I could have complimentary breakfast every morning; I enjoyed a daily cappuccino with a either ham and cheese sandwich or a waffle with hazelnut spread.

Night of the Museums

Sofia Paper Art Fest LineupIt was a pleasant surprise that I arrived in Sofia on the day where all the museums and galleries would be open for free in the evening. I managed to visit a handful since there were long lineups getting into places. Everyone in the city was enjoying it as sidewalks, streets and parks where packed full of people. It was the busiest night in Sofia in a long time.

High School Graduation

High School graduation in SofiaThere were street celebrations of high school students in Bulgaria marking the end of twelve years of schooling. You can see these students all over the city and hear them screaming out the numbers one to twelve in Bulgarian which coincides with the years of their study.

Merci!

Apparently Bulgarians say “merci” as their thank you even though it is a French word. One time when I said “merci” to a server she replied, “Oh, you speak Bulgarian!?”.

Sightseeing

Sofia Free Tour group photoThere was a free Sofia tour which I took part in. This tour is offered twice a day and you meet in front of the court house with the statues of two lions. One of the lions was not made correctly and the guide mentioned it took over two decades for people to figure it out. After the tour I had lunch at a local restaurant with a few people whom I met on the tour, two Americans and a student from India taking break from her studies in Germany.

During my week I checked out the Alexander Nevski Church, The Rotunda of St George, Sveta Petka Samardjiyska, Sofia University, Saint Kliment Ohidski, St. Sedmochislenitsi Church, National Gallery of Foreign Art, Monument to Vasil Levski, The Monument to the Soviet Army, Borisova Garden and the City Garden.

Sofia UniversityThere’s an inside student joke about the statues of the brothers Evlogi Georgiev and Hristo Georgiev who donated money and land to build Sofia University. Their statues are at the main entrance and they are depicted sitting down. It is said that as soon as the first virgin graduates they will stand up and applaud.

Food and Nightlife

Eating at restaurants was a better choice then going to certain food kiosks to eat undercooked “hamburger” meat. There’s even a handful of sushi restaurants in Sofia. I tried Happy Sushi and it was a good meal and had good service. On the advice of a new friend I met in Sofia I was told there was a closer sushi place to my apartment. I did not go; yet in hindsight should have at least tried something from there.

With a vibrant club and pub life the city comes alive at night and the partying doesn’t stop until after the sun rises the next day. I went to one lounge and one dance club hanging out and dancing with some of the locals.

Vitosha Mountain

Vitosha mountainVitosha mountain is a great place to hike and explore. I was hoping to take a chairlift or cable car up the mountain but at least two out of the three lifts weren’t working. The fate of the last one was unknown. At least I was able to enjoy at leisurely walk through the forest, meet fellow hikers and eat some cake at a nearby popular café. I did pass by a few mountain bikers and have a strong feeling that Vitosha mountain would be able to satisfy any mountain biker on its trails.

Plovdiv Stopover

Martin in PlovdivThe original plan when leaving Sofia was to take a train directly to Istanbul. Yet I felt another funcut was in order.  I was wrestling with the idea of going to a few places for a night or two though decided to check out Plovdiv for a day. A train from Sofia would take me to Plovdiv on the same line that travels to Istanbul. So after spending the day visiting the city I would hop back on a later train.

When I arrived in Plovdiv I checked the price of the ticket to Istanbul at the International ticket counter. It was 52 leva’s for a bed in a 6-bunk sleeper cabin. I didn’t have enough cash on me so I went out to explore the city, get some cash and would come back later to buy the ticket; I should have known better. When I came back the international ticket counter was closed. I went to the regular counter and asked for a ticket to Istanbul. The cashier, with the help of a passerby who spoke Bulgarian and English, said that the train was only going to Svilengrade (Bulgarian-Turkish border) and that I’d have to take a bus the rest of the way. This made no sense whatsoever since I knew the train was heading to Istanbul as I checked all the schedules before leaving Sofia. I paid 8 leva for the ticket and got on the train spending the trip running various scenarios through my head about what I will do or might happen when I reach the border.

While on the train I saw the sleeper cabins in the next car and went the attendant in charge and told him I wanted to go to Istanbul and that I’m willing to pay extra leva to be in the sleeper car. He said in very limited English that I had to pay in Euros or US dollars to be on this part of the train. I told him I had leva. He again said it was Euros or in US dollars. It turns out he did not want my Bulgarian money to pay for a Bulgarian ticket to take a Bulgarian train to Istanbul. So I went and sat in another train car in the seat my 8 leva paid for. I rode for hours and hours in an inverted and now comfortable lotus pose to Svilengrade. When I got to Svilengrade I walked off the train past border guards and into the station looking for buses to Istanbul. It was 1 am and the next bus was 4:30 am. I asked the station attendant about getting to Istanbul and she said the train is right there.  I laughed. Then the same train attendant that turned down my leva came into the station and he chatted with the station attendant. He then said I can go back on the train and pay 45 leva for a sleeper car. I had to remember to bite my tongue to avoid saying anything about the absurdity of the situation to him.

This all could have been avoided if I either went directly from Sofia to Istanbul or immediately bought my ticket in Plovdiv or the train attendant took my Bulgarian currency for the Bulgarian train to Istanbul in the first place, ha ha. Lesson learned.

The train ended up in Turkey about one hundred kilometres from Istanbul. A shuttle bus took the passengers the rest of the way. It looked like the train company’s business model could not afford to take passengers the rest of the way and pay train station fees in Istanbul.

There are four things I did in Sofia to make my stay more enjoyable and can be applied to any city or country you visit.

  1. Carry exact change or small bills with you at all times. It’s better to pay for something with the exact price and not have to negotiate or argue for your change back or at least lose out on a couple cents as opposed to a many dollars or more.
  2. Legitimate businesses are more transparent. If going into a place to eat or buy something and there are not any prices listed walk out and go somewhere else. Imagine going to a cafe and ordering a coffee and the server says you now owe 10 leva (5 Euros) for that drink. If I really like a place I’ll ask what the prices are first before ordering.
  3. Know the city streets by studying a maps before you go somewhere or have digital images of city maps, tourists spots and bus lines downloaded to your smartphone for quick reference.
  4. Befriend some locals who can offer help you on the ins and outs of the city.

My time is Sofia exposed me to unique mix of experiences. And in part helped me prepare for where I was to go next.

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